Insomniac Games set out with a singular mission. To provide gamers with a platform through which they could truly experience what it is like to be Spider-Man. To live in that suit and swing around New York City. Mission complete!
Game: Marvel’s Spider-Man
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release: Out Now
“You may have noticed that our most recent trailers feature the Marvel flipbook logo at the beginning,” starts James Stevenson beaming with pride. The community director at Insomniac Games has been with the company for 12 years, but it’s clear 2018 is set to be his most exciting yet. “That’s the first time ever a Marvel video game has been given permission to use that logo. When you see that Marvel flipbook at the start, it’s like a seal of quality. That’s when you first get the chills and think, ‘this is a Marvel experience. This is a blockbuster experience.’” Stevenson has good reason to be proud. Simply titled Marvel’s Spider-Man and releasing exclusively to PlayStation 4, the new title from Insomniac Games is sumptuous. It’s gorgeous. It’s exhilarating. The flipbook may be the tease, but within seconds of your first swing, looping between skyscrapers low over the bustling city streets, you know you’re in for a special experience. This is polished gaming at its blockbuster best.
Surprisingly, Marvel’s Spider-Man is the first time Insomniac Games has worked on a licensed product. Over the course of a glorious 22 years, the studio has excelled at creating and building out beloved worlds and characters of its own. Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and Sunset Overdrive are just a few of the big name series created by the Californian team.
So it should come as little surprise that Insomniac set its sights much higher than your typical “movie-based game.”
Building a New Marvel World
“This is brand new Spider-Man universe,’ Stevenson explains of his new game. “It’s not tied to any existing comic or film. In our experience, Peter Parker is 23; he’s just out of university; he has a job as a scientist; he has been broken up with MJ for six months and they haven’t spoken to each other when the game starts (although they do end up thrust back together). Even the side characters in our universe are in very different roles. Norman Osborn is mayor of New York, for example. MJ is an investigative reporter at the Daily Bugle. Miles Morales exists in this universe. So it’s a Spidey universe unlike any you have seen before.”
Comic fans who may be worried that Insomniac Games may have taken too many liberties with their beloved character need not worry. Experienced Spider-Man scribes Christos Gage and Dan Slott worked extensively on the story. In fact, rather than hindering the process, Stevenson is adamant that Marvel’s presence pushed Insomniac to create a higher quality title.
“We made this game in super tight collaboration with Marvel and Marvel Games from the very beginning. Marvel wasn’t putting up roadblocks or anything like that, it was more from the perspective of wanting to help us make a great Spider-Man game. They basically just asked what we wanted to do. They invited us to mix it up and even do something new that nobody had ever seen before. We both wanted to something fresh and it was great working with them to put all the pieces together and it was straightforward to get approvals when needed.”
“Marvel also wanted us to use the best of what was already there,” Stevenson continued. “They basically said, ‘here are 50-plus years of comics, characters and stories. Look through all of it and pick what you want. Here is what we think makes Spider-Man really great, can we help merge any of that for you?’”
When we first join Spider-Man, he is already an established force in New York City, experienced at saving the world. He has been at it for eight years and the opening scenes pit him against one of his most fearsome foes, Kingpin. It’s effectively just the tutorial experience, but even in those early moments the scale of the setpieces and depth of combat is phenomenal. There’s a huge and rewarding story to dive into here, and as Stevenson details, there’s more to the character than just action.
“From a character perspective, Spider-Man is compelling because things are always going wrong for him. If Spider-Man is winning, then Peter Parker is losing. He might capture his biggest enemy and put him under arrest as Spider-Man, but then he is late for work and getting evicted from his apartment as Peter Parker. Not to mention broken up with his girlfriend. When he starts to do well as Peter Parker, the city goes to hell as he is not out there being Spider-Man.”
“He is always trying to juggle all the balls in life and in many ways it’s always tough luck and things going wrong. That’s why he is one of the most beloved characters in the world. In the end he is just an everyman trying to juggle the responsibilities of life. He is a loveable loser.”
Feeling Like Spider-Man
Being Spider-Man starts with being Peter Parker. “The character is just great in and of itself and ripe for exploration,” Stevenson points out, “but while a lot of games have explored the Spider-Man side of this character, none have explored the entire character. It’s not really a great Spider-Man story unless you are showing the Peter Parker story. We were really compelled to do that.”
As such you will play as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker in the game, ditching the famous red and blue suit for your lab coat. Working as a scientist, Peter’s gameplay in the lab does away with the exploration and combat in pursuit of puzzles. The lab almost acts like its own little hub space, allowing you to move between different tasks to test your grey matter and talk to other characters. The puzzles are simple, but fun. More importantly, they make for a great break from the action, adding depth and variety to the play.
“So we made sure we had times where you play as Peter Parker and get to experience him not just in a cutscene, but where you walk around and interact with people,” Stevenson confirms. “Where you spend time living in that world. In a game like this you have a lot of highs, so you need to pace it out with moments where you get to catch your breath a bit. But as a whole, most of the time you are playing with Spider-Man and doing only things that Spidey can do.”
As soon as you’re in the famous Spidey suit, you feel like Spider-Man. Despite a huge unlock tree that delivers an ever-widening arsenal of moves and web-slinging tricks to explore, right from the off Spidey is powerful. Swinging through the city, running up the sides of buildings, zipping across a space, wall running, car-surfing on traffic and using parkour to fluidly leap up and around structures and objects feels wonderfully fluid.
Despite the apparent complexity of it all, the learning curve is blissfully slight. Insomniac has done a brilliant job making the agility and flexibility of Spider-Man feel instantly intuitive and sublimely cool.
“The primary focus and primary fantasy of a game like this is playing as Spider-Man,” Stevenson points out. “There is no other hero that gets to swing around tall buildings. Who is super acrobatic, but still has all these great gadgets. It’s fun to swing around New York City; it’s fun to juggle enemies in the air; it’s fun to web people down to the wall or the floor.”
That fluidity streams straight into the combat, too, which is central to the gameplay. Frequently surrounded by multiple foes with different strengths and weaknesses, players are asked to instinctively flick between counters, evasive manoeuvres, environmental attacks, melee combat from the air and ground, and of course Spidey’s web. The game does so without barrier, creating something free-flowing that encourages players to use their imaginations. It recalls in many ways Rocksteady’s brilliant Batman Arkham games, a comparison that Stevenson is happy to make.
“Of course we played the Batman Arkham games — Arkham Asylum was mind-blowing! — but we also looked at Devil May Cry and other action games. We didn’t set out to necessarily to do something better than the Batman Arkham games, we just wanted to nail the experience of being Spider-Man.”
“Spider-Man is not a big bruiser or a tank. He should not be taking a lot of hits. He is supposed to be agile. It was important that it felt like he was zipping around, bouncing about, flipping over and sliding between legs. Jumping and then using his web to pull enemies up behind him, then slinging something from the environment and improvising on the fly. You might get in a tight spot and pull the scaffolding down or throw a trash can; whatever it takes. That was what felt like Spider-Man to us and we tried to capture that feeling.”
“With Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady gave you the feeling of being Batman. For us, our biggest goal was to give you the experience of being Spider-Man. And if we can do that at the same polish level and experience level that Rocksteady did for Batman then we’re achieved a great thing. But in the end, the games feel quite different because they are different characters that allow you to fight in different ways.”
A Visual Treat
With the story and gameplay in place, the final piece of the puzzle was the presentation. For this kind of action to feel fun, immersive and thrilling, it has to look natural and organic. Thankfully, Marvel’s Spider-Man is beautiful. Astounding even. Running at 4K resolution and with full HDR on the PS4 Pro, watching Spider-Man in action, seamlessly transitioning between hundreds of moves, is jaw-dropping.
“There are a massive amount of Spider-Man animations in this game,” Stevenson beams. “Our animation team is gigantic — easily the most we’ve ever had on a project and they have been working at it for years. The move-set is huge. Then there is all the blending between the different moves and how seamless and fluid it all is right through to his incredible finishers. Plus the camera work that makes it all feel like a blockbuster Marvel experience.”
Then there is the city itself. “We’re most proud of how much we are drawing on screen,” says Stevenson. “The city is huge, but it’s not lifeless or barren. It feels like it’s alive with pedestrians and traffic: New Yorkers going about their day. The level of fidelity, especially when you play in full 4K HDR, is also something we’re happy about. It’s all so smooth, and the framerate never drops. I’m floored by the amount of effects and characters we have onscreen and the quality of the rendering — we’ve really taken it to the next level.”
It’s no wonder it looks so great. Insomniac Games has forged a decades-long bond with Sony and the PlayStation audience, despite remaining independent throughout. So while working on Spider-Man — someone else’s world — may by unusual for the developer, working exclusively with Sony to make the most of the PlayStation 4 console certainly is not.
Indeed, Insomniac Games has nailed its goal of making gamers feel like Spider-Man. It’s managed to give even the most ardent fans of the Spidey universe something new to chew on, while still feeling intimately connected to the character. The result is not only the best Spider-Man game ever, but potentially the best superhero experience put to game. ■
Marvel’s Spider-Man is out now, exclusively for PS4.
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