Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Microreview [Video Game]: Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered by Insomniac Games

A Thwipping good time.

It took the impending release of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 to make me realize that I hadn’t played the original in five years. The original release was my favorite game in the superhero genre and I was delighted to brush up on the story while also getting into the downloadable story content that I never got a chance to try. With a fresh coat of paint and new content to explore, I was excited to pick up the controller and give it another go.

Marvel’s Spider-Man
games, developed by Insomniac Games, provide one of the two best superhero offerings on the market now (the other being the Batman Arkham games, of course). While Rocksteady’s Batman games have more grit to them, Insomniac’s Spider-Man follows a more balanced path, much in line with the superhero himself. And, thank the comic book heavens, we don’t have to watch Uncle Ben die for the hundredth time. Marvel’s Spider-Man takes place eight years after Peter’s initial meeting with a radioactive spider, and the story is all the better for it.

Spider-Man is tasked with taking down Mister Negative (Martin Li) who is causing chaos around New York. Peter is playing the part of a genius lab partner with a man named Otto Octavius. All the while Norman Osborn hides his secrets as he runs for reelection. Personalities and superpowers clash in a tightly threaded superhero tale. While some things are inevitable due to the history of the comics, others leave the door open for interpretation. All the while J. Jonah Jameson critiques Spidey’s every action from his aggressively fueled podcast.

Crafting a narrative that walks the fine line between the comic relief of Spider-Man and the seriousness of the predicaments in the main story is something that Insomniac handles well. There are moments here and there that come across as tawdry, but when the punches need to land, they hit hard. Both tense and tender moments between MJ and Peter and handled with punctilious effort, while Aunt May keeps Peter honest. All of the main players feel true to themselves and don’t bend to serve the narrative. Despite all the chaos that surrounds our heroes, they are the stars of the show.

The weakest gameplay segments occur when the perspective shifts from Spider-Man to MJ or Miles. They aren’t bad per se, but the juxtaposition between someone who can do it all and someone who can temporarily hack a machine to make a distracting noise is rather tame by comparison. Despite this, the Miles/Rhino scene has its moments, and it's nice to get to know the other characters a bit better.

Marvel’s Spider-Man
has achieved something that no other game matches; traversal mechanics. Now, I’m not saying it’s not fun to get around in other games, but this game does it better (and with style). Going around Manhattan at high speed, then nose-diving to increase momentum, only to swing back up and release at the right time to increase velocity even further deserves a proper chef’s kiss. Swinging between narrow alleys, missing oncoming subways by a mere foot, pulling off a perfect point launch… all these things and more add to the excitement of moving around New York City. With the remastered version of this game, you can fast-travel to any point on the map in less than two seconds, but I barely used the option. Instead, I opted to swing almost everywhere I went. I can think of no other game where I forewent fast travel to enjoy a game’s traversal mechanics.

In addition to his web-slinging, Spider-Man can pack a punch. Insomniac once again brings the hero to life with an enjoyable combat system reminiscent of the modern Batman’s Arkham games (which in turn is inspired by the old Spider-Man 2 game on PS2). I feel that the combat system makes more sense for Spider-Man as the incoming attack indicator looks like his Spidey-sense is activating. A mix of standard hits, web attacks, launch attacks, aerial combos, dodges, and gadget attacks make up the bulk of Spider-Man’s combat options. When used together, the combat is frenetic and riveting. Taking notes from their other quirky franchises (Ratchet & Clank, Sunset Overdrive, etc.), Insomniac gave Spidey some cool tools with which he could dispatch enemies either in the middle of combat or stealthily. One of these seemed a bit farfetched (gravity well, yes you), but all the gadgets are useful and fun and very much blend Insomniac’s DNA with Spider-Man’s.

Marvel’s Spider-Man
’s approach to the open world follows in the footsteps of Ubisoft’s finest; find a tower, and unlock part of the map. It’s all basic and uninspired but takes up very little time to reveal the entire map. Once you have visibility of the whole map, you are free to look for Pete’s old backpacks (which are great for finding out what he’s been up to these last eight years), take pictures of monuments and buildings, along with other activities. As the game progresses other options will be open to the player. Taking down enemy strongholds, beefy side-missions, chasing down escaped pigeons… I’m still not sure how I felt about this last one, but at least it was fun. At any given time, a crime will occur and it’s up to Manhattan’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to tackle the situation. They can range from a car chase to a kidnapping to breaking up a drug deal. The downloadable content adds an extra range of crimes to dive into.

Speaking of the downloadable content, this was my first experience with the additional story. Entitled The City that Never Sleeps, this DLC follows a three-part arc that sees Spider-Man attempt to take down the mob boss Hammerhead who is trying to fill the vacuum left by Fisk and Li. The overall storyline was enjoyable, even if it dips a bit in the middle. It adds extra story development for Yuri Watanabe and her inevitable turn to vigilante justice. Though I liked the overall story, the character changes happen a bit too quickly, especially in Yuri’s case. A decent extra tidbit to pad onto the game, though not quite as great as the main game.

It must be noted that as a remastered version of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, visual fidelity has increased. The bells and whistles that the PS5 grants are immediately recognizable. Nearly instant load times, ray-traced reflections, higher frame rates and quicker movement are all included in this build. The game looks a bit better, but the original game looked great already. The switch in character model for Peter (also available in an update for the original version of the game) was an interesting choice and I’m not sure whether it was necessary, but the model looks good and all animations in the game are fantastic. It’s not the biggest overhaul I’ve seen in a remaster, but it’s definitely the best version of a great game.

By the end of Spider-Man, I had run the full gamut of gamer emotions. I laughed, teared up, felt tense, excited, worried. Spider-Man manages to tell a great story within the confines of a superhero suit. And in the end, tasks our hero with being greater not just by doing difficult things, but by having to make difficult choices as well. In Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac has created my favorite superhero game and one of my favorite all-time action games.

[Though I didn’t review the Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales expansion here, it’s worth noting that many of the mechanics are similar and even improved upon. The story is separate and exclusively follows Miles as he comes to terms with being Spider-Man and what that means to him. If you haven’t played either, they’re both worth the price of admission.]


The Math

Objective Assessment: 8.5/10

Bonus: +.5 JJJ. +1 for creating my favorite traversal mechanics.

Penalties: -1 for Ubisoft cut and paste open world exploration.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.