Playtime: Spider-Man (PS4)

Wow.

Just wow.

“Spider-Man” was incredible. I can, without a doubt, make that claim.

Want to know why I’m so confident in that? Let’s start with the subjective and take a trip back down memory lane. When I was younger, I received my first console – a PS2. Now, we always had consoles in the house, but this one was mine. No sharing with my older siblings, games that only I got to choose… it was wholly mine. It came with some decent games to start. “Jak and Daxter” was plenty fun, as was “Crazy Taxi.” But I wasn’t truly hooked on a game for the system until I played “Kingdom Hearts.”

The first day that I played “Kingdom Hearts,” I had to be dragged away from the TV. I played for hours. I was sick at the time – that’s why I’d gotten a new game – and I literally had my controller confiscated so that I could get some rest. I was totally enthralled. The story captivated me, the characters hooked me. Even after I was recovered and going back to school, I couldn’t wait to come home again in the evening to play through Sora’s story.

Years went by, and while I really enjoyed most of the games that I played, nothing truly grabbed me and had that magical pull until I played “Mass Effect.” Again, I popped “Mass Effect” into my Xbox 360 and was totally immersed in saving this new world, making decisions, and bonding with my crewmates. The characters felt so realistic and my interactions with them felt authentic – I was Commander Shepard. I loved every minute and spent my winter break captivated by the game.

Now, over ten years later, I finally felt that spark again with “Spider-Man.” Don’t get me wrong, there have been so many games I’ve loved in the last decade. But – and maybe this isn’t so healthy for a “Healthy Nerd” – I lost an entire day to “Spider-Man” and didn’t even notice it. I’m not exaggerating here. I started playing at 11:00 in the morning and played straight through until 10:00 at night, pausing only to eat and hit the bathroom. Even during those breaks, I was obsessing about the game and googling comic book lore to try to squeeze every ounce out of the game. The next day when I went to work, I couldn’t wait for 5:00 so that I could go back home and see what was next for Peter Parker. I didn’t get bored and I didn’t get tired – I finished the main campaign in less than a week (adulting activity included).

The common thread between the three games I’ve just mentioned seems to be one primary thing – characters.

One of “Spider-Man’s” greatest accomplishments is well-rounded, realistic, and relate-able characters. Even when the storyline was predictable – or obvious, if you’ve followed any Spider-Man lore over the years – I was interested to find out how these versions of the characters would handle the major events that went down in the campaign. This is an even more impressive feat when you realize that Insomniac didn’t supply yet another version of Spider-Man’s origins. Peter Parker is already an established Spider-Man when we pop into the story. He has already-formed relationships and repertoires with the other characters in his world. And yet, you don’t really skip a beat when you start to play. Things aren’t blatantly spelled out for you, but there’s enough interaction – and incredibly convincing voice-acting – that you quickly get a feel for the depths of these characters relationships… enough so where it’s easy to get attached.

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Peter Parker and MJ – who’s relationship actually isn’t annoying in this game. (Photo credit: GameInformer.com)

The characters are complemented by an engaging story that’s fast paced and exciting. It feels as cinematic as a Marvel movie, but benefits from the added length that comes with the video game format. Obstacles are introduced and aren’t resolved almost immediately, as you might expect in a film. Rather, in between the fighting action, there’s enough time for exploration, explanation, detective work, and fleshing out of motives. Each plot point and each character is given time to truly develop, and you even get a taste of some of the other characters’ perspective by taking short breaks away from Parker’s point of view. Granted, the non-Spidey missions can be some of the most annoying at times, but the opportunity to play as the other characters makes the story and the world feel bigger than Spider-Man. These big bad guys aren’t just there to be a thorn in Spider-Man’s side – they’re having a true negative impact on the entire city around them. This gives the campaign’s story an added element of depth.

Now, I get it. Characters and story aren’t enough to make a great game, so I’ll go through some mechanic-oriented aspects too. First off – the web-swinging is just phenomenal. I can honestly say I haven’t had this much fun traveling through an open world game in quite a long time. Sure, you can trigger-mash your way through the city, but after a while you discover that there’s an art to building speed and seeing just how close you can get before skimming the ground. I also really appreciated that aerial tricks were one of the skills you can unlock as you level up. I definitely lost a good chunk of time just experimenting with what sort of flips I could pull off – it reminded me, in a good way, of aerials in “SSX” or even traversal in “Sunset Overdrive” (go figure). Even after Fast Travel points were introduced, I rarely used them because it was simply more fun to swing my way through NYC.

And I mean, even if you hated the swinging, why wouldn’t you take the time to explore the world around you? The city is meticulously recreated in this game, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I actually just watched a YouTube video where someone compared building renderings in-game to their real-life counterparts, and I have to say – kudos to the team at Insomniac for taking the time to accurately produce such replicas. Buildings aside, the entire game is just beautiful. I’ve never had so much fun in the photo mode of a game. The lighting, sunsets, and glittering NYC night are just stunning to behold. There were more than few occasions where I found myself perched on top of a skyscraper just taking in the view around me. Now sure, there are some parts that are… not so great. It’s pretty apparent after a few hours that the same cranes, streetlights, graffiti, and water towers have been reused here and there. But honestly, considering most of these occur in areas that aren’t central to any mission, what else would you expect? It’s a big city and a big game – they had stuff like combat to perfect, too.

This isn’t my video, but it’s a great look at some of the buildings in the game vs. real life.

Combat was flawless and fun. If you’ve ever played any of the Batman “Arkham” games, you’ll feel right at home playing “Spider-Man.” It’s really clear that Insomniac borrowed heavily from Rocksteady’s fighting system. Even the slow-mo finishing moves feel straight out of Gotham. That’s not a knock on the game at all – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? There’s a good mix of button mashing hand-to-hand combat, stealth takedowns, and gadgets to use, and as you unlock more skills and items your fighting strategy will definitely evolve. It’s a little disappointing that nothing felt new or revolutionary in comparison to “Arkham,” but once I got into the thick of gameplay, I was having so much fun I didn’t care. The fighting mechanics work perfectly for this type of game since it requires just enough thought to make the gameplay challenging, but not too much effort that you disengage from the cinematic story or experience frustration during the main missions.

Apart from main missions, the side missions were actually pretty few and far between. They were usually meaningful, self-contained side stories that weren’t necessarily linked in with the flow of the main campaign. These were fun little diversions to complete and, in some instances, offered a different type of play. However, the majority of the side activity came in the form of fetch and collect quests. There were 55 backpacks strewn throughout NYC containing a piece of Peter Parker’s history, 12 stuffed black cats scattered around the city by (you guessed it) the Black Cat, 12 loose pigeons you have to recollect, Police towers to hack back online, and a multitude of bases and challenges to defeat. Unfortunately, especially as you progress further in the story, these collection quests can feel a little jarring once the main campaign story kicks into high gear. They’re fun to complete in the early stages, and give you more things to do after the fact, but about halfway through the campaign I simply wanted to see what would happen next with the story and stopped hunting them down altogether. The only benefit was that each of the subcategories awarded tokens upon completion that could be used to unlock new gear and suits – but anything that was necessary for a battle was pretty much handed to you anyway.

That’s not to say the other suits aren’t worth unlocking – they’re all pretty cool. There are a plethora of different ones to unlock, each paying homage to some point in Spider-Man’s illustrious history, and they make a neat little collectible in and of themselves. Each suit also comes with its own special “Suit Power” – once unlocked, the power can be matched with any suit that you want to wear. This is a good thing, because many of the suit’s powers seem a little weak or duplicative – there’s no compelling reason to use most of them over the two or three super useful powers you’ll unlock. I actually rarely strayed away from the initial power that’s given to you with the Insomniac suit at the beginning of the game. Yeah, having a bullet proof suit sounds like a good idea, but when I can use my suit power to constantly regenerate health and finisher-moves instead, why would I bother switching?

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The Iron Spider suit was probably the one I was most excited to unlock during my playthrough. Look at it. It’s gorgeous. (Photo credit: PlayStation Blog)

In a way, not having to constantly switch between suit powers and figure out the optimal setup for each situation made the game play even smoother – something that I’m eternally grateful for in the day and age of bloated, 50-plus-hour campaigns. One thing can definitely be said of “Spider-Man”: it doesn’t beat around the bush or take advantage of your time. It’s to the point and incredibly fun.

This was definitely one of my favorite games that I’ve played this year – and this decade. It’s easily a contender for GOTY for me, and sets the bar pretty high in terms of my expectations for a game’s story and smooth gameplay. This is definitely a game that I’ll be coming back to. I’m already excited to delve into the DLC.


Feature photo from Insomniac Games

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