Marvel’s Spider-Man is the kind of game that’s a time capsule of sorts. Bury it in the ground, and in a decade of so, dig it up to see exactly what a modern game was in 2018: an open world, graphically photo realistic, light-RPG leveling up system, tchotchke collect-a-thon, skill tree laden, stealth section having, dozen hour story, Batman Arkham combat video game. With the lone mechanic being a beautifully rendered recreation of the lone Spider-Man game mechanic that anyone cared for: the web swinging in Spider-Man 2 from ye olden days.
This isn’t to say that Spider-Man is a bad game per se, more that it aims straight at the 8.5 review scale in terms of not trying to establish anything new in the genre and preferring to be a culmination of this video game generation’s best elements. In 2018, it finds itself in good company with the likes of God of War essentially doing the same thing with its mechanical overall. Hey, Spider-Man does include that “paternal” Last of Us element with the inclusion of Miles Morales! Outside of the odd omission of micro transactions, it is 2018 The All Video Game™.
Outside of all the video game nonsense, Spider-Man is a great story wise. It has all the hallmarks of what most people know of the character, Peter Parker being constantly late and besieged by life, trying to balance the being a great superhero, but also trying to have a life and the push pull soap opera that is what people love about Spider-Man. Taking place eight years in to Peter Parker starting his career, being fresh out of college, and largely unemployed the drama is at an all time high!
The great thing about Marvel’s Spider-Man is that it subverts the fans of the comic at every turn. In the game, Peter works as a lab assistant for Otto Octavius, a brilliant scientist trying to help the world with artificial limbs powered by science. Right at the beginning of the story, a freak accident happens while the doctor is experimenting. Knowing that Otto eventually becomes one of Spider-Man’s greatest arch-villains Dr. Octopus, the fan expects that this is the moment…instead the story pivots away. Nothing happens. This comic book subversion happens more than a few times in the game’s story and it’s refreshing that the developers took this route. It’s just too bad this bravery in tone and scope didn’t get out to the gameplay, which is as stale and staid as the aforementioned list of uber game design tropes scattered throughout it.
Spider-Man being an open world game apparently necessitates that the developer fill it with all matter of collectables. These show up in the form of tokens that can be collected and are necessary if you wish to level-up Spider-Man to make him…better? Honestly, many of the upgrades seemed to have little effect on the gameplay, aside from having more of them on hand to use. It being an Insomniac developed game; the developer takes liberties with the lore of Peter Parker being a mechanical genius and devises several clever toys that he can use to aid him in game. Outside of the web-slingers, I largely found the rest of them to be useless and hardly worth the effort to get more tokens to upgrade them.
Even more galling is the notion that there are six brands of upgrade tokens in the game. The only token collectable that I even felt compelled to seek out were the backpacks strewn throughout the city that contained little lore nuggets. I found that a fantastic touch, on top of the fact that I had somehow found a few dozen on them during the course of playing the game. Problem is, I then had hell of backpack tokens and never had to be called on to expend them on any upgrades.
Outside of being used to facilitate tool upgrades, the tokens are also used to unlock various Spider-Man costumes. In theory, this is great, especially for fans of the comics, but after you unlock the bulk of them the sad truth that they’re all pretty samey and lame rears its ugly head. Half of the costumes are some form of black, and anecdotally are antithetical to the gameplay. Spider-Man can be arduous at times to control, he can be a tad sticky, but when you can’t even see him during the darker portions of the game, what’s the point? I guess he does look cool doing Spider-Man stuff.
There’s a duality to the controls of Spider-Man that is amazing to behold. While not as sticky as an Assassin’s Creed protagonist, you can find yourself getting pretty frustrated at how fluidly Spider-Man can control during the web-slinging flying high in the sky antics, but when he hits terra firma can be a little slow and aimless. Honestly, how can he run faster up a side of a building than he can in a straight light on the ground?
Oftentimes, Spider-Man somehow can’t navigate around a corner of a building or move from a wall to the ceiling during the more stealthy portions of the game. This is something that previous Spider-Man games nailed, so it’s really odd. It got to the point where I didn’t even bother trying to be sneaky and just dropped the floor and beat bad guys in they ass. It also doesn’t help when a lot of the “stealth sections” just transition in to a wave based beat-em-up section. Oh hey, another All Video-Game™ thing it does!
The one aspect of Marvel’s Spider-Man that is the worst is the forced stealth sections that are presented as some form of break in the action. Which, in the beginning acts of the game, where you can play hours upon hours as Spider-Man can be a neat little respite from all the web-slinging. Nevertheless, in the last act, when the game sneaks in two more, it is a sin most devious that is not only narratively useless, but absolutely destroys the pace of both the story and gameplay. All for antibiotics and the location of the end boss? Come on, Spider-Man could’ve done those on his own.
The stealth sections are bad and even with the mid-game “upgrades” of being allowed to use technology to move threats out of the way, do not get any better. This is the one thing that should be excised out of the obvious sequel, but that we all know is only going to be expanded upon and given gameplay band-aids to make it tolerable, at best.
Spider-Man the comic book is known for the it’s vast array of characters and it’s in this that the video game does not disappoint. You got your Aunt May’s and your Mary Jane’s, and so on. The rogue’s gallery that is most familiar to the average person is on hand, though they aren’t really given much time to shine on their own. This culminates in the end game boss fights being each of the Sinister Six pairing off to fight Spider-Man. This was cool the first time with Vulture and Electro, but after that, it becomes clear that the developers didn’t have enough time to flesh out better solo boss fights, robbing the game of some crucial Spider-Man feel.
But if you came in looking for the 2018 All Video-Game™ you will not be disappointed as Marvel’s Spider-Man is jam packed with quick time event laden cut scenes and set piece moments that are amazing to behold. This is probably a Sony mandate as this year’s God of War largely got up to the same thing, then again, which is what the series is known for. It fits very well in the comic book laden world of Spider-Man though and lends great impact to gameplay. Excitedly, in the menu, you can completely turn off the quick time events and the game will just do them for you. More games need to do this immediately as I am an old man and my hands hurt. I don’t have time to mash buttons for dramatic effect these days.
This is what makes Marvel’s Spider-Man game such a great 2018 video game time capsule: it doesn’t take risks and is extremely average in everything it aims to do, trying to satisfy every one of its players. Those looking to collect a litany of baloney, those looking for a deep well acted dozen hours long story, those looking to unlock various things and upgrade stuff, those looking for shallow-but-satisfying combat that doesn’t ask much from you but yields great results if you think about it a bit, those looking for a game to show off on their fancy TV’s and on and on. It being a superhero video game, the bar is still set pretty low and the only other game to have cleared it is a bit of the Batman Arkham games. So that it is such an average product is something that’s truly in its favor.