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Spider-Man is headed to the PlayStation 4 (PS4) on September 7, and the game is coming from one of the industry’s most accomplished studios for action-adventures. I played the first several hours of Spider-Man, uncovering the roots of its storyline and wandering freely in Manhattan.
The developer of this new game, Insomniac Games, is famous for making one of my most personally beloved franchises, Ratchet & Clank. The studio’s two most recent triple-A games—a 2016 ground-up remake of the original Ratchet & Clank for PS4 and 2014 Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive—were two of the best I’ve played lately.
Given the funny, clever writing of Ratchet & Clank and the crazy, innovative, open-world traversal of Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac seems like the ideal studio to make a Spider-Man game. And I got the impression that the team there is passionate about it. Before my four-hour play session, the game’s creative director gave a speech loaded with love, admiration, and knowledge of the many decades of Spider-Man comics.
While some superheroes have struggled to find their footing in video games (we’re looking at you, Superman), Spider-Man has had a decent track record. Many fans loved 2004’s Spider-Man 2, for example. All signs point to optimism with this new outing.
After a few hours of play, it was clear that the narrative is full of compelling lore for fans. While some parts were fun and satisfying, I was a little disappointed that the open-world game design didn’t seem to have anything new to say in a crowded genre.
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Let me start by admitting that I’m not the ideal person to brief you on Spider-Man’s history. I watched a Spider-Man cartoon series every Saturday morning when I was a kid, and I’ve since seen most of the Sony Pictures Spider-Man movies. But I’ve only read a couple of Spider-Man comics, and I (pretty happily) fell behind on the Disney Marvel movies somewhere around Doctor Strange. So I haven’t seen Spidey’s latest cinematic adventures.
But I know the main beats, I know the back stories and powers of the popular villains (mostly thanks to the cartoon), and I’m sure there will be lots of people like me interested in this game who like Spidey just fine, but who aren’t superfans. Unfortunately, the game feels like it isn’t really made for us. But I’m sure the dedicated comics fans will love it.
Spider-Man takes place years after some of the character’s most famous struggles; Peter is in his 20s, and he’s working as a scientist. As you could predict, juggling lab stuff with his alternate life as Spider-Man comes with challenges. That’s a big theme in the game, from what I could tell.
Characters from Peter’s life (like Mary Jane and Aunt May) return. MJ fits into the plucky reporter archetype, and she and Peter used to be together in some way but aren’t anymore. The flirtation and tension between them—laden with history both unspoken and spoken—seems like one of the strongest points in the game’s writing. That’s nice to see, given that, with a few exceptions, romance narratives are not usually a strong suit for popular video games (or superhero comics, for that matter).
Other than that, though, I very quickly found that I was having trouble following the story. There were so many characters, and not all of them were explained well. Events were referenced