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I was taking a quick walk down the street in Insomniac Games’ new Spider-Man when a crowd began to surround me. The only time I’ve been surrounded by crowds in other games is when they’re about to jump me. This one started to cheer though. A guy in a Snapback and Timbs came up to high-five me. A young woman snapped a picture. Another woman offered to do my taxes for me. After basking in adoration for about 30 more seconds I zipped up to a lamp post and off into the New York night to the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ of my adoring public. I felt like a hero.
Spider-Man’s core mechanics are the bare bones of what makes the game so good. The momentum and control afforded to you as you swing thousands of feet above Manhattan is awe-inspiring. Perching atop the Empire State building, the Chrysler building or even Avengers Tower makes you feel like a superhero. Effortlessly beating up an entire warehouse full of bad guys with your fists, feet and web shooters before wrapping them all up in one big ball of webbing makes you feel like a superhero. An early game boss battle with the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, that has you smashing through every floor of a skyscraper makes you feel like a superhero. But while being a superhero is cool, being a plain old hero is cooler.
It’s the little details of being a hero that make everything really gel in Spider-Man. The Alex Jones-style podcast Just the Facts with *TWO TIME* Pulitzer prize-winning journalist J. Jonah Jameson consistently rails against Spiderman despite the fact that the entire city seems to love him. It’s a great update of the character and even though he’s not voiced by J. K. Simmons – the greatest incarnation of the firebrand character – the new voice actor Darin De Paul does a great job. At one point he demands that the super villain Vulture, recently diagnosed with cancer, should be allowed to die. He then says: “Now that may seem harsh but SO IS MY TAX BILL!” It’s not unreasonable to imagine that if superheroes did exist then Alex Jones would say something like that.
Elsewhere in the main story the voice acting is equally stellar. Yuri Lowenthal plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man as the lovable goofball that he is. Though he’s spent eight years as Spider-Man and he’s now 23 it’s clear that he’s yet to truly fill out the Man part of his moniker. Still it’s easy to forgive him considering he spends night and day trying to make the world a better place. Spider-Man surrounds himself with good people such as his Aunt May – now running a homeless shelter – and ex-girlfriend Mary Jane Watson. Though Peter and MJ are broken up it’s clear that they’re both still hopelessly in love with each other and the game eases the characters back into the relationship naturally. As natural as dating a man who can crawl on walls can be anyway.
The games everyone will compare Spider-Man to is the Batman: Arkham series. This is a fair point as the mix of combat and stealth is fairly similar but Batman never really felt appreciated in those games. As much as I enjoyed the Arkham games, despite the eventual diminishing returns, being Batman felt like a thankless job. The inmates of Arkham Asylum were never going to thank you for breaking all manner of bones. Same goes for Arkham City and in Arkham Knight there was no one left in an evacuated Gotham to thank you for stopping whatever apocalyptic scenarios the villains had cooked up. Being Spider-Man is better. Not only do you beat up muggers but you save people from car wrecks, rescue a homeless man’s escaped pigeons and help Harry Osborn improve New York’s air, water and living quality.
Spider-Man asks what it is to be a good person and then acts on it. It imagines what having great power would be like and then makes Spider-Man aware of the great responsibility he must bear. It presents a New York that rallies behind its friendly neighbourhood hero regardless of the spiteful podcasters and vengeful villains that are out there. Ordinary citizens warn and assist Spider-Man in stopping the criminal machinations of the likes of Taskmaster, Kingpin and Mr Negative. The game’s fast travel system is the New York subway and it gives the game a sense of that commuter community we all have a love/hate relationship with. People give Spider-Man odd looks, he checks his Twitter and people sleep on his shoulder but no one really bothers him because on a bus or a train we’re all the same.
Spider-Man is just an everyday guy. Even if Peter Parker didn’t have his powers he’d still be trying to save the world through his work with Dr Otto Octavius. He helps out at Aunt May’s shelter. He’d probably have a better work-life balance if he wasn’t Spider-Man but we all have our cross to bear. Spider-Man does more than make you feel like a superhero it makes you feel like a decent person and that’s what every superhero game should strive for. No matter how seriously or not it takes itself a game that puts you in a latex suit with extraordinary powers should make you feel not only that you can save the world but that you should save the world.