Taking a cue from Rocksteady’s Batman series, Marvel’s Spider-Man incentivizes exploration through its deep progression system. Unfortunately, where Arkham Knight offered fun activities to complete in exchange for WayneTech points, Spider-Man‘s side activities don’t always match the excitement of the things you can unlock when completing them.
There are several different ways that you’ll be able to upgrade your Spider-Man. The upgrades that will most significantly affect your gameplay experience are your skills. These skills will unlock new abilities and give Spider-Man passive upgrades that will make life a little easier.
These upgrades are divided into three different skill trees—Innovator, Defender, and Web-Slinger, at least in the demo I played—that include over a dozen different skills each. Innovator skills unlock new combat moves and increase the effectiveness of stealth takedowns. Defender skills will help Spider-Man stay alive longer by, for example, increasing your window for a successful dodge and generally increasing your health and damage resistance. Finally, the Web-Slinging tree offers new options for web-based maneuvering and combat, like the skill which unlocks a swinging attack where you can kick enemies across the room.
You’ll unlock these upgrades by earning experience points and leveling up your Spider-Man. Every time you hit a new level, you get a skill point that you can then spend towards these skills. Most will cost one skill point, though a handful cost two. You’ll earn experience points by completing missions and side quests, which you’ll want to do anyway, making skills the most passive upgrades to unlock. After playing for about three hours and having access to a minimal amount of activities and missions, I’d already reached level 7 or 8, meaning I already unlocked a bunch of new skills that substantially added to my enjoyment of the combat and web-swinging. One skill, in particular, let me pull off tricks while web-swinging, which not only filled up my focus bar (the thing you use to heal) but also let me earn trace amounts of experience points. That particular skill, therefore, was a pretty solid early-game choice.
But skills are just the beginning when it comes to progression. Players will also unlock new suits, new suit mods, and new gadgets over the course of the game, all of which come with unique abilities and gameplay opportunities.
Unlocking each of Spidey’s 30 or so suits is more than just an aesthetic decision. Each suit you unlock comes with a new special move, which you can execute after filling up your focus bar. Fortunately, once you unlock a special move, you can assign it to any suit. This means that if you like how a suit looks but don’t particularly care for its special move, you can pick another special move as long as you unlocked the suit to which it’s attached. It’s one of those player-friendly decisions that makes you wonder why other developers don’t seem to appreciate their players’ sense of enjoyment and self-expression as much as Insomniac seems to do.
So we’ve got skills and suits. But, as the proverbial game show host would say, that’s not all. You can also unlock new gadgets that you can employ in combat, as well as new suit mods which basically just give Spidey new passive abilities. Gadgets seem to unlock as the story moves forward and Peter has more chances to get to the laboratory where he works. Suit mods seem unlockable at any time in the game.
The sheer amount and variety of upgrades and unlockables can seem a little baffling, but I promise that Insomniac’s UI artists have done a good job organizing all of these unlockables. There’s more than enough stuff to unlock to make a completionist happy, and all of the unlockables provide unique abilities, making them worthwhile.
The main problem I can see with how these unlockables work is what you have to do to actually unlock them. In order to unlock suits, suit mods, and gadgets, you’ll have to collect several different kinds of tokens, and not all tokens are created equal.
You’ll earn different tokens by completing different side activities spread across the map. You’ll earn crime tokens by stopping robberies and saving kidnapped bankers from car trunks (it’s a long story). You’ll earn backpack tokens by finding a bunch of backpacks Peter hid throughout the city in his earlier crime-fighting years. You’ll earn landmark tokens by taking pictures of the various NYC landmarks spread across the map. And you’ll earn outpost tokens by taking down Kingpin’s employees who are still hanging around Fisk’s various construction projects. You can locate all these side activities by finding Oscorp antennas in different sections of the map and recalibrating them. Basically, Insomniac has taken Ubisoft’s tower-based open-world structure and put it in a Spider-Man game.
The problem with this structure is that it creates a huge disparity between which activities are fun and which feel like chores. The outposts and random crimes that pop up are incredibly fun. Sneaking around a construction site as Spider-Man and stealthily taking down Kingpin’s lackeys is a blast, as is beating up waves of them after you inevitably get caught. Likewise, pounding on the random criminals you find in the world never gets old.
Finding backpacks and landmarks are much less engaging, especially after recalibrating the antennas. Doing so will place markers on the map that tell you exactly where the backpacks are hidden or what landmarks you still need to photograph. Spider-Man fans will get a lot of enjoyment from the Easter eggs found in Peter’s backpacks, but the actual act of finding them leaves a lot to be desired. These activities won’t make or break the game by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one place where Insomniac disappointingly submits to open-world cliches, and it stands out like a sore thumb.
The fact that it’s in service of a deep progression system makes it even more disappointing. So much care was put into creating new spider-gadgets and recreating Spidey’s beloved costumes, it’s a shame that some of the open-world stuff just feels like more of the same.