This game isn’t Into the Spider-Verse, but, man does it really wants to be.
Just a little over a couple of years ago, Marvel’s Spider-Man arrived on the PS4 and blew us away, especially us long time webhead fans. With that game being a near-perfect version of itself, I ended my review of that game excited for what an inevitable follow up would bring. That said, I didn’t expect the follow up to get into our hands so quickly.
Much like its titular character, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales knows the expectations upon it: both as a follow up to one of the PS4’s best games and a flagship launch title for the new PlayStation 5, and yet it has a harder time meeting those expectations – chiefly due to a truncated story and overall runtime.
That isn’t to say Miles Morales is a letdown. This is still a game built on the high-quality work Insomniac Games did on the first Spider-Man and that isn’t anything to complain about. The often joked about “feels like Spider-Man” energy is alive and well here, with even more flourish. Miles is more animated and lively as you explore the city, styling off of rooftops and pulling tricks while web-swinging thanks to a dedicated trick button added to change up the experience of playing as him versus Peter. These changes work, even as you’re effectively jumping back on the bike, the bike has new bells and whistles to keep you engaged.
These changes extend into other aspects of the gameplay – fans will know Miles has abilities different from other Spider-Folks, and his game makes fantastic use of them. The bioelectric “Venom” attacks Miles has access to help bridge the gaps in his skills and strength versus enemies and can leave effects that deal out more damage. This particular skill is also leveraged to handle the minions of the game’s antagonist, The Tinkerer, who can change weapons on the fly, most likely handled with the intent to show off the particle effects that the PS5 can handle. When not shocking people, Miles Morales directs users to more stealth focused gameplay, buoyed by Miles’ camouflage ability – which itself helps a more seamless transition of the gameplay into actual stealth missions, something that felt like more of a chore in the first game.
The game world looks even better than it did two years ago, no doubt thanks to the power afforded by the PS5 hardware. Conversely, experiencing the PS4 version like I did means you’re getting a pretty powerful looking game that might also be too powerful. I experienced several full-on crashes while playing on an original model PS4, which was able to handle Spider-Man 2018 just fine. Usually, these crashes occurred during encounters with Tinkerer’s “Underground.” For the PlayStation 5, it’s impressive that the game can load so many enemies and produce such impressive particle effects, but it’s clear when put under load that this title was not much-considered for running on a machine designed before 2013. I don’t want to count that against Miles Morales, but it’s important to be aware of if you’re putting off the hardware upgrade.
What I will count against Miles Morales is that for all the showing off this game had to do, there’s not nearly as much of it as you’d hope. Insomniac wisely gets Peter Parker out of the picture in a way that guarantees this is Miles’ story. That story makes up two major plot threads – the first is Miles’ conflict with the Tinkerer and the shadowy work by yet another corporation in the game universe’s New York, and the second is Miles getting settled in his new neighborhood in Harlem while taking on his day to day responsibilities as Spider-Man. Both the A and B stories are much shorter and straightforward than what you’d expect from any open-world game, much less as a follow up to Spider-Man. The story beats are simple enough that a player paying attention can quickly to piece together exactly what The Tinkerer’s plan is and how every element of that story is going to play out nearly to a T, and all you’ll need to have seen is Into the Spider-Verse to be able to do so. The first game was like that too, but that game leveraged the familiarity of these characters in pop culture to both deliver unique takes on them and letting the story play out in something like a Greek tragedy. Miles’ story is nearly the same structurally, except all the edges have been sanded off.
The second plot, centering around Miles’ more broad responsibilities as Spider-Man, fairs better in this regard. Miles leverages a mobile app to help manage these missions and events, with NPCs in-game making reports of situations that require Spider-Man’s intervention. The Harlem based requests are particularly fun – they take the form of multi-part events that endure the residents involved to Miles, and his Spider-Man to them respectively. The downside is, again, they’re all over far too quickly and the game doesn’t even space them out in a way that indicates any time has passed. Even so, these locals and small business owners are New Yorkers to a fault, and they lend a lot of credibility to the world-building around Miles specifically. It becomes irresistible to accept missions when their requests appear on the “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” app.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room – the cops. When the first Spider-Man was released in 2018, there were criticisms abound regarding Peter’s positive relationship with the NYPD. In my review of that game, I avoided discussing this criticism, partially because the conversation was being had by people from backgrounds very different than mine, ones that had way more pertinent things to say about the nature of policing in America and how off-putting it was to see them as allies to a hero like Spider-Man. In retrospect, this was foolish of me to do and was an action taken out of privilege. For this, I apologize to any of our Black and POC readers who may have read that review. To ignore the presence of the police in any game, especially in the wake of huge societal pushes to reevaluate how policing is done in 2020, would be dishonest at the very least. So let’s talk about the cops in Miles Morales.
The next section of this review contains minor spoilers.
To Insomniac’s credit, the criticism from the first game seems to be reaching their ears. Both Spider-Men do not have core interactions with the police, and when Miles does refer to them or interact with them, the relationship is shown to be far from friendly. This is a step in the right direction, at the very least avoiding the idea of “copaganda.” That said, it’s only a step, and beyond that, it would seem the current decision on what to do about the cops is to avoid the conversation. The NYPD has been replaced with the PDNY, which means nothing save for the fact that these aren’t the “real” cops, though the name change brings nothing else resembling a change to the way policing is done. Miles will still be caught up in the police’s car chases, and every person he leaves webbed up is still going to be left in their hands at the end of the day.
The disappointing nature of this is most evident in how the game treats Miles’ relationship with the police. In Miles Morales, this game has a perfect opportunity to at least have some sort of conversation on policing, even if it didn’t want to come to a solution about the situation. When Miles’ estranged uncle inevitably joins the story, complete with his Prowler persona in tow. I hoped that this was Insomniac laying the groundwork for having this conversation. Instead, what we got was a story about how Aaron Davis just couldn’t stop doing those gosh darn crimes he was doing and it drove a wedge between him and his justice-loving brother. Miles’ dad, Jefferson, retains something of a saint-like status throughout the game, and it’s implied over and over again that Miles has inherited his father’s sense of justice. However, this sense of justice, in particular, is one that is fundamentally at odds with his identity as Spider-Man, because as we’re all well aware now, it is not true to the reality of how justice is enforced in this country. In 2020, a Spider-Man motivated by a police officer’s example is one that feels, intentionally or not, fundamentally compromised – and it’s even lampshaded by the game itself in the form of a Black Lives Matter mural found in-game.
Now, I don’t have a good solution to this, and I honestly shouldn’t be the final word you read on this situation. I highly recommend reading Gita Jackson’s review of Miles Morales and Charles Pulliam-Moore’s deep dive on the topic. I found these invaluable pieces in parsing my feelings about the game and these depictions and frankly they’re better writers than I am.
Spoilers end here.
This review sounds way more negative than intended, which feels a bit unfair. Even with these flaws, Miles Morales is quintessential Spider-Man. Playing as Miles feels even more varied and fun than playing as Peter. I’d even go so far as to say that Miles is better suited for the video game medium. Miles’ voice actor, Nadji Jeter, is doing a lot of heavy lifting in an excellent cast and he nails every line, filling Miles’ voice with both heroic drive and youthful uncertainty. The story might lack some density, but the moments it does have are excellent, tied together by some great gameplay and an intimate cast. This is still the story of someone trying to live up to their responsibility and do the right thing, like all great Spider-Man stories, but one truly unique to this Spider-Man. All of this is held up by one of the all-time great gaming experiences of this last generation, and getting caught up in the web-swinging protection of New York is still a high few AAA games can deliver. At its core, this is still a follow-up to one of my favorite games ever.
However, it’s not a sequel, as Sony and Insomniac have gone out of their way to stress from the moment Miles Morales was revealed, and I think that fact sums up everything that makes this game feel weaker. Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a pretty quick turn around showcase title for the PS5 first, and a continuation of the series second, which I feel robbed Insomniac of the ability to give this title the density the first one had. All the right pieces are here: the aesthetic, the characters, the understanding of who they are, and the gameplay. None of them are given the breathing room they need. I wish they were.
Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the road for Miles or this take on the Spider-Man universe, and if the team at Insomniac is willing to give him the starring role again, I still believe they can do something just as special as the first game in this series, if not better. This is a quality pitstop in the meantime, and it wouldn’t be a Spider-Man experience without a little bit of falling and getting back up.