In the 2010s, Connie Smith, Sony’s Vice President of Product Development, approached Insomniac Games, wishing to speak with CEO Ted Price. Following the release of Insomniac’s Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive, Ms. Booth had an interesting proposal, suggesting the studio work on a game based on a Marvel property. As the company had built its reputation with original properties such as Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank, Mr. Price’s response was, by his own admission, “fairly neutral”. He had never considered working with an existing property. However, while the CEO had his reservations, his development team’s attitude was another story; they were ecstatic over the prospect of working with a Marvel property.
It’s plain to see why the team would be so enthusiastic; during the 2010s, Marvel was at the height of their mainstream popularity, having myriad success stories with the cinematic universe they created. No other company attempting to create such a long-running film franchise experienced the success Marvel had. It was to the point where the average filmgoer could expect a quality release bearing the Marvel brand on an annual basis. This success had profound ramifications both inside and outside of the industry. Many other companies, including their prominent rivals, DC, would attempt to creative their own shared cinematic universes, yet they didn’t quite meet the same levels of critical admiration. Perhaps the most profound impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe had on pop culture was giving their more obscure characters a new lease on life. Though certain heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man were well-known before the universe’s inception in 2008, its success allowed comparatively obscure characters such as Black Panther and Ant-Man to become household names.
Once Insomniac accepted Ms. Smith’s proposal, Jay Ong, the head of games at Marvel decided it was time for a change. According to him, they had previously released games based on or directly tied to the release of films that adapted their properties. While this led to a significant output, it also meant developers didn’t have time to create anything impressive or memorable. It did result in Treyarch’s well-received adaptation of the film Spider-Man 2 in 2004, but fans dismissed most of these titles as shovelware, and they cemented the generally negative perception of licensed games as a result. Fortunately, Marvel was not interested in a game based on an existing film or comic book story, giving Insomniac carte blanche to choose any character they wished and develop an original plot for them. The team thought long and hard about which character to use, and they ultimately settled on Spider-Man, citing his relatability and charming everyman persona, Peter Parker. Activision had been responsible for publishing the games based off the 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, but the franchise was now truly in the hands of Insomniac and Sony.
Though the team started off excited about the project, they also found it to be a daunting experience. With the wealth of stories and versions across almost every conceivable medium, how could they possibly do such an enormously popular character justice? Art director Jacinda Chew, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity, and subsequently interviewed the Marvel staff members who were the most familiar with the character. From there, it was up to a team of writers led by Jon Paquette to create an original take on Spider-Man that still remained true to the character. Insomniac had even gone as far as receiving ideas from two comic book writers, Christos Gage and Dan Slott, the former of whom co-wrote the script. Though they drew upon many iterations of the character in order to understand what made a compelling Spider-Man story, Mr. Paquette was insistent on not drawing too much from any one version.
Development of this game, which would simply be titled Marvel’s Spider-Man, began in 2014 and took roughly four years to complete, seeing its release in September of 2018. Fans and critics alike were expecting Marvel’s Spider-Man to be, at best, a modest success. The game instead went on to become the sleeper hit of 2018, outselling the unanimously praised God of War and becoming the PlayStation 4’s killer app in the process. The game was praised for its good writing, solid combat engine, and successfully incorporating Spider-Man’s signature web-slinging abilities. Many critics called it the greatest superhero game ever made, comparing it favorably to Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City. Such was the extent of its positive reception that Jamie Fristrom, the man who programmed the web-slinging mechanics in the game based off of Spider-Man 2, had nothing but praise for Insomniac’s own take on them. Was Marvel’s Spider-Man truly the prolific company’s answer to the Batman: Arkham series?
Playing the Game
Eight years ago, an ordinary high-school student by the name of Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. That bite gave Peter incredible superpowers, from enhanced strength to being able to scale and run up walls. In the years since, he has accepted the great responsibility that comes with his great power by fighting crime on the streets of New York City. One day, he receives a call from his police informant, Yuriko “Yuri” Watanabe. The authorities finally possess enough evidence to take down Wilson Fisk, the biggest crime boss in town, and have surrounded his compound to arrest him. Fisk, not being the kind of person to give up so easily, is attempting a last stand. With the police and Fisk’s men locked in a stalemate, it’s up to Peter, better known as Spider-Man, to jump into action and turn the tide in favor of the forces of good.
Further enforcing the spider theme to his superhero persona, Spider-Man has developed a gadget known as a Web Shooter. The material that is shot out of these gadgets is a powerful adhesive capable of trapping his foes for several hours. He also uses it as his primary means of transportation, being able to latch on to buildings and trees with a ropelike webbing and swing through the air. With Spider-Man, quite literally, leaping into action, you’re allowed to see how it works firsthand as soon as the game begins.
When Spider-Man is airborne, you can press the R2 button to have him shoot a strand of web at a nearby surface. Your aim doesn’t need to be precise when web-swinging; as long as you’re holding down the R2 button, the strand will latch onto the closest object automatically. Naturally, Spider-Man gains momentum while swinging, allowing him to go faster or higher depending on when you release the web. If you find you’re having trouble web-swinging at first, there is no need to worry, for Spider-Man does not take fall damage. Therefore, you can experiment as much as you would like, though it’s best to proceed with your current objective, as time is of the essence. Your main mission is indicated with a yellow, diamond-shaped marker. It measures your distance from the mission’s site and remains onscreen until you’ve reached it. In most cases, you need only enter the general vicinity to trigger the cutscene.
Shortly upon arriving on the scene, Spider-Man finds himself accosted by Fisk’s underlings. This gives you the perfect opportunity to acquaint yourself with the combat engine. After having fallen out of favor due to the advent of the one-on-one fighting game, Marvel’s Spider-Man could be considered the evolutionary next step in the beat ‘em up genre. Comparisons critics and fans drew to the Batman: Arkham series before it were apt, for the combat functions very similarly to those games. Basic attacks are executed with the square button. Spider-Man is the kind of hero merciful enough not to kill his opponents, and will therefore settle for rendering them unconscious. Nonetheless, the basic goal of combat is functionally identical to that of a standard game – keep attacking your opponents until they stop moving.
In a bit of a contrast to many contemporary games, Marvel’s Spider-Man features a health bar. It doesn’t exactly regenerate on its own, but you do not fill it by seeking out first-aid kits or the kind of mysterious, fully prepared turkey dinner commonly found by striking walls. Instead, you can recover your health simply by pressing down on the control pad. How much health is recovered this way depends on Spider-Man’s Focus level. Every successful hit Spider-Man lands without taking any damage in returns adds to his current combo. The higher the counter is, the more Focus Spider-Man generates. Focus can also be used to execute a finisher, which instantly takes down a standard enemy.
The game wouldn’t be particularly challenging if you could mindlessly punch everyone that came your way. Marvel’s Spider-Man is not the kind of game wherein you can expect your enemies to wait their turn before joining the fray. Whether Spider-Man finds himself facing five thugs or twenty-five, they will be attacking him with everything they’ve got. It’s also important to know that the thugs he encounters aren’t looking for a fair fight. They will come after him with crowbars, riot shields, pistols, assault rifles, and any number of assorted weapons to tip the scales in their favor. As Spider-Man learns to his shocked horror, some thugs are even armed with rocket launchers, cementing their sheer determination to take down the young superhero who has been a persistent thorn in Fisk’s side. There is a silver lining in that their desire to defeat Spider-Man overrides their common sense. In other words, enemies are perfectly capable of damaging each other in these fights. This does lead to many hilarious moments in which you will see thugs gleefully tossing grenades and firing rockets at Spider-Man as he’s fighting their cohorts.
If you believe for a second that Marvel’s Spider-Man features the post-damage invulnerability typically designated by your character’s model blinking, you’re sorely mistaken. If you let the enemies get the drop on him, you only have two choices: find some way out of the melee or watch him get beaten to a bloody pulp in a matter of seconds. Spider-Man may possess superhuman strength and survivability, but it’s not wise to test his limits if you can help it. A majority of the foes you fight prefer to attack with their fists or melee weapons, but firearms, for obvious reasons, tend to deal greater amounts of damage.
With enemies having no qualms ganging up on Spider-Man or resorting to excessive force to permanently put his career to an end, it may seem completely impossible keeping in track of the action at a given moment. Fortunately, the developers foresaw this problem and proceeded to nip it in the bud. They accomplished this through their implementation of Spider-Man’s famous – or infamous depending on your disposition – “Spider-Sense”. If an enemy is about to successfully strike Spider-Man, those familiar miniature lightning bolts manifest around his head. If a marksman is about to shoot him from a distance, you can see a red line emitting from their direction. Whenever you see those lightning bolts, it is the opportune moment to dodge, which is accomplished by pressing the circle button. Being the agile acrobat that he is, Spider-Man can jump onto a wall by dodging into one and leap from it to strike an enemy.
With his trademark web shooters, Spider-Man is not limited to punching his enemies to defeat them. He can also use his web shooters to incapacitate an enemy for a short duration. From here, he can begin punching them without fear of a counterattack. If the enemy in question is knocked into a wall, the webbing will adhere to the surface, preventing them from escaping. Alternatively, you can use the web shooters on downed enemies, which will adhere them to the floor instead.
After fighting his way past Fisk’s underlings, Spider-Man soon comes face-to-face with the crime boss himself. Anyone who takes a look at Fisk’s rotund appearance and believes him to be a pushover is doomed to lose from the outset. Fisk is actually has a body that is said to be pure muscle, and despite having no superpowers of his own, he is more than a match for the comparatively fragile Spider-Man. As such, it is a lost cause attempting to fight him by punching him normally. Instead, you must limit his mobility by firing the web shooters at him. Then, and only then, will Spider-Man’s punches inflict any damage. He is also markedly faster than his underlings, so you want to be quick with the circle button whenever he starts charging Spider-Man’s way. Later in the game, you will fight enemies like Fisk called brutes. Although they can’t claim to match his intelligence, they are no less dangerous, and they should be dealt with in a similar fashion.
Eventually, Spider-Man emerges triumphant and Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, is finally sent to prison. Though primarily an action-adventure game, Marvel’s Spider-Man features role-playing elements throughout. This is demonstrated when you complete the mission and are awarded a significant number of experience points – enough to advance one level, in fact. Every time Spider-Man advances a level, he is awarded with a skill point. These points can be spent to unlock new skills. The skills in this game exist in three different trees, meaning you need to unlock certain ones before others become available. A skill can cost anywhere between one to three points to unlock. Each level is guaranteed to award a skill point, and upon surpassing certain thresholds, Spider-Man will gain additional bonuses as well such as extra health or enhanced speed when web-swinging. The maximum level is fifty, but you can continue to gain experience points. Each subsequent level gained from that point onward will grant Spider-Man a small bonus to his maximum health and melee damage output.
As he is loaded up in the police van, Fisk warns Spider-Man that the order in the city will crumble without him to maintain order over the criminal underground. Undaunted, Spider-Man leaves the police to take care of the cleanup so he can get to work. As Peter Parker, Spider-Man has been making ends meet as an assistant to a brilliant scientist. Using their government finances, the duo has been making strides developing advanced prosthetic limbs for those unfortunate enough to have lost one of their natural ones. Despite the amazing work he has done, the scientist’s inventions have had a few kinks to work out, leaving it up to Peter to resolve them. Performing the appropriate adjustments involves Peter rewiring circuits and identifying unknown substances, which are presented as puzzle minigames.
Circuit puzzles vaguely resemble Pipe Mania, a classic puzzle game in that your goal is to channel the outflow of electricity from one node to another. However, unlike Pipe Mania, you don’t have a time limit. Instead, the challenge lies in completing the circuit itself. You are given pieces that allow the electricity to move straight or at a 90 degree angle. Some pieces are locked in place, but if they’re not, you can take them out and redistribute them. If there are arrows on a piece, the electricity can only move in those directions. If you ignore this aspect, the circuit will be interrupted. Furthermore, you need to make sure the mechanism is getting the required amount of electricity. You can have the circuit pass through green and red straight pieces, which will increase or decrease the voltage respectively. The degree to which the voltage is affected is displayed as a number on each piece.
Identifying an unknown substance doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry. Instead, the substances appear as black, rectangular blocks superimposed upon a multicolored background. Your goal is to fill in the blocks with the white blocks provided to you on the left side of the screen. Later patterns are markedly more difficult, as you will have to fill in blocks that are twice as thick as a standard one. This is accomplished by stacking two white blocks on each other. Also in the cards are striped blocks that subtract a line when combined another card. Once your combination of cards matches the patterns above, Peter will identify the substance.
Having completed the maintenance on their inventions, Peter is free to work on his Spider-Man suit, which has taken quite a beating over the years. As he works on his secret project, Peter is caught in the act by his boss. Fortunately, he merely believes Peter is the one who stiches together Spider-Man’s suits and even offers ideas on how to improve them.
The Advanced Suit Peter completes with his boss’s input affords him a new power. It is activated by pressing down both control sticks simultaneously. This suit’s power, Adrenaline Rush, rapidly generates Focus for a brief duration, increasing the number of finishers Spider-Man can perform in a given timespan. Other suits Spider-Man can craft bestow different powers upon him. You don’t necessarily have to wear the suit that grants the power to use it, however. If you dislike the look of a certain suit, but enjoy its power or vice versa, you can make the appropriate changes once you’ve crafted them. Defying the basic expectation of how you gain better abilities later on, Adrenaline Rush is actually one of the best powers in the game – particularly once you’ve leveled up enough to increase the size of the Focus gauge.
Further helping Peter and Spider-Man by proxy, the kindly scientist even throws out new suggestions for gadgets. The first such one is a gadget that instantly webs up an enemy upon impact and knocks them back quite a distance. If the enemy is positioned near a wall, they are all but guaranteed to be incapacitated. Later on, Spider-Man obtains ideas for other gadgets such as an electrified web, a concussive blaster, and a trip mine that instantly entangles enemies who set it off. The gadgets you obtain can be accessed by holding down the L1button. This causes a wheel showcasing your current gadgets to appear. You then use the right control stick to select one. It’s important to know that selecting a gadget does not pause the game; it merely slows down the action. Because of this, you don’t want to take too long selecting one if you have no breathing room.
Finally, you can also obtain modifications for Spider-Man’s suit. These provide passive bonuses simply by being equipped. Depending on the ones you choose, you can diminish the damage Spider-Man takes from melee attacks, enhance the rate at which he generates Focus, or increase the amount of health he recovers when you press down on the control pad. You can only have three suit modifications active at a time. If your loadout isn’t suited for your current situation, you can swap them out at any time by pressing the touch pad. This does pause the game, so you can take as long as you want to do so.
The ability to create suits, gadgets, and modifications would suggest to someone unfamiliar with the game that Marvel’s Spider-Man features a crafting system. This is technically true, but it’s not as though you will have to hunt for the materials Spider-Man uses to synthesize his signature adhesive. Instead, these enhancements are obtained by expending tokens. Tokens are obtained by completing sidequests, and they come in six different varieties: Crime Tokens, Base Tokens, Backpack Tokens, Landmark Tokens, Research Tokens, and Challenge Tokens.
As you patrol the city, you may happen upon a group of thugs causing a disturbance, whether it’s by stealing a car, planting a bomb, or holding up a jewelry store. Being the responsible superhero that he is, Spider-Man is more than willing to lend a hand to the New York Police Department by knocking said hooligans senseless. You can spot these small-time criminals in the action with your eyes, but the easiest way is to intercept the signals from a police radio.
This is done by fixing the radio towers situated on the roof of the police departments. Doing so will unlock the map for that region and allow you to listen in on police conversations. Once you’ve overheard a police call in an unlocked region, the crime will appear on the map as a red caution sign. Stopping a crime awards you a Crime Token. There may be bonus objectives to complete, which typically involve defeating the enemies with a certain skill or gadget. If these conditions are met, you are awarded an additional Crime Token for each one.
Even with their boss behind bars, Fisk’s men maintain many strongholds throughout the city. Spider-Man can help mount a case against the crime boss by disrupting his operations. You fight the enemies in multiple waves, and once every single enemy residing in the base has been dealt with, you are awarded a Base Token. Similar to the situation with the criminals terrorizing the city, you obtain additional tokens for every bonus objective you meet.
As you can potentially arrive in a base with your enemies none the wiser, you can take this opportunity to test the game’s stealth mechanics. From a ledge, Spider-Man can either strike an enemy by kicking them down from above or reeling them up with webbing and rendering them immobile. You can also sneak up on an enemy and press the square button. As long as they’re unaware of Spider-Man’s presence, the attack will result in an instant takedown. If an enemy has caught a glimpse of Spider-Man, a yellow diamond-shaped symbol appears. Once it has completely filled up, they will have spotted him.
Enemies in Marvel’s Spider-Man don’t exactly boast the most sophisticated A.I., but they’re neither blind nor deaf. Though any kind of stealth takedown will instantly fell an enemy, if you do it in plain sight or in the general vicinity of their comrades, the entire base will be alerted to Spider-Man’s presence. To help determine if you can safely take down an enemy, you can press R3. This activates a scanner that helpfully informs you whether taking down a targeted enemy is safe or dangerous. If two or more are standing next to each other, you might find yourself having to break their formation by distracting them. By scanning the environment, objects that make a sound when shot with a web are highlighted. If an enemy is investigating something suspicious without having spotted Spider-Man, a question mark appears next to their head. You don’t necessarily have to strike an object with the web to get their attention, but if you shoot one at the ground, they will be alerted to Spider-Man’s presence and begin patrolling more ruthlessly. Though certain missions can be completed without alerting a single enemy, they will be unavoidably alerted once you have dispatched the first wave in a base infiltration. From there, Spider-Man must fight his way out.
Littered throughout New York City are backpacks belonging to Spider-Man. Each of them contains a memento from his past such as tickets to a sporting event he attended with his late uncle, materials from past villains he has fought, and various other items. Having been fighting crime for eight years, it’s a nice way of letting players know exactly what his past adventures entailed and how he got here without bogging down the narrative. Finding each backpack also awards a corresponding token, so there is a practical reason to seek them out as well.
Just like his comic-book counterpart, Spider-Man calls Manhattan his home. Due to technical constraints, it’s not a perfect recreation of the city, and many areas are heavily compressed or left out entirely. Nonetheless, many famous landmarks such as Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and of course, the Empire State Building are prominently featured in this game. After a certain point in the game, Spider-Man can put the skills he developed working for the Daily Bugle under the tyrannical J. Jonah Jameson to good use by photographing the landmarks throughout the city. A successful photograph will award the player with a Landmark Token.
A childhood friend of Peter Parker’s, Harry Osborn, has left New York for an extended vacation in Europe. Before he took his leave, Harry set up research stations all throughout the city. These stations measure various aspects of the city such as the air quality, radio waves, and water pollution. Spider-Man can make use of his powers and technology to help Harry with his research. Successfully completing one of these sidequests will yield multiple Research Tokens. These tokens can be obtained through other means such as doing further work on the prosthetic limbs and an extended sidequest involving returning a flock of pigeons to its owner.
Finally, after finding a suspicious box planted on the rooftop of a building, a mysterious villain calling himself Taskmaster makes his appearance. Living up to his on-the-nose name, Taskmaster has no shortage of challenges awaiting Spider-Man. These challenges vary wildly from taking out a group of mercenaries employed by Taskmaster without being detected to destroying bombs the supervillain planted throughout the city. All of these challenges have different metrics by which his performances are measured, though completing them quickly typically yields a greater number of points. The challenges have three different ratings based on the number of points awarded: bronze, silver, and gold. In short, the better your performance, the more challenge tokens you’re awarded.
By 2018, the crafting system was a mechanic often lambasted. It’s not difficult to see why; having to interrupt the flow of the game and hunt for materials is a highly tedious process even under ideal circumstances. In this regard, Marvel’s Spider-Man proposes a simple, yet highly effective solution. By making the materials used to craft rewards for completing challenges and other sidequests, you will rarely, if ever, have to go out of your way to obtain them.
The tokens obtained from recovering backpacks and photographing landmarks are excellent methods of getting players to explore the city while the ones awarded upon thwarting crimes come as naturally as fighting a random encounter in a role-playing game. Meanwhile, the other three varieties of tokens are rewards for seeking out the sidequests, which is something anyone versed in open-world gameplay is going to do. In turn, hunting these tokens will also reward the player with experience points, allowing them to unlock skills at a faster rate. The important thing is that the game doesn’t unlock all of these sidequests at once. If you complete them as soon as they’re available, you will never find yourself swamped by them.
The only downside is that, despite the developer’s best efforts, obtaining the process of obtaining the tokens can get repetitive. Obtaining Crime Tokens in particular involves swinging back and forth within a region until the game randomly spawns a group of thugs for you to take down. It’s also annoying attempting to complete a different sidequest only for the criminals roaming the streets to begin causing trouble. Thankfully, there is no lasting consequence for failing to stop a crime other than a civilian chewing Spider-Man out for his inaction on J. Jonah Jameson’s talk show. Crimes also cannot be committed while you’re attempting to seize an enemy base, complete one of Taskmaster’s challenges, helping Harry with his research, or fulfill a mission. That being said, criminals can still appear whenever you’re hunting for backpacks or attempting to photograph a landmark. As a result, your best bet is to patrol a region until the criminals stop spawning, for the encounters are finite in number. Though I appreciate recreating the life of a superhero in a video game, stopping the crimes gets tedious.
Other than this minor blemish, Marvel’s Spider-Man is a very well-made game. Although it’s primarily a beat ‘em up affair, there is a lot of variety in the encounters and missions that you rarely feel as though you’re simply going through the motions every time. The ability to take enemies out stealthily is appreciated, for it can make certain encounters far easier. What makes the stealth mechanics work is that you’re not punished too much for being spotted. If you are, you must simply fight your way out. If you’re attempting a mission wherein being spotted results in failure, the game will make this aspect clear beforehand.
Indeed, one of the greatest things about Marvel’s Spider-Man is that Insomniac studied the prominent trends in AAA gaming at the time and did everything they could to address them. The popularity of Resident Evil 4 injected quick-time events into the mainstream. You would be watching a cutscene only for a button prompt to appear onscreen. If you failed to press the button in time, your character would die instantly. Developers taking cues from Capcom’s landmark 2005 title evidently ignored its stellar design and pinpointed the quick-time events as the reason why people praised it. Consequently, quick-time events would become more prominent in the following console generation. Though players soon turned against them, developers strangely refused to learn from their mistake, thus ensuring the troublesome trend would survive for years to come. On the surface, it seems Insomniac failed to catch on to these complaints, which would be especially odd given that the backlash against quick-time events was in full swing by 2018. Fortunately, there is one section in the options screen that demonstrates just how self-aware Insomniac was when they created this game.
The option in the above screenshot means exactly what you think. Do you hate quick-time events with a fiery passion? There’s no need to panic; you can simply turn them off. Similar to the ability to turn off random encounters in Bravely Default, it’s a feature so simple that it begs the question as to why it took so long for developers to come up with it.
Otherwise, I would say the greatest aspect of the gameplay lies within its combat system. There is something unique about an action game wherein enemies are often outfitted with firearms, yet your character isn’t and never can be. With his fists and an array of gadgets at his disposal, you have to be more tactful about how you approach a given fight than in a typical action game. Before the enemies are alerted to your presence, you have the opportunity to pick them off one-by-one. When you’re inevitably thrown into a drawn-out fight, you will often have improvise to gain an advantage – the suit powers can get you out of a pinch, but it’s unwise to grow dependent on them. In order to have any kind of success, you will often have to scan the environment for objects to throw at your enemies or even make tactical retreats in order to disperse them. Sure, they’ll call Spider-Man a wimp for employing such tactics, but they’re only saying that because their idea of a fair fight is for him to stand perfectly still while they pummel him to death. In reality, any tactic that gets the job done is a viable one – including knocking enemies off of rooftops.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. If you are at all interested in playing this game, skip to the conclusion.
Though Marvel’s Spider-Man was released to widespread acclaim, it did receive a fair share of criticism. One of the most prominent criticisms concerned the short length of the campaign, which lasts roughly twenty hours – assuming you’re not completing any of the sidequests, that is. I would refute this argument by saying the perceived weakness is actually a point in the game’s favor. In the 2010s, developers would often boast about their games featuring hundreds of hours of content. However, given the sheer difficulty of making such a lengthy experience, it’s not particularly surprising in hindsight that a majority of these games had a lot of filler. This meant players had to go back and forth doing the same things for however long the game lasted before it arbitrarily decided to end. This isn’t the case with Marvel’s Spider-Man; it has three defined acts, and I couldn’t think of a single main mission that I would cut. The story missions that barely contribute anything to the plot are typically the impetus for a series of sidequests and are over before you know it.
More substantially, Marvel’s Spider-Man was lambasted in some circles for not bringing anything new to the table. This would appear to be a defensible point. After all, by 2018, open-world gameplay had gone from being a niche genre to the industry standard. As a result of overexposure, critics and fans alike began to feel burned out on open-world experiences, pining for titles with more linear structures. Savvy players could run down a list of standard open-world tropes and reasonably expect them appear in this game. Does the player have to reach radio towers to fill in the map? Check. Is there a compass that tells players exactly where to go at a given moment? Check. Does the plot not budge an inch until the player elects to tackle the next story mission? Check. Is there a fast travel system? Check. Are there a bunch of collectables to discover simply by wandering around? Check.
However, I have to remark that the narrative choices present in Marvel’s Spider-Man are much like the gameplay they surround. That is to say, they were clearly crafted by someone who realized the inherit limitations of AAA storytelling at the time and actively sought to downplay its weakest aspects. This is the most obvious in the very character Insomniac chose to be their lead. Spider-Man is quite a bit different from the standard protagonist of the 2010s AAA title. Characters from around this time were often unfettered antiheroes who wouldn’t feel out of place in a nineties comic book. Though the architype had died at the end of the nineties for a good reason, they continued to see use in video games, causing them to feel behind the times.
To be fair, this did make a degree of sense. Who better to cast in the lead role of a first or third-person-shooter than someone with little compunction? The biggest problem with this proposal is that it meant protagonists were ultimately characterized by the kinds of games they happened to be in. Naughty Dog attempted to deviate from this trend by way of their Uncharted series. Protagonist Nathan Drake stood out from his contemporaries with his snappy quips and upbeat attitude. Although he sounds like a perfect alternative to the generally unlikable antiheroes dominating the AAA scene at the time, he inadvertently justified their existence. It was impossible to accept that this mass murderer could have such an amiable, benevolent attitude. In hindsight, I don’t consider it a coincidence that the second-strongest game in the series, The Lost Legacy, retired Nathan Drake, thereby allowing a character more suited to the shooter genre to take his place.
The reason why any of this matters is because, in a lot of ways, I feel Marvel’s Spider-Man manages to grasp what Naughty Dog attempted to go for with Uncharted far more effectively. In terms of personality, Spider-Man comes across as an amalgamation of various incarnations of the character. Many of the general details behind his backstory are similar to his comic counterpart, having been bitten by the radioactive spider at age 15, moved out of Aunt May’s house, lost his Uncle Ben, formed a friendship with Harry Osborn, and dated Mary Jane Watson. Shades of his comic-book counterpart shine the brightest whenever he is in combat and he breaks out his one-liners. Indeed, a large part of the fun to be had in combat is seeing what Spider-Man has to say in the often insane situations in which he finds himself.
What allows Spider-Man to outshine Nathan Drake despite both characters having similar demeanors is that the former ultimately doesn’t want to kill his enemies. Whereas Nathan Drake’s first, and usually only, response to dealing with a threat involved the use of lethal force, Spider-Man settles for knocking them out cold. Even if you make him knock enemies off of rooftops, you can see that it doesn’t kill them. Instead, a strand of webbing adheres them to the closest wall. Though it sounds convoluted, it’s actually perfectly believable that Spider-Man would be crafty enough to place a device capable of saving enemies from death every time he uses the tactic.
In fact, quite a lot of video game tropes that were accepted without question in other titles suddenly have much more of a leg to stand on in Marvel’s Spider-Man. In most games, the protagonist being able to absorb entire clips of ammunition without taking any lasting damage is just something the average player is conditioned to accept. While games in which characters take realistic damage exist such as SWAT 4, they were specifically advertised as simulations. Otherwise, it would be terribly anticlimactic to play an action game only for your character to get shot and have no way of recovering. Meanwhile, in Marvel’s Spider-Man, the title character has superhuman strength and endurance because he is just that. Though he usually isn’t shown to have the ability to heal quickly like Wolverine, it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility given the other fantastical powers at his disposal.
Though a good lead character is certainly important for any work of fiction, Marvel’s Spider-Man boasts an excellent supporting cast as well. Yuri is the perfect foil to Spider-Man, being the straight woman to his jokester. Despite his occasional lapses into his Spider-Cop persona deeply irritating her, it’s clear the two trust each other and they have an excellent dynamic. It’s only rivaled by the one Peter Parker has with his famous love interest Mary Jane Watson – better known as MJ. I can certainly imagine this game was quite the treat for any fan who felt jilted over Joe Quesada’s infamously terrible One More Day storyline wherein he nullified Peter and MJ’s marriage. You learn that in this universe, MJ knows Peter is Spider-Man and they have recently broken up. Despite this, it’s clear they still care about each other, and these strange circumstances see them repair their relationship.
Indeed, I really admire MJ’s characterization in this game. The 2010s saw no shortage of female leads in video games, yet the works typically drew from the same pool of genres. In Marvel’s Spider-Man, MJ is playable for the first time in the history of the medium. From there, the narrative allows her to accomplish many incredible feats without making her hold her own in combat. This was exceptionally rare outside of adventure games, which had long since fallen out of the mainstream’s favor by the 2010s. As an intrepid journalist, MJ has few qualms infiltrating enemy compounds to gather material for her articles. Though Peter has to rescue her from her first such attempt, she quickly proves resourceful enough to handle herself perfectly fine. MJ even says the reason she does this is because she felt bad leaving Peter to save New York alone. The writers clearly put a lot of thought into how a relationship between a normal person and a superhero would pan out. Fittingly, the most obvious sign that their relationship is on the fast track to being mended is when Peter, after learning MJ broke into a supervillain’s lair, doesn’t bother dissuading her from doing it again and instead gives her noise lures to make her infiltrations easier.
Admittedly, these missions are something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, I do feel them to be a welcome alternative from the standard approach to implementing gearless missions. In most such situations, the narrative has to bend over backwards to justify them. In many action games, this is accomplished by taking away the protagonist’s weapons at the worst possible time. On top of being convoluted, rarely are these kinds of missions a good idea because you’re forcing players to use skills they had no reason or chance to develop. To make matters worse, they also have no reason to continue using these skills once the protagonist can use their normal abilities once again. Marvel’s Spider-Man does a much better job contextualizing them because it’s not an experienced fighter carrying out these missions, but rather the entirely normal MJ. Even better, her missions involve stealth, which applies a skill you have built up in a different fashion rather than force you to develop one ex nihilo. The primary downside to them is that they don’t really complement the pacing found in the rest of the game. The stealth sections from Spider-Man’s perspective still have a distinctive action flavor to them, and are appropriately paced. Meanwhile, MJ’s portions slow the pacing to a crawl and can involve a little too much trial-and-error at times.
One touch I particularly like about how Marvel’s Spider-Man tells its story is that the narrative isn’t limited to the cutscenes. Whenever you open up the map, you can see that Spider-Man has a verified social media account. It is a microblogging site reminiscent of Twitter, which was a highly popular service at the time. Most of the time, the commenters talk about a variety of inane subjects such as their bus breaking down or being fed up with what their boss had to say. However, as you progress through the game, they will begin commenting on Spider-Man’s quest. What I like about this is that it sheds light on how normal people live in a universe populated by superheroes. One of the more amusing comments is posted by a person who tries to go to work only to learn that a criminal has been webbed to their car. Depending on your interpretation, they’re either peeved that they can’t go to work or elated about having an excuse. The comments can be surprisingly endearing as well, for many of the citizens Spider-Man saves will thank him on the feed.
In fact, what makes this development admirable is that it’s one of the few contemporary works to portray the then-new media without condemning it entirely. Despite J. Jonah Jameson coming across as a conservative commenter in his podcasts, albeit significantly more charismatic than any real-life example could ever hope to be, and one minor villain’s gimmick centering on livestreaming, the main characters wholeheartedly embrace the technology. This is especially noticeable in how Peter and MJ are seen texting to each other at one point. It’s hilarious in context because he does this just after defeating a major villain. Without context, one would extrapolate from his word choice that he defeated an especially difficult boss in a video game.
I think what allows the storytelling of Marvel’s Spider-Man to stand above that of its peers is present in the little details. Spider-Man often finds himself talking on the phone with somebody. If he happens to be performing a strenuous activity at the time such as web swinging or fighting, the voice acting reflects this fact. Every phone conversation has two different deliveries: normal and strained, and the game transitions between the two seemlessly to fit the situation. If he’s interrupted by a sudden event, he’ll resume the interrupted call after the situation has been resolved. There is even custom dialogue to reach the line that was cut off. There’s also a significant secret involving Harry Osborn revealed fairly late in the game. Once Peter and MJ have discovered it, their dialogue whenever the former is completing a research station quest changes accordingly. These small touches go a long way in showing how much thought the writers put into the scenario.
What I feel to be a truly fascinating aspect about the plot of this game is that it does an amazingly good job deceiving players about its tone. With its unequivocally good protagonist and his penchant to annoy his opponents by means of his various one-liners, players could be easily tricked into thinking Spider-Man as the lighthearted alternative to the Batman: Arkham series. This feeling would only be enforced by the frequently humorous sidequests. The plot then proceeds to take that notion and shatters it into millions of pieces.
It turns out Fisk warning Spider-Man of the power vacuum that would result from his absence was more than a standard villain defeat speech. Mere days after Spider-Man takes down his greatest enemy, a new wave of mobsters calling themselves Demons appear in his stead. These enemies are markedly more powerful than the thugs working for Fisk. When investigating their operations, Spider-Man meets a benevolent officer named Jefferson Davis. Though lacking in superpowers, Officer Davis quickly proves his worth, helping Spider-Man take down a group of Demons. His bravery is to be acknowledged at an award ceremony held by Mayor Norman Osborn. Unfortunately for him and everyone present, the Demons’ leader takes this opportunity to make an appearance, carrying out a deadly suicide bombing.
The game doesn’t pull any punches either; this is a disturbingly realistic depiction of a terrorist attack. To convey just how helpless a civilian would feel in these situations, this mission is played from the perspective of Officer Davis’s son, Miles Morales. Suddenly, you get a sense of the threat these enemies pose when you don’t have any superpowers to fall back on. If they spot Miles, they will kill him on sight. In the midst of the horrific scene, Miles learns his father is among the casualties. The funeral is fittingly somber, and Peter takes the opportunity to help Miles cope with his loss.
As a particularly tragic coda, you can examine Spider-Man’s social media feed. Before the award ceremony, one commenter going by the alias SterlingGrape talks about her parents being nervous about her living on her own. She also comments about how excited she is to be attending the award ceremony at City Hall, having a nice back-and-forth with her father – alias MetalVineyard. After the attack, MetalVineyard posts a comment that reads “Rest in peace, Starla (SterlingGrape). We love you and will keep you in our hearts forever”. After watching traditional media stop at nothing to condemn social media and all who use it as monsters, this moment is particularly laudable in how much it humanizes the normal civilians of Spider-Man’s world. It really demonstrates the most difficult part of being a superhero is that you can’t save everybody.
If that wasn’t enough, you learn the mastermind behind this attack is Martin Li, the businessman in charge of a philanthropy organization named F.E.A.S.T. He has an alternate persona dubbed Mister Negative by the media. True to his moniker, he has the ability to enhance a person’s negative emotions, thus bringing them under his control. Both Peter and his aunt, May, work for Martin Li, making his revelation as the leader of a terrorist cell all the more shocking. It also has the potential to catch newcomers off-guard given how Mister Negative was a fairly new villain at the time, having debuted in 2007. He wasn’t considered a high-tier villain at the time – not even by Marvel themselves. He only exists because his creator thought it would be cool to have a character look like a photo negative in a modern color comic. From the beginning, it’s clear the Mister Negative of this game harbors a grudge against Norman Osborn, and the sheer insanity he displays to wreak his vengeance cements him as a credible threat. Whenever Spider-Man faces off against him, he dispenses with the one-liners, instead pleading Martin not to throw away the inspiring humanitarian work he has done.
Though there are many great things I can say about this game’s plot, what I feel to be its greatest strength is just how much the writers played around with the Spider-Man lore. Though Martin Li turning out to be a terrorist mastermind is a twist that could surprise even those familiar with Spider-Man, there is one development they would see coming from a mile away.
It turns out that Peter Parker’s boss is none other than Dr. Otto Octavius. Dr. Octavius, better known to Marvel fans as Doctor Octopus, is one most well-known members of Spider-Man’s extensive rogue’s gallery. However, despite Spider-Man having been a superhero for eight years and is shown to have fought many other classic villains during such as Mysterio, the Sandman, and the Lizard, Doctor Octopus doesn’t yet exist in this universe. Therefore, the exact second the player knows the identity of Peter’s boss, this potential twist is going to be hanging over their heads for the entire game.
I have to give Insomniac a lot of credit for how they handled Dr. Octavius’s inclusion. The team knew that if they featured Dr. Octavius in any of the game’s promotional materials, everybody would infer him to be the scenario’s central antagonist. That he is in the game at all was a shock to anyone who played it in 2018. After allowing him to make his first appearance, the narrative really takes its time transforming him into Doctor Octopus. It helps that Dr. Octavius is markedly different from his comic-book counterpart. The comic version of Dr. Octavius was highly arrogant and pompous even before the accident that turned him into Doctor Octopus. The mechanical arms merely allowed him to act on his latent megalomaniacal tendencies.
Meanwhile, Insomniac’s take on Dr. Octavius is as different as night and day. He is a benevolent scientist who aspires to help his fellow man with his state-of-the-art prosthetics. Peter Parker has idolized him since childhood – so much so that he jumped at the opportunity to work with him despite knowing he would earn less money than he did at the Daily Bugle. All of these facets go a long way in tricking even someone familiar with Spider-Man into believing he won’t turn into a villain. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when he gradually descends into villainy.
The first sign that things are going to end badly for Dr. Octavius is when Norman Osborn enters his laboratory and proceeds to cut the good doctor’s funding. The two were best friends in college, often called “The O’s” by their peers. Indeed, Norman’s company, Oscorp, wasn’t derived from its CEO’s surname, but rather the nickname their peers gave them. They eventually had a falling out because of their vastly different ideas on how they should go about helping humanity. Otto focused on theoretical sciences to enhance the human body whereas Norman was more interested in generating profits with his gadgets and weapons development. Now, the two of them are bitter rivals with Otto getting the short end of the stick more often than not.
As the game goes on, he becomes increasingly unfettered in how he keeps his business afloat, pulling in as many favors as he can in addition to taking loans from highly dubious sources. His rage steadily builds, which is exacerbated by the fact that he is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. It was caused by working around radioactive materials at Oscorp for an extended period of time and in a year’s time he will be rendered completely immobile with his mind perfectly intact.
This twist is foreshadowed in how Peter always seems to be completing a majority of the work between the two. From a distance, it would appear to be a case of the developers making Dr. Octavius less competent for the sake of justifying a game mechanic. In reality, making the precise adjustments Peter accomplishes in the minigames is impossible for Dr. Octavius in his current state. Things go off the rails at the end of the second act when Peter finds flaws with Dr. Octavius’s latest invention. They are four mechanical arms resembling octopus’s tentacles attached to the doctor’s spine and operated with his thoughts via a neural link. Dr. Octavius would appear to take Peter’s advice to slow down and fine tune it. Unfortunately, as soon as Peter leaves, a news report in which Norman Osborn claims responsibility for Spider-Man’s defeat of Mister Negative comes on. The enraged doctor destroys the television in rage and reactivates the neural link.
Shortly thereafter, there is a massive prison breakout at Ryker’s and the Raft, starting a citywide riot in New York. Five of Spider-Man’s most nefarious foes, Electro, Rhino, Scorpion, Vulture, and Mister Negative, escape and proceed to mercilessly beat down Spider-Man.
The mastermind behind this breakout was none other than Otto Octavius, fully embracing his familiar supervillain persona Doctor Octopus. The Sinister Six has been formed, and their first order of business is to carry out Mister Negative’s endgame. He had planned to unleash a deadly plague synthesized by Oscorp known as the Devil’s Breath, in an effort to discredit Mayor Norman Osborn. Having defeated Spider-Man, they infect a majority of New York with the deadly virus.
It is at this point that Manhattan seems to resemble Arkham City with prisoners running amok and causing untold amounts of destruction using the police equipment they’ve stolen. In response, Sable, a company of mercenaries hired by Norman Osborn in an attempt to provide security for the city, has placed New York under martial law. The citizens can’t put one foot out of line lest Sable arrest them on the spot for their insolence.
All the while, Spider-Man has been branded a fugitive, meaning both Sable and the escaped prisoners will shoot him on sight.
Norman Osborn has been a key player to this game’s backstory, and similar to Insomniac’s treatment of Otto Octavius, they go in a very interesting direction with his character. In most continuities, this character is better known as the Green Goblin, one of Spider-Man’s most iconic foes and responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy – Peter Parker’s first love. Notably, Norman Osborn is not the Green Goblin in this storyline – he doesn’t even become him in the post-credits sequel hook. He is certainly not a good person as evidenced by his unethical business practices and dealings with Wilson Fisk, but he isn’t truly malicious either. He was responsible for the death of Martin Li’s parents and the creation of his Mister Negative persona in addition to Otto’s decent into villainy. At the same time, it’s implied he sincerely regrets causing the accident and when he learns Sable has been arresting people indiscriminately, he immediately cracks down on them.
Although the Devil’s Breath sounds like the kind of biological weapon the Green Goblin would employ, it was actually a serum intended to cure genetic disorders that hasn’t been perfected yet. The reason he has so doggedly pursued the creation of this serum is because his son is suffering from a terminal, genetic illness. There is no ulterior motive to be found; Norman pointedly does not use his son’s illness to garner public sympathy, instead electing to keep it a secret from the press. Sam Raimi’s take on Spider-Man in the 2000s was criticized in some circles for redeeming the villains in improbable ways, and I have to say Insomniac’s attempt at doing the same is more successful. There are plenty of villains in Marvel’s Spider-Man who are evil for its own sake, yet the major players are markedly more complex than that.
Given the grey morality opposing Spider-Man, it’s highly appropriate that the narrative deconstructs how Otto Octavius and Martin Li get revenge on Norman Osborn. Their revenge plot against Norman should be considered a warning as to how easy it is to commit increasingly evil acts against somebody whenever you keep telling yourself they deserve every misfortune they get. In their attempts to take down a criminal, they have become demons, and the untold loss of innocent life resulting from their actions couldn’t even begin to justify them. Though they consider themselves well-intentioned, succeeding in their mission wouldn’t solve any problems outside of a newfound sense of self-vindication. In an era wherein many video game protagonists dispensed justice in that exact matter without any indication it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, this made for a refreshing change of pace.
Even in the face of these excellently crafted story beats, I must remark that Marvel’s Spider-Man sticks the landing beautifully. Spider-Man, using materials in Dr. Octavius’s laboratory, forges the Anti-Ock Suit to confront him. During their fight, Doctor Octopus reveals he knows Spider-Man’s true identity, which provides a sound explanation as to why he didn’t simply kill him when he had the chance. The final confrontation is thus a tearful battle wherein Peter Parker must defeat his idol, preventing him from taking any more lives away.
The final sequence is the single most poignant moment in the entire game. May Parker becomes terminally ill with the Devil’s Breath and Spider-Man has only one sample of the antiserum. If he uses it, there won’t be enough to save anyone else. In her final moments, May asks Spider-Man to take off his mask so she can see his nephew. She too knew of his nephew’s superhero persona, and expresses how proud she is of him before losing consciousness. In a dark parallel to how his selfishness led to his uncle’s death, his selfless decision to let the scientists replicate the antiserum results in the tragic loss of his aunt. I thought for sure the game was bluffing during this sequence, but the distinctive sound of the failing heart monitor removed any doubt.
Once again, I find myself commending the writing staff of this game. According to Yuri Lowenthal, Spider-Man’s voice actor, Marvel was adamantly opposed to the idea of killing off May Parker. Insomniac had to fight tooth and nail for months before Marvel relented. It’s for the best that they won because this makes for a beautifully bittersweet ending. Peter Parker has lost his last living family member, but he mended his relationship with MJ, who in turn, encourages him to pursue his love of science. Even better, Peter may have found an apprentice in the form of Miles Morales, who has strangely begun displaying superpowers similar to his own.
Drawing a Conclusion
After a decade in which the AAA industry poorly attempted to emulate Hollywood, I went into Marvel’s Spider-Man assuming that, for good or for ill, it would be emblematic of its era. Namely, I thought it would be a big-budget production wherein the gameplay and story actively cheapened each other due to the developers actively separating them. Insomniac, knowingly or not, managed to craft an experience that addressed a majority of the AAA industry’s shortcomings. It uses cinematic cutscenes, but they feel like a reward for succeeding in gameplay rather than the main attraction. This is complemented by many little touches that many of Insomniac’s peers simply didn’t consider when crafting stories.
The critical reception of Marvel’s Spider-Man makes for an interesting conversation piece in that while it was praised, there were a few holdouts who believed it to be a run-of-the-mill open-world game. However, these interpretations only really make any sense when you consider the typical critical attitudes around the time in which Marvel’s Spider-Man was released. In 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was celebrating its tenth anniversary. Early entries such as Iron Man and The Avengers were praised without controversy, and if you examine the receptions of later ones, you would get the impression that the Marvel Cinematic Universe never ran out of steam as the decade went on. What the numbers don’t tell you is that there was a subterranean backlash within the film critical circle against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Particularly vocal columnists would decry this series of films as Hollywood’s attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, causing the true art of cinema to suffocate and die. As this was going on, the Western AAA industry effectively made open-world experiences the standard. Though critics enjoyed these games at first, it didn’t take long for oversaturation to take its toll on them, as they could name the associated tropes in their sleep as the decade drew to a close.
Because of these factors, one needs to take the relatively modest grades Marvel’s Spider-Man received compared to the likes of Uncharted 4 and God of War with a grain of salt. It saw its release in a time when there was a growing resentment against the Marvel Cinematic Universe among the ostensibly high-minded film critics and their game-loving counterparts were burned out on open-world experiences. In addition, works of any kind featuring heroes as unquestionably good as Spider-Man were not popular in 2018, often seen as childish and insipid. Moreover, it generally wasn’t considered fashionable in the 2010s to be idealistic in any capacity. In short, despite working with a well-known character, the climate was massively stacked against Insomniac, yet their game still became the sleeper hit of 2018, and they deserved every single sale.
I myself consider Marvel’s Spider-Man one of the stronger PlayStation-exclusive games. On some level, I even consider it the Western equivalent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in that while it seems like a typical open-world game, it is actually a subtle critique on Western AAA scene of the 2010s. This is a game that doesn’t pull any punches, yet at the end of the day, maintains an unapologetically idealistic attitude. The self-styled intellectual would insist a narrative touting such an attitude is akin to playing with a handicap. I, on the other hand, steadfastly believe Marvel’s Spider-Man is a quality work because of its idealism and not despite it. It handles its subject matter in a frank, mature approach that puts many contemporary R-rated works to shame. Many critical darlings from the 2010s tell their audience to give up hope whereas Marvel’s Spider-Man encourages them to be greater. Consequently, it was a perfect antidote for the AAA culture at time while standing tall as a quality game in its own right.
Final Score: 8/10