You can’t keep a story going for 55 years without repeating yourself or trying to start fresh from time to time. Spider-Man’s seen more than his fair share of turmoil over the decades, growing from a high school wallflower into a teen superhero, to an overtaxed college student, to a man in his mid-20s with a career and a supermodel wife, to a man in his mid-20s with a quarterlife crisis who somehow made his marriage disappear through a deal with Marvel’s version of the devil and then started acting like a college student again. The Peter Parker in the comics was allowed to grow and change in many small ways (and a few major ones) since he was first introduced in 1962, and for longtime comic readers that’s a notable part of the character’s appeal.
Spider-Man, the new adventure from the designers behind Sunset Overdrive and the Ratchet & Clank games, doesn’t star a Peter Parker from any specific era of the comic books. This Parker is an experienced superhero somewhere in his early to mid 20s, putting his college degree to use as a lab assistant for a genius scientist while trying to get back together with his ex, Daily Bugle reporter Mary Jane Watson. This is an adult Spider-Man with adult problems, closer to the character from Dan Slott’s decade-long run on Amazing Spider-Man than we’ve seen in other media before. It immediately sets this Spider-Man apart from the high schooler in the Marvel movies, which is a smart choice—it makes it harder to compare this to the extremely popular MCU version of the character, preempting any negative conclusions players might have made about the game. It’s more closely in line with the comic version of the character, but with a story that freely combines and twists characters, settings and plotlines from various different versions of Spider-Man we’ve seen over the decades. It pulls from the traditional Marvel comics and from Ultimate Spider-Man, and even hints at both the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb movies, synthesizing it all into a catholic take on the superhero. That makes it stand out amid the glut of Spider-product—this is its own unique, original, but very familiar take on the Spider mythos, and it should satisfy (and possibly even excite) any fan of the comics.
The graceful webslinging and acrobatic action should only increase that excitement. Swinging through this minutely detailed recreation of Manhattan remains as exhilarating at the end of the game as it does at the beginning. Add this to the class of videogames where simply moving around is a constant joy. And the combat, which incorporates Spider-Man’s webs into its terpsichorean rhythms, turns into a flurry of fists and feet flailing about from one enemy to the next. You’ll unlock a number of different moves throughout the game, enough to keep combat largely interesting throughout, but not so many that you’ll forget about some of them in the heat of the moment. These fights capture the style and motion of fight scenes drawn by classic Spider-Man artists from Steve Ditko to Todd McFarlane, prioritizing speed and kineticism over the more sluggish brutality of less freewheeling brawling games.
If there’s a negative to this combat, it’s that there’s simply too much of it, especially over the game’s final acts. The story keeps adding new groups of enemies that will appear throughout the city—sometimes in fixed (if optional) scenarios, other times in seemingly random encounters—and once they’re all wild on the streets it can be difficult to go more than a few blocks without having to stop for a fight. And base battles, where you have to take out buildings full of men who work for crime bosses like the Kingpin or Mister Negative, can grow tiresome well before their six waves of enemies can be defeated. The amount of brawling can sometimes feel like padding, which is unnecessary in such an otherwise strong game.
Along those lines, the sheer amount of icon overload all over this game’s map can be deflating. A number of different objective types will unspool throughout your game, from actions as mundane as finding old backpacks or photographing landmarks, to a number of timed challenges and various brawls with criminals. When you look at your map, or press down on the R3 button, those icons pop up everywhere, like this is an open world game from a decade ago. It’s a clunky, old-fashioned structure that can feel a little bit too much like homework, and a weirdly inelegant note in a game that otherwise tries hard to be slick and seamless.
The basic loop of swinging to an icon, starting a mission, opening your menu when you’re done to cash in the skill points and various tokens you earned, and then swinging to another icon can become a fairly flat routine. Fortunately the main story is a smart and well-written Spider-Man story—it can feel like reading through a dozen or so issues in one setting, with big climactic set-piece encounters with supervillains directly influencing the rise of the next act and its central villain. Background characters rise to the fore in unexpected ways (unless you’re familiar with the comics, that is), and major plot points compound and play off one another as you get deeper into the story. Much of Spider-Man’s humor can be grating—it’s always been rare for writers to pull that off in a way where he’s actually funny, and not just Chandler Bing in a mask—but the human interactions have some depth and emotion to them, and the voice-acting is good across the board. It may not be on the level of Raimi’s first two movies or Spider-Man: Homecoming, but this is one of the better Spider-Man stories you’ll see outside of the comic books.
That’s not to say that every choice made by the writers pans out. At one point Spider-Man tries to do something similar to the Scarecrow sections from Rocksteady’s Batman games. Instead of using the decades-old Spidey villain whose entire schtick is creating hallucinations, they have an unnecessarily convoluted explanation involving another villain who doesn’t fit in those scenes at all. And a crucial change to one of Spider-Man’s most legendary foes might make for a surprisingly moving story, but it also repeats the theme of a friendly presence becoming a villain one too many times in a game that already features Norman Osborn, references to the Lizard, and a certain other villain with a similar background.
Spider-Man might return to too many wells too many times—it might be too stuffed full of fights and collectibles and typical open-world business—but its foundations are so strong that it never threatens to collapse on itself. This game understands why Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular superhero of the last half-century, and does about as good of a job as the comics or movies at capturing the character’s essence. It blends more than fifty years of Spider history together, molds it around a thrilling recreation of Spider-Man’s trademark motion and fighting styles, and puts you in control of the whole thing. All together that makes this one of the most mechanically, narratively, and nostalgically satisfying big budget games of the year, and the best Spider-Man game yet.
Spider-Man was developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.