Spider-Man makes every superheroic thing he does look easy, and in that regard, his new video game is a lot like him.
"Marvel's Spider-Man" is a gob of fantastic ideas executed almost flawlessly by veteran studio Insomniac Games ("Ratchet and Clank," "Resistance"). Web-slinging to traverse the Manhattan skyline and fighting dozens of goons at a time with fists and gadgets is exhilarating fun, even 25 hours into the game. The city is stunningly and faithfully crafted, save for a loving coat of Marvel fan service. And Insomniac pulls from decades of Spider-Man lore with studied hands to spin an original and affecting story, featuring just the right amount of familiar faces and iconic imagery.
That story begins with a brisk tutorial that sees the wall-crawler, now eight years into his superhero career, helping police arrest the Kingpin. His downfall, however, creates a power vacuum in the Manhattan crime world that a mysterious new force is bent on filling. As Spider-Man investigates, alter ego Peter Parker juggles a laboratory job, a cooled relationship with Mary Jane Watson and an overworked Aunt May. But, as always, Spidey's problems soon intertwine with Parker's, and as he unravels the mystery, Insomniac sustains the intrigue with terrific plotting to its poignant end.
The idea that Spider-Man bears responsibility for the city's new criminal menace is megaphoned by — who else? — former Daily Bugle Editor J. Jonah Jameson. Insomniac brilliantly imagines him as an Alex Jones-style podcast host, which serves as both commentary on the lamentable state of today's media landscape and an amusing soundtrack to Spidey's airborne commutes. But the story's power vacuum, and the underlying theory that crimefighting begets more crime, also strengthens the parallel between Spider-Man and another hero who's faced that accusation: Batman.
If nothing else, Rocksteady's "Arkham" series about the Caped Crusader clearly inspired Insomniac's game, from its predatory stealth and counter-based combat to its respectful handling of one of the deeper rogues' galleries in comics. For all that similarity, though, Insomniac succeeds at making "Spider-Man" its own by doing the same thing Rocksteady did: simulating what it's like to be him. So its combat is more aerial, its stealth less gimmicky. And that's to say nothing of its more lighthearted tone, which colors not only the stealth and combat, but the whole wisecracking romp.
Like the "Arkham" games, "Spider-Man" bases its combat on the binary rhythm of offense and defense. In a perfect touch, it prompts the latter with a spider-sense icon around ol' webhead. As the game goes on and the opposition graduates from basic hoodlums to organized criminals and beyond, Spidey's abilities grow in step. And Insomniac arranges that opposition to test your command of those abilities firmly, but fairly: a shield bearer requiring a specific counter here, a bruiser to be dodged and webbed from afar there. Rarer enemies with weapons demand even narrower plans of attack. You don't have to master all eight gadgets and all 27 suit powers, but get complacent mashing buttons and you'll be scraped off the city's rooftops more often than pigeon crap.
Spider-Man can also instantly KO enemies by building up a special gauge with each uninterrupted blow. But, in a clever design decision by Insomniac, the gauge can also be spent on healing him. So staying healthy can mean getting aggressive in the face of danger, not unlike "Bloodborne." Conversely, finishing enemies can mean staying close to death. This strategic quandary weaves a tension into Spidey's fights that makes them even more exciting. Each correct move you string together to stay afloat — from web-swinging kicks to hurling manhole covers — compounds the sensation.
Spider-Man is less vulnerable stealthily cocooning enemies from streetlights and exposed beams. Webs can also distract them, and Insomniac encourages that tactic by allowing you to monitor when one is isolated enough that thumping him won't alert others. Still, aside from snipers whose crossfire can kill him in seconds, the human punching bags of "Spider-Man" provide little incentive to stay hidden. The frantic pace and fuller challenge of combat will tempt you to just nose-dive into the fray and start pummeling. The fact enemies can't see farther than 20 feet away doesn't help.
The most enjoyable part of the game's stealth is maneuvering Spider-Man into position for takedowns at superhuman speed. In fact, the unfailing satisfaction of swinging through Manhattan may be Insomniac's most impressive achievement in the game. Traversal consists of just four inputs — swinging, zipping, vaulting and dodging — but they add up to so much more than the sum of their simple parts thanks to impeccable physics and camerawork. From landing a 1,000-foot fall to hairpin-turning down Broadway, controlling Spidey gracefully walks the tightrope between intuitive and involved.
There are two New York Cities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
His Manhattan may be condensed for the sake of scale, skipping from 111th to 117th streets, for instance. But from the puddles in its steamy alleyways to the seagulls and airplanes crisscrossing its autumn skies at sunset, "Spider-Man" feels authentically like its hero's city. And as much of a trope as it is to call New York another character in the story, it does come alive. It's as vivid high-fiving pedestrians on Fifth Avenue as it is perching atop the Empire State Building, as fluid crawling the walls of the Upper East Side's high-rises as it is swinging past them at 70 mph.
But in "Spider-Man," that real-life architecture shares a space with Avengers Tower and other Marvel landmarks. And Insomniac populates that space with a fairly standard array of open-world activities that help level up Spider-Man and unlock his suits and gadgets. One is photographing those landmarks, which is fun to do as he flies by in slow-motion. A robust selection of side missions delve further into Spidey mythology. And random street crimes, surveillance towers that defog the map and a recurring gag with his NYPD pal confirm that, yes, the wall-crawler is sort of a cop.
Later in the game, a series of missions tests your prowess in combat, stealth and web-slinging. They lead to an optional boss fight that tests that prowess, too. But the real prize is the point-based missions themselves: Scoring requires the kind of immaculate play that reveals just how rewarding the game can be, whether it's socking a dozen enemies without a scratch or chasing a zig-zagging drone for several blocks without Spider-Man's feet touching the ground. They're just difficult enough that they take a few tries, but you never doubt you can ace them. So when you do, it's a rush.
Another series of missions, however, speaks to the studio's knack for the hero — and the promise of the sequel the game both sets up and saves many villains for. At Oscorp research stations scattered throughout Manhattan, Spidey completes tasks for his friend Harry that neutralize threats like smog and data breaches. Many of them introduce challenging new wrinkles in web-slinging, like a suit with cloaking technology that must be activated within mere feet of drones Harry asks you to junk. Another mimics the lightning strikes from "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild."
But those mechanics never reappear. That Insomniac can develop such enjoyable side activities and discard them after a single use is nothing short of amazing. Of course, those ideas could have been repurposed for the third act's boss battles, which disappoint with their simplicity. Regardless, the studio's seemingly effortless ability to simulate being Spider-Man affirm that he's in good hands.