There aren’t that many games that I would consider to be among my favourite games of all time. I have played games on various platforms since I was a kid, but not a lot of them have really stuck with me. The ones that have though have generally stuck because they resonated with me on some deeper level. Firewatch is a great recent example of this, a game that made me cry in its text-based introductory chapter and punched me directly in the emotions at the climax. Bioshock is another, a game that scared me relentlessly for hours before unveiling one of the best video game story twists of all time.
I’ve been thinking about these games for the past few days because I am pretty sure that Marvel’s Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4 is going to end up on my list of all time favourite games.
There’s a lot to say about this game but I’d like to be clear that, for now, I’m not going to talk about the story. This is because I am not finished the story yet, but I feel compelled to write about the game. This is also the reason that I’m only pretty sure –like 90% sure– that the game will end up on my all time list, because there’s always a chance I’ll dislike the end of the story. There’s a simple reason I love this game already though, and that’s because this game makes me feel like Spider-Man.
That’s maybe a loaded statement, but Insomniac Games has nailed the core things that a Spider-Man game should nail to make me feel like I’m Spider-Man.
First, the combat. Anyone who has played any of the entries from the Batman: Arkham Asylum series will immediately recognize the roots of the combat in Spider-Man. You find yourself near a group of enemies, you drop in from above and take out (at least) one of them immediately, and then you strike up a rhythm of battle to defeat them. A blue halo appears over your head when an attack is incoming so you can react to it, but unlike the Batman games this makes sense because Spider-man has a literal sixth sense. Also unlike Batman, who is a bit of a brute whose best option is almost always to interrupt an incoming attack with another attack your best bet as Spider-man –who is very much not a brute– is to get out-of-the-way and then use one of the wonderfully fun toys at your disposal to web the bad guys up and then give them a beat down.
The combat did take a little while to click for me. It starts out difficult and I found that the gadgets you unlock as your progress are essential. Once it clicked though, it became a visceral joy. Dropping in on a group of bad guys by stomping one of them to the ground, webbing three guys to the wall before jumping straight to a wall and straight back through the group to knock another guy out, then yanking a barrel with webbing directly into the last guy’s face is 100% fun.
Second, maybe you’re wondering though how did you end up near the bad guys in the first place. I’m here to tell you that Spider-Man has a fast travel system but that you will almost certainly ignore it. Insomniac has absolutely nailed the mechanics and feeling of web-slinging around this immaculately crafted version of Manhattan and I love it. I love it. I love that the basic mechanics of it are intuitive but that the nuances of it take time to master. I love that it doesn’t cheat in areas like Central Park –if there aren’t buildings near you, you will have to either parkour your way around or swing low and fast from trees–, and I love that Spider-Man loves it too. As with the combat it may take a little while to get the hang of, but once you do it’s a genuine delight. This game has a map full of repetitive collectibles, but it’s so much fun just swinging around the city that I get excited to go collect them. The sheer thrill of just moving around this map, cutting corners and dodging water towers, is something I don’t think I will ever get tired of.
And third, Peter Parker himself. Spider-Man is a weird character because while he’s Spider-Man he’s the coolest guy around. While he’s Peter Parker he’s kind of a dweeb, and he’s trying so hard to please everyone that even when he succeeds he ends up letting himself down. That is, he’s so committed to helping others that he doesn’t always remember to help himself. This imbalance is key to the character and when it’s gotten wrong (like it was in the famously horrible film The Amazing Spider-Man 2) nothing about him makes any sense. It may sound weird to say this about a character with literal super powers, but what makes Spider-Man a great character is that he’s fundamentally just a normal guy trying to do right by those around him –even at his own expense– and this game understands that.
Peter Parker is always late, whether it’s to meet Aunt May or his mentor Otto Octavius, and it’s easy to understand why. When you’re slinging around the city towards the next mission and a crime gets called in you’ll find yourself saying “yeah, I can deal with that on the way”. You’ll find yourself stopping to help your friend Harry with research, help a homeless friend recover his lost pigeons, or stop a demon-masked gang from knocking over an armoured car.
Open world games by their very nature have to be forgiving about the timing of starting missions. How many times have you been told you have to go do a thing immediately in an Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto game only to then screw around in the open world for hours? Spider-Man is the first game I can remember where this screwing around makes sense. You have to go help Otto with the experiment he’s going to run, but there’s a thing happening on the way. There’s always a thing on the way, and the result is that you’re going to be late to your life.
Insomniac Games has done something amazing here. They’ve nailed the core aspects of what would make a Spider-Man game great. They nailed the combat, they nailed the web-slinging, and they nailed the character. They made a game that makes me feel like I’m Spider-Man, and that’s a game that will certainly end up on my all time favourites list.