If you love reading superhero comic books, there's a good chance that a huge part of what makes them so attractive is the way they explore the regular lives of the people behind the masks. Matt Murdoch's daily courtroom drama and neighborhood philanthropy, Jessica Drew's demanding commitments as a single mother, and the multifaceted teenage dramas of Kamala Khan and other student-aged heroes are equally as engrossing as the crime-fighting adventures of their alter-egos. And when work and life clash, that's when things really get interesting.
The more mundane side of superhero stories are rarely explored in video game adaptations, and that's something Insomniac Games is openly talking about as a major point of difference in their take on Marvel's Spider-Man. In the game's first two hours, which I experienced during a recent preview tour, a large chunk of time was spent controlling Peter Parker in his mild-mannered form, as well as Mary Jane Watson. Insomniac explained that this ratio was largely indicative of the rest of the game, with major themes of mentorship and trust as something that would be explored with and without masks.
That might sound like a far cry from what's been shown of Insomniac's Spider-Man up to this point, but these moments hit all the right notes for us. The game's version of Peter Parker falls on the dweeby side, despite being old and having almost a decade of crime-fighting expertise. He's messy, perpetually behind on his bills, and isn't currently in any kind of romantic relationship, all thanks to his second life. But he takes time to visit his Aunt May and catch up with acquaintances, as well as work on science projects as part of his day job, hoping he can do some good there, too.
I spent a large part of Spider-Man's opening hours exploring interior environments as Peter, making and listening in on small talk, looking at photos and reading documents to fill out back-story, and performing research experiments--there are Pipe Dream and pattern matching minigames that can earn you experience points to spend on Spidey abilities. Mary Jane, an investigative reporter in this universe, has her own separate narrative motivations that quickly become entwined in the rest of the plot. Her interactive segments have their own mechanics, which Insomniac told us would grow and evolve over the course of the game. For more on Mary Jane's section in these opening hours, be sure to read Kallie's in-depth account.
But as happy as I was to see a big emphasis on the Peter and MJ side of things, I still had just one thing on my mind, being this was my very first first hands-on: Whether or not Insomniac's Spider-Man was going to surpass the memories I had playing Treyarch's open-world Spider-Man 2 for consoles, generally regarded as the best Spider-Man game to date, thanks to its phenomenal web-swinging mechanics. And it most definitely does, as we've previously reported. Insomniac's Spider-Man adheres strictly to the rule that Spidey's web lines need to attach to a structure, and that creates the wonderful sense of tangibility that is both essential to selling the experience, as well as creating a satisfying need for forethought when traversing New York City.
It works like this: R2 shoots out a web line, and pressing X while mid-swing will let you jump and gain height or distance, depending on where you are in your arc. Pressing X without being attached to a web line will let you perform a quick web zip, which propels you forward, allowing you to gain directional momentum without losing height, and is great for quickly changing directions. Finally, holding L2 will trigger a slowdown, allowing you to aim a cursor and hit R2 to create a direct zipline to that particular point (provided it's in range), and is a great landing technique that allows you to expertly perch on lampposts and other locations, just like a spider can.
Web swinging feels fantastic, and minor additions, such as hitting L3 to nosedive, using Circle + Triangle in tandem with the left stick to perform aerial tricks for experience points, and the motion blur when you pick up a large amount of speed, adds a lot to making the act of getting around town a pure joy. Even Central Park can be traversed by web-swinging, thankfully, so long as you pick a route with enough trees to latch onto.
Movement on the ground also feels suitably Spider-Man-like. Aside from using L2 and R2 to web zip from point to point, holding R2 acts as an Assassin's Creed-like parkour button, allowing you to easily clear obstacles, as well as run up and across the side of buildings. But if you need a break from thinking about how to get from A to B, Spidey can also just take the subway and fast travel to a different station.
The parkour button isn't the only inspiration Insomniac's Spider-Man takes from an Ubisoft series, though. In a move that took me completely by surprise, Spider-Man incorporates the archaic mechanic of tower reveals, that is, points of interest that you have to find, travel to, and solve a puzzle at in order to reveal a map of the immediate area, as well as the locations of other points of interests like side missions, challenges, collectables, and Far Cry-style outposts. Each district of Manhattan represented in the game--Chinatown, Greenwich, Financial District, Hell's Kitchen, Midtown, Upper West Side, Central Park, Upper East Side, and Harlem--has a number of towers hidden within them, which you're required to activate before you're even able to see where you're going on your minimap.
This is strange not only because the mechanic feels incredibly outdated--Ubisoft has moved on, their open-world franchises now focus on more organic discovery mechanics--but it just doesn't make characteristic sense. Insomniac has been pitching their version of Spider-Man as an experienced one, one that's been fighting crime in New York for nearly a decade, and it's incredibly puzzling that this Spider-Man hasn't internalized an intimate geographic knowledge of the city he protects. I don't believe him when he exclaims, "I'm flying blind here!" while swinging through world-famous Times Square, no matter what the tower MacGuffin might be.
Any activity revealed by towers can still be found by naturally stumbling across them, and minor Spider-Man 2-style randomly-generated events, such as car crashes and armed robberies, also can pop up unannounced, which is great to see. But the emphasis on using towers to reveal them just seems like a huge misstep, a puzzling addition that feels like unnecessary filler.
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But there's still plenty of good filler in there, namely, the number of things you can stuff into Spider-Man's suit. As expected, you can unlock dozens of different Spider-Man costumes by earning experience and leveling up to gain access, and spending different tokens (earned through completing side content) to purchase them for use. Each suit comes with its own unique suit ability to assist you during the game's exciting, Batman Arkham-inspired combat system, but a nice feature is that once you own a suit, you can transfer its unique ability to a different suit you own.
For example, I immediately sought to don the Spider-Man Noir costume, which comes with the ability to stop enemies from calling backup (great for stealth approaches), but swapped that out for the Battle Focus ability from the Advanced Suit seen in the game's marketing materials. Battle Focus steadily increases your Focus meter, used in combat to heal and perform the game's cinematic takedowns. Other suits and abilities I saw included the Classic Suit (webs every enemy in sight), Scarlet Spider (creates holographic decoys), and the Spider Armor MK II (protects from bullet fire).
True to Peter's science background, you can also equip a number of unique combat gadgets, switching between them using a radial menu with L1, and upgrade their effectiveness over the course of the game. Aside from the standard web shooters, they include things like impact webbing to pin enemies to surfaces, spider drones that seek out opponents and fire energy, electric webs that stun, web bombs that are proximity triggered, web trip mines, concussive blasts, and a suspension matrix that suspends enemies in the air.
The game also has a skill tree for ability progression, featuring three branches with which to upgrade Spidey's combat and web swinging techniques. The Innovator branch focuses on web-based combat techniques, such as using webs to disarm gun-toting thugs and the ability to throw a larger variety of objects and enemies, while the Defender branch improves Spider-Man's general striking, evasion, and combo abilities, letting you earn bonuses for things like perfectly-timed dodges. Finally, the Webslinger branch largely lets you perform additional traversal moves, but also gives you access to Spidey's infamous web swing kick in combat. It also unlocks the aforementioned ability to perform tricks in mid-air for small amounts of XP and large amounts of style.
There are a number of references too, of course, found in dialogue, environment, and the game's backpack collectibles. But it's a range that can be appreciated by both casual Spider-Man fans (Spidey asking "Should we kiss?" to a hanging enemy), and fanatics (a mention of "Nazis made of bees"). There were some nice interactive touches I loved: using the attack buttons around citizens lets you wave and give high fives, with some interactions giving you XP, and J.J. Jameson now hosts a podcast Peter listens to, but you can unsubscribe in the audio settings menu.
Insomniac's representation of the Spider-Man experience plays as good as it looks, at least in its opening hours. The web swinging and acrobatic combat are instantly satisfying, but it's also wonderful to see that there's a lot more to it--a significant focus on interacting as Peter Parker and Mary Jane (which we're hoping will continue to evolve into something great), a depth of progression options and combat abilities, and many minor, but exciting details that positively colored my short experience. The opening hours had me eager to play more--even just to have more time swinging around the city--but it also reinvigorated my excitement about the Marvel universe in general. I just wish I could forget about those towers.