Way back in 2009, Rocksteady Studios hit on the idea of making a really good Batman game, after many years of mediocre titles. They created Arkham Asylum, a superb game that featured great combat, excellent stealth, a strong storyline and outstanding use of the existing Batman canon. Insomniac Games seem to have taken a leaf out of their book in developing Marvel's Spider-Man, the first attempt in a few years to create a definitive Spider-Man video game.
The game is, as you'd expect, an open-world title set in a sort-of realistic depiction of New York City. Playing Spider-Man, you can websling between buildings, create ziplines and engage in spectacular amounts of combat against a variety of enemies, both super-powered and mundane. The storyline borrows from the entire Spider-Man canon and sees Parker teaming up with allies like Yuri, Miles Morales, MJ and Black Cat whilst fighting enemies including Mr. Negative, Kingpin, Electro, Rhino, Scorpion and Vulture. The game also mostly presents Otto Octavius as an ally, but of course even a casual Spider-Man fan will know his destiny and the game evokes some impressive tension as he drifts closer and closer to his eventual fate of becoming Doc Ock. The game even has some time for nuance, with Peter having a complex relationship with Mayor Norman Osborn and security contractor Silver Sablinova.
The game's golden feature is its depiction of webslinging. Traversing around New York City as Spider-Man is a delight and for the first time a video game evokes those dizzying memorable shots from the 2002 Spider-Man movie. The game strikes an excellent balance between making movement spectacular and giddying but also allowing you to retain control over what's going on. The PC version of the game goes further with mouse movement allowing for much greater, pinpoint accuracy in where you put your webs, when to jump and when to arrest your movement. The game features the most pointless fast travel system in existence, since just getting around New York is so much fun that you'll never want to use it (apart from the achievement it bafflingly gives you).
As well as jumping around, you'll spend an inordinate amount of time in combat. Spider-Man is not the beefiest guy in the world and can't take a lot of punishment, so combat is very movement-focused, with Spider-Man landing a few punches and then jumping away before he can be crowded. You can use your handy spider-gadgets to help in battle, and as the game continues you acquire new Spider-Suits with various abilities to help you keep up with your enemies' own escalating abilities. You can also use scenery to help in combat (flinging manhole covers into an enemy at high velocity never gets old, although curiously it never kills anyone either), and if fighting on a rooftop you can propel your opponents off the roof, to be webbed to the side for arrest later.
Combat is fun, but there's a recurring feeling that there's too much of it. Spider-Man is not Batman and although he certainly gets into fights with opponents, the massive brawls with up to several dozen enemies at a time do feel rather out of character. Whilst the game tries to keep new enemy types coming at a steady clip, it does feel like most are variations on a theme (small brawler guy, ranged attack guy, massively huge dude who needs to be weakened before being taken down, and then jetpacks!) and as you level up and get new abilities, combat becomes less challenging and more of a chore. It doesn't help that the Arkham series influence here is at its most overt: the sound effect that rings out when you knock someone one for good is identical to the one from those games. Stealth is also undercooked: although Spider-Man can use stealth in some situations to make combat easier, the game usually makes it impossible to 100% complete objectives through stealth alone, which is disappointing.
The game's central storyline is pretty good, though somewhat predictable. It makes solid use of Spider-Man's villainous roster and there's a good mix between very familiar characters and more obscure characters from the comic book. An ingame codex allows you to keep everyone straight and the game's journal system and excellent map both do a good job of keeping you up to date on what's going on. The voice acting, in particular, is superb, though Spider-Man's quips do repeat a bit more often than you'd like.
Where Spider-Man suffers a bit is how it organises its side content. To overcome the problem of a Ubisoft-style game eventually burying the map screen under quest markers, this game doles out side-activities very slowly, and seems to expect you to do all of the side-activities the second they become available. This is doable because they are relatively constrained, such as twenty new "help the police" missions popping up in one go and it being possible to polish them all off in under an hour or two. However, taking this view (and, if you don't, the map really will end up buried under icons) eventually makes you realise you're spending maybe 85% of the game on these filler tasks versus 15% on the actual story. The Arkham games had the sense to avoid this by being happy that it was possible to see off the entire game in under 20 hours by giving you much more meaningful content to enjoy. Marvel's Spider-Man lacks that confidence and keeps throwing filler content at you so it takes over 50 hours to 100% the game's story and side-missions, plus its DLC and filler. The game does risk outstaying its welcome.
But it also stays just on the right side of that gap. Swinging through New York City, stopping a jewelry shop robbery, then tracking down some rogue drones (requiring an exciting chase through midtown skyscrapers) before polishing off another story mission can be great fun. If immersion is a key goal of any game, Spider-Man certainly makes you feel like the hero in a very convincing manner.
You also can't fault this edition when it comes to content. As well as the original game, it includes the three-part City Never Sleeps DLC, which adds up to a pretty decent-sized game's worth of content (even if it does over-rely on similar enemy types to the original game). The game has spectacular graphics and the options for your suits are excellent. You can even put on the OG Spider-Man suit from the original run of the comics which also turns you into a 2D flat character (though everything else stays in 3D, which is disconcerting), or you can put on the Into the Spider-Verse suit to become a more stylised 3D animated figure. A mild disappointment might be that the Spider-Man: Miles Morales stand-alone expansion is not included (that will follow in a separate release at later date), but the package is pretty generous.
Marvel's Spider-Man (****) is a compelling, fun title that might be the definitive Spider-Man video game experience to date, with a great open world, spectacular graphics and a fun, well-acted storyline. It does have perhaps a bit too much filler side-content, resulting in issues with pacing, and some of the combat experiences go on for rather too long. It also wears its Arkham series inspiration a bit too obviously on its sleeves at times, drifting from homage to simple replication. But the game is fun and has a good heart. It is available now on PlayStation 4 and, in its remastered form, on PC and PlayStation 5.