How does one make something new while retaining the weight of lore and history that comes with a premise that has been reborn again and again countless times in fiction? Marvel has certainly struggled with this question in their cinematic universe and various game developers have their own takes on classic superheroes. Often each iteration retells the heroic beginnings of the headlining hero or makes some connection with a popular continuity of said character. Insomniac Games seems to have been answered the question by skipping the iconic moments of the wall-crawler's origin story altogether in order to tackle the sophomore issues of being a hero.
"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Everyone even remotely familiar with Spider-Man knows the final commandment of Uncle Ben, Peter Parker's father figure who dies early on in his origin story. Usually, when a piece of media starts off with this, we see Parker struggle with figuring out exactly how much responsibility he has to be using his power to help others. Given that Marvel's Spider-Man takes place roughly eight years after the events that made Peter Parker into a superpowered webslinger, it needs to address a different idea. There aren't any quotes delivered on the dying breath of a beloved old man, but the game tackles the issue of what happens to people who have accepted that responsibility but find forces beyond their control pushing them, perverting that sense of duty. How does someone good go on to commit brutal and evil acts despite the goodness they displayed and what does it take to stop them?
When Marvel's Spider-Man roars to life with all cylinders blazing, it captures how much larger-than-life everyday struggles can feel sometimes. Clashing with the colossal force of Rhino or dodging the blasts of a villain whose on-the-nose name is "Mr. Negative" can be seen as a fight against the worst parts inside all of us. And part of what makes that resonate so much is that Peter Parker doesn't walk away unscathed. Over the course of the game, these fights take their toll. He is slashed, burned, stabbed, blasted, and crushed. At one point he has so many broken ribs that his allies tell him he shouldn't be standing. Peter, despite all the impediments thrown into his way, continues to do his best to stand by that responsibility, sacrificing himself at every turn. All of this he does while having ample opportunities to walk away and spare himself.
In many ways, the way Peter fights as Spider-Man fits into the classic mold of a hero who does what is right no matter the cost to himself. If that's all one is looking for in a game about superheroes, then Marvel's Spider-Man will fulfill that desire. If, however, you're looking for a game that has things to say about the myriad of issues that those acts of heroism touch upon, Marvel's Spider-Man might fall a bit flat.
For a super genius with a heart for justice, Peter Parker seems surprisingly unwoke about the systemic issues around him, focusing on the symptoms of various problems instead of the root causes themselves. All of this would be fine if this was a story about a Spider-Man just getting the hang of the hero business, but the game makes a point to show Peter has been at this for a long while now. Of course, one could argue that this version of New York is one without any systemic issues, but the text of the game indicates that's not true. The opening scene has corrupt cops attempting to murder Spider-Man (something that isn't really seen as abnormal by anyone involved); Oscorp routinely poisons the air and water in the name of profits (which Spider-Man fixes, but also doesn't report, effectively letting the billion dollar company off the hook); and both Peter and Aunt May work at a local homeless shelter. However, during all of Spider-Man's running monologues as he traverses the city, he never talks about the systemic issues that lead to those things being problems. Where are his comments about trying to reform the police in some way so as to discourage cops taking bribes? Why doesn't Spider-Man hold the billion dollar corporation responsible for being so focused on profiting that it is willing to allow people to be poisoned? How does Peter Parker not even consider the reality of income inequality staring him in the face when he moves between the world of Norman Osborne and that of FEAST, the homeless shelter at which he volunteers?
The omission of any opining comments from Peter on these topics and issues certainly stems from the desire to keep Marvel's Spider-Man as uncontroversial as possible. Clearly, Peter as a character would care about all of those issues, but the game goes out of its way to avoid topics that might be touchy in the current context. Though the in-game world is presented to us as a version of New York City, you won't see Spider-Man or Peter Parker attending a rally against police corruption or breaking up a gathering of Neo-Nazis. There won't be talk about the forces that evict people out onto the street, though the game implies that rent prices are out of control and the care provided for mental health issues is inadequate. Ultimately, its desire to avoid saying anything that might be even slightly seen as controversial leaves Marvel's Spider-Man feeling a bit hollow once the dazzling feeling of swinging between skyscrappers wears off.
To clarify, since this topic has become something of a sticking point for the game since its release: The decision to tiptoe around most of its relevant social issues doesn't make Marvel's Spider-Man bad. It's simply a noticeable narrative decision that might lead to its story being forgettable over time.
To Insomniac's credit, that shine doesn't wear off quickly. Easily the best parts of Spider-Man are when the game leaves the player to traverse the city and do street-level hero things. Stopping a burglary in progress, disarming a bomb threat, or saving people from the wreckage of a car accident are all thrilling in their own way, but getting to the scene stands as the best part of any of these encounters. Swinging through the city, right from the beginning, feels amazing. The game knows this and has players shooting webs onto buildings within five minutes of booting up the game. As players progress along the three skill trees, new traversal abilities will unlock, making Spider-Man faster, giving him new abilities to keep up momentum, and it results in this gentle learning curve that keeps things fresh from the beginning of the game until the credits roll.
However, once I hit the credits scene, complete with clips teasing what future games in this series will be about, I felt fully and totally done. The side content, while enjoyable based on the traversal mechanics alone, isn't terribly interesting. It serves as a decent distraction while going through the main game, avoiding the charge of being bloated fluff by virtue of the overall solid gameplay mechanics and the various tokens you get from doing them that can be used to upgrade gear or unlock new spider suits. However, the stories relegated to the side missions just aren't that interesting even when drawing on fun bits of lore. (Also, Insomniac, make Mysterio a proper villain, you cowards)
It's a bit of a missed opportunity because one of the most intriguing decisions Insomniac made with regards to their Spider-Man game is that there are a number of missions where you take on the role of Mary Jane and Miles Morales and need to use stealth and trickery to sneak through different areas. These segments actually had a lot of potential for expansion into interesting side missions, but are only used in the main story under tightly controlled circumstances. Early on, there is a great section where Mary Jane sneaks into a facility owned by Wilson Fisk to collect some evidence and must do some sneaking and puzzle solving. It's fun and a breath of fresh air; seeing more iteration on that idea would have been really neat, maybe adding a social element to it and some more fleshed out stealth options. Miles is given some extreme hacking abilities that would make for awesome stealth gameplay, too, but that never fully pays off in any satisfying way.
The little touches around the edges of Marvel's Spider-Man really give it a lot of character. Subtle musical call backs to The Avengers thrum through the most climactic moments. Gaining momentum while flipping through New York City results in a flurry of stringed instruments adding to the sense of speed and wonder. Different camera options in the obligatory photo mode (something no modern game should be without at this point) give players a lot of different options with which to play and get those perfect shots. The diverse array of suits are also really nice, and it was a great idea to tie them to specific powers that are then unlocked on every other suit. Heck, the game even has a Stan Lee guest appearance which was absolutely lovely.
Marvel's Spider-Man might just be the best Spider-Man game ever made. It's gorgeously realized, cinematic as heck, for better and worse, and delivers a powerhouse of a final act. It also isn't perfect. Its side missions are dull, saved from mundane boredom by some rock solid traversal mechanics and adequate combat. Seriously, swinging through a city has never been as fun as it is in this particular Spider-Man game. All of that is built on a story about heroism; what it truly means to not just become a hero, but to live like one, too. While it misses the opportunity to be about a much more encompassing and larger idea of what heroes should be outside of the individual, punching-bad-guys level, that core conceit should be enough for just about anyone to enjoy Marvel's Spider-Man. Here's hoping that the sequel builds off of this simple foundation for a significantly bolder narrative that tackles some of the more grounded problems of our current times.
Marvel's Spider-Man is now available on PlayStation 4.
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