If you were to sit people down and ask them what their favourite Spider-Man game is, chances are you'd get the answer of either Neversoft's game on the original PlayStation or Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 from 2004. Not many people would go for releases from the last decade, and that's because Spidey hasn't managed to hit the same high notes as he did in the early noughties, with recent entries like Web of Shadows, Shattered Dimensions, and the film tie-ins of The Amazing Spider-Man failing to impress to the same extent. Now Insomniac Games is here to try and change all that, using Sony backing and PS4 exclusivity to usher in a new golden game that aims to please Spider-fans once again.
A big part of the reason that Spider-Man 2 is held in such high regard is that the swinging mechanic is exquisite, and that's always been one of Insomniac's biggest priorities with their game (to paraphrase creative director Bryan Intihar: "those webs better connect to buildings"). After extensive swinging through Manhattan, we'll start this review by confirming that Insomniac has indeed managed to nail this side the game, making exploration via webs feel natural and easy while also giving you that power fantasy at the same time. Not everyone can swing through New York, after all.
It's a testament to how strong this mechanic is that Insomniac starts the game with you jumping off a ledge and getting into the swing of things (pun intended), and with only a few tutorialised buttons like R2 to swing and X to zip yourself forward, within seconds you'll find yourself instinctively moving from location to location with ease. It's wonderfully simple in essence, and by combining all of his moves together even the most un-heroic of us can get exactly where they want to be with ease.
And the best part? Yes, these webs do attach to buildings and structures, and the environment around you actually plays a big role in how you swing around. In the midst of the urban jungle you'll obviously find it easier to attach your webs to the buildings around you, but tight angles and narrow spaces mean it's harder to turn, while in more open spaces like Central Park swinging needs to be a lot lower and tighter to the ground since Spider-Man is using the trees instead.
It's not just for jollies that you start swinging in the game's opening, as you're actually on your way to bust Wilson Fisk, who you'll better know as the Kingpin. This mission serves as a tutorial for the essential mechanics, but more importantly, it's a springboard for the plot to bounce off of. You see, without spoiling too much, Spider-Man's obsession with Kingpin may have distracted him from other threats, and the power vacuum left in his place is set to have dire consequences later on.
We won't talk about the other villains in the game specifically - despite Sony showing their hand with a lot of them in pre-release trailers - but if you've played superhero games or watched films before, you'll know pretty much how this story goes. A villain emerges, threatens the city, and our friendly neighborhood hero must save the day. It's not reinventing the wheel by any means, but there are a few ways in which Insomniac distinguishes its own narrative from the piles of games that have come before.
For instance, the studio very cleverly takes a lot of the characters that we're very familiar with and repositions them within the universe, like J. Jonah Jameson as a ranting radio host, Mary Jane Watson as a reporter for The Daily Bugle, and Peter Parker as a scientist. This provides a fresh take on existing characters, and so it doesn't feel like a rehash of old ideas.
Another way Insomniac has set themselves apart is that they've consciously avoided the origin story that we've seen so many times. Instead, we're thrown into the shoes of an experienced Spider-Man who, at 23 years of age, has been doing this for years and is a well-known force within the city. It's not about establishing a reputation and dealing with emerging villains then, but about interacting with the world you've already seen and the foes already faced, and what happens when a larger threat comes along that you've not seen before.
Older doesn't necessarily mean more mature though, as while Parker works in high-tech science labs on the one side, Spider-Man is still out there wise-cracking and making quips. Actor Yuri Lowenthal has done a great job in making our hero feel witty without being cringey or annoying, and we have the writing to thank for that.
The writing is excellent across the board and the narrative is incredibly well-delivered. While the crux of the story is about besting your foes, the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane (who have been broken up for six months at this point), as well as others like Aunt May and Miles Morales, also provide interesting angles for character development.
That said, actually playing as MJ doesn't always hit the mark. MJ's sections allow you to explore interesting areas Spider-Man can't access, providing new perspectives to the story and new locations, but sometimes these areas seem like unnecessary asides rather than meaningful additions. These sections also feature dreaded insta-fail stealth, which slows the pace down after you've been swinging around the city and makes you crawl around and distract AI enemies.