The biggest surprise of Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man is that it makes you feel like a superhero within seconds. Other video game developers have tried to capture the feel of swinging through Manhattan as Peter Parker’s alter ego. Some have come close. Most have landed on the other end of the quality line, somewhere between forgettable and infamous. We can’t speak to the entire game, but when it comes to instantly being the webslinger, this Spider-Man bests them all. Yes, all of them.
The feel of zipping through the city seems so effortless, so right, that it’s a trial to spot what Insomniac has done to capture it. After an hour with the game, I have a few guesses.
The controls, for one, are simple to the point of minimalism. When I sat down for the demo at Sony’s E3 2018 press event, someone from Insomniac’s team gave me only one instruction: “R2 is the gas.” The right trigger is responsible for most of Spidey’s traversal. Away from buildings, the button slings him from skyscraper to skyscraper. Against walls, it lets him run horizontally or vertically, shamelessly defying gravity. Spider-Man doesn’t run out of energy; I know this, because I ran directly up the entire facade of the Empire State Building.
Speaking of which, the city captures the idea of Manhattan better than the actual location. For the first half hour, it looked beautiful in a soft blur, passing me in the background. But for the back half hour, I strolled the cities, enjoying polish that doesn’t match Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 4, but rivals every other open world in terms of detail and character.
Anyway, back to the running! If you stop running at the wall, Spidey automatically sticks in place in that classic Spider-Man position, ready to slowly crawl in any direction. It’s surprising the first time this happens; the game makes the complicated part of Spider-Man — hurtling along the avenue at 50 mph — so easy that you forget that Spider-Man spends most of his time inching up a skyscraper to spy on some midlevel criminals.
Of course, the game does slow down, like when Spidey needs to scout enemies from a distance. I get the sense that someone better at the game could meticulously, quietly, efficiently take down henchmen, but that was not my experience. My fights were sloppy, nothing like the demo shown at last year’s E3 — despite one battle being set in what appeared to be the exact same location.
And yet, I think I prefer the fights being something of a debacle, sharing some of the slapstick humor that elevated the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming. My Spider-Man is just how I imagined I would be in the suit: accidentally covering a room in web, smashing everything in sight and somehow saving the day despite myself.
Combat is straightforward, borrowing gleefully from arcade beat-’em-ups, rather than the “Batman-style combat” that has begun to feel a bit contrived after a decade of sequels and copycats. One button punches, another shoots your selected web attack, another dodges. One shoulder button selects your special web power (tripwires, web bomb), while another unleashes it. I favor using environmental attacks. The world is full of bricks, car doors, barrels, scaffolding and other New York City construction materials and debris, just waiting to be weaponized with a comically elaborate flourish that terminates on an enemy’s skull.
The style meshes well with the boss fight in the demo, in which Spider-Man goes toe-to-toe with Shocker in a bank lobby. The baddie fires beams of electricity and radiates shock waves. Spider-Man plays a game of The Floor Is Lava to avoid the attacks, and uses heavy objects and debris that have fallen from the ceiling to hobble his adversary and then pulverize him. Like the combat style, it’s refreshingly old-fashioned, a choreographed battle that captures an older generation.
That’s how it feels to play an hour of Spider-Man. Slinging it is a bit predictable and easy. It’s also a lot of fun. You know, sort of like I imagine the life of a superhero.
Spider-Man is set for release on PS4 on Sept. 7.