Spider-Man is a great game when you focus on its core conceit and core promise: That you get to play as Peter Parker, Spider-Man, and webswing through a full, if not one-to-one recreation of the island of Manhattan and the city that sits upon it. It’s a great game as long as you focus on absolutely nothing but that.
Where to start with the good? Well, they clearly spent a massive number of development hours making sure you could do the simple and most required aspect of a Spider-Man game: swinging through the city. This only really works in Manhattan and only really ever could have, though you can occasionally try to fake it in the densest parts of Brooklyn and Peter Parker’s alleged home in Queens (in this game he begins living in Chinatown, then ends up homeless in the game’s one well-written plot thread). This game gets that experience absolutely right. It’s completely wild that the last time a game got the feel of web-slinging correct was like, the licensed game for the second Raimi Spider-Man movie (remember when there were licensed tie-in games for movies?), but finally the feeling is back.
The second best thing is that it has the Scarlet Spider 1995 costume, and you can unlock it basically as soon as you get released into the open world. This might not sound like much to you if you’re under the age of 30, but the thing about the Scarlet Spider 95 costume is that it’s the coolest goddamn thing in the entire Spider-Man mythos (Rob: This is the most Bernhardt take I’ve ever read). It suffers a little bit in this rendition because modern art design requires a simple red bodysuit to have a hundred goddamn seams and lines and weird trim patterns, but outside of the simple and clean original Spider-Man outfit, Scarlet Spider 95 is the only costume worth wearing. The entire mess of the Clone Saga was worth it just to get the Scarlet Spider 95 costume. It is the best costume of the 90s and one of the best secondary or legacy or derivative (whatever you want to call them) costumes ever. I keep specifying the year because they’ve done a lot of stupid things with the Scarlet Spider costume ever since. Just a microcosm for all the really stupid things they’ve done with Spider-Man in general.
The third best thing is the open world. This is sort of attached to the first best thing, which is traversing it, and the second best thing, which is having a bunch of stuff to do while dressed in really cool outfits — though be warned, after the really top tier fashion choices, there are not a lot of really cool outfits in this game — but there is a whole lot to actually do in this fake version of Manhattan, and a bunch of it (until the endgame at least) is pretty cool. There’s even an entire line of sidequests where Harry Osborn — in absentia because he’s clearly been imprisoned by his father for going insane over the Goblin suit and father Norman killing his mother, though it’s sold as him being in school somewhere in Europe — has you swing around the city doing EPA, FEMA, HHS, and HUD business, if somewhat goofily. The concept of an entire sidequest line that involves no combat whatsoever and just has Spider-Man vaccinating fish and reporting cars that pollute outside of their emissions guidelines to the federal government is a far better conceit than basically any other open world series of tasks you can devise, especially the final set the game delivers, which are weird testy grudges devised by the villain Taskmaster. This isn’t because Taskmaster is bad or lame — neither of those have to be true. But this version of Taskmaster simply isn’t having much fun at all, and he’s trying too hard. And that combination kind of sucks. He’s simply badly written… and that’s a problem the entire game has.
Well, not the entire game. There’s a mission where Peter gets evicted. At this point in the game he’s been running around putting out fires in his personal life that he kind of started, from his day job as some kind of hazy post-grad at Otto Octavious lab, which is doing work for the Defense Department but not getting DOD grant money apparently, to his currently off-again relationship with Mary Jane Watson, who in the least-interesting possible character turn is doing the plucky reporter gimmick for the Daily Bugle, to his ridiculous moonlighting as a non-deputized peace officer simping for the approval of NYPD captain Yuriko Watanabe. That verb was specifically and disapprovingly chosen; Peter’s behavior towards Yuri is kind of difficult to tolerate for the first 20 hours of the game or so. He asks her out on dates despite her turning him down repeatedly and does silly voices and everything; it’s pretty uncomfortable. There’s an entire “Spider-Cop” persona that should have just been cut from the entire game.
Anyway, eventually all of Peter’s life/work balance bullshit catches up with him and he gets all his belongings dumped in the trash. That kicks off the best mission in the game: Peter needs to track down his belongings before they reach the incinerator. He does it with the help of a sympathetic and definitely EYYY I’M WALKIN HEAH union dispatcher at the sanitation hub, and a bunch of guys who stop for a slice of the good pizza pie before bringing in their haul from the dumpsters where Peter’s landlord disposed of all his crap. After running all over midtown through a case of mistaken trash guy routes, eventually our hero gets his stuff back…and realizes he has nowhere to sleep tonight. So he immediately talks himself into trying to crash on MJ’s couch, and it’s just as immediately clear that he has no intention of just crashing on her couch, and he definitely wants to get back together with her, because if he just wanted to sleep somewhere he’d call his aunt. Peter realizes as he makes it to MJ’s apartment that this, in fact, a stupid and insane thing for an ex-boyfriend to do, and goes to swing away… just as the Black Cat leaves him a voice message basically asking how that dick’s doing.
This is the quintessential Peter Parker, Spider-Man mission. It is perfect. It involves him getting kicked out of his home, relying on commiserating with union guys, talking about where to get a slice of that New York pizza pie, recovering his belongings from the garbage, trying to scumbag move his way into MJ’s bed, and realizing guiltily that’s a bad idea and swinging off to do tedious nonsense because Black Cat subvocalized how horny she was into his voicemail. Eventually he ends up crashing in May’s office. This is the full Spider-Man experience!
It’s kind of unfortunate that the full substance of the game’s story can’t hit the highs that specific mission and the Harry sidequests manage to achieve. The majority of the game’s plot concerns the descent of Otto Octavius and Martin Li into villainy, the formation of the Sinister Six, and some really, really exceptionally dumb late-game stuff involving Norman Osborn and Silver Sable. This isn’t a full spoiler review mainly because the main plot sucks so bad I didn’t want to commit to reviewing it, but there are a lot of places where you can tell that this game took its cues from latter day Spider-Man writers Dan Slott and Christos N. Gage instead of J. Michael Straczynski or, well, anyone with a clue. I’m not even a big JMS fan but that man at least knew how to write a villain, or a single story involving a theme. This game’s story is stupid when it’s not confused, and a lot of the endgame writing involves Doc Ock doing everything he possibly can to not conclude that Peter Parker is Spider-Man while curing cancer and solving the problem of thermodynamic entropy in order to get some guys in prison to work for him. Eventually May Parker, Otto Octavius, and Miles Morales all just have to kind of pretend that they don’t know that Peter is Spider-Man while behaving like when they have a problem that Spider-Man can solve or a plan he can thwart, they call Peter. The first time Doc Ock hears Spider-Man’s voice, it’s Peter saying “Otto?” in the same voice he’s said “Otto?” to Otto the entire game, like three dozen times at least, they’re clearly very close, and instead of “…Peter?” Doctor Octavius responds with a bombastic, “Spider-Man, I presume!” It’s just the laziest script it could possibly be, and that’s directly attributable to the fact that Marvel has spent the better part of the last 20 years out to lunch on who gets to write one of their flagship properties.
The Miles Morales stuff is good; there’s a really cool section where they head-fake that they’re going to kill Peter Parker off and make Miles the protagonist, and they should have grasped that opportunity with both hands. It’s almost worth all the bad forced stealth sections the game makes you do with Miles and Mary Jane. Sure, they eventually did the DLC campaign-slash-second game, which won’t be covered here since it’s not on the PC remaster, but Miles was already a more interesting character the moment he was introduced. Sure, his father was a Black police officer named Jefferson Davis, which is the most crazy white writer shit you can possibly imagine (here it’s Brian Michael Bendis who is to blame, not Slott, Gage, or either of the game’s two proprietary writers), but as the Into the Spiderverse movie has taught us, audiences can easily look over the insulting absurdity of a character who borders on Magical Negro tropes being named after the president of the Confederacy if the work is good enough. The problem with this game, of course, is that the work isn’t actually good enough. In a way it’s good that Officer Jefferson Davis was killed for cheap heat in the plot — everyone loves Miles. No one wants to deal with the featureless, characterless void that was Davis; he’s far more useful as a dead guy whose name we don’t have to keep saying.
There’s also a bunch of bad stuff about the game’s politics, especially regarding cops, that you’ve probably already read. Yeah, a significant part of the early game involves setting up Stingray intercept towers for the NYPD. Yeah, by the back third of the game it’s a pure fascist fever dream that tries to “both sides” the issue of policing with one side being European PMC guys with laser rifles and stormtrooper armor who arrest protestors and “violate civil rights” and the other side being escaped prisoners from Ryker’s (not Riker’s) Island who run around in their orange jumpsuits and stolen body armor, attempt to set up rooftop shanty towns across the city, and fire their seemingly endless assault weapon ammo down into the streets below in between turns harassing the law-abiding renters of the city and trying to do arson on homeless shelters. In all of this, only the NYPD is a source of sanity and good values. The game is extremely NPR-as-a-pejorative, but you won’t notice until the very end when it becomes absolutely impossible to ignore.
There’s great gameplay here, and a great game overall if they’d written a story to match that gameplay. Good news is, this one was so successful they’ll get a second shot at it. And maybe this time they won’t love the NYPD so much that they let them hide their badge numbers in cyberspace, too.
If you love doing whatever a spider can in an open world setting, this is the game for you. $60 on Steam, so you have to make a decision about the core gameplay loop — but I didn’t regret my purchase.
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