Peter Parker is the heart and soul of Marvel’s Spider-Man. That should seem obvious. The perennially put upon hero only dons a mask to protect those around him. The man beneath the red, black, and blue is still basically human. His motivations certainly are—more-so than other ultra-popular superheroes like Batman and Iron Man. Their vast fortunes, plus supernatural levels of planning and impossibly specific gadgets, immunize them to the everyday problems of the people they protect.
Spider-Man, despite his high-flying abilities, has always been more grounded. And I’m glad to see developer Insomniac Games reflect that so thoroughly in what must have been one incredibly expensive game to make.
It’s gorgeous to look at. Its open-world Manhattan swells and explodes with appropriately bombastic sound. Characters’ faces, when not covered by masks, twitch and contort into subtle, well-scanned rictus. But there’s still plenty of time to appreciate the penniless do-gooder that is Peter Parker.
Most of that time is spent at FEAST: a homeless shelter operated in part by the ever-lovable Aunt May. Marvel’s Spider-Man cold opens with a bombastic battle against Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, but FEAST is where we begin to learn about this Peter Parker’s world. Uncle Ben has been out of the picture for nearly a decade. Mary-Jane broke things off with Pete sometime much more recently. J. Jonah Jameson bounced out of the Daily Bugle in favor of a Bill O’Reilly like podcast.
Oh, and the titular webhead works for one Dr. Otto Octavius. Take what you will from that.
A FEAST for the soul
FEAST does more than serve downtime exposition, though. It’s an opportunity for players to actually play the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Ninety percent of the game mixes Spider-Man’s signature acrobatics with foe-to-foe fisticuffs. And it’s great! You can feel air friction gnaw at Spidey for every inch of every web swing. Brawling is fast and dynamic; our hero contorts mid-air to re-target baddies across yards of pavement.
But at FEAST, Peter can walk up to regulars at a never-ending game of chess. Every visit peels back a layer of who these competitors are, what drove them to the shelter, and who they’ve left behind. One of them hasn’t spoken to her daughter in far too long. Peter doesn’t drag the topic out of her, but makes it clear he cares about the situation.
And that’s just it. Peter genuinely cares about the people around him—beyond just stopping an eight-ton man dressed like a rhino from wrecking a dock. Although he’s not always well educated about where he places his faith…
Marvel’s Spider-Man’s typically humane tone takes some odd, irreconcilable stances. Spidey periodically works with cops—who are all honest and good. After a mid-game prison break, he frequently fights escaped felons— who are all bloodthirsty killers ready to fire rocket launchers at civilians.
The game does address modern over-militarization of police. Sort of. City-funded mercenaries, Sable International, eventually offer Spider-Man a convenient target to decry as “fascists” without directly addressing the real-world issues the developers chose to court. It’s not that big a deal, honestly, but feels like a cheat.
It doesn’t when JJJ’s conservative-pundit-stand-in rants twist themselves, and the game’s politics, so centrally. The former newsman shouts down a police surveillance system (which Spider-Man gleefully taps into), only to call cops the true heroes of New York throughout most of the game. It’s not just a comically strange interpretation of the modern politics Marvel’s Spider-Man wants to lampoon. The characters themselves contradict… themselves.
Those sinister somebodies…
Otherwise the cast (and it’s a big one) is very affecting. Pete’s bumbling empathy makes him downright lovable. One interaction in particular, entirely over the phone with a garbage truck dispatcher, is some of my favorite dialogue in any video game ever. MJ isn’t just a damsel in distress. Nor does she just talk about not being a damsel in distress. She’s an investigative journalist that helps expose the seedier political scene playing with the fate of the city.
Surrogate-mom-May is doing her part, of course. But it’s father-son relationship between Peter and Doc Ock that really hit me.
Marvel’s Spider-Man cycles through a number of villains (oh, say, about a half-dozen) and Otto stands head and shoulders above the rest. Parker starts as the good doctor’s lab assistant, eager to help a kindred spirit change the world. Their relationship dissolves with painstaking inevitability. Anyone with a passing knowledge of spider-lore knows where this is going. And it’s all the more heartbreaking for it.
The actual super-villain duels aren’t as affecting. You puzzle out what you need to do—like dodge a missile salvo and web it back at the bad guy—and repeat as necessary. Bouts with the Vulture, Electro, Shocker, and more drag on too long. As such boss battles aren’t exactly hard, but can get sloppy.
It took me far too long to beat Rhino and Scorpion’s shared battle, for instance, because I had to keep waiting for the bruiser to stumble under heavy debris. Every time I was ready to bonk Rhino, Scorpion would threaten to shoot me with venom. So I’d dodge, miss my window to damage the big guy, and need to try again.
Battles yet to come
Normal scuffles against henchman only get overly hectic when Marvel’s Spider-Man throws more than a dozen of them on-screen—which mostly happens while clearing enemy bases strewn around Manhattan. Combat is all about getting in hits before spider senses tell you to dodge. But when 30 enemies all fire assault rifles, one after another, there’s no room for pummeling.
To the game’s credit, there’s basically a gadget or wild web combo to counter nearly anything the villains throw at you. In fact, there might be too many. I can’t count the times I got repeatedly pummeled by enemies with stun batons, only to remember I had a concussive shockwave attack to knock them flat on their backs. Or I’d stumble and scratch through a stealth sequence that could have been mopped up so much cleaner with web mines. The information overload never went away. Although I got much better at managing waves of enemies with the tricks I did remember (Web Blossom for life).
Usually, though, Marvel’s Spider-Man is as smooth as its animation—particularly when you zip, flip, and thwip through NYC on the hero’s momentous webs. Although that’s not what kept me coming back for more. The tiny, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking person-to-person interactions of a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man made this a world I wanted to save.
Sure, Pete has his faults (and he should certainly brush up on current events). He’s always had faults. His naivete and extremely poor work/life balance are all part of what make the man behind the mask so interesting. Marvel’s Spider-Man weaves that throughout its fun, propulsive, and often surprisingly subtle story until the very last scene. And it’s a blast to swing around, to boot.