Marvel’s Spider-Man is the most polished entry to date in a dense catalog of games starring the web-slinger, and the first to be propped up as a first-party console exclusive since the Sega Genesis. The benefits of Sony’s publishing division and developer Insomniac Games decades of talent juicing PlayStation hardware have produced a game that truly looks like a superhero movie that would be released in 2018.
But Spider-Man doesn’t feel like a superhero movie in 2018. This Spider-Man is a throwback to a simpler time, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe expected fans to follow a dozen storylines through a decadelong multi-film gauntlet. There was a time when superhero movies were light and exhilarating, targeting the broadest possible audience with blunt but energetic romps in which good triumphs over evil and heroes defeat harrowing odds.
Spider-Man aims for the biggest audience with an accessible roller coaster storyline. It offers the thrill of swinging between astonishingly realistic skyscrapers across an uninterrupted Manhattan skyline, but also relies on relics of open-world gameplay that feel jarring and dated. Its world brims with elaborate set-pieces, and yet, like so many flashy blockbusters, it never quite finds the beat in its heart-pounding action.
For better and worse, Spider-Man is a meticulously rendered throwback to old Spidey films and games, to the last decade of open-world game design and to an easy style of superhero storytelling we rarely get to see anymore.
This version of Spider-Man is set in a present-day New York City, which is run by Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter Parker is 23, working as a research assistant, on the outs with Mary Jane, and in a slump in life. But as Spidey, he’s already put away villains like Rhino, Electro and Vulture, and has established a friendly partnership with the police. After taking down one crime lord at the game’s start, Peter is let loose on the entirety of the city to stop crime as only a Spider-Man can.
Spider-Man’s Manhattan captures the paradoxical architectural vastness and relative geographical smallness of the actual island. You’re immediately able to swing freely from building to building, making great arcs in the air up the city’s wide avenues. There’s very little learning curve to perfecting your traversal, and the breezy movement — particularly when you fling yourself through the sky at the zenith of a web-swing — never gets old. Even when the game’s fast travel finally unlocked, I felt like I would much rather get to my destination the old-fashioned way: swinging down Fifth Avenue, barely missing cabs and pedestrians.
You aren’t gated off from any part of Manhattan (sorry, other boroughs!), though you’re unable to see the full map of the city until you unscramble some conveniently broken radio towers in each section of town. This feels like a dated impediment to your progress; traveling to those zones isn’t more hazardous, and nearby objectives and crimes are still visible with a quick scan by pressing in the right stick. It makes the task feel less like an achievement and more like in-game busy work.
These hurdles contrast with a vigorously paced throughline. Spider-Man is excellent at maintaining an urgent tone, and you’re never lacking for anything to do. Spidey’s cellphone is always ringing with a mix of crimes in progress and Peter’s real-life obligations. You’re patched into scanner traffic with random crimes that happen around town, and J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper publisher with a penchant for screaming fits, has moved to the airwaves. His anti-Spider-Man tirades will often fill your ears as you move to your next goal.
Spider-Man’s main objectives strike the balance between Peter’s life (Aunt May needs help at the shelter, you’re needed back at work) and Spidey’s crime-fighting, and the game succeeds in highlighting the struggle of that dual identity, especially in its early acts. Of course, as the game’s plot starts to take shape and rising villain Mister Negative gains power, the line blurs. Each main game encounter feels cinematic, to the point that they could almost be stitched together and feel like another entry in the MCU. (And just like in the MCU, you’re rewarded if you know Spider-Man lore, as the game is packed with series favorites that casual fans will know, along with villains who have yet to receive the big-screen treatment.)
The biggest moments in Spider-Man are as varied as they are dramatic. You scale a building through its elevator shafts, covertly webbing snipers that appear through sliding elevator doors while dodging flaming bombs hurled from above. You chase a helicopter dragging a crane through NYC’s skyscrapers, dodging missiles as it smashes into — and sometimes through! — buildings. In some of the most entertaining sequences, Peter shares the spotlight, allowing the action to take a break from the impressively animated but largely familiar combat.
However, the game’s cinematic leanings can cut in the wrong direction. Often I felt like I had very little agency in the most breathtaking sequences, having to only conquer a few lenient quick-time events to achieve the most dramatic feats. While I can appreciate the spectacle, it’s hard to feel like you’ve actually stopped that helicopter from crashing into the ground. You become a witness to the heroics, rather than the one who carried them out, which is the exact opposite of the power fantasy.
This feels especially true when you take on any of Spider-Man’s main villains. The boss fights for core bad guys, like Scorpion or Kingpin, often rely on one sequence of moves: Web up your enemy, zip in close by pressing triangle and repeatedly pummel them by hammering square, then back away, dodge attacks and repeat until they’re captured. I didn’t feel any of the challenge that fighting someone so legendary should entail.
Combat in other sections of the game can be rewarding, though, particularly when Spider-Man is allowed to vary up techniques with a collection of moves and gadgets. While there are a couple of simple ways to play — and look cool doing it — Spider-Man rewards mastering new moves as you unlock them. Swing-kicking into a group of enemies, disarming one carrying a machine gun or stun baton, throwing him up into the air and finishing him with an air combo feels fantastic. There are a lot of extra gadgets and suit powers, too, and while none of them are required to win fights, finding your favorite arsenal and implementing it is where the game’s real challenge lies.
Most of these longer fights are found in Spider-Man’s side missions, which are scattered around Manhattan but always easily located on your map. The base missions, which contain waves of enemies rushing Spidey, are critical if you want to unlock the game’s multitude of extra costumes, almost all of which contain a unique power that can be mixed and matched into your play style. Every side objective — stopping random crimes, collecting backpacks full of Spidey mementos stashed around town, snapping pictures of famous NYC landmarks (real and fictional), or completing timed objectives like disarming bombs — converts to tokens that can be cashed in for suit and gadget upgrades. None of these are required to progress your main story, though many contain interesting flavors that will satiate folks more aware of Spider-Man’s long history and rogues’ gallery.
Insomniac has put time and care into making Spider-Man the quippy hero we’ve come to expect, and the world-building in the game’s writing paints a clear picture of Peter Parker. (The social media feed, found on the map screen, has some particularly relevant gems that capture what Spidey’s life would be like if he lived in 2018.) But unfortunately, that personality and charm doesn’t always extend to New York City itself. I’d often run into the same few character models over and over, and the city lacks the diversity and ambiance I’d expect from New York.
That small example may highlight my biggest criticism of Marvel’s Spider-Man. There aren’t many surprises to the game; despite being an open-world experience, it plays upon a linear story, and the twists that happen feel familiar. The action sequences are breathless and memorable, but after the game’s final act I was left wanting more. Just like a summer blockbuster, Spider-Man leaves too much waiting in the wings for its obviously upcoming sequel.
Spider-Man was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.