A female bystander started storming up to me. Peter Parker – under my hopeless direction – had just flung a postbox in her direction. If she’d been looking the other way, her nose would have flown express to the next block.
A circle appeared over the NPC. “Is a fight about to break out,” I thought.
Moments later, she gave Spidey a double high-five. “I, uh, I’ll send you flowers later.”
That silliness, almost childish cheek of the moment, is a good way to sum up the early stages of Spider-Man. A press tour ahead of the game’s launch early next month was held earlier this week in Sydney, where members of the press, streamers and other select media got hands on with the opening few hours, with all the cut-scenes and character reveals included.
The main takeaway from those first few missions is that the new Spider-Man is an incredibly busy game. The game opens with a short cut sequence showing the state of Peter Parker’s life – he’s behind on his rent, his apartment is a bit of a shithole and he’s still busy dealing with literal armed mercenaries in the middle of New York City while juggling a real-life job.
The opening sequence literally sees Spidey fling out a door, and then the action slows to a crawl so you can get accustomed to the webslinging. There’s no title card, not even a particularly lengthy cutscene. It’s a snappy intro, and a level of pacing that Spider-Man keeps consistent by regularly throwing stuff at you along the way.
Once you’ve gotten the basic gist of nipping about – hold down R2 to hook onto a building in the general direction of where you’re looking, let go of R2 to detach, and press X for a quick mid-air burst – it’s off to the Kingpin’s headquarters. It’s an intuitive system, one that should please fans of Spider-Man 2, and you can pick up plenty of speed with a combination of dives, mid-air dashes and well-timed slings.
At Fisk HQ, you’re given a basic intro into the combat, as well as basic traversal techniques, light stealth mechanics, a small range of enemy types, and, finally, a boss battle complete with some QTEs (but on the standard ‘Awesome’ difficulty setting, the timing window was exceptionally generous).
The opening mission is important though, because it’s the only time in the first few hours you’re forced to complete a mission. Once Fisk is done and dusted, the rest of the city is available to explore at your discretion. There won’t be a great deal to do – you won’t have any icons on your mini-map until you fix up the nearby surveillance towers, for instance. And you won’t get the location of those without doing a little errand for Yuri Watanabe (who fans from the comics know as Wraith).
So, for the first 90 minutes at least, you’re given a brief exercise in what Peter Parker’s life looks like. Upon the capture of Fisk, you tune into a podcast on the way back to the police station, which J. Jonah Jameson naturally is stars in. (He’s mentioned as the former publisher of the Daily Bugle, but it’s not known at this stage whether Jameson left the paper following the Scorpion/Hobgoblin blackmail arc, or a new narrative that Insomniac has created.)
In between the main missions, Spider-Man is filled with a lot of mini-games. The surveillance towers, for instance, have to be retuned to the correct frequency. It’s basically a game of rotating the two thumb sticks until you match the wave shown on the spectrum.
Parker’s day job as a research assistant is filled with lots of mini-games as well. In the course of looking over your superior’s work, your given a series of small Pipe Mania-style games. Spider-Man adds to the difficulty by including pipes that can only direct flow (or in this case, electrical signals) a certain way. There’s also voltage puzzles, which is basically the same style of puzzle but adding an extra touch of math.
Even nipping about from one mission to another can be fun. Shortly after unlocking the first surveillance tower and stopping a crime in progress, Parker begins trolling Watanabe with the tales of “Spidercop”. It’s a little bit of light fun, reminiscent of the random high-five from the facially complete NPC I ran into.
There are substantive distractions too: Insomniac lets you play as Mary Jane, with her first mission playable during the preview.
Insomniac’s repeated pitch is that their Spider-Man isn’t a superhero story, but more of a human story. To that end, there’s a lot of focus on Peter Parker as a person and what Parker goes through versus the trials Spider-Man faces. And as a result, the people around him come into play more.
But because this isn’t an origin story – Parker is 23 years old, and he’s been fighting crime in New York for eight years now – a lot of familiar faces are doing different things. Mary Jane isn’t an actress in this universe: she’s a rising investigative reporter, and when Spider-Man sneaks into an art auction after the Kingpin’s arrest, he discovers MJ in the middle of a mission of her own.
The perspective shifts to fifteen minutes beforehand, where MJ is pretending to write a cover story on an upcoming auction of Fisk’s art. After a brief moment pretending to photograph the various bits of art (giving MJ and Insomniac the chance to refer back to moments and battles past), MJ sneaks into a small room to investigate a statue that shouldn’t be there. It’s a light puzzle, one that blends basic photo recognition with a “which way should the object be facing”, and it’s a neat distraction from the springy action sequences of moments prior.
That immediately launches into a small stealth sequence with a fail state, and minutes after that you’re introduced to a new enemy type that can stun Spidey with electrified weapons. Like so much of the first few hours, it’s a constant flow of of stimuli.
The preview was enough to go through the other practical elements of the game, which are what you’d largely expect Insomniac to do with such a large open-world. Parker has three branches of upgrades available: Innovator, which generally focuses on grappling and disarming moves; Webslinger, which concentrates on increasing aerial damage and unlocking aerial moves and combos; and Defender, which expands Parker’s evasive toolset and offers options like the ability to perform two finishing moves at once on trash mobs.
Getting a good handle on the combo system is essential, because it’s your primary method of healing. You gradually generate focus throughout combat – and sometimes while slinging, if unlocked – and that focus can either be spent on a finisher, or healing by pressing down on the D-Pad. It’s relatively easy to start chaining attacks together, and there’s plenty of environmental objects that can be brought into combat by holding down L1+R1.
Parker also gets extra abilities through gadgets and upgrades to his suit, both of which require tokens to upgrade. Stopping random crimes on the street earns you crime tokens, while backpack tokens are essentially items that Parker has left around the city over the past eight years. Landmark tokens are rewards for photographing parts of New York City, and you’ll need a combination of all three to upgrade various parts.
An early upgrade to your suit will let you generate focus much faster once activated, although you can swap out the suit power at your discretion. Gadgets are designed to suit different scenarios: a tripwire, for instance, can be rigged up to a wall if you the enemy is too far away for a stealthy encounter.
In general, the more you discover, the more you’ll be able to unlock. Tony Masters, also known as Taskmaster, is part of Insomniac’s spin on the series. Throughout the game, you’ll be able to find a bunch of communication devices where Taskmaster gives you various missions to complete. Fisk’s construction sites, meanwhile, essentially function as Far Cry-style outposts. Invading one triggers waves of enemies, and you’re awarded with crime tokens for your troubles.
As the preview came to a close, Insomniac’s idea for Spider-Man was almost reflective of New York City itself. It’s a busy game, constantly throwing new side quests, challenges, old faces, and things to do at you every couple of minutes. Hell, there’s even a special unlock that lets Parker earn trace amounts of XP for doing backflips and twists mid-air as you sling through the city.
I don’t know exactly how much tolerance I’ll have for all the filler come September 7, when Spider-Man drops on PS4. But after a few hours, I’m keen just to fling around New York some more.