Your friendly problematic Spider-Man.
This review will contain spoilers for the game Spider-Man (2018) and its DLC
Swinging across skyscrapers in New York City and cracking bad jokes while fighting a man dressed as a vulture is an empowering fantasy. Insomniac Games nails that fantasy in Spider-Man (2018). The movement and combat system are a joy to use and there is so much to do and find. It is a well of nostalgia, as the game pulls older suits and references from across Spider-Man’s more than 50-year history. Fans get to see a new Sinister Six and a smattering of other fan favorite villians. It is not a surprise that the creators of Sunset Overdrive can make a competent open-world game. What surprised me is how little the game’s story has to say behind its veneer of political awareness.
A Working Class Hero
In this universe’s version of the Spider-Man lore, Peter Parker is a down-on-his-luck twenty-something who has given up his role as a photographer for a career as a struggling scientist. Mary Jane has broken up with him, and he cannot make his rent payments. He is evicted, loses his job, and debates if being a chef is a better career path. But, he still finds time to volunteer at a shelter, research prostheses, and mentor a new Spider-Man.
This version of Peter Parker has space to do so much good work to define the character beyond the expected tale of just fighting supervillains. The breakneck pace of the game’s story throws away this potential. The story makes Spider-Man fight a fascist private military company, an army of palette-swapped henchmen, and the Sinister Six with little time to reflect. Peter does not have much of an opinion on how he would change the status quo and just trusts the current system to reach the right conclusions. The ending is emotional and starts to have Peter question his own ethics, but that is quickly dismissed in the DLC.
Spider-Man Is A Cop
An element of the game that did not age well, especially in the wake of the George Floyd anti-racism and police brutality protests of 2020, is Peter’s close relationship with the police. Peter works closely with the hard-boiled police detective Yuri Wantanabe throughout the game and she often acts as his main mission giver. He idolizes the cops, and there are recurring segments that involve him talking to Yuri as “Spider-Cop.” The game also paints the New York Police Department (NYPD) as a well-intentioned but ultimately harmless institution. The cops in this game never kill, and in one story mission a police officer uses only a stun gun and stun grenades when faced with deadly force.
In the DLC Yuri crosses the line into police brutality and murder. She is unabashed in saying that she did the right thing by taking the law into her own hands and extrajudicial dealing “justice.” Peter’s proposed solution is to tell her to turn herself into the NYPD because he doesn’t want to fight her. I am far from the first person to call out this game for having a pro-police message, but it’s still shocking how this vigilante never interrogates that the police aren’t always the best solution.
Beyond worshipping cops, Spider-Man takes some actions that enable police abuse. Peter takes a stand against fascists locking up protestors in cages, but he does not mind fixing a Manhattan-wide surveillance network run by the police. He declares that drugs are the crime that he hates worst of all, even though he is also fighting an organized crime syndicate that regularly kills people.
Every moral option in this game is a regression of the superhero genre that feels out of place even in 2018. Peter is a white savior that goes into New York City communities based on a police surveillance network with the sole intention of fighting. His only other outlet of community service is through the non-profit, which is shown to be run by an organized crime boss. The story had all of the plot points in place to talk about how violence is a catalyst and that nonprofits have their limits in actually aiding communities. But, the game never reflects on it.
The game tepidly calls out these deeper themes through a satirical podcast run by noted Spider-Man hater, J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson is an Alex Jones-type who theorizes that everything wrong about New York City is secretly Spider-Man’s fault. Unfortunately, he is also the only character questioning why the police have a surveillance network, and if Spider-Man’s actions help the city long-term. Jameson is also pro-cop, so he’s also canceled.
Plenty Of Villains, But Few Interesting Ones
This refusal to engage with Spider-Man’s beliefs is such a bummer because the story does attempt to set up some villains as a foil. Sadly, the motivation of these villains are not given time to breathe. Martin Li is a non-profit director with an art degree who also runs an organized crime syndicate. The game builds him up as the “big bad” but then quickly drops him in favor of centering another villain in the final act.
The two Asian characters in this game are ultimately revealed to be villains driven by their own internal demons. But, in Martin’s case, we don’t get to see what his motivations were beyond revenge, and that leaves him as an Asian caricature who obsesses over Chinese theater masks and yin-yang symbols. It is telling that, in addition to guns, the Asian gangsters use jians (Chinese swords commonly used in martial arts) and kamas (short sickle-like weapons) while every other faction exclusively uses science fiction weapons, guns or fists. The gang is painted with a myriad of superficial Hollywood tropes related to Asian culture without explaining their history or providing a rich characterization of their leader.
The characters in this game are well established in the Spider-Man comics and have a rich history that gets into their motivations and backstories. But, I am a casual Spider-Man fan who has only read a few of his most notable stories. The way that these villains are portrayed in this story makes it hard to feel interested. It is fun to see Spider-Man’s extensive rogues’ gallery, but we barely get a payoff for the time spent building up these characters.
A Lot Of Webbing But Little Substance
It is also a shame that the game gives you so many side-activities to pad out the completion time. You can hunt down collectible backpacks, fight street crimes, take on enemy bases, snap photos, and do a myriad of other activities. The reward for completing the side-mission is often a new suit pulled from Spider-Man’s long comic-book history. These suits unlock new powers, which can dramatically change the flow of combat. But, the required activities feel like a repetitive grind without relevant story content.
At the end of the day this is a AAA game that fulfills all of the expectations of a first-party Sony product. It’s got overwhelmingly detailed set pieces and top-notch voice acting. Peter has some quips that walk the line between barely funny and groan-inducing. The tried and true Batman: Arkham Asylum combat works well with the game and the developers have added some slight flourishes involving aerial combat and gadgets. The game performed well on my non-pro PlayStation 4. The photo mode is very cool and has a lot of stickers in it. It is a technical slam dunk.
With Spider-Man: Miles Morales on the horizon for the end of 2020, I hope that a more focused experience will give this game the pruning that it needs. It is a competent Insomniac open-world game that works well and looks beautiful. I wish it cared more about telling its own stories rather than relying on comic book tropes.
Header image courtesy of Insomniac Games