Four Fantastic Hours With Spider-Man
The introductory moments are loaded with surprises and hard-hitting superhero action.
Four Fantastic Hours With Spider-Man
I recently had the chance to play four hours of Spider-Man. This extensive play session gave me a better understanding of how this superhero experience is stitched together, as well as how it balances the duality of Peter Parker and his masked alter ego. I have dozens of details to share regarding the open world, combat, and missions, but my time with the game can be distilled into one short message: Be excited. Be very excited.
Earlier this year, I spent roughly a half hour getting to know Insomniac Games' version of Spider-Man for Game Informer's May cover story. This limited hands-on opportunity delivered on the game's proof-of-concept. I walked away from it with a good understanding of the vision for the open-world design, combat complexity, and storytelling ambitions. However, as much as I enjoyed webslinging through New York City's bustling streets, I wondered if that experience would have staying power. I also questioned how much variety would be included in the missions and city activities. Insomniac's boast of this experience being as much about Peter Parker as it is Spider-Man also needed to be seen to be believed.
Regardless, that 30-minute test run was exhilarating. I wanted more of it. After spending another four hours with the game, my excitement level hasn't diminished in the slightest. I now find myself eager to see what happens next in the story.
The Insomniac and Sony representatives that orchestrated this play session told me I played through roughly the first act of the game. This isn't the final version, but Insomniac's creative direction Bryan Intihar said "It's damn close." Little is expected to change between now and launch.
Even after seeing the first act, at the end of my play session, I felt like I was just scratching the surface of what this game has to offer. The big takeaways: The thrill of webswinging doesn't go away. I doubt I'll ever take the fast travel system given just how much fun it is to move through the city.
Regarding the story, while I spent most of my time in various forms of the Spider-Man suit, Peter is front and center in a number of the early story sequences. His relationships are well defined in these moments, and I didn't mind the game slowing down to focus on them. I can also say that mission structure changes dramatically, both in terms of atmosphere and gameplay.
The one hangover question I still don't have a definitive answer to is the variety in city activities. At the end of my play session, I was just getting a taste of those diversionary tasks. They roll out slowly, and it looks like they are all introduced during the critical path.
Did any new hesitations arise? Just one. I found myself gaining new suits and the means to unlock them quickly. Getting new stuff to play with is almost always a good thing in games, but it felt like Insomniac was throwing them out like candy at a parade. That said, a number of the suits were greyed out at the end of my session. Some of the other unlockable content I stumbled upon can only be obtained at level 50, so the suit rollout may slow. I hope some are saved for the endgame.
I know I'm singing Spider-Man's praises through most of this preview, but that doesn't mean it's a Game of the Year contender yet. I can tell you it has a hell of an introduction and only gets better as it goes, but I have no idea what to expect next. There's a chance it could all fall apart or run into repetition issues – we'll have to wait for the final game to hit on September 7 before we can truly weigh in on the full experience.
Now it's time for the obligatory spoiler alert. I do spoil a few small things in this writeup. I couldn't talk about certain aspects of the game without giving them story context. I don't write about any big revelations or surprises, but you will learn more about where characters are at specific points in the story. My write up mostly focuses on the game systems and structure. That said, please read at your own risk.
Peter Parker, The Hard-Working Scientist
When I visited Insomniac Games for Game Informer’s Spider-Man cover story, I was continually told one of the biggest secrets in the game is Peter’s employer. We know he doesn’t work as a photographer for the Daily Bugle anymore, and is barely scraping by in New York City as a scientist. The cost of living in the Big Apple is nothing to sneeze at, but as a scientist, you’d think Peter would be doing okay – better than almost getting evicted from a rundown studio apartment, at least. These little breadcrumbs are all we know of his current line of work.
During my play session, I learned who Peter’s employer is, and why Insomniac wants to keep it under lock and key until the game releases. This reveal, along with all of the events that happen shortly after it, are damn good, and are testament to the engaging narrative web Insomniac is spinning.
One element that makes this moment sing is just how much it slows down to focus on Peter and all of the people around him. We even get to step into Peter’s shoes (and white lab coat) for a day of work. His lab is littered with circuit boards, microscopes, piles of paperwork, and signs that these scientists basically live in this space. They even have a small workout corner with a treadmill and various weights.
Experiencing Peter’s line of work isn’t just a one-off moment, either. All Research Tokens that players can earn are offered as rewards for completing some of Peter’s work. Insomniac has a long history of making puzzle-like minigames in Ratchet & Clank, and you’ll come across two puzzle exercises in Peter’s lab.
The first minigame pushes the player to fix a servo control path on a circuit board. On a small black surface, you must figure out how to connect an electrical line (from an entry point to an exit) using a limited number of pieces. One piece may hook to the right, another may have multiple openings but the electrical current can only flow through it in one direction. The first control path is easy to solve, and rewards the player with XP. The second one took me some time, as there were various ways to try to connect the path, but only one is correct given the pieces at my disposal. Only a few levels of this minigame are available at this moment in play, but more open up as Spider-Man levels up – meaning you’ll have to come back if you want to gather all of the Research Tokens.
The second minigame, or line of work Peter dabbles in, involves a spectrograph, a lab instrument that separates light into frequency. In this case, that frequency consists of vertical lines on what appear to be microscope slides. All of the lines are spaced out in different spots on the slide. This is difficult to describe, but you are tasked to figure out how to combine the lines on all of the slides to match up with the lines on a default slide at the top of the screen. This may sound easy, but I quickly learned that thinking about how the lines overlap can be quite challenging.
At the conclusion of each of these levels, Peter talks about the polymers and cellular whatnot he is analyzing in the spectrograph. Some of this research may end up tying in with the larger Spider-Man universe Insomniac is creating, but I get the feeling a lot of it revolves around Peter dreaming up new tech for his other job that involves webs.
This slow moment in the lab offers up some fun puzzle gameplay, but more importantly, brings you deep into Peter’s personal life. You get a good sense of how he’s wired as a person from this singular day of work. I love that Insomniac is slowing the pace to enrich Peter's life and relationships.
Kingpin on a Rampage
One of the first things we learned about Spider-Man's story is Kingpin ends up behind bars. This significant victory for Spidey happens in the opening moments of the game. What you don’t know is how this happens. It's a fight (duh), which destroys a good portion of Fisk Tower in the process. Shocker: Kingpin doesn’t throw up his hands to surrender when New York City’s police department surrounds the building. Shocker part two: He also doesn’t give up when Spider-Man shows up in his office.
After a number of beautifully framed and well-written story moments, the webslinger and mob boss throw down in spectacular fashion. Kingpin is surprisingly resourceful and has prepared for his tower to be attacked. When push comes to shove, he acts like an enraged bull, charging all over the place, throwing everything he can – most of the objects are sizable. We're seeing two titans in their prime exchanging blows. Numerous walls, floors, and objects are obliterated. This battle is a showcase of collateral damage and a spectacle to behold.
Quick-Time Events Return
At periodic points during the fall of Kingpin mission, specific story and gameplay sequences transition to interactive moments in which the player must rapidly jam on a button or wait for the precise time to hit one. For instance, I had to lift a large piece of concrete off of two of Fisk’s employees. This required great effort from Spidey, which meant I had to wail on the square button to fill a meter. As the meter ticked upward, the rubble was lifted higher. I didn’t get the chance to see if there was a failure state, but this moment successfully planted the seed that I should always keep my hands on the controller.
None of the quick-time sequences feature the excessive amount of button presses shown in Spider-Man’s E3 debut two years ago. Based on what I played, they are used sparingly, and sync up nicely with the action at hand.
The Structure of the Game
Insomniac has said the open world can be freely explored after the first mission is completed. Yes, you can web swing across the entire city if you so choose, but you won’t find much to do at this point. From what I could tell, most of the side activities are first introduced along the critical path. When you look at your map after the Kingpin mission is wrapped up, you’ll only see static (and maybe Peter's apartment).
The next story mission or point of interest appears after a little bit of time, usually after someone contacts Peter on his phone. Even with four hours dedicated to the game, I didn’t unlock all of the side activities we saw in our cover story demo. Backpacks are one of the first activities you stumble upon. You also engage in random city crimes in the opening moments. The first crime you come across is a scripted moment fleshed out with a nice cutscene to set the stage.
With Fisk behind bars, Peter wants to celebrate his victory. He decides to share this moment with someone who has always been close to him. He wants to see May, his adoptive mother (who we all know as Aunt May). You catch up with her at F.E.A.S.T., a homeless shelter operated by Martin Li.
This story moment begins with the player taking control of Peter again. The space the player can navigate within F.E.A.S.T. is surprisingly large, and most of it is filled with things to see and people to interact with. Most of the workers and people who utilize F.E.A.S.T.’s services know Peter and want to converse with him. When you walk near some of these individuals, their animation changes to recognize you. They may wave or nod at you. Some of them even start talking, perhaps sharing a story about a moment in their life, or they may ask Peter how he’s doing. Pete responds to these conversations, and the player is sometimes given a prompt to interact with these people further.
One of these people of interest is Li. When you chat with him, the game transitions to the cutscene of May’s party, which I previously detailed in the cover story I will never stop talking about. After this joyful sequence ends, the player is once again given freedom to explore the facility. If you go upstairs, you’ll find May in her office, hard at work. The cork board behind her is filled with children’s illustrations. You learn these drawings came from Peter when he was a kid. In reality these pictures were made by some of Insomniac Games’ employees' children. If you want to learn more about what's happening in the city, you can walk over to television sets to watch short news clips.
You can explore F.E.A.S.T. as much as you want, and simply need to leave through the front doors to kick off the next mission.
The city apparently wants to remove any hint of Fisk from its streets as quickly as possible. Peter learns that most of Fisk Tower's prized property is being auctioned off at an estate sale, which has some uninvited guests. The sale is being conducted at a gallery called Rosemann’s (yes, this is named after Marvel Games’ executive creative director, Bill Rosemann).
When Peter arrives, he sees the venue has been seized by mysterious masked individuals. These are Mister Negative’s henchmen, and this is Spider-Man’s first time confronting them. This location also serves as the game’s first required stealth sequence. As Spidey slowly crawls through the ceiling-based ventilation network, he can yank his foes up into the vents with him (by simply hitting the square button at an opening), or drop down to quietly knock them out. The best touch to the stealth takedowns is Spidey webbing up the mouth of a guard to silence them before the assault. You can also use webbing as a distraction. If you shoot a web near an enemy, they’ll go check it out. If you shoot a metal object, the “dinging” sound will lure them over as well.
If you are spotted, and can’t take out the adversaries quickly, they panic and you will reach a failure state, in which one of Mister Negative’s hired hands guns down the estate sale’s curator. This short little cutscene is disturbing, but shows the great lengths Insomniac is going to give almost every little moment a fully featured story explanation. You are then kicked back to the last checkpoint to try again.
As Spider-Man works his way through Fisk’s wide assortment of ancient collectibles – most of which are protected behind glass you can sometimes shatter – he runs into someone unexpected: Mary Jane Watson.
Playing as Mary Jane Watson
Peter and Mary Jane have been broken up for a while, and this unexpected meeting shows they haven’t stayed in contact. I won’t go into what is said between the two, but it eventually gives way to the game’s screen fading to black and the words “15 minutes earlier” appearing.
You are now exploring the estate sale as Mary Jane well before Mister Negative’s crew arrives. You’ll have to wait to see why she is there, but this moment shows she’s a crafty reporter with a few tricks up her sleeves.
Mary Jane can walk and run, and will eventually need to use stealth to silently work her way through the estate sale. While ducking, she can still move quickly thanks to the sprint button. An enemy’s awareness of you is highlighted by a meter that fills above their head. If they catch a glimpse of you, they’ll walk your way to investigate. The meter is quite forgiving, so I had plenty of freedom to navigate the area.
Mary Jane is equipped with a camera, and can snap photos of anything she sees. She will even comment on Fisk’s items when snapshots are taken of certain objects. One of Fisk’s prized possessions is a cello named Vanessa, which is a direct reference to his comic book history. Mary Jane also engages in a fairly complex puzzle that involves item manipulation.
Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent playing as her. She isn’t bouncing off of walls or engaging in combat, but the intensity of her gameplay was well established, and the stealth gameplay was quite fun. Using a flashback to stitch together the narrative works well in this instance.
The Passage of Time
You won’t see Peter retreat to his apartment at night, or be alerted of what day it is, but you will see the main characters wearing different clothing, and certain missions give way to day or night changes. The city is just as colorful at night, establishing a different type of warmth and intimacy with its yellow streetlights and vibrant neon signs. I didn’t get a good look at the denizen night activity to see if their numbers are thinned or if they have different behaviors, but the city itself takes on a whole different identity when the sun goes down.
Web Swinging is Disabled in Some Areas
In some interior sections with lower ceilings, Spider-Man won't be able to web swing. This caught me off guard, as I was using web swinging as an evasive tactic in outdoor battles and suddenly couldn't use that technique in parts of Fisk Tower. The ceiling height in some areas where I couldn’t web swing appeared to be around 20 to 25 feet.
The Game Is Challenging
I played on the Amazing difficulty level (I detail these later) and found most combat exercises to be good tests of skill. Kingpin’s towers are particularly brutal, and push the player to work through waves of heavily armed foes. One direct shot from a rocket launcher can change the flow of battle, but there are far more menacing enemies to deal with. The larger Fisk-like foes, which charge at you in an effort to give you a big, ol’ hug, are far more of a threat. I died numerous times in some fights with these guys. When you perish, the game loads for a few seconds and then spits you right back into the action.
Critical path story missions appear as yellow icons in the world. You’ll also come across blue ones that represent side missions. I played through one of them that… well… was odd. I won’t go into exactly what happens in this lengthy diversion, but can safely say that a woman named Stephanie is obsessed with something in the park. She required Spider-Man's assistance, but things quickly go south and all hell breaks loose. Again, the little details are everywhere. This side mission was fully fleshed out with story, spoken dialogue, and cutscenes.
Almost everything Spider-Man does in the game nets the player experience points. When enough XP is earned, a message will appear onscreen alerting you that a new level has been reached. This milestone rewards you with a skill point that can be used to gain a new power. Each level also rewards you with set bonuses. When I reached level three, my melee damage increased 10 percent. At level five, I earned a 10 percent health boost. Some powers, suits, and gadgets cannot be unlocked unless the player reaches specific levels. For instance, to improve the impact web gadget, you’ll need to reach level 10 to up the knockback range, level 15 for the maximum number of shots, level 20 to increase the knockback range again, and level 25 to add a cascade effect. Cascade spreads webbing to enemies if they collide with one another. Out of all of the level-based unlocks, level 50 was the highest requirement. We’ll have to wait to see if that's the cap.
The Skill Tree
When skill points are earned, the player can exchange them for abilities that fall into three categories: Innovator, Defender, and Webslinger. The latter deals with webswinging and city traversal. Defender is exactly what you would expect, and Innovator is mostly focused on improvisational stuff like throwing items. The introductory powers in each category require one skill point, but you’ll eventually run into others that require more, along with specific player levels that must be reached before they can be activated. Most of the skills add nuance to web swinging and combat. They range from a pistol yank to extending the range of the perch takedown.
We were originally told a charge jump wouldn’t be in the game, but it appears Insomniac’s stance on this power has changed over the course of development (and perhaps from so many of you requesting it). You won’t be able to use Charge Jump right away, however, and will first have to unlock it within the Webslinger skill path. I didn’t get to test it out in my playthrough, but I did see a video of it (all skills have teaser videos). In this clip, Spider-Man ducks down for a second and then launches himself high into the air. If I had to guess, I’d say his vertical is about 25 feet. To perform the Charge Jump, you simply need to press R2 and X simultaneously.
Tricking for XP
Want to add a little flair to your webswinging? The Air Tricks skill allows the player to perform mid-air roll maneuvers by simultaneously holding the triangle and circle buttons. I tested out this skill over the course of most of my playthough, and found it to be a great addition to long-distance traversal.
As soon as I let go of the web line, I tapped triangle and circle together to make Spider-Man curl up into a ball and flip through the air. Each trick nets him bonus XP and extra focus. I don't know if there are ways to initiate different tricks or if they are just randomly cycled, but you can see a moonsault in the GIF above. No matter how complex this system ends up being, getting more XP from this fun little activity could be a great way of helping achieve levels faster. The XP reward isn’t much, but it will add up over time.
You won’t be able to enter Peter’s apartment whenever you want, but it does show up on the map and is featured in the opening cinematic and likely cutscenes over the course of the game. His apartment is located on the eastern side of Chinatown.
Completing activities rewards you with experience points and tokens, which are divided up into six categories: Research, Landmark, Base, Crime, Challenge, and Backpack. You’ll use this strange form of currency to build suits, gadgets, and powers.
Insomniac still won't say how many suits are in the game, but did give me a look at a couple of exciting additions to Spider-Man’s latex closet. Along with the Advanced suit, here are the other suits I unlocked within four hours of play:
- Classic (Damaged)
This familiar guise doesn’t fare well in the opening minutes of play, and, thanks to Kingpin, ends up with cuts all over it. No special powers are tied to this version of the suit.
- Classic (Repaired) – Web Blossom
Spider-Man doesn’t throw away his gear! He instead decides to repair it (and yes, you see him do this). When this outfit is as good as new again, it can unleash the Web Blossom special attack.
The Noir suit was revealed in our cover story (did you know Spider-Man was on our cover?), but Insomniac didn’t want to talk about the power tied to it. We now know it can activate the Sound of Silence special attack, which eliminates enemies’ abilities to call in back up. This suit can be crafted when the player obtains two Backpack and two Base tokens.
- Scarlet Spider
I wore this suit for most of my play session. This is the Ben Reilly original, complete with the awful blue hoodie and giant webbing wrist bracelets. The level of detail in the suit is impressive. The hoodie is an independent object that moves realistically when Spidey performs acrobatic feats. Using sophisticated AR tech, Spider-Man can project holo decoys as the Scarlet Spider. They stand motionless in the environment, and look a bit like the holograms in Star Wars. These projections also use voice clips to distract foes. Peter is wildly amused by his holograms and periodically says something about them. You’ll need three Crime tokens and two Landmark tokens to unlock this relic from yesteryear.
- Spider-Armor MK II
This black and yellow suit looks like it’s made out of metal and gives Spider-Man extra defense with the bulletproof ability. When this power is activated the magnetically polarized shell can deflect bullets…even those of snipers! To purchase it you’ll need one Base, one Landmark, and two Research tokens.
- Secret War
The oddest-looking suit in the game so far (and one of the strangest Spidey has ever worn) allows players to discharge an EMP that can stun and disable weapons. You’ll need two Backpack, one Base, and two Research tokens to use it.
You can have three suit mods active on most suits. These range from things like ballistic Inserts, which reduce incoming bullet damage, to Life Support, an enhancement that automatically consumes some of the focus bar to heal you when you are on the verge of death.
I never thought of Spider-Man as a Jedi before, but some of the gadgets give him Force-like abilities. I had the chance to play around with the previously known Web Shooters, Impact Web, and Spider-Drone, and could have unlocked the Web Bomb, and Trip Mine if I played just a little longer. I also saw short videos of two more gadgets:
- Concussive Blast
Spider-Man unleashes what appears to be a soundwave that knocks enemies back just like a Force Push. You can unlock this gadget at level 10 with two Challenge and three Crime tokens.
- Suspended Matrix
This wild piece of technology lifts enemies into the air and keeps them suspended for a few seconds. It’s a higher-level addition, requiring you be level 25. It costs two Base and four Challenge tokens.
Revealing the City
The map of New York City remains blanketed in a fog of war until Spider-Man activates surveillance towers scattered across building tops. Each tower reveals a portion of the map, much like the synchronization points in the Assassin’s Creed games. When that area is exposed, Spider-Man can scan it to see the locations of side activities. The towers don’t automatically activate. Spider-Man will need to sync his phone to them first – an act that is handled with a short minigame in which the player must rotate both analog sticks to match the phone’s waveform with the tower’s.
Every little thing you do in the game is tracked, and you can view it all in the Benchmarks tab in your in-game menu. Achieving a benchmark nets you with more experience points. A couple of examples are web throwing 100 enemies to performing a 50-hit combo 30 times.
Spider-Man is a litterbug. He leaves backpacks all across the city. Each one contains an item from his past. You can view these items at any time within the in-game menu, and can even rotate them. When you explore this inventory, Peter verbally shares some thoughts on each item. There are 55 backpacks to track down in the game. Intihar says that there’s a reward for finding them all.
When new villains and people of interest appear in the story, they are added to a character bios tab. You can click on each one to learn more about who they are.
Peter & M.J.'s Cameras
When I first used the camera (which you can do at any point by pressing up on the d-pad), Peter voiced his love of photography and said he wanted to get back to it at some point. I was impressed with the little details on the camera HUD, such as tiny logos showing HDR and flash being active, the battery charge at 70 percent, and a 32 MB memory card inserted.
I used the camera for a good five minutes to snap photos of people on the streets and the impressive skyline. I took a photo of a building that ended up being a secret landmark. I had no idea that secret landmarks were in the game. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal what this particular building was, but I will say, if you see a structure that looks different, whip out the camera and take a shot. You can even do this while airborne.
That Daredevil Guy
During one of my aimless web swinging exploration moments, I heard a subtle “ping” sound that indicated a backpack was nearby. I stopped dead in my tracks, and scoured the area to locate its origin point. After locating it, Peter discovered it contained a sole business card that was handed to him by a certain Matt Murdock. The card read “Nelson & Murdock: Attorneys at Law” and featured braille writing on it. As you look at the card, Peter shares a funny story about meeting Murdock.
J. Jonah’s Talk Show
Periodically throughout the game, Peter will cue up the newest episode of Just the Facts with J. Jonah Jameson. I heard a few during my play time, including one in which Jameson has a rather heated (yet amusing) conversation with a plumber. My focus was diverted during the second episode, and I didn’t catch all of what was being discussed. Thankfully, these episodes can be replayed at any point. You’ll find a tab in the menu that allows you to listen to any of Jameson’s shows.
The Loading Screens
The game features two types of loading screens: a black screen with a small pulsating Spider-Man logo in the lower right-hand corner, and a more interesting loading screen that features a still image and tips the player can freely scroll through by pressing X. The still image is always of Spider-Man, and he wears the suit you are currently using during play.
I dove into all of the menus to see how much of the game can be tweaked mid-play. Photo mode wasn’t active during my demo, but it appears most of the other settings were.
You can create six different save files in Spider-Man. While it appears auto saving occurs often (even at key points mid-mission), you can also manually save the game whenever you want. You can also load from your last save point should you run into trouble or want to retry a particular sequence.
From the outset of play, you are asked if you want to play the game on the Friendly, Amazing, or Spectacular difficulty level. Despite the somewhat intimidating name, Amazing is the default difficulty setting. Spectacular features stronger and more aggressive enemies. If you find one of these settings is a little too difficult or easy, you can switch it at any point during play.
I didn’t have any issues with the camera at any point during play, but players can change the look sensitivity, the follow camera, and swing camera motion.
In addition to typical sliders for sound, music, and subtitles, Spider-Man offers a variety of listening modes. You can select mixes for home theater, television, headphones, maximum, and midnight.
If you aren’t a fan of the film-like qualities Insomniac uses and would rather have a cleaner view of the action, you can turn off motion blur, film grain, and chromatic aberration (a film effect filter that makes things slightly out of focus on the corners). You can also turn off HDR and tweak the brightness levels.
Now we wait...
That's the end of my impressions, and this will likely be the last preview opportunity we have until the game hits stores. As of this writing, we just have 36 days to wait, people. Just 36 days.