In Marvel's Spider-Man for PS4, the latest video game version of the web-swinging, crime-fighting comic book character, New York City is a concrete jungle gym of massive proportions. After overcoming the learning curve involved with hammering a complex set of controls into the player's brain, it becomes second nature to guide the character through acrobatic maneuvers ranging from sprinting up the sides of skyscrapers and scuttling across the undersides of bridges to free-falling from stomach-dropping heights into effortless pendulum swings, anchored by webby ropes.
A typical sequence of events sees the player flinging Spider-Man like a cannonball across a stretch of Manhattan. Once airborne, the horizon is scanned for a bright yellow story mission marker or one of the red icons that may signify an armed robbery, a gunfight between police and criminals, or other spontaneous crisis. Letting go of the swing button just above his destination, the superhero plummets to his destination, perhaps anchoring a web to a homicidal mook's face in order to zip into action against a crowd of enemies, who are quickly dispatched with a rhythmic patter of punching, kicking, and web-splattering.
Everything feels loose and joyful, Spider-Man a constantly stretched elastic that springs across a New York rendered in autumnal colors crisp enough to suggest the sensation of a cool wind blowing into the player's face. The sandbox Manhattan, littered with upgrade collectibles and side missions, feels not like the usual attempt to inflate hours spent playing an open-world game with busywork but a collection of reasons to role-play as Spider-Man by doing a nearly endless list of Spider-Man-y tasks meant to improve the lives of average New Yorkers.
In making its player feel as if she's really become its starring superhero, Marvel's Spider-Man is an unequivocal success. In using this foundation as the vessel for a worthwhile story, though, it falters. Set nearly a decade into scientific wunderkind Peter Parker's career as Spider-Man, the game spends two dozen or so hours just sort of fumbling through a greatest hits of comic book scenarios. An opening sequence sees the hero defeat and imprison the towering mob boss, Kingpin, before realizing that the power vacuum left in his wake will only allow other criminals to swarm in.
From here, the game moves through a number of nebulously defined plot points, largely revolving around the machinations of the archvillain Mister Negative (whose Chinese-speaking gang and nefarious obsession with dualistic monism tinges the plot with a hopefully unintentional xenophobia) and a bunch of terrorist plots so blandly threatening they ultimately blend into an amorphous whole. By the time the credits roll, a lot has happened, but none of it feels truly connected. The effect is a story that's dramatically flat and, aside from the almost constant stream of bad jokes Spider-Man cracks during fights, weirdly dark in tone.
Next to colorful supervillain plots and science fiction plot devices, Marvel's Spider-Man features constant gun battles, civilian bombings, murder, and an instance of suicide. At its best, these grim elements turn the game's version of New York City into a setting capable of surprisingly direct commentary on how buried history may take violent form in the present, the complexity of morally responsible crime-fighting (even of the superheroic variety), and, most explicitly, how totalitarian politics can arise in response to a governmentally exploited fear of terrorists.
At its worst, these topics fizzle out into pointless dead ends without following through to coherent commentary, becoming aesthetic markers alone and introducing the thorny question of what business this kind of subject matter has within a story that otherwise seems most suitable for children and young adult audiences.
When the story touches on Spider-Man's most relatable struggles — the financial, familial, and romantic concerns that ground the heroics of his best stories — it shows glimpses of something far more fascinating. (A running subplot involving one of Spider-Man's young admirers, grief-stricken and in need of guidance, is particularly well told.) Too often, though, the narrative is grim and meandering. Luckily, even in these instances, the action that surrounds each new story beat makes it easy to ignore the specifics of the plot at large and simply enjoy the spectacle of the game's gorgeously portrayed and thrillingly choreographed fight scenes.
Marvel's Spider-Man is opulent in a way that only the terrifyingly vast budgets of the biggest games can be, introducing detailed locations meant to be explored only for minutes at a time and capping off a seemingly endless variety of supervillain fights with adrenaline-soaked scenarios that see the player scrabbling free of collapsing buildings, chasing fleeing helicopters over the rooftops of entire neighborhoods, or beating up on powerful enemies in an ever-escalating series of set pieces. Here, the immediate drama of life-and-death situations is controlled with an expert hand absent in the larger narrative.
And in the end, it's these aspects of the game that stand out. What prevails in Marvel's Spider-Man isn't its unfocused storytelling or tonal confusion, but the sheer exhilaration of embodying the character as he whips across the New York City skyline, defeating enemies and rejoicing in the freedom of movement afforded by his amazing (spectacular, astonishing, sensational) powers. In all of this, the player is allowed to actually feel something only shown in comic books, movies, and cartoons before —what it's like to be Spider-Man.