I’ll start by addressing the big problem with this game: On its easy difficulty setting (dubbed “Friendly”), the game is much too hard for casual players — at first.
The game starts in media res, with Spider-Man fighting the thugs of Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. Since this videogame is frequently compared with Batman: Arkham Asylum, I’ll make my own comparison: the start of B:AA started you out with a couple of keypresses, and gave you time to learn how to use them. Spider-Man starts with deluging you with keypress combinations (and there are more to come!), and you have to use all of them right away.
In B:AA, you had a chance to learn how to play before your first Big Boss battle. In Spider-Man, after several times when my avatar was killed and I had to start over, I was thrust immediately into a Boss battle. It wasn’t clear what to do, and my avatar was killed over and over again.
Finally, I got through it, more by luck than skill. I turned off the game, disgusted and frustrated. I had no plans to play the game again, and resigned myself to having wasted the money. My impression was that, in the “Friendly” setting, the designers had reduced the number of hits it takes to take down an enemy, but kept the precision timing needed to press the controls. A clumsy, casual player like myself had no chance.
A couple of days later, I decided to give it one last try. After that punishing beginning, the game eases up. There were three types of quests that required no combat: activating police antenna, finding old backpacks, and taking pictures of New York City landmarks. I completed all of those, dipping my toe into some less-intense combats. By the time I completed all of those non-combat quests, I was level 12 with some new skills. Now I found I could play the actual game.
The hallmark of Spider-Man is a detailed rendering of New York City for Spider-Man to swing around in. Unlike Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Lara Croft series, or the Uncharted games, you can immediately travel to any part of the play area. You can’t leave the borders of Manhattan, so you can’t swing around the Statue of Liberty. Otherwise, every major NYC landmark is there, plus some sites (like the Avengers Tower or the Oscorp Building) that exist in the Marvel Universe. I went to school at Columbia University, so I swung over to 114th and Broadway, and the major buildings of the CU campus were there, including Low Library. (NYU is replaced by its Marvel equivalent, Empire State University.)
New York City is one example of the game’s general graphic excellence. There are no pre-rendered cinematics; there are plenty of cut-scenes, but you can tell they’re rendered in real time because Spider-Man always appears in whatever costume you’ve chosen for him.
As I alluded above, Spider-Man is like the Arkham series or the Lara Croft games in that you earn experience to buy skills. Various side quests (including the non-combat ones) let you pick up tokens to purchase upgrades to your equipment and your Spider-Man costume. Your enemies also become more powerful as the game goes on; by the end of the game it seems that half the thugs have laser-mounted sniper rifles. By that time, I’d picked up enough skills that I could have taken out that initial Fisk mob easily.
In other reviews, much has been made of the way you can swing Spider-Man around New York, controlling the duration and height of the swings. If you’re not on a mission, it’s fun. However, the designers of Spider-Man put in the “Batmobile”. I don’t mean that literally; what I mean is that they included missions that required precise control of the web-swinging to complete them within a given amount of time. This same element (precision control of the Batmobile) ruined Batman: Arkham Knight for me; I describe that in detail in my B:AK review.
For the most part, you can quit any such missions with no lasting consequences, except that you may not be able get the tokens associated with that mission. I finally picked up the hint that Spider-Man moves faster with many short swings. Also, swing speed increases with Spider-Man’s level, so I was able to complete the couple of mandatory chases and a few of the optional ones. I still found the process to be messy; it was all too easy to screw up one keypress and find Spider-Man zooming off in a direction I did not intend.
The story: As a derivative of the standard Marvel comic-book Spider-Man, I found it to be engaging. Spider-Man doesn’t bother with an origin story (at least, not for Spider-Man). Peter Parker has finished college, is working for Dr. Otto Octavius (yes, he does), in a city whose mayor is Norman Osborne (no, he doesn’t; that’s left for the sequel). His relationship with Mary Jane Parker is on a time-out. Aunt May is working at F.E.A.S.T., a homeless shelter in lower Manhattan. At first, the general plot of the game is cleaning up after the Kingpin is sent to jail. Then a new faction enters the field…
I’ll give positive marks for one aspect of the game that other reviewers don’t seem to like: the mini-games. At some points during the game there are both optional and mandatory pattern-matching puzzles to solve to gain experience and advance the plot. I liked them, mainly because I needed the break from the sometimes intense button-mashing required for much of the game.
My final score: I start with five stars for graphical excellence, the rendering of NYC, the plot, and the puzzles. Then I subtract one star for each of the things that frustrated me: the punishing beginning (for casuals on easy mode) and the “Batmobiling” of the web-swinging required for too many missions. So I give the game three stars out of five.