The simply titled Marvel's Spider-Man allows Peter Parker to freely swing around an open-world New York as his alter ego—to intervene in street crimes, seek out collectibles, and gradually progress through a larger plot that features multiple villains. No points, then, for originality, but there's a level of polish on display here, thanks to the talented developers at Insomniac Games, that makes this something close to the definitive Spider-Man video game. But the company's triumphs also suggest they could have gone in bolder directions, instead of mainly adhering to a well-worn Spider-trail.
Insomniac has nailed the high-flying part of the game, where players swing around New York and drop into various open-world diversions. There's a satisfying rhythm to Spider-Man's movement as his webs latch onto buildings while you tweak the trajectory of his swing. Spider-Man builds speed by free-falling, and shooting webs out in front of him allows him to sustain altitude and turn tight corners. Though messing up the timing might cost momentum, the game has no collision damage. Spider-Man never gets hurt after plunging to the ground from high up, and hitting the side of a building doesn't stop him in his tracks; it starts a wall-run maneuver so that he can keep pushing forward. But despite the lack of danger to this traversal, the game never feels like it's leading you on borderline autopilot. Instead, it finds a pleasing balance with the level of agency it gives, making players feel like they're accomplishing these feats on their own. You're not just pressing a button here so the game can take care of the rest for you. Spider-Man places plenty of variables under your control, giving you room to improve and develop skill.
Though Spider-Man doesn't always succeed in extending this balance to the rest of the campaign, as it occasionally stumbles into simplistic stealth gameplay and quick-time events for complex maneuvers, combat is a consistent highlight. Despite its initial resemblance to the Batman: Arkham series, given that its superhero protagonist predominantly fights large groups of enemies, Spider-Man feels more involved than any title in Rocksteady Studios's flagship series. Instead of magnetically flowing from one target to the next, you have to manually pull yourself to any bad guys outside immediate range, since many of them spread out across a given area. Some will engage you in hand-do-hand combat, and at the same time as others try to pick you off with firearms and grenades. You're encouraged to smack criminals upward for aerial combos to stay out of reach, while juggling strategic use of your webs and other gadgets, multiple types of dodges, and ways to set enemies up for throws or even to take them out of the fight early.
Spider-Man's mechanics feel fluid and satisfying enough to keep players engaged throughout the entire campaign.
That all of this is in service to a rote open-world structure isn't necessarily the problem here. Spider-Man's mechanics feel fluid and satisfying enough to keep players engaged throughout the entire campaign. However, your interactions with that world often feel detached, which is at odds with the humanity at the core of Spider-Man's appeal. He is, after all, the “friendly neighborhood” superhero, as equally interested in taking on supervillains as he is in addressing street-level concerns, whether it's fighting petty crimes and fires or just generally helping out and interacting with the public. Some characters sum up this perception best when they berate him by saying he should be off rescuing a cat from a tree or something. As a character, he's meant to fit neatly into everyday life rather than function only as some distant, mysterious protector, and the game struggles with that aspect.
By the nature of Spider-Man's powers, you spend a lot of time traveling across rooftops. But there's no real sense that an everyday life exists somewhere down in the streets to be engaged with in any capacity beyond sectioned-off side missions and pop-ups that mark crimes like muggings. Interactions with civilians are limited to high-fives and listening to descriptions of suspicious activity that lead nowhere. And your main interaction with reasonably detailed storefronts and New York landmarks is to snap a photo to mark them off a checklist. Rather than a space to inhabit, Spider-Man's New York and the people in it are often little more than a backdrop for predominantly combat-driven scenarios and traveling between map icons.
What's so frustrating about this disconnect is that the main story missions can be great at defining Peter Parker's place within the world when they take the time to do so. The game's early hours are a surprisingly slow build that sees you outside of the Spider-Man outfit for long stretches, establishing Peter's relationships and the passage of time. He's had his powers for eight years, and the game conveys a sense of history simply by leaving room for the characters to speak about where they've been, how they've grown, what's changed in their lives. You'll visit wonderfully detailed spaces like the lab where Peter has a job and the homeless shelter where Aunt May works. Because there's a real fondness for people in these moments, particularly when anyone at the shelter stops to talk to Peter, it's a shame that fondness is so rarely reflected when you depart these enclosed spaces and enter the open world for general crime-fighting. It does makes sense to have a more limited set of interactions as Spider-Man than as Peter, but the contrast is so great that the Spider-Man segments feel almost lifeless by comparison.
The story also suffers as Spider-Man goes on, devoting less time to the quiet, personal stuff in favor of raising the stakes. The initial focus on Mister Negative—a bundle of goofball Orientalism, between his demon-mask-wearing, honor-fixated Chinese henchmen and his own yin-and-yang abilities—explodes outward into too many characters and story threads. A lot of great ideas get lost in the ensuing chaos, as Spider-Man eventually surrenders to the bombast expected from our mega-budget video games. Insomniac's Spider-Man is often great, but the game is only at its best when it maintains its focus on the humanity of its characters rather than on a mirror-polished version of an ordinary open world, which it doesn't do often enough.