Ever since Insomniac announced a new Spider-Man game, it was always an exciting prospect for the creators of Sunset Overdrive to make a truly open-world game fit for Marvel’s best superhero (don’t @ me).
Some of that excitement may have dampened in the intervening years of footage - showing off overly linear story sequences and derivative Arkham-style combat - but after playing the opening two hours, I’m thrilled to say that the experience feels nothing short of, well, amazing.
Great open-world games aren’t about the size of the map or number of activities, they are about the moment-to-moment traversal through it, which is what made zipping and grinding around Sunset Overdrive such a blast. The very first thing you do once you’re in control of Spidey is literally come out swinging. It’s a confident start.
Once in the air, holding R2 has you careening through New York City at breakneck speed. Release the trigger and you’re free to shoot another web and just keep on swinging, while tapping X shoots a web to fling you in mid-air to course-correct. Momentum isn’t lost if you’re hurtling towards a skyscraper, since you’ll automatically wall-run or sprint up them.
Frankly, Assassin’s Creed or Arkham just doesn’t compare to tumbling through traffic then back up, somersaulting in the air with the sunlight in your face - that sense of euphoria further heightened by a swelling dynamic score that sounds every bit as good as in the movies. Traversal in this city-wide playground is at once exhilarating and effortless.
But as much as this game has cinematic storytelling in its backbone, it’s neither beholden to the MCU’s timeline, nor is it another origin story. The opening mission, which also functions as your tutorial, is far from a slow-burning pedestrian affair. Tasked with helping the police to finally take down Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, it almost feels like a third act.
Spidey is already a seasoned superhero adept at combat, and has the skill set to match from the jump, though there’s plenty more to unlock behind three skill trees. Yes, the combat system may seem Arkham-esque, particularly with how your Spidey sense alerts you oncoming attacks, but it’s a lazy comparison.
Rightly so, Insomniac eschews Batman’s brutality and keeps with Spidey’s more playful spirit. The lack of a counter button means you’re more focused on dodging attacks and closing distances. In my first few encounters, I’m already flipping over enemies and sliding under their legs, the acrobatic slapstick sprinkled with more quips than Nathan Drake giving a roast.
Mashing square executes simple combos but it quickly becomes apparent that you’ll want to connect a variety of moves to work the crowd. For instance, holding square launches an enemy into the air with an uppercut, which you can then continue as an air-combo, dodging a brute charging to the spot where you were just standing. Holding L1 and R1 together also lets you pick up nearby objects, from a trashcan to a car door, to swing around at nearby foes before whacking it over the head of one unlucky goon.
Combat isn’t always smooth in large crowds where auto-targeting may have you going after an enemy different from the one you had in mind, which was the case on a few clumsy attempts against the built-like-a-brick Fisk and his lackeys. Even the early brutes can hit hard, taking a good chunk of your health in succession, so dodging becomes an essential skill to learn. Fortunately, your prowess in combat also helps fill up your focus meter, which can be used for either a flashy Arkham-style one-shot or to heal yourself.
Once the first mission is clear, New York opens up for you to swing around however you like, while also introducing its open world systems. These will no doubt be very familiar, notably the city’s newly installed Oscorp surveillance towers, which you’ll have to descramble first before it opens up activity icons in the nearby vicinity, though I’m none the wiser why it can track a whole lot of collectible backpacks belonging to Peter. You’ll also be alerted to a mugging or car chase on the fly, which you can intervene in. So far, so very Ubisoft, including the big camera pan.
Nonetheless, they don’t feel overly intrusive, with your HUD remaining minimal unless you want to momentarily bring up nearby markers with a click of the right stick. As with Sunset Overdrive, the more conventional aspects feel pretty forgivable when you’re traversing so freely with such grace and style, while an early unlockable skill adds an airborne Tony Hawk flourish, letting you perform flips and spins for extra XP.
Yet while it may seem that you’re going to have the most fun staying above ground, being at street level has its quirks, if only to get a reaction from bemused NPCs. Admittedly, not everyone seems aware of your presence but I get the occasional comment, from “That can’t be the Spider-Man?” to a remark on my “cool cosplay”. Much better is when an impromptu alert has you fighting thugs in broad daylight, which attracts a small crowd cheering on their friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
There’ll also be moments when you’ll take off the suit and play as Peter Parker, albeit mostly limited to specific story beats and the lab where he works as a researcher and scientist. Unlike the movies then, Pete’s high school and Daily Bugle days long behind him - although he’s still behind on rent.
The lab sections exchange hi-octane web-slinging for something more cerebral, such as puzzles where you’re connecting electric circuits together with rotating pieces. After the opening mission winds up leaving Spidey’s suit worse for wear, this is also where Peter crafts a new Advanced Suit - Insomniac’s original take with a giant white spider emblem. Expect to craft even more suit upgrades throughout the game, which will no doubt include variations from the Wall-crawler’s history.
Another gearshift comes near the end of my demo with the introduction of Peter’s long-time love interest Mary Jane Watson, though when the game begins, the two haven’t spoken to each other for six months.
Unlike the damsel and aspiring actress portrayed by Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi’s films, this is a proactive MJ in Pete’s former job as a Bugle journalist. Rather than being presented through just cutscenes or comms chatter, you also get to play as her. While these are mostly basic puzzles and light stealthing as she sneaks around an art gallery owned by Fisk, you have to give kudos to Insomniac for fleshing out her role.
On the whole, Spider-Man may not be offering anything new to open-world games. But when it captures the ecstatic high of swinging through New York so effortlessly, it’s hard to complain. Compared to the grimness of Sony’s other first-party blockbuster offerings, Insomniac’s game has a lighter touch flowing with charm and a genuine sense of fun, just like Spidey himself. That’s ultimately what will compel me to dive straight in and do aerial flips when the game finally launches worldwide on September 7.