As “Marvel’s Spider-Man” begins, the action is breathtaking as I happily swing high among Manhattan’s skyscrapers, high enough to fly through a flock of squawking pigeons. And when I saw the 102-story Empire State Building in the distance, I wanted to scale the Art Deco masterpiece of Indiana limestone by running up the top to check out the gobsmacking vista. It is quite the scene to behold — the boat-filled Hudson River and the golden sunny sky over New Jersey. At its best the experience can feel so real that I wasn’t certain whether a police siren came from outside my Manhattan apartment or from the game.
On closer examination, though, this open world is an approximation of New York City that isn’t always exactly alive. On the Empire Building observation deck, the tourists don’t recognize my costume as they do on many city streets, and they don’t react when I engage them or even bump into them. Just as I was thrilled by the views and wild web swinging, I was briefly taken out of the game.
Early on, this game suffers from the conundrum of many which feature a great city as a living character. You can’t go into every building or landmark, but you can visit many lush roof decks that feature hipsters, music and bottles of wine. They won’t engage you, either, unfortunately. When I accepted a rescue mission near the East River, I heard a police radio mention Corlears Park, the recreational area across the street from real-life me. Game-playing me then freed a man from a car trunk and hurried to my neighborhood — which wasn’t there. That was disappointing (as it was to see Staten Island ferries in the East River estuary, which is not their route). It reminded me of an episode of “24” which took a route through the Delancey Underpass. There is no such thing, and I never really trusted the show’s writers after that.
The gameplay, though, can be remarkably creative with its crazy, in-the-air battles and brain-tickling puzzles. In one exciting, timed mission, you chase Shocker, one of Spider-Man’s numerous foes, through the air at about 50 stories high. (You have to be fast and swing high in the sky because taking time to scale a building wall gives Shocker time to escape.) In another task to restore communication towers, you have to fiddle with the controller sticks to match up sound wave patterns. It’s appealing because it’s not easy. And the in-air battling outdoes anything you witness in a blockbuster Hollywood movie because you are so inside it.
That the gameplay is imaginative is not a surprise. Insomniac Games invented the nuanced “Ratchet and Clank” series, which featured a wide array of weaponry which was sometimes quirky and sometimes hilarious in a retro way (one gun turns enemies into pixels a la old 8-bit games). In Spider-Man, you can upgrade your cache to include very satisfying drones, which spray bullets onto the hordes that ambush you, and a concussive blast, which sends enemies flying. You can also upgrade your superhero suit as you level up.
It’s not all perfection, though. I was disappointed to see my PlayStation Pro freeze. After I raced through the air to capture a super villain, the game stopped just as the final blow was nigh. I restarted the console and, thankfully, the game did not die a second time. Perhaps this will be fixed with a downloadable patch on release day. Still, it bears mentioning since it literally took me out of the game at the pinnacle of adrenaline and tension.
The story, which begins when Doctor Otto Octavius isn’t yet a mad, eight-robotic-armed scoundrel, features the ego-filled Mayor Osborn (a.k.a. Green Goblin) who is trying to stop Otto’s prosthetic-related experiments. Peter Parker toils for the scientist, but can’t even pay his rent with the salary. While the primary missions involve super villains and the creepy Demons gang, the subplots with journalist/former girlfriend Mary Jane and with Parker’s volunteer work are diverting and occasionally touching, if not compellingly deep or nuanced.
Spider-Man becomes properly powerful by the time you are 40 percent through the game, at around level 18, and you really feel like a superhero. You can outmaneuver most enemies with a web that pulls you across a room with satisfying, astonishing alacrity. At the same time, taking three minutes to swing among buildings to your next mission becomes a chore. It’s at this point I looked for the signature humor to get me through. Some of it is there. At one point, Spider-Man remarks that the fourth wave of armed goons is like a rock concert’s fourth encore — a little too much. Witticism like that kept me going, but flying through the air, all you get is the Jonah Jameson audio show, which is an over-the-top riff on Rush Limbaugh. It would have been properly diverting to have more than one channel for variety, as in a Grand Theft Auto game.
While the story is full of twists, it’s often obvious where and how the plot will turn. There will be character death, I detected early on, so I prepared myself. For me, the most affecting part of the narrative occurs when there’s terrorist activity in Manhattan. If you were there on 9/11, immersive fiction may still hit far too close to home. Many, however, will likely find these moments as thrilling plot points.
The overall result is a spectacular experience that wins with varied play, humor and amusement parklike excitement. But the experience is lessened, too, by predicable narrative, and the limited reactions of the non-playable denizens who populate this open world island of Manhattan.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of video games Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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