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POST TIME: 13 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 13 September, 2018 12:40:44 AM
Marvel's Spider-Man
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Marvel's Spider-Man

Marvel may have dominated superhero cinema since the first Avengers movie, but in the land of video games, DC remains king. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) still represents the high-water mark for superhero gaming. Its near-perfect balance of sneaking around behind goons’ backs, puzzle solving, and pugilistic combat outclasses even its larger, more ambitious sequels.

Now, though, the caped crusader has a worthy rival from the Marvel camp in the form of Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man. Many years and millions of dollars have been invested in Insomniac’s tribute to the web-slinger from Queens, and the result is undoubtedly the finest portrayal of a virtual superhero to date. Yet while Spider-Man shines, the world around him struggles to give him exciting ways to exercise his powers.

Spider-Man’s first hours are enthralling. After an explosive introduction that sees him square off against the crime lord Wilson Fisk, players are released into a stunning recreation of Manhattan. The entirety of the island is explorable, from the brick tenements and elevated train tracks of Harlem, through the neon dazzle of Times Square, to the glittering skyscrapers of the southern commercial district. Insomniac is clearly and justifiably proud of its virtual New York; Spidey can use his photography skills to take snapshots of key landmarks, making sightseeing a core part of the game.

Spider-Man’s web-slinging is pure wish fulfilment. Each time Spidey launches into action, the game’s uplifting orchestral score soars alongside him. A vast amount of work has gone into making his arcs through the city seamless; there’s even a bespoke animation for running up the side of a fire escape. It is, truly, marvellous.

Fighting the thugs that lurk in New York’s alleys requires rather more learning. Spider-Man’s combat is a familiar mix of punching and dodging, but makes it its own through more open-ended scraps, a fondness for launching goons into the air, and judicious deployment of web-based gadgets. One particularly satisfying move involves webbing up an enemy, then grabbing them with a web string and spinning them around like an Olympic hammer-thrower to knock over other opponents.

Spidey can be sneaky, too, hopping from ledge to ledge and silently stringing up criminals. However, it’s easy to be spotted – the red catsuit does rather stand out – so most situations descend into fisticuffs before long. Mastering the fighting is crucial, as New York is rife with criminal activity from semi-random car hijackings and store robberies, to larger criminal “bases” that offer a more substantial combat challenge.

Early on, it’s a joy to tackle these problems and embrace being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. But as the game begins to introduce activities such as pigeon chasing and backpack collecting, it becomes clear that the game is struggling to find new uses for Spidey’s talents. As the story progresses, the city becomes more unstable and dangerous, but frustratingly the escalation doesn’t equate to evolution. You’re performing the same activities in hour 30 as you were in hour three, merely against larger numbers of better equipped adversaries. A lot of this uninteresting open-world busywork feels years out of date.

Speaking of adversaries, although our hero is portrayed brilliantly, his enemies are less well served. Spider-Man’s villain roster is second perhaps only to Batman’s. Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin and Venom are among the greatest of comic-book antagonists, while the second-tier villains, such as Electro, Vulture and Rhino, are still formidable opponents. Yet for most of its running time, such figures are conspicuously absent from Insomniac’s New York.

Insomniac’s writers are on fine form, delivering a whip-smart MJ who’s far more than a damsel, and peppering combat with Spidey’s beautifully bad jokes. Its adjustment of J Jonah Jameson into a frothing shock jock is a little stroke of genius. But, in its efforts to produce compelling human drama, the narrative holds back the good stuff for far too long, resulting in a second act that feels stilted and a third that feels rushed.

This game shows tremendous love for all things Spider-Man, and the ending packs a punch he would be proud of. But Insomniac relies too much on its hero to elevate the world built around him, with the result that the game wears thin some time before its powerful conclusion.