Spider-Man is Marvel’s most performative superhero. He uses the city like a stage, his movement is balletic and self-conscious, and there is a clear separation between the costumed hero and the child actor behind the mask. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect dynamic for a video game – and in August 2000, Californian developer Neversoft realised this with absolute precision.
Its Spider-Man title, released on the original PlayStation, was built around the same engine used in the groundbreaking skateboard sim Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. This gave the Marvel hero incredible freedom and manoeuvrability as he swooped over the streets of New York City, but it also accentuated the sheer fun and creativity of Spider-Man’s movement. Some 17-years later the Web Slinger is back with a similar concept, but in a very different era. This is the Marvel tie-in a heck of a lot of people have been waiting for.
This time, development duties have fallen to Insomniac, the studio behind the respected shooter series Resistance and most recently, cult Xbox One romp, Sunset Overdrive. It’s an open-world action adventure set in an intricately detailed city that offers four times more explorable space than Insomniac’s last title. It’s not an origin story, and it’s not part of the Marvel Universe of movies – this is an exclusive timeline for the hero, who starts the game as an experienced 23-year-old crime fighter with full control over his abilities. Players can freely explore New York, slinging webs and wall-running to get about. “Everyone will play it a bit differently,” says community director James Stevenson during a demo of the game at E3. “When you’re traversing the city you can form your own ways of getting around and approaching combat”.
The action kicks off with Spidey taking down his arch enemy King Pin, whose criminal empire naturally begins to crumble as he sits in a jail cell. Now, a gang of masked thugs named The Demons is starting to take over Fisk Industry sites, and in the E3 demo, they’re attacking the still under construction Fisk Tower building – and so Spider-Man finds himself in the ironic position of having to defend King Pin’s property. Insomniac has set out to design an intuitive traversal system, with web slinging based around physics and momentum; players swoop through Manhattan, looking out for areas of the map – usually handy, solid chunks of architecture – that are marked with white dots: these are ‘attach points’ and firing a web at them at the right time lets you continue your swing. It looks extremely graceful and the graphical fidelity of the city boosts the sense that you’re whizzing along a few hundred feet above those famous Manhattan avenues.
In the demo we’re shown, Spidey reaches the tower to find Demon goons patrolling the skeletal building. Although highly choreographed fight scenes are the key draw, you can also be stealthy, using a range of gadgets and moves to spot, watch and track enemies. Spider-Man is able to perch on gangplanks and scaffolding poles by pressing the shoulder buttons, then quietly shoot a web at a passing enemy, wrapping them up in gooey twine before sticking them to a wall somewhere inconspicuous. As the game progresses, Peter Parker designs new weapons, so you get things like trip wires and proximity web traps that can be stuck to walls, grabbing enemies as they pass by.
Insomniac’s aim with introducing more physical confrontations has clearly been to replicate the intuitive, flattering melee combat seen in the Batman Arkham series. Swoop in on a group of enemies and hit the triangle button and Spider-Man will automatically take out a target. Then there’s a whole bunch of active combos and finishing moves to take on other members of the group. Hitting the L1 button lets you lasso a target and throw him around the room, while various objects like wooden planks and metal sheets can be stuck with a web and pulled in toward Spidey, taking out bad guys on the way. It’s an impressive spectacle, Spider-Man’s kinetic grace and power perfectly replicated – but then it is really, really similar to the combat in Arkham City, just with the addition of web-based environmental attacks and a slightly faster pace.
After taking out a few base level thugs in the demo, we’re faced with a larger tank character with heavy armour and a deadly electricity attack. Here Spider-Man is able to use a range of slick evasive moves to avoid hammer blows, before attacking the character’s vulnerable areas. Just as you’re recovering from that, a helicopter hovers overhead revealing one of the game’s major antagonists: Mr Negative – a Jekyll and Hyde-type villain familiar to Marvel readers. What follows is an epic set-piece battle, with Spider-Man battling the chopper as Negative pounds him with his force blast powers and takes out great chunks of scenery in the process. A series of what appear to be quick-time moments see Spider-Man leaping on to and running up a falling crane, before creating a vast safety net for the machine to fall into.
It looks exciting, but it’s difficult to tell how much control the player really has and whether the whole climax (which eventually sees Spidey slicing the tail of the helicopter then having to stop it as it plummets toward the city streets) is actually just a series of vaguely interactive tableaus.
Elsewhere, Insomniac has given interesting hints that we may not spend the whole game in full-on Spider-Man mode. “Peter Parker’s life is a mess as always,” says Stevenson. “He’s trying to pay the bills, he’s juggling work and his personal life, and he’s not good at that. The best Spider-Man stories are the ones where Peter and Spider-Man’s worlds are colliding a lot and that’s something we’ve tried to bring into the game.” One way this will materialise is with Mr Negative’s benevolent alter ego, Martin Li, a Chinese philanthropist who owns homeless shelters around the city – including one where Aunt May volunteers. We’ll also see Norman Osborn cropping up, running for office as mayor, and, the E3 teaser trailer also gave a glimpse of Miles Morales, the black hispanic teenager who appears as Spider-Man in the separate Ultimate Marvel continuity. So what does that mean?
On the subject of Peter’s professional and personal lives, we asked if there would be scenes where the player is working as a photographer, or even scenes with Parker haphazardly dating Mary-Jane. Stevenson wouldn’t be drawn on the details. “We see Peter Parker as just as important. The game will reflect that,” he said. What we do know is that Insomniac is filling the open-world environment with side quests and discoverable missions as well as set-piece stunt locations, where spinning a web on to certain architectural details will allow the player to pull off set-piece stunts and tricks. As with the Arkham games, the aim is clearly to make a city that feels interesting and explorable.
As with Neversoft’s game in 2000, though, the main thing is going to be the feel of coursing through the city, swooping down over the traffic then somersaulting up into the sky. Spider-Man’s relationship with New York is about movement, grace and freedom, it’s about thrilling verticality. Insomniac’s Spider-Man looks to be a 4K-enhanced visual spectacle, but the magic will be in the mechanics of the swing. We know it looks good, but what does it feel like?
- Spider-Man is released on PlayStation 4 in 2018.