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February 2019

Marvel's Spider-Man

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action
Publisher: SCEE (EU), SCEA (US)
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release Date: Sept. 7, 2018


PS4 Preview - 'Marvel's Spider-Man'

by Redmond Carolipio on June 21, 2018 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Spider-Man features the web-slinger's acrobatic abilities, improvisation and web-slinging, while also introducing elements such as traversing with parkour, distinct environmental interactions, new combat, and cinematic blockbuster set pieces.

One of the narratives people have attached to Insomniac's take on Marvel's Spider-Man since we saw gameplay last year is how much it reminds them of another superhero — specifically the dark, brooding fella from the DC universe who hangs out in Gotham City.

At first glance, anyone with sight could (and did) make some of the Arkham comparisons at last year's E3 demo. Here's Spidey perched from an unseen vantage point, camera zoomed in tight for a view over his shoulder as he looked down upon a cadre of unsuspecting thugs, contemplating how to take them down. Then, when the time came to actually fight, you'd see Spidey and said thugs engage in a melee dance that at times would look positively Arkham-esque, minus the instant-counter button. It wasn't until an epic helicopter chase through the city where players got to see how Insomniac would cast off those comparisons and open up Spidey's world.

There are a couple of ways to look at what Spider-Man is doing. You can take the cynical view, which is that Insomniac is liberally borrowing from other games and simply cobbling together a franken-game of good ideas. Or you can take the viewpoint adopted by many others in the world of athletics, or other forms of art and competition — that iron sharpens iron, that good ideas can be improved upon, that it's OK to take the best pieces of players/games/art that came before you and make them your own, improve upon them and then use them to create something greater. It's Kobe adding a little extra spice to his version of Jordan's baseline fadeaway. It's Hollywood's current directors learning and borrowing from Orson Welles or Spielberg. Art has built on itself since time immemorial.

This is all just a long-winded way of saying, yes, I noticed the similarities between Spidey and Batman at the outset, but then I and many others at E3 2018 played it and saw it (for me, it was more than once at the Sony area), and I can tell you that in the face of what you think Spider-Man might resemble, at no point while playing did I forget that I was playing a truly Spider-Man experience.

If anything, Spidey is borrowing from himself. The past 20 years or so have featured plenty of Spider-Man games with a wide-open look at New York City with Spidey at or near the center of the screen, web-slinging and swinging from building to building and through the streets while showcasing the speed, agility and athleticism that are uniquely his. It's a viewpoint so engrained in gamer psyche — especially older heads like me — that it's practically the best and only way to see a Spider-Man game.

Insomniac seems to realize this, so this signature wide-open view is back, but it's loaded with polish and impeccable detail that give Spider-Man's NYC a sense of brightness, life and personality. It's easy to marvel at the Manhattan skyline, but when I hopped off a roof and started swinging around, I would notice how people walking the streets would duck if I swung too low. If I ditched the web and started walking around through the crowd, Spidey would actually interact with them, saying things like "Hey, how's it going?" or some other small-talk remark. This might seem insignificant, but it goes a long way toward cultivating the friendly, neighborhood vibe that Spidey's owned for so long. The game is set near the prime of Spider-Man's crime-fighting career, so you get a sense that the populace acknowledges and generally accepts that Spider-Man comes with life in the Big Apple.

Swinging throughout the city and to various points on the map is easily done by using a combination of the right trigger and occasionally the X button to "zip" to a spot on a building to propel you forward. In the demo, I heard from a couple of characters via the comm system in Spidey's suit: Yuri Watanabe, the NYPD police captain who tells Spidey about major crime in the city (Spidey has a built-in scanner to track down smaller stuff), and Mary Jane Watson, who serves as general support and recon/intel.

When you're not wandering around the city, you can take stock of the various activities you can participate in by finding a perch and clicking down on the right thumbstick. Showing shades of the Assassin's Creed "synchronization points," the camera rotates around Spidey as players notice various iconography pop up and certain parts of the map come into view. Before I could really get into that, however, Yuri asked for help with wrangling some of Kingpin's leftover thugs. Here's where I got a real taste of Spidey's combat because instead of swinging to a safe perch-and-observe spot, I landed right in the middle of an open-air part of the building where they were holed up.

Without the ability to actually fly and/or teleport, no one covers ground faster than Spider-Man in a fight. The sheer volume of combat options available to a fully powered and geared-up Spidey is almost overwhelming, but they all make intuitive sense once you start hitting bad guys. A press of the Triangle button had Spidey shoot out a web to a target and "zip" right to them, inflicting a blow to set up a combo or at the very least, getting him to a different spot in the fight. (This is very useful when guys with guns start showing up.) You can also dodge with Circle, the timing of which is helped when you see Spidey Sense appear and visual cues indicating that you're about to get shot. You can also choose the kind of web action you want through a weapon wheel: regular web shooters, web bomb to snag groups of people, or a web trap to pin someone to a wall.

Fighting well also brings up Spidey's "focus" meter, which he can sap to heal himself on the fly or unleash a powerful, wide-range and game-changing attack when it's full. In this demo, Spidey's special attack was basically the "death blossom" move from The Last Starfighter, except instead of lasers and missiles, he shot out web balls.

Also, depending on the situation I faced, the perspective entirely shifted into a mini-game of sorts. The hideout full of thugs ended up being a war of attrition, as two or three more "waves" of Kingpin thugs rolled out. That's straightforward beat-'em-up stuff. During an armed robbery, Spidey had to hop on top of the getaway vehicle and shift the camera angle to a close-up view. Spidey evaded guns that were poking out from the side of the vehicle until he eventually capitalized on an opportunity to dive through the car window and stop the crooks from getting away. Every situation appears to be an event in and of itself, which might add some juice to the day-to-day open-world stuff that Spidey is asked to handle.

Another very useful combat move is pressing the shoulder buttons at the same time when certain objects are highlighted. Do that, and Spidey grabs on to the targeted item (door, garbage can, big piece of debris) and swings it around like a ball and chain before throwing it at a targeted enemy. This shoulder button combo seems to serve as a "big moment" feature, as I eventually had to use it to pull down the roof on Shocker during a pretty epic end-of-demo boss fight.

All of this combat happens at hair-trigger speed, which is what helps Spider-Man stand out even more: his pure combat agility. The Spider-Man I controlled felt like he could basically do any move from any position possible. The combat and all of the other elements tied to the game accentuate the fact that Peter Parker is an actual superhuman person with spectacular abilities. With this gameplay, combined with Insomniac's investment into crafting the story and characters, Marvel's Spider-Man could shape up to be more than the superhero game we deserve, or the one it needs right now. It could actually be, well, amazing.

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