The first thing I did was find all the backpacks. Wilson Fisk—the Kingpin of Manhattan—was on his way to prison, the NYPD wanted Spider-Man to fix its communication towers, and the skyscrapers of New York City begged me to explore their rooftops. But Peter Parker had littered the city’s nooks and crannies with backpacks filled with trophies from his old adventures and finding them was the perfect excuse to enjoy what Spider-Man does best—zip around the city from great heights at terminal velocity.
In Spider-Man, it’s a joy to swing. Those exhilarating, graceful leaps that Spider-Man makes through the air in the Marvel movies? Playing Marvel's Spider-Man, which releases exclusively on the PlayStation 4 September 7, is as close as you're going to get to fulfilling that power fantasy.With a few notable exceptions, video games based on super heroes tend to suck. Marvel movies make billions of dollars, but the studio hasn’t translated that box office success into big budget video games. There’s been some cool Lego games and mobile ports, but nothing that squeezed value out of the Marvel brand with the kind of entertaining but sometimes exhausting efficiency Disney, which owns Marvel, is known for. Until now.
Developer Insomniac’s Spider-Man brings to the PlayStation 4 everything fans love about the Marvel film franchise, specifically the third and latest iteration created to fit the broader Marvel universe of blockbusters. It’s a remixed take on a beloved character that tells a fun story and gives Parker’s supporting cast, particularly the long suffering Mary Jane Watson, more agency.It’s a blast to swing through the city, trap bad guys in web cocoons, and quip with the Web-head’s rogues gallery. Spider-Man is fun, polished, and very safe. It’s the kind of game I love while I’m playing it and then forget about the moment I put down the controller.To be clear, I like Spider-Man and I like Marvel movies. I’ve literally seen all of them in the theater and I’ll continue to watch them. I grew up reading comic books and Spider-Man was always my favorite. But there’s something about Disney’s version of the Marvel universe and this new Spider-Man game that feels flat. Marvel’s properties are great while I’m sitting in the dark eating popcorn, but once I’m out of the theater I immediately start to forget them. I’ve never rewatched a Marvel movie, no matter how much I enjoyed it.
Spider-Man is the same way. If you’ve played any big budget video games in the last five years, you’ll be very familiar with Spider-Man's structure. It’s a big open world—Manhattan, in this case, through which Spider-Man swings. Spidey chases Mr. Negative, the game’s main villain, while getting distracted by an array of collectibles, challenges, and sidequests. This is Spider-Man by way of Shadow of War, Batman: Arkham City, or any Far Cry. I love clearing out activity icons on a map as much as the next gamer, and I had fun.But it’s hard not to see this as the continuation of a trend in blockbuster video games, and the beginning of an onslaught of Marvel games. Spider-Man's template could easily serve an Iron Man game or any number of other Marvel heroes. And if those games had the same level of quality, care, and polish that Spider-Man does, they’d be fun but hollow.There’s a fast travel system that I almost never used because swinging through the city feels so damn good. Spidey leaps into the air and with the pull of a trigger throws out a line to the nearest surface. Release the trigger at the top of the arc and Spider-Man soars into the air, release it in the middle of the arc and he’ll shoot forward. That’s the basics, but Spidey can also run up walls, launch himself across rooftops on zipline webs, and even do tricks as he falls. Traveling Manhattan is easily the best part of the game.
Kicking thugs in the head is just as fun—the combat has a kind of rhythm and context similar to what Rocksteady perfected in Batman: Arkham City but Spider-Man focuses more on zipping around the combat space, avoiding damage, and webbing up enemies instead of just giving them brain damage with your feet. You could beat every enemy unconscious, but it's much faster and more satisfying to launch them into the air, web them up, then stick them to a wall.Like any good open world game, Spider-Man’s map is littered with challenges, collectibles, and side-quests. Spider-Man chases pigeons, finishes science experiments left behind by his buddy Harry Osborn, and completes races at the behest of the brutal Taskmaster. Finishing these activities earns tokens used to unlock and upgrade gadgets, costumes, and special abilities for Spider-Man. That’s how I got the slow-motion power.I still had fun doing these side-quests and challenges. But part of what's exciting about video games, even big budget video games, is that they still feel kind of wild. Not because companies like PlayStation are filled with idealistic artists who are dying to take risks, but because, in many ways, no one in video games has any idea what the fuck they're doing, or what's going to work.Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City—to which Spider-Man owes a great debt—were wonderful, and radical surprises. Developer Rocksteady played on fans' nostalgia by bringing back the voice cast of Batman: The Animated Series then telling a super dark version of the Dark Knight’s story , and perfected the aforementioned contextual combat system. Is a Batman game kind of an obvious idea? Yes. But I didn't know what to expect of a Batman game until I played Arkham, and when I did, I was surprised.Spider-Man is what I expected. It's good, but predictable from start to finish.We all know that Activision's next Call of Duty will play like the next Call of Duty but big budget games are often not like this. Destiny 2, another Activision blockbuster, is a beautiful, dumb, mess of a game that's still figuring out how to make a Diablo with guns almost a year after launch. Wolfenstein II, a major release from Bethesda, took on white supremacy in America head on and didn't totally fail. Hell, even Call of Duty franchise still tries to tell weird stories about fascist nightmares and the PTSD of tech addled special operations soldiers. Unlike the way in which the Marvel movies have perfected and maximized the summer blockbuster formula, even the most calculated end of video game development is still filled with surprises because video games are changing and evolving at such a rapid pace.Spider-Man swings above all that, giving us a vision of what might be, but I hope isn’t, the future of big budget video games. One that’s competent, fun, and very safe. One that doesn’t take risks and fits neatly into a multi-pronged, cross-media strategy devised in a Disney boardroom. One filled with games that I’ll enjoy playing, but will forget the moment I set down the controller.