Marvel’s Spider-Man is a hugely enjoyable if slightly mixed bag: a gorgeous and colourful open world starring the perfect open world character. Part of what makes the whole thing work is the way Spider-Man moves, and much attention has been rightly focused on the great web-swinging and city traversal.
The most pleasant surprise for me, however, is that Insomniac has delivered an extremely well-engineered take on what combat as Spider-Man should feel like, and in the process made this probably the first 3D Spider-Man game where fighting muggers is the highlight.
The combat system, as in almost every big-budget action game these days, is heavily indebted to Rocksteady’s Arkham series. But unlike a lot of the copies, this adapts the fundamental aspects (an attack button, a counter button, a gadget button, finishers) around how Spider-Man ‘should’ fight. So whereas in the Arkham games combat is ground-based and can be almost stationary at times (not a complaint, one of the most badass things is standing still and just cracking the incoming heads), in Spider-Man huge focus is put on manoeuvrability, webbing, and last-minute dodges.
You could even say that, thanks to his famous ‘spidey sense’, the character fits the evasion prompts better than Batman did.
The movelist for Spider-Man, even when fully unlocked, is not of a length that will have Bayonetta fans panting with excitement. This is something of a bum steer, however, because baked-in to the combat system’s basic elements are positioning and context-sensitive moves.
Spider-Man may seem to have only one basic combo, for example, but the truth is you almost never see it through to completion, because the game uses spider-sense to encourage quickfire changes of position and target. This doesn’t come easy in the first hours of just trying to get your head around how he moves, but eventually you realise that one goal in combat is perpetual motion.
A big part of the appeal here, of course, is that it again fits the character. Think of what’s special about Spider-Man in combat and, for me, the key word would be ‘untouchable.’ Batman cracks bones and Superman deflects bullets, but Spider-Man drives enemies crazy because they can’t put a finger on him. He zips around grunting thugs, dropping killer lines as they clumsily swing at thin air. Then just like Muhammad Ali, he drops them with one good shot. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
It’s therefore a disappointment that, for most of the game’s big set pieces, it relies overly on scripted cinematics and QTEs, or more closed and prompt-heavy battles. I’ve been playing Spider-Man on Spectacular — which is the ‘hard’ difficulty setting — and as I slowly started to get decent at the combat system I realised that the game only really lets it run wild in what may seem like the most boring missions in the world.
Spider-Man’s map features ‘bases’ for various criminal organisations: as they turn up in the campaign, you can start visiting them. These can be a building site or a warehouse or atop a skyscraper, but all are fairly simple wave challenges: beat up many dozens of identikit goons, and get a few tokens. Honestly, no one really cares about tokens, but these base challenges are the best thing in the entire game.
These environments, in different ways, are like playgrounds for Spider-Man’s quick-moving traversal capabilities, but are crucially enclosed enough that the enemies can (just about) keep tracking him. Each base attempt begins with Spider-Man unobserved nearby, from where you can choose to silently take out the first wave (after which the second will burst out, aware of your presence) or just dive straight in.
Everything starts to click. Other fights in the game are frequently brief, featuring half-a-dozen goons or a mix of baddies and objectives, but here it’s just all thug all the time. Each wave after the first consists of dozens of bad guys, and each gang has its own mix of types. These sustained fights last five to ten minutes, during which time you need to be intensely focused and always moving. As your capabilities expand, so does the challenge, until you’re zipping around on button presses that feel close to instinctual.
I had to do a video for this article because descriptions can’t do it justice. Here’s a Demon warehouse on Spectacular difficulty.
To briefly digress: I don’t think video games will ever replace movies. But I do think certain genres of video game render certain cinematic genres, such as action movies, somewhat obsolete. This only applies if you like combat games, of course, but after playing Insomniac’s Spider-Man I can’t help but feel that Spider-Man movies are kinda redundant for me now. How could they ever match the intensity and thrill of feeling like you’re the webslinger?
The great pity with Spider-Man is that it has this gorgeous combat system and, with few exceptions, doesn’t rely on it in the big moments. But that’s fine, because there’s plenty of small fry. The biggest tribute you can pay Spider-Man is that, at its most intense, this game’s common street thugs can make you feel incredible. Executing perfect dodges, and being rewarded with a web blast to the offender’s face, never feels less than spectacular.
When you dance around an angry mob and leave them flattened, you feel that you’re fighting like Spider-Man would fight. And as the minutes blaze by, and the quips keep coming, and the bad guys keep getting webbed to walls, you understand why this iteration of the character deserves to be called amazing.