One of the very first things you'll do as the amazing eponymous webslinger in Marvel's Spider-Man on PS4 isn't defy gravity to swing from a skyscraper or to pick up a freight train with your bare hands or even to trade blows with a deadly villain in a life or death clash of titans.
Instead, you'll roll out of bed surrounded by discarded Chinese take-out boxes, slam some bread in a toaster, pointedly ignore some overdue bills stuffed under your door and pick up your discarded suit crumpled in a corner - before giving it a furtive sniff to decide whether or not you can get away with wearing it again. This is what Insomniac's Spider-Man is all about. You aren't just stepping into the figure-hugging onesie of an all-powerful hero - you're also becoming 23-year old Peter Parker, a vulnerable and very flawed young adult trying to find his place in the world, who may not always have doing laundry as his top priority.
"This is not an origins story," creative director Bryan Intihar tells us. "That's been done before, many times. This is not another story about 15-year-old Peter Parker taking pictures for the Daily Bugle, getting used to his powers. He's 23 now, he's been Spider-Man for 8 years. He's graduated college, he's pulling double duty as both scientist and superhero and in many ways we've been calling this his next coming of age story."
Intihar explained that there are two major themes driving the story of this Spider-Man game; mentorship and partnership, and both of these are tied to where Peter currently finds himself in life. "We looked for those moments in people's lives we all remember - for me it's when I graduated high school, or obviously now I'm married," he said. "But Peter isn't married with kids, so what's another big time in your life? Right when you graduate college, you start to look for work, build a career. Peter is looking for guidance in his job. For so long for the last eight years he has been saving the city as Spider-Man, but through his work and through his mentorship, he finally feels like he can save the world - change the world - for the first time as Peter Parker. So you're going to see mentorship being carried through this entire game.
"The other big theme is partnership, and that's going to be carried through his on-again off-again relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Another thing I noticed when I graduated college was my relationships and my friendships evolved, they changed. And what Peter is going to realise through MJ is that it's okay to ask for help, it's okay to lean on others even if you are a superhero. So the ideas of mentorship and partnership are really going to drive this coming of age story."
That's one thing you really notice with Insomniac's interpretation of Spider-Man right from the get-go - it's going all out on adversaries. Ones we've already seen include the Sinister Six, Kingpin, Mister Negative, Silver Sable and Norman Osborn - but we're also seeing a real ensemble cast of allies supporting Peter too. Joining MJ is a (presumably pre-Wraith) Yuri Watanabe of the NYPD providing Spider-Man with police intel and back-up, and Miles Morales, a fifteen year old Spider-Man fanboy who grew up in the same city.
"The truth is there's been a ton of movies, there's been a ton of comics, there's been a ton of games - we had to throw something different at people. But at the same time, not make it so foreign that it feels like 'I can't relate to this character.' So we thought hey, if he's been Spider-Man for eight years, you'd think he's had some type of people on the force that maybe one person that kind of likes him? Yuri would be a great example of that." Intihar also confirmed that this was not a Miles Morales that had travelled through some dimensional portal but one who lives in the same world Peter does - interestingly, he wouldn't comment on whether there had been a Gwen Stacey. This world is rich with details on other Marvel properties too though; in the Hell's Kitchen region alone, you can track down Josie's Bar, Fogwell's Gym, Alias Investigations, Fisk Tower, Clinton Mission Shelter, Madison Square Garden, and the offices of Nelson and Murdock, attorneys at law. Another cool little detail for fellow Daredevil fans in particular - the composer for the Daredevil Netflix series, John Paesano, is also providing the music for this game.
This isn't a 1-to-1 scale of New York city, of course, and it's Marvel's New York so expect to see Avenger's Tower erected alongside replicas of Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State. Either way, this city is a joy to swing around, and a lot of its DNA comes from Insomniac's past experiences of city building with Sunset Overdrive. "Sunset gave us a big leg-up in getting the open world and the traversal started," Intihar says. "We kind of wanted to take the style of fluidity and flow of the traversal of Sunset and okay, now make it a Spider-Man game. Just from a technical and building perspective, having that experience of creating a city [was helpful], but this city is way larger than the one we created before because [Spider-Man] moves a lot faster.
"But I would say, combat took longer because we hadn't made a ton of third person action melee games before. We've done a lot of shooters, third and first person. So that took a while but it's funny; once someone said, let's try to make it more like an Insomniac game, everything kind of clicked. We started getting him doing more aerial combat, we started integrating more of the gadgets. That's how the suit powers came to be; we had this week of meetings where we just started brainstorming all these suit powers and I even told somebody - it was like the president of our company Ted Price - it was one of the best Ratchet meetings I've ever been in because it was just classic like, 'this suit could do this,' and 'this gadget could do that.'"
More than once, the combat of Marvel's Spider-Man has been likened to that of Rocksteady's Arkham games, but there's an energy here that is all new and all Spidey (with a fair bit of Insomniac's own DNA thrown into the mix). At its simplest, it's about striking and countering, yes, but once you get dodges, aerial combat, webs and gadgets involved, it becomes something else entirely. This is an older, more experienced Spider-Man - and you can feel a lot of Ratchet & Clank in the improvisation and ingenious gadgetry.
The combat is certainly moreish and it captures the (w)ebb and flow that makes Spider-Man's moveset so unique; you can duck and dive under and over enemies, bouncing off walls, sticking them to ceilings or swinging a sewer grate in their faces, and that's before you get the brand new suit powers and modifications involved. You'll also be able to craft new gadgets and unlock new skills through the skills tree (the three branches - Defender, Innovator and Webslinger - roughly correspond to combat, tech and traversal respectively).
I saw a little bit of how the suit powers worked in our demo, where Peter created his Advanced suit, an Insomniac original creation featuring the classic red and blue design with a large white spider on the front and back. We also saw a couple of the other first suits you can create, which include the Noir suit and the Scarlet Spider outfit. There's a huge list that you can work through and unlock though, and these will be mixed and matched original creations and Marvel classic designs.
And, it's important to note, all of these will be unlockable in the main game, as Marvel's Spider-Man will include zero microtransactions. Another detail is that though every suit is different and each one features its own unique power, you can customise further with up to three modifications that can stack bonus effects. This upgrading is done through tokens earned by completing other tasks in the game, and there are different types of tokens to earn. So, for example, you earn base tokens by clearing out strongholds held by villains throughout the city, and you earn crime tokens by listening in to the police radio and stopping various crimes in progress - I stopped a jewellery store robbery and multiple assaults during my own playthrough.
Of course, there's one big question, and that's concerning web-slinging. It's a big deal in a Spider-Man game, and Insomniac says it's by far the thing they get asked about most and the thing they see talked about most online. "We know the number one thing we have to get right in a Spider_Man game," says Intihar. "There's nothing more important. It's the debate I read on Reddit every single day. The truth is we're always making improvements, even since E3. For us, we really wanted to strike that balance between a pick up and play nature, we want you to feel like Spider-Man right away, but hopefully it's deep enough that players feel there's level of mastery. And we've also started adding elements like parkour. I hope players judge it when they actually play it." It's got to be difficult navigating the memory of Spider-Man 2, the PlayStation 2 game that unquestionably set the bar for other Spider-Man games to swing for. "We don't want to shy away from that," Intihar says. "Spider-Man 2 was a great game, but we're also doing what feels right for us. One thing we really want to do with swinging is ensure you're not struggling with it right away."
It definitely feels like there's a level of mastery to swinging. Though traversal is at its most basic level just about using R2 to web sling through the city, you can press X to jump and zip forward - especially useful in areas that are more horizontal like central park - and you can launch yourself into the air, do some incredible acrobatics, and the very apex of your jump zip and launch yourself off again. It feels thrilling, and then there are little things you can do like lean in different directions to swing more casually around buildings and hold R2 to run right up the side of a skyscraper. It captures the joy Spider-Man feels simply being Spider-Man, with little twists and flourishes punctuating every single leap forward.
As for story, this is an original narrative written by Insomniac specifically for the game, but there are clear nods to familiar arcs. For example, one section in which we played as Mary Jane (reimagined here not as an actress, model or nightclub owner, but as an emerging investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle) had us sneaking into the Roseman Auction House, which fronts as a legitimate face of Wilson Fisk's crime syndicate. A fair bit of this was stealthing around so as not to be spotted, but there was also an interesting sequence that played up to her skills as a journalist, where you have to thoroughly search through a room to figure out what secrets it has hidden away. This turned out to be the blueprints for something called Devil's Breath, which Spider-Man fans might remember from the 'Brand New Day' storyline from 2008. This arc also included Mister Negative and Black Cat, who has been confirmed for the game's first piece of DLC content.
However, Insomniac is almost certainly going to put its own spin on things as its focus on story consistently returns to Peter Parker and the constant struggle he faces in keeping his two lives apart. "I have the pleasure of working with a man named Bill Roseman," Intihar told us. "Bill is the executive creative director at Marvel Games, and knows Spider-Man and Marvel better than anybody I've ever met. He named his kid Peter - that's how much he loves Spider-Man. He's one of the most passionate people about comic book superheroes. The first time I ever met with him was over the phone; we got introduced and we were given the Spider-Man 101 - I took like eleven pages of notes that day. And I'll never forget what he said to me, there was one thing I circled and it's literally driven everything we've done on this project - the best Spider-Man stories are when Peter's world and Spider-Man's world collide. That has literally driven everything we've done. For us, for this game to stand out and really feel like a true Spider-Man experience, it has to be as much of a Peter Parker story as it is about Spider-Man.
"It's weird because in some ways, you want to make sure the hardcore Spider-Man fan is happy and pleased, but you also don't want to go so hardcore that it becomes impenetrable," he continued. "That's why I think the Marvel movies are so great, because they bring in such a wide audience that you don't need to be the biggest Marvel fan to enjoy them. If you look at all the movies, if you strip away the superhero-ness of them, they're still good stories. Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite Marvel movie, but if you strip away all the talking raccoons and trees, it's a story about family and how family can take any form. Or with Black Panther, it's about him learning to be a king. It's a human story at the heart of it, and that's exactly what we're trying to do here. It's definitely a fun superhero journey where you're swinging around and fighting villains, but at the same time it's a twenty three year-old pseudo young adult who is trying to figure out where his place in life is."
The tone of a Spider-Man story is a hard one to pin down, and Intihar claims it was the biggest challenge Insomniac faced in the first year of the game's production. "You want him to be funny, but at the same time you want to raise the stakes and you want to have an emotional story, so you need to find the balance between, where does the humour fit right, and where does it not get too dark? A lot of people ask, what do you look to? The Marvel movies do it really well. Even Infinity War, which is to all intents and purposes a pretty dark movie, they do find moments for humour. There are moments of humour in this game for sure, but also, I feel like Peter is a very emotional character, he's a very vulnerable character and we want to show that. It's really tough and that's easily in that first year of development one of the toughest challenges we faced. When it comes to Spider-Man, he is Spider-man when he puts that mask on - he's very confident, he has the sense of humour to diffuse stress, he has a lot of perseverance - but then, as Peter, he's very vulnerable, very relatable, somewhat awkward."
It's a an interesting choice that, in a game which lets you zip through the city and fight bad guys with incredible super powers, you'll also play at having a normal life and attempt sequences where you seemingly don't do anything spectacular at all. But this was a very conscious decision, explains Intihar. "There's a pacing to a video game, and I think of course we want to show a Spider-Man story and a Peter Parker story. It's hard to be Peter and play as him, but also it's a nice change of pace - if you just kept the pedal down the whole time, if every mission was like Fisk Tower, you'd be exhausted by mission four." I definitely agree, after a lot of explosive combat moments that open the game, you slow right down and join Peter in his day job as a scientist. There are a bunch of puzzles that you can attempt as part of this, solving circuit boards to find a path or get the right amount of voltage flowing through, and matching up different test results to solve other problems in the lab. And this isn't just for story's sake - doing these puzzles will also help Peter develop equipment to help out in his other job.
Ultimately, all the ingredients seem to be here for a superior Spider-Man experience. Playing through the first two hours of Marvel's Spider-Man reminded me of the first time I played Arkham Asylum or saw Guardians of the Galaxy in the cinema. These were deep, complex worlds I'd known for a long time on paper, and it feels exciting to see them opened up for new audiences and players. Spider-Man really seems to be having a moment right now, with new Marvel films coming up and Into the Spiderverse possibly going further into the wider multiverse lore than mainstream ever has before, it feels like Insomniac's take will be another possible entry point for new fans.
"There was a comic line started in the early 2000s called Ultimate Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, and that came out right around the time the Sam Raimi movies came out. It was for people who were back into Spider-Man, to re-introduce them back into the comic books. But at the same time, it gave the fans who had been loyal that whole time something too. What Brian magically did was toe the line between the familiar and the fresh, and we're trying to strike that right balance. It's funny, somebody said it feels like we're due for a Spider-Man game. As somebody who's been a big superhero fan, a big Batman fan with the Arkham games, I've always said, 'where's the Marvel versions of those?'" Intihar laughs. "I'm hoping people think ours is."