Marvel’s Spider-Man is a game that I recall getting a lot of extremely positive reviews when it came out, and made it into contention for Game of the Year at a lot of places. On the other hand, the depiction of Peter Parker’s close relationship with the NYPD was consider somewhat problematic at the time – and time has not been kind to that aspect of the story.
The premise of the game is, in short, that as Spider-Man, after having taken down Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, you end up finding a new crime syndicate, The Demons, moving into the power vacuum. Through all of this Peter also juggles helping out at the homeless shelter FEAST, where Aunt May is working, and which is run by local philanthropist Martin Li. Except it turns out Martin Li has a dark secret that connects to the Demons, one which will put of all of New York at risk. Oh, and Peter Parker’s day job? Working with one Dr. Otto Octavius on prosthetic limbs with a neural interface.
Let’s get to the good stuff first. The traversal in this game is amazing. This is the best swinging in a Spider-Man game since Spider-Man 2 for the PS2 and Xbox. There’s a sense of fluidity to the movement in the game, that is emphasized with how the layout of the city is set up – with a range of building heights and architecture throughout Manhattan helps give the player a general idea of where they are by the character of the buildings around them, on top of layouts that change up how you need to navigate – complete with Central Park in the middle of the island, with the option to go around or straight through generally working well no matter which direction you’re going.
On top of that, the game adapts the combat formula of the Arkham games fairly well – with a variety of different enemy types with different weapons and abilities (and thus different tactics) throughout the game. There’s also some really good stealth sequences in the game – some with Intrepid Reporter Mary Jane Watson, and pre-spider-bite Miles Morales, which are generally more conventional, and then sequences with Spider-Man which fit more with the concept of the Predator Sequences from the Arkham games.
Then there’s the story, which is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, the characterization is tremendous. All of the characters are fleshed out tremendously well, with Doc Ock having a wonderfully tragic arc what’s basically takes what’s normally done with Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard and adapts it to Ock incredibly well. The way Peter and Mary Jane’s romance is done is great, and this version of Aunt May is a great amalgam of the 616 and Ultimate versions of the character.
On the other hand – at the time the game caught flack with Spider-Man working closely with the police to a degree that not even Batman does, which, in 2018, felt questionable. In this moment in 2020, it’s outright cringey. Part of me wants to say they couldn’t have foreseen this – except considering the disturbing regularity that black people are killed by police officers, they should have thought through this.
This is not to say that you can’t have sympathetic characters in law enforcement in a work of fiction. One of the things I’ve appreciated from my Knightfall read-through is how Commissioner Gordon, even in Gotham, is trying to turn the GCPD into the kind of police department people want to see, in spite of Mayor Krol trying to get the police department to act like a bunch of jack-booted goons, and Harvey Bullock acting like a Popeye Doyle cosplayer. However, the series recognizes that it’s not the ideal, and that there’s a way to go to get there.
The NYPD of Spider-Man acts like the ideal police department, except when it’s not – a lot of the police officers encountered are wearing tactical gear. While some of this is because you’re encountering them on bomb-squad calls or transporting witnesses (especially in the DLC) – it’s still questionable. It’s an ideal fictionalized present, without examining our far less than ideal reality.
This is somewhat aggravated by the third act of the main game. In the third act The Sinister Six unleash a pandemic on the city in the form of a designer virus that was a side product of research done by Oscorp. In response to this, Mayor Norman Osbourne (who has yet to be the Green Goblin), brings in a PMC run by Silver Sable to continue to police the city, and who also has shoot-on-site orders against Spider-man. This could be a commentary on the growing militarization of police, and the degradation of civil liberties that goes with it – but it’s blunted by basically having the framework of this be “Oh, but it’s not the actual cops.” On top of this, we have a slew of ambient random encounters with escaped prisoners from Ryker’s just taking pot-shots at Spidey as well, which further blunts the point.
The other awkward part of this has this entire act of the game being accompanied by a widespread disease epidemic sweeping through New York, but honestly, Insomniac couldn’t have seen that one coming.
Also, we get J. Jonah Jameson’s rants in the form of snippets of podcasts throughout the game, and while some of them include the level of engaging hyperbole you expect when it comes to Jameson griping about Spider-Man, there are are also plenty of moments – including in the DLC – which has him just tap-dancing up to the line of alt-right talking points, but not committing to go over. While this is a JJJ who is responsible in this universe for creating The Scorpion, it’s still frustrating and obnoxious to hear, and I couldn’t find an option to just turn Jameson off.
So, as a whole, this is probably one of the best games out there which captures the feeling of playing as a particular super-hero. Just expect to hit more then a few moments in the game that will cause you to subconsciously flinch.
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