Insomniac Games is one of those developers that seems to come along and perfect things that other developers have done before but not as well. Spyro set the standard for early 3D platforming after Mario made it possible. Ratchet and Clank were basically Banjo and Kazooie but actually likable and fun to play. Resistance brought large-scale multiplayer to console shooters, though Call of Duty had already made it possible to do so. And perhaps its most unique title, Sunset Overdrive, took inspiration from pretty much every action-based sub-genre to create the ultimate gaming mixtape.
The same goes for Insomniac’s turn with Spider-Man. Pretty much every writer and blogger who’s spent time with Marvel’s Spider-Man has already given their opinion on the game’s version of web-swinging, and the consensus is that it’s the best one yet in a Spider-Man game. And, after spending several hours with a recent demo of the game, I’d agree. It’s more fluid, more physical, and more fun, while also creating a more realistic sense of speed and more natural animations than any other Spider-Man game has offered so far. But the catch is that it’s not super unique. Spider-Man 2 introduced attaching webs to actual buildings, web-zipping, and wall-running to 3D Spider-Man games all the way back in 2004. Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man basically just takes these elements and makes them work together in a naturally fluid way.
Where that Insomniac polish really shines is in the combat. Not only is it the best combat ever in a Spider-Man game, but it can hold its own against pretty much any other action game.
In the most shallow sense, combat in Marvel’s Spider-Man might seem similar to that in previous Spider-Man titles. You’ll regularly encounter large groups of random thugs and henchman that you’ll need to dispatch with a series of melee moves and web-based attacks. That’s pretty standard Spider-fare. The twist is that, once you get into the details of the combat, there’s much more depth and room for improvisation than in any Spider-Man game to date.
Combat might seem simple at first. Square is the basic attack button, triangle is a web-based attack button, circle is dodge, X is jump, and R1 uses whatever gadget you’ve equipped. But it’s how you use those buttons and in what order that makes the difference.
Let me just describe a common fight scenario and how it might play out. Picture Spider-Man surrounded by a group of bad guys. First, he throws a quick 1-2 punch combo before sliding between the enemy’s legs to avoid a gunshot from an enemy behind him. He hits the guy one more time before using him like a human launch pad. From there, Spidey web-zips over to another enemy before sending him skyward with a nasty uppercut. Meeting him in the air, Spider-Man dishes out a couple of nasty hits before wrapping him up in webbing, lassoing him, and whipping him back to earth. Before his friends can react, Spidey ties up another guy with webs and spins him around like a human flail, knocking the rest of the bad guys over. As the coup de grâce, Spider-Man webs up a NYC manhole cover and throws it straight at the face of the aforementioned gunman, knocking him out cold.
The simplicity of the combat controls underlies its variety and improvisational nature. In the moment, the possibilities seem endless, and even listing them off now, I haven’t even begun to touch the different gadgets and moves that players can unlock through the game’s deep and engaging progression system.
The closest comparison to Spider-Man‘s combat that I (and many others) can draw is Rocksteady’s Batman games, which also features a costumed hero beating up gangs of enemies while utilizing different moves and gadgets. The major difference is that combat in the Arkham series feels mostly reactive, whereas Spider-Man‘s combat gives the player all the power they need to feel proactive. Sure, you’ll have to dodge incoming attacks (neatly signified by Spider-Man’s spider-sense), but how you dodge it is up to you, by either pressing circle to perform a standard dodge, jumping and swinging out of the way, or using a well-timed web-zip. The combat in Arkham often devolved into a more frantic version of Simon, in which stringing together combos meant pressing the correctly colored buttons in the correct order, whereas the combat in Spider-Man borders on self-expression.
Insomniac might not have invented the kind of combat you’ll see in Spider-Man, but it’s sure as hell perfected it. Instead of simply mashing buttons until it’s over, Insomniac has figured out a way to make the combat feel like a fight. Every fight feels so unique that, as someone who generally likes to avoid direct contact in games that offer stealth options, I was willingly diving into the middle of groups of bad guys, just to get my knuckles bloody.