There is simply nothing like Marvel’s Spider-Man, apart from maybe being bitten by a radioactive spider and really leaping around New York City. The new PlayStation 4 game is perhaps the most fun you can possibly have on a console and is a stunning achievement whose technical prowess is matched only by the joy you’ll feel when you play it.
It is a recreation of every bit of being the Spider-Man: swinging around, beating people up, delighting in a full cast of many of the character’s favorite enemies. All of it is told through a story that doesn’t always make a great deal of sense but is always enjoyable and entertaining.
Most of the game is spent swinging; as you’d expect, there’s a lot of spiderweb-powered transport in this game. Luckily enough, it is an incredible joy, of the kind that will awaken memories for those who played the PlayStation 2 version of the game. Right from the beginning, you feel like a competent and experienced Spider-Man – the swinging mechanics make you feel expert from the off, though there’s a steep learning curve that allows you to rapidly improve, too.
You navigate through the game by “scanning” the area and finding main missions and side quests, which pop up on the map, and making your way towards them. (Gone is the need to consult printed maps or websites to find your way around; the new game makes it very easy.) That means a lot of meandering around New York, sometimes forcing you to go all the way from the top of Manhattan back down to the bottom. But thankfully the meandering is just a delight, and you find yourself wishing that missions were further away just so you can enjoy the faithful recreation of the city and the fun way you get to make your way around it.
The primary fighting mechanic will by now be familiar by anyone who’s played titles like the Arkham and Middle-earth games. When combatants arrive, they’ll swarm around you; you button bash and joystick twiddle your way around each of them, using a combination of brutal punches and special moves before you pick out your next victim in the fight. It works very well, and never gets boring because of the variety of different moves you can do, empowered by a vast menu of add-ons and tree of skills that help you advance as enemies become more powerful.
You’ll also spend some time in puzzles, which are surprisingly enjoyable. For the most part, they involve putting together a circuit board or accurately analysing a chemical compound in a spectograph, both of which are plenty more fun than they sound. When you are first launched into them they can feel a little strange – you were just jumping off the top of the Empire State Building and now you’re fiddling with electrical components – but they also make for an enjoyable break from the game’s central focus.
Sometimes the game can be a little reliant on cutscenes: the most exciting moves and moments of the game are shown to you, rather than played through. It does what it can to make you feel involved with quick time events that make you press buttons to apparently control the action, but they nonetheless sometimes leave you wishing that it could be you leaping through the middle of a flying helicopter, dashing through a burning building, or whatever the latest incredibly activity you’re having to watch Spider-Man do on your behalf. But it is only a consequence of what incredible fun the game is – any time not controlling the game is time wasted, when controlling it is such a joy.
The story itself is fairly standard, if now a little old school, Marvel fair. The central enemy is a New York businessman who lives in a vast golden tower with his own name written on the front of it in even more gold, and claims to be restoring law and order while actually running the city like a gangster, which sometimes feels a little on the nose. One of the game’s key mechanics is webbing around and restoring a city-wide surveillance network, which the police spent all of their money on from a private contractor before it broke down; its hard not to feel at least a little compromised as you do so, even if the technology is used to hunt down thugs.
Peter Parker does sometimes have a tendency to be so unremittingly good that it gets a little grating, but that’s a welcome relief from characters that are so studiedly complex that they are draining.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is the latest in a run of stunningly brilliant PS4 exclusives, and it’s a notable departure from the tone of those games if not the quality. There is none of the deep environmentalism of Horizon: Zero Dawn, the eerie post-humanist questions about cyborgs and people that are asked by Detroit: Become Human, the punishing profundity of God Of War’s ponderings about fatherhood and responsibility.
Instead, it is a game that never wavers in its commitment to fun. Even when it is asking important questions – about the militarisation of the police, for instance, and the process of grief – it is always mingled with a lively sense of entertainment that means nothing is ever a drag.
In fact, the game seems to lightly mock the seriousness with which those games take themselves. For a while, he inhabits a character referred to as a cop, who has a gruff voice and a begrudging attitude to solving crime around the city. It almost feels like it could be mocking Batman’s earnest and wavering commitment to doing good, and it’s a joyous bit of light relief in a game that doesn’t skirt around dark moments.
Because Spider-Man is not a silly game, and it’s certainly not an easily disposable one. It’s fun, and funny, and it will stick you for a long time after you’ve finished playing with it. It just so happens that what lingers is not deep questions about what it means to be human, but energetic memories of swinging around New York City and beating up thugs.
Sometimes you need to just swing around a little, explore a city and wrap people up in a giant web; sometimes it’s nice to have bad guys who are bad and good ones who are sometimes even a little too good. You’ll never have more fun doing it than in Spider-Man.