Note: This review contains very minor spoilers.
Every few minutes, Marvel’s Spider-Man delivers a jolt of pure, liberating pleasure. It comes whenever you’re just swinging around the game’s sprawling, three-dimensional New York City. With a single button, rhythmically held and released, you soar around buildings and above busy streets, doing backflips, catapulting yourself upward and onward with each new blast of webbing. You’re not weightless, which is part of the fun: Gravity governs the character’s movements as much as you do, and if you pick up enough speed—slingshotting yourself skyward or swan diving towards the asphalt below—the controller will pulse to convey the wind’s resistance to your aerodynamic physique. To paraphrase the game’s version of famous Spidey skeptic J. Jonah Jameson, the city is your playground. To play in it is to feel, if only for a blissful moment, like maybe you are Spider-Man.
The feeling lingers but the high only comes in spurts, and that’s by design. Because no sooner are you getting into, ahem, the swing of carefree hang time than along comes something to interrupt it: a message from Aunt May, reminding you of an important appointment; a call on the police scanner, announcing a crime in progress that you should probably thwart; a rocket whizzing by your head, an invitation to clobber the gang of henchmen up to no good on a nearby rooftop. What the team at Insomniac Games understands is that being Spider-Man doesn’t just mean feeling the wind in your hair. It also means feeling harried, hassled, over-scheduled. It means feeling like Peter Parker, the kid under the mask, whose social and professional lives inevitably suffer under the demands of his moonlighting crime-fighting. Remember Uncle Ben’s wise words about power and responsibility? Marvel’s Spider-Man gives you the powers, like running vertically up the side of skyscrapers and stopping a speeding car in its tracks with the quick-time tap of a button. But it also gives you the responsibilities, some more mundane than others.
Though John Paesano’s sweeping score often recalls the one from last summer’s likeminded MCU starring vehicle, Marvel’s Spider-Man has no direct link to any movie series; it spins an original story, set in an NYC where megalomaniacal mogul Norman Osborn is mayor and the aforementioned J.J. Jameson hosts a cranky podcast. The version of Peter Parker you control is a 23-year-old college graduate, scraping by as a lab assistant by day and cleaning up the streets by night (and, often, by different parts of the day). Right from the start, the game foregrounds the man side of the Spider-Man equation; the first obstacle placed in your path is a notice that your rent is severely overdue. The main storyline involves a turf war that opens up after you take down The Kingpin, who’s only the first of an entire rogues’ gallery of supervillains you’ll battle. But the game makes sure to alternate web-slinging missions with secret-identity concerns, like dropping in for a surprise birthday party for Aunt May and doing research (a.k.a. basic puzzles) at the lab. There’s even a passage that lets you snap photos as Mary Jane Watson, depicted here as Parker’s estranged ex-girlfriend and an investigative reporter.
The whole gang-warfare angle is just one aspect that seems lifted wholesale from the Arkham Batman games. Anyone who’s logged some time with that series will instantly adjust to the frantic combat system, the X-ray vision setting (there “detective mode,” here Spidey sense), and the surplus of side quests and scavenger-hunt items scattered across the map. Though blatantly imitative, some of the conventions actually make more sense when applied to the Spider-verse. Doesn’t the friendly neighborhood webslinger fight more like a launched pinball than the Dark Knight ever did?
Likewise, while the gameplay can be as repetitive as it occasionally gets in the Arkham franchise (oh look, yet another gathering of lackeys, standing around and waiting to be pummeled), that actually plays into Spider-Man’s vision of Parker as an exhausted multi-tasker, facing the daily grind of his double lives. There are times when the constant calls to action even work on your conscience; I’ll confess to feeling a silly twinge of guilt in one moment, when I picked up a call of an armed robbery in the vicinity at the exact moment I was stepping into a building, thus preventing any intervention. Accidentally or not, the game is constantly reminding you that it’s impossible for Spider-Man to be everywhere at all times, to answer every cry for help ringing out across Manhattan.
One might wish that the storytelling were a little less linear. As in the Arkham games, the “open world” isn’t as open as it looks; most of the buildings exist only as connection points for your grappling hook, er, webs, while most of the locals offer only a chore to accomplish or a face to punch for XP. (Admittedly, it’s a more populated metropolis than Rocksteady’s ghost-town Gotham.) More crucially, it’d be nice if Marvel’s Spider-Man found a way to give players an actual choice about how to balance the Spider against the Man. For as much as the game shows how the superhero gig gets in the way of everything else (Parker is “a chronically late genius,” according to his boss, whose story arc may not even surprise those who don’t know the character), it offers few tough decisions or divergent paths. Even if you rush immediately to work instead of knocking out some vigilante pro-bono assignments along the way, you’ll still be late. At the same time, you’re not confronted with the consequences of ignoring the public need, in the way Parker is when he fails to save some people in a burning building in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But then, maybe that’s an approach better suited to a Telltale take on the character.
What this new Spider-Man game gets is the spirit of Spidey, his world of friends and foes, and the impossible gymnastics—in all senses of the word—involved with maintaining an alter ego. The boss fights and goon squad smack-downs are set to a spot-on barrage of wisecracks, the comedy routine Parker performs like a neurotic pep talk to himself. And the vision of New York squares cleanly with the cornily affecting one presented in the comics, the cartoons, and the films: “I’m walking here, but also you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” In the game’s most sublimely, hilariously human ordeal, you finally get evicted from your apartment and have to race all across town in search of the garbage truck containing your belongings, squabbling with the sanitation officer on the phone over which pizza place the driver might have stopped off at for a bite. The best superhero games put you right into the shoes (and spandex) of your favorite superheroes. In the case of Spider-Man, that means burying you under problems of all shapes and varieties, from facing down the Sinister Six to finding a couch to crash on after you’re booted from your digs.