The following post contains spoilers for Spider-Man
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release Date: September 7, 2018
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Writer: Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann & Kelsey Beachum
Biography: Spider-Man follows a 23 year old Peter Parker as he seeks to save New York from the latest threat of the Inner Demons gang, led by a violent and unpredictable enemy with supernatural powers known as Mr Negative. Peter’s personal life and relationships are turned upside down when he discovers the truth behind these attacks and a far more sinister danger emerges.
The best Spider-Man stories contain as much drama for Peter Parker as they do for the web-slinging hero Spider-Man. Insomniac Games have taken that to heart with their incarnation of the iconic hero, deftly managing to create a likeable and endearing every-man in Peter and an entertaining and authentic Spider-Man.
In this version of the Marvel universe Peter is 23 and the game begins with Spidey taking down Wilson Fisk, a high profile and dangerous criminal with a lengthy history in Marvel comics. Working your way through Fisk Tower aiding the police as you go puts you straight into the action and is a fantastic way to begin the story. It’s a triumphant moment for Peter that demonstrates a sense of fun to his dual life but foreshadows more dangerous and consequential foes on the way. Peter’s growth throughout the game is fascinating to watch as the somewhat simple nature of crime fighting is turned upside down by his personal life and his connection to Martin Li and Dr Octavius.
The game is wonderfully cinematic from the opening moments of Spidey jumping out of Peter’s apartment transitioning into the web-slinging gameplay and right through to the credits. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the game for a Marvel movie at times such is the quality of the animation and attention to detail. A multitude of different Spider suits to wear is a great nod to the character’s illustrious history and is a great way to make use of the game’s photo mode whether you want to swing around as Raimi’s Spider-Man or wear a Noir style stealth suit. You never tire of swinging around either aided by the fantastic score and musical swell that grows the faster and further you swing around a colourful interpretation of Marvel’s New York.
At the core of the game is a tremendous story that doesn’t feel routine. Writers Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann and Kelsey Beachum do a good job of introducing new villains and threats as the plot proceeds, surprising players with new activities to explore even in the final third of the story. There’s a progressive escalation of villains and all are as colourful as their comic book counterparts yet some still have enough humanity in them to see a tragic story unfolding. The most interesting of course are Martin Li and Dr Octavius because of their close connection to Peter’s life.
Martin Li is a philanthropist and founder of F.E.A.S.T. a shelter for the homeless and those down on their luck. As an orphan himself Li was motivated to use his resources to help others. Since Aunt May works and later runs F.E.A.S.T. Peter comes into regular contact with him and even just from a few exchanges it’s clear this is somebody Peter admires, looks up to and respects as a good person. After Martin Li attacks Norman Osborn’s re-election campaign rally with the Inner Demons, a gang that has started terrorizing the city, Peter is faced with the uncomfortable truth that Li has a much darker, violent side just under the surface. Insomniac wasn’t afraid to go all in on the character including his somewhat supernatural powers as a challenge for Spider-Man to fight including fighting of waves of possessed citizens and henchmen.
The attack at city hall also has devastating consequences for young Miles Morales, a smart capable teenager whose father Jefferson Davis is being honoured during the ceremony when Li attacks. Miles’ subsequent grief and anger at the loss of his father cleverly mirrors the same emotions Peter felt at the loss of his uncle which doesn’t play out in the game but has been seen in so many other versions of Spider-Man’s origins. Feeling a massive dose of empathy for Miles, Peter asks May to give Miles work at F.E.A.S.T. to keep his mind busy and so they can keep an eye on him. At points in the game you play as Miles and Mary Jane to sneak around, gather clues or cause distractions which is a nice change of pace from the breathtaking pace of some of Spider-Man’s missions. It also helps to flesh those side characters out a little more rather than having them be bystanders for the entire plot.
It is no coincidence that Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 is very reminiscent of the often praised Spider-Man 2 which revolutionised movement for the character and gave a similar freedom to swing around as Spidey tackling missions or just delivering pizza. Insomniac Games are known for their ability to make traversal feel special in games and being able to flip through fire escapes, run on walls or zip to a point with complete control really sells the experience of being Spider-Man. A lot of passion clearly went into making this world feel alive and historic. J. Jonah Jameson runs a talk show and is frequently heard commenting on the latest events (caused by Peter of course) to hilarious effect. Spidey’s running monologues are always entertaining whether it’s the more serious grounded moments or his goofy impression of ‘Spider-cop’ with police captain Yuri Watanabe. Audio logs and backpacks filled with easter eggs from Spider-Man’s past adventures add a real sense of history; it’s relieving to see an interpretation of the character that is established and not yet another origin story.
It shapes Peter into a character who is endearing and who you root for with Yuri Lowenthal showing a great versatility in his performance. A particular highlight is the change in Spider-Man’s voice when talking to Mary Jane, at times self-conscious and nervous and when their relationship takes a positive turn again, excited and joyful. The pair often share sweet moments that highlights the relationship they used to have, but also argue with Peter’s reluctance to put Mary Jane in any kind of danger despite her skill as an investigative reporter showing the main reason they broke up prior to the start of the plot. However, by the end of the story there’s a real sense of comradely affection and partnership not just between Peter and Mary Jane but also with Miles.
The star character in the game may be Dr Octavius who is played with great authenticity and humanity by William Salyers. Working with Peter as his assistant at Octavius Industries developing artificial limbs, Otto is furious when Norman Osborn removes funding for his research essentially shutting him down forcing him to experiment with more dangerous, unstable technology to reach his goals. The arc will be familiar to those who have read the comics or even watched the Raimi films but so much attention is given to Martin Li in the game that you’d be forgiven for expecting Dr Octopus to be the focus of the sequel. Instead Otto is revealed to be the mastermind behind the dramatic breakout at The Raft and releases the bio-weapon Devil’s Breath into New York.
It’s pretty heartbreaking to see Peter’s reaction to his mentor’s fall from grace, a professional relationship that it seems both were enjoying and one which had a great potential to change the world through their research; a goal both Peter and Otto share. Peter is in awe of Otto, his intellect, passion and drive; however he places too much faith in him and has his role to play in unwittingly helping him create his signature mechanical arms that will cause so much destruction. Peter’s desire to help him is also fueled by Dr Octavius revealing he has a neurological disorder which is causing him to lose strength in his limbs. It’s clear that Dr Octavius unravels as the game progresses fueled by his hatred of Osborn but it’s unclear how much of this obsession was bubbling under the surface and how much was brought about by the neural link developed to control his mechanical arms. Peter is horrified when returning to the lab after Dr Octopus attacks to see the scrawled messages on whiteboards, revealing audio tapes and evidence of his mental state. This is all presented in such a way to make Peter, and the player, stop and wonder if the clues to Otto’s downfall were there all along from the start.
It’s fantastic how the developer tied these villains intrinsically together and to Norman Osborn – a character who has consistently hurt others. Martin Li’s hatred stems from the experimentation Osborn (and Octavius) did on him as a child with GR-27 (later known as Devil’s Breath) resulting in his powers and the death of his parents. Otto’s hatred stems from being pushed out of Oscorp and the professional rivalry the two share. None of these villains are two dimensional and each still holds on to a part of their humanity which is why they work so well and why Peter’s pleading with them to stop while fighting doesn’t feel entirely pointless. Even Osborn, it is later revealed, the most outright villainous of the bunch is trying to save his son, a process that is the catalyst for the entire game’s events.
The game is brilliantly paced throughout and just when you feel you are settling into a rhythm, a new character will appear or a new task/challenge will be presented to the player. The standout moments of the game come in the final third. The breakout at the Raft and the formation of the Sinister Six is an incredible moment in the game which totally changes the tone of the game as New York becomes a dangerous area filled with criminals on the loose similar to the Arkham franchise. Taking down the likes of Vulutre and Shocker or Rhino and Scorpion is challenging but immensely satisfying as Peter, at one of his lowest points, is able to step up and take back control. Another highlight is sneaking around Osborn’s apartment as Mary Jane and discovering the secret lab as well as another radioactive spider with big implications for Miles later on.
The game races towards a dramatic and emotional encounter between Peter, equipped with a new suit utilising Octavius’ armour plating, and Otto atop Oscorp Tower. The fight is incredibly well done and dazzling to behold as you do feel outmatched by a dangerous foe and are able to utilise all your gadgets and skills to tackle the enemy. Eventually Spider-Man triumphs after sustaining a lot of damage – the dialogue between the two is great and filled with emotional weight throughout but particularly when Otto reveals he knew about Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man all along, which will probably have important implications for any future games. Peter is furious at his deceit knowing the cost of unleashing Devil’s Breath particularly on those close to him. After destroying the neural link and obtaining the antidote, there follows a heartbreaking scene where the old Otto seems to return for a moment and pleads with Peter to help him with Peter also tearfully confessing how much he admired him as a person. In a pathetic, desperate plea Otto begs Peter to not let them take his arms, the only thing that makes him feel strong thanks to his neurological disease.
Unfortunately for Peter and those at F.E.A.S.T. treating victims of Devil’s Breath, Aunt May falls ill and eventually dies due to the biological weapon. Before doing so Peter is faced with a choice of using the cure to help May or giving it to the authorities to mass produce a cure. Faced with another painful decision May comforts Peter revealing she has known his identity as Spider-Man for some time before passing away. The game’s finale really packs an emotional punch for Peter but there’s a more hopeful tone too, he has matured by facing the Sinister Six and Dr Octavius. We see him moving into an apartment with Mary Jane who he has rekindled his relationship with. We also see Miles reveal his powers to Peter and vice versa after the spider that escaped the Oscorp lab bites Miles.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Spider-Man whether it’s the thrilling traversal, fantastic performances, stunning cinematography or much more. The most impressive victory of Insomniac Games though is their ability to balance Peter and Spider-Man while crafting a plot that is personal to both, with villains who go beyond the usual two dimensional comic book persona. The downfall of Dr Octavius and Martin Li presents Peter with fights that have higher stakes for himself and those around him. There’s plenty of story threads for the developer to pull on in a sequel and it will be fascinating to see where this amazing incarnation of Spider-Man goes next.
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Can’t get enough Spidey? Check out everything you need to know about the game including character dossiers and timeline.