Insomniac's Spider-Man has generated plenty of hype, mostly because it looks like it might finally deliver the first good game about this particular superhero in god knows how many years. Insomniac knows what they're doing, after all, and we got the chance to play the fruits of their labour this week during E3 in Los Angeles, where we were let loose in the sandbox of New York City to sample some of the activities on offer there.
The first thing we did before we got to bashing bad guys' skulls was a gradual tutorial that showed us how to navigate the world, using (among other things) R2 to swing and X to dash forward with your webs. Over time more and more buttons were introduced to us - like R2 and L2 to perch - but the beauty of this setup was that it took no longer than five minutes to feel like the controls were natural. It didn't take long before we were swinging between buildings with ease and feeling like a boss.
It doesn't take Doctor Octopus levels of genius to realise that this isn't the only way we'll be using our web-slinging abilities though, as Spidey can also draw things in towards him, pull himself towards things, throw objects, stick in-game items together (which is always handy), and of course dive into combat using these numerous tactical options to his advantage, getting enemies all tied up as you foil their dastardly plans once again.
In fact, combat in its basic essence is just as simple as swinging; you have Square for attack, Circle for dodge (the timing of which is indicated by a Spider-Sense effect on your head), and Triangle for firing webs. By doing this alone you can take down a respectable group of goons, but for the coolest and most effective combat styles you'll need to use a couple of additional tricks, including gadgets on R1 like mines - which fits into the lore since Peter Parker is a scientist after all - and focus, which is a meter that when full can either be used to heal yourself or execute a cinematic finisher on an opponent.
All of this will seem a tad familiar to fans of the Batman Arkham games, but not as familiar as one might think given the E3 trailer we saw this year. Subtle changes like the removal of reversals and Spider-Man's quick navigation of the environment set it apart from the Caped Crusader's recent outings in some fairly major ways. This isn't the Spider-Man version of anything else; this is a game tailored to the hero that has been built to suit his particular strengths.
Once we had dropped in and were used the controls to the point that we were kicking ass and taking names, we actually got into some narrative. It turns out that Shocker has escaped from confinement and he immediately goes to rob a bank. It's not as simple as him chasing a quick buck, however, but we won't spoil the more mysterious intentions behind the heist. What we can say is that we obviously needed to stop Shocker and thus we were thrown into a boss fight.
If you were expecting revolutionary boss battles in this game, look away now. Despite feeling very 'video gamey' in the sense that they required you to execute the same three steps before attacking, the fight was full of enough fun and spectacle to make up for the simplistic design. After all, it's about the power fantasy, and boy did we feel powerful after that battle.
It's not all glamorous boss fights in the life of Spider-Man though, and there are also plenty of other activities to indulge in as well, including finding collectibles and side objectives. One of these required us to find out the contents of some toxic gas by performing a few light puzzles around the city, and at other times you might discover something as simple as finding a bunch of bad guys in need of a beatdown. We're also assured that in the full game NPCs will also be around to give us tasks, presumably revolving around saving them or helping them.
The visual side of things also deserves a lot of praise, as not only do the colours pop (as you'd expect from a studio that brought us the likes of Ratchet and Clank) but a lot of work has also gone into making a very recognisable New York City setting. You'll be swinging between buildings one second before encountering landmarks like the Chrysler Building moments later, and while of course it's not a one-to-one recreation, it has been made to feel like the city that never sleeps, which counts for something.
Unless it's not evident by now, Spider-Man thoroughly impressed us after we got to taste the delights offered in its sandbox, from the mechanics that have been carefully thought out and cleverly executed to the presentation the action is all wrapped up in. Whether this open world can maintain our interest for hours upon hours remains to be seen, but with September fast approaching this isn't just one for Marvel and Spider-Man fans to keep tabs on, anyone looking for a tasty open-world action-adventure would do well to keep it in their sights.