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How Spider-Man PS4’s New York City compares to the real thing

Spider-Man’s NYC isn’t a perfect recreation, but it captures a certain spirit of Manhattan

Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

The new Spider-Man on PS4 features a humongous and surprisingly detailed Manhattan. But how close does this open world come to recreating the real New York City? We spent an hour with Sony’s E3 2018 Spider-Man demo on a mission to find out.

The map includes the entirety of Manhattan, and though the demo limited travel to Greenwich Village, the East Village, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, Midtown East, Murray Hill and Gramercy, we got a good idea of the heavy lifting and research that went into crafting this open world.

Spider-Man’s world captures the idea of New York rather than the actual place. Specifically, it looks like an oddly clean version of the 1970s Manhattan seen in Scorsese movies — a city riddled with both brick buildings and crime, but devoid of litter, graffiti and post-9/11 police presence. The various districts have their own handful of iconic buildings and landmarks, but many blocks throughout the city bounce between Hell’s Kitchen’s brownstones and bodegas, and the Upper East Side’s gaudy shops and towering condos.

The city has a number of hyper-specific recreations, though they’re often slightly out of place and askew. NYU is mostly condensed to a campus placed just north of Washington Square Park, with the Stern School of Business (called Empire State School of Business) and the Tisch School of the Arts (Empire State School of Arts) built around the least NYU thing imaginable: a quad. I suppose ESU is now doubling as both NYU and Columbia University, moving Peter Parker’s college downtown.

How the designers handle NYU’s sprawling campus speaks to their general approach to Manhattan: condensing neighborhoods into dense pockets of familiarity separated by more generic city-space. The Village’s Grace Church rests near Herald Square, which is curiously south of a green space that seems to double as Union Square and Madison Square Park.

Chinatown covers a vast segment of the map’s east side, stretching from the Manhattan Bridge (with an archway and colonnade) to the United Nations, displacing most of the East Village and Gramercy. The blocks are peppered with signs for Peking duck and tea, along with the game’s take on Starbucks, which appears to be as omnipresent as its real-world counterpart.

Fittingly, close to the Manhattan Bridge, streets are filled with slow, congested traffic. The instinct is to swing above the cars, but I took a silly pleasure in hopping from the roof of one cab to the next.

My favorite recreation is the Empire State Building, which may be the first take on the iconic structure in games that manages to capture the appropriate scale and awe. It takes a good deal of time to climb the facade — and you must climb it, because there are no other nearby buildings tall enough from which to swing. Perched atop its spire, you can see the entirety of the open world, lit beautifully in a permanent golden magic hour.

Along with the spire on the Chrysler Building, it’s a good location to spot some of the other additions: the Freedom Tower, Madison Square Garden, the new and hideous glass high-rises that pepper the entire city, and a Central Park lush with fall foliage. On the Upper East Side is one thing you absolutely won’t find in the real Manhattan: Avengers Tower, marked with a big, red “A.”

It doesn’t look like you can visit New York’s other boroughs, but they look nice from atop the Empire State Building. Two Long Island ferries float on the East River, and airplanes zip toward JFK. Jumping off the building and swinging just before Spidey careens into the pavement, you hear the traffic get closer. It’s a really fantastic detail, showcasing the unique perspective afforded to Spider-Man, a hero who can literally leap from impossibly secluded spots above the city onto the crowded streets below.

Of course, when you leap from hundreds of feet into a crowded intersection, everybody reacts like it’s business as usual. New York City!

On the ground level, you’ll spot lots of references to Spider-Man canon, like the Oscorp building, and Fisk and McClintock construction signage. But I really appreciated the smaller details. Spider-Man plushies fill the racks in a GameStop-like shop called Gamer Paradise; a giant toy greets passersby from the window. A stage in midtown is called the Auerbach Theater, possibly named after Jeffrey Auerbach, who served as a consulting producer on the ill-fated musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

So sure, it’s not a perfect recreation of New York, but it’s a fun one, like a remix of the cultural idea of Manhattan from 1970 to today. Both familiar and unfamiliar, crime-ridden and impossibly clean. I suspect it’s been made by people who don’t love Manhattan so much as they love the home of Peter Parker. As most New Yorkers living in the other boroughs will tell you, that’s just fine: They’d rather not go into the city anyway.