Written by JD Phillips
Sony finally made the movie they always wanted and it’s a videogame
Marvel's Spider-man (2018)
*WARNING FULL SPOILERS AHEAD*
Unlike most people, I wasn’t very impressed with the early footage of Sony’s new Spider-man. I’ve been a huge fan of the character since I was a kid and have played most of the video game adaptations. Activision’s Spider-man 2 (2004) and Ultimate Spider-man (2005) were both personal favorites of mine. So when I saw the initial footage which primarily demonstrated Spider-man’s open world web-slinging, I thought it was merely a prettier version of games I’d already played. After spending a week with it though, I have to admit I was wrong.
The game drops you immediately into the action as a veteran Spider-man who is in the midst of taking down his arch nemesis, the Kingpin. It plays a little bit like the final boss battle of a completely different game. This injects it with a surge of adrenaline that most games severely lack in the opening act. From then on, the adrenaline never lets up. Whether it’s the unending fun of swinging through New York, the dynamic combat system, or the creative boss battles, the game is a thrill ride from start to finish.
Surprisingly though, it’s the story that offers the most thrills. Spider-man has had many game adaptations and almost all of them skimp on the story. Insomniac took the opposite approach. The story seems simple enough at first, but gets more and more complex with each twist they throw your way. Midway through, they completely change the concept of the game after New York is attacked by a bio-weapon. The streets become a war zone as you have to fight your way from mission to mission, dodging Sable soldiers and escaped prisoners. It’s such a massive right turn that you feel the weight of each story quest and side mission so that you can return New York to the way it was before.
Like most great Spider-man stories though, the narrative focuses less on the battles Spider-man faces and more on how those battles affect the life of Peter Parker. Over the course of the game, Peter loses his job, gets evicted from his apartment, mourns two serious loses that he could have feasibly prevented, reconciles with his ex, and battles with two different mentors who have lost their way. It’s a surprising amount of character development for a game that could have easily skated by on its gameplay alone.
It’s not just Peter that gets plenty of narrative focus either. The game wisely puts a lot of focus on the supporting cast. Aunt May goes from a mostly passive maternal figure to a successful administrator of a massive homeless shelter. Norman Osborn is changed from a sinister businessman to a morally compromised Mayor (and formerly sinister businessman) who will stop at nothing to find a cure for his son’s terminal disease. J. Jonah Jameson even makes several appearances as the voice of his own Alex Jones style radio show that lambasts every move that Spider-man makes while also trying to unite the city through several of the disasters it faces.
Really though, it’s the two surprise playable characters that really shine through. Mary Jane’s missions as an ace investigative reporter add a new level of depth and agency to the character that’s usually lacking. Playing as MJ gives the game a greater sense of danger as she continually pushes herself deeper into the conspiracy. As Spider-man, often you don’t truly feel in danger as you can easily take care of any challenge that comes your way with your awesome superpowers. MJ, by contrast, feels extremely human as she sneaks around gunmen, looking for clues or defusing bombs. This goes double for the Miles Morales missions. Even though Miles is a relatively new character, few have ever made such an impact. His story ended up being one of the biggest surprises in the game and his missions some of the most tense.
The game isn’t perfect, however. The two principle villains essentially have the exact same arc and only one of them plays out in a satisfactory way. While Doc Ock gets an emotional send-off, Martin Li gets tossed to the side despite the fact that he had the most screen time of any villain. It would’ve been nice to see him find the redemption Octavius didn’t in the final act. Maybe a Spider-man and Mister Negative team up to save the day?
There are also a few side missions that are brutally dull compared to the main story. Tasks like chasing down pigeons and dealing with an amateur doppelganger feel like tedious busywork after finishing the great main story. This is truly confusing since there are dozens of Spidey villains that the game didn’t include who could have easily filled these roles. There are a few secret bosses that are pretty great but most of the other side missions feel very skippable.
These flaws do little to detract from the game, however, because even after you finish the main story, there is still a ton of fun to be had. The game offers an impressive plethora of easter eggs, collectibles, and challenges that never feel tedious. Doing things like picking up old backpacks or clearing out enemy bases offer serious gameplay advantages in the forms of upgrades and new Spidey suits. If that isn’t enough for you, the game’s innovative photo mode allows you to take selfies, make comic covers, and capture any moment from the game in the form of your own personal artwork. It’s a small but ingenious feature that has already led to endless fun as players share their work with each other across the internet.
What ends up being the most amazing part of the game, though, is how many characters and setups it manages to fit in one cohesive narrative. The game introduces Doc Ock, The Sinister Six, Kingpin, Silver Sable, Black Cat, and firmly entrenches itself in the greater Marvel lore with constant references to other heroes and teams. It also sets up several arcs including the Miles Morales Spider-man, the Otto Octavius Superior Spider-man, Green Goblin(s), Venom, and more. What makes this so surprising is that this is the exact sort of thing Sony has been trying (and mostly failing) to do with its various Spider-man movies. They have tried to set up the Sinister Six in two different franchises and this game manages to flat out introduce them with no awkwardness at all. In another world it would be easy to see this story as a better jumping off point for their “Spider-verse” than 2012’s Amazing Spider-man or even their most recent Marvel outing.
It seems very strange that Sony continually spins its wheels trying to set up franchises like Silver Sable and Black Cat while their own video game does this exact thing with relative ease. If they truly want to create their own shared universe on the big screen, maybe they should look less to the MCU’s example and more to Insomniac’s. In many ways, this game is the best Spider-man movie to come out since Spider-man 2.
Summary: Marvel’s Spider-man ends up being not only the best Spider-man game to come out in years but in many ways is the best movie as well. Its exciting gameplay, story, and customizable features ensure that it will remain one of the most memorable superhero games of all time. At least until the inevitable Marvel’s Spider-man 2 that is....