Marvel’s Spider-Man took open-world gaming tropes and crafted a sweeping comic book tale. The game wore its love and understanding of the duality that makes its titular hero the greatest comic book hero of all time proudly on its chest. Its follow-up, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, focusing on a fellow Spider-hero, is more of the same: but it keenly understands what makes Miles his own hero.
Out this week for Sony’s new Playstation 5 (and Playstation 4), Miles Morales will instantly feel familiar to players of the first game from Insomniac Studios. You’re playing in the same map of New York as the first game, albeit the new Christmas setting means there’s a lot more snow and pretty decorations around. You are, by and large, web-swinging and punching bad guys in the same way as you did the first time around as well, completing open-world activities interspersed with cinematic story missions that all come together to craft a tale that takes a little less time to web-swing through — perhaps 10-15 hours, compared to the first’s 15-20.
Much of this familiarity is not a knock on Miles Morales — it means that there is a solid video game framework for it to hang from, even if, like its predecessor, there’s nothing particularly new for the genre. The web-swinging is still fun. The combat, with a few tweaks — mostly to embrace Miles’ unique bioelectric venom powers, which turn him into much more of a crowd-busting bruiser than the gadget-oriented Peter — is still fun. The hunt for unlockable costumes and little Easter eggs from Miles’ comic book life is still fun — albeit there’s less of them simply because Miles’ time in comics is much shorter than Peter’s. The photo mode is also still fun, and a debilitating distraction if you like taking pictures, pictures of Spider-Man.
That’s not to say there aren’t some tweaks to this general formula. The game takes familiar activities from the first one — chasing pigeons, combat and traversal (and now, thanks to Miles’ unique powerset, stealth) challenges, gang hideouts, and hidden bases — and makes them feel like they make sense for Miles. This might just be as simple as a change in who’s requesting the side-mission this time, or it might be a knockdown in scale: Miles is, unlike Peter, a hero who really feels like he’s operating on a narrower, street-level scale.
The entirety of New York is his domain, but Miles feels at home the most doing small tasks for people in his neighbourhood instead of, say, stopping city-wide mafia undergrounds or avoiding environmental catastrophes. Even the first game’s controversial relationship with New York’s police force has mostly been ejected, replacing similar crime missions with a community-sourced app developed by Miles’ best friend Ganke. It’s an imperfect solution, given that the missions are still similarly randomised thefts, car chases, drug busts, and whatnot, and one that fails to explicitly address just why Miles would be uncomfortable interacting with the police on the scale his mentor does.
But even if it falters in that regard, all these twists and tweaks point to a wider thesis that Miles Morales has at every level, from mechanical to textural: Miles is a Spider-Man, just like Peter. But he’s his own person, one that lives in a very different circle of people, and has a much more intimate sense of the world around him.
As a checklist, Miles Morales’ intimacy might just read as you getting less bang for your buck; the story is shorter, there are fewer side quests and collectibles. Sure, it doesn’t cost as much — the standard edition of the game is retailing for $79 — but there are still fewer things to do overall. It works in its favour though, mostly because you don’t feel like you’re ever drowning in repetitive missions to do. So by the time you’re entering the game’s climax, you don’t let out an exasperated sigh as suddenly your map re-fills with tasks to complete. It’s a trimming of the fat from a structural perspective that makes Miles Morales a tighter, leaner experience.
The smaller scale also becomes the game’s greatest strength in the one real standout point that makes Miles Morales worthy of being a standalone title in this gaming Spider-verse: its story.
Just as Marvel’s Spider-Man did before it, the creative team behind Miles Morales understands what makes Spider-hero tales so universally relatable and charming — they’re stories of relationships and intrapersonal drama, of the banality of the normal world clashing with the outlandish action of superheroics, of the duality of man and Spider-Man. This critical awareness of what has made Spider-Man work as a mantle across decades of comics (and now across whole multiverses of men, women, and occasionally Hams) is also what explicitly makes Miles Morales his own hero in this pantheon, instead of just Peter Parker 2.0.
Set a year after the conclusion of Marvel’s Spider-Man — which ended with Miles’ discovery that he too had acquired superpowers akin to Peter’s, and had promptly been taken under the latter’s wing as a new student in the ways of web-swinging — Spider-Man: Miles Morales opens with the grand scale of the first game being removed from the picture. Peter (now with a new face that yes, continues to look off) saved New York, confronting his former mentor Otto Octavius in his tragic descent to villainy, but now he must leave it in his young student’s hands as he travels abroad on a reporting assignment with Mary Jane Watson. Suddenly, after a year of Spider-Men, New York has one Spider-Man, and it’s not the one they’re mostly used to.
At first, Miles mostly sticks to what he knows: Harlem, where he and his mother Rio have recently relocated in the wake of the loss of Miles’ dad Jefferson Davis in the first game. Miles operates in secret as Harlem’s own friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, doing small tasks for people in and around the area over his Christmas break. Returned to her home neighbourhood, Rio is running a campaign for city council on a platform against Harlem’s other recent arrival, the Roxxon energy corporation, which is looking to test an experimental new renewable energy source in the neighbourhood through a lavish and potentially dangerous new power plant built smack bang in the heart of it all.
That conflict sets up an already intriguing premise that Miles Morales uses to deftly highlight the community our hero finds himself in. Sidequests are made more personable because Miles isn’t just familiar with the people making requests, but because they can innately recognise that this new Spider-Man is one that calls their borough home too. It’s used to smartly tackle issues of gentrification and capitalism, of community activism and corporate interests — themes that give the game a larger board to put some stakes on without having to put the entirety of New York City in peril. But it’s beyond that where the story finds its greatest drama: Roxxon and Miles find themselves facing a shared threat in the form of a high-tech criminal organisation called the Underground, spearheaded by a dynamic new take on minor classic comics villain the Tinkerer.
In largely re-inventing the character for this new story, Miles Morales’ Tinkerer is the perfect inflection point for the game to build Miles’ personal struggles around: the threat they pose to his loved ones is big enough that Miles, in turn, feels tested as a still-fresh superhero, but not so grand that he feels like he’s in Peter’s shadow or that the stakes have to get apocalyptic to feel satisfying. That intimacy then plays into the relationships he has with the rest of the cast of the game, which don’t feel like parasocial ones because of his interactions as Spider-Man, but rather fleshed out, messy, and interestingly intimate dramas, because they intertwine across Miles’ alter ego and his personal life.
Miles Morales also leverages this drama to great effect on another crucial difference between its titular hero and Peter Parker: Miles has a family and friend circle that is not as cleanly removed from his superheroic side. Peter’s life as Spider-Man is an often painstakingly lonely one, where the drama strikes hardest over which people may be about to discover his alter ego. Miles doesn’t really have that dilemma; he has people close to him who know he’s Spider-Man (like Ganke), and family to lean on who are there for him in a way Aunt May can’t be for Peter, or in Peter’s romance with Mary Jane, because he’s always concerned about them discovering his secret life.
What this means in context is not only does Miles has a wider supporting cast to share his struggles and victories with, but it also means that as the story progresses and Miles’ world and Harlem are drawn ever closer to the crossfire between Roxxon and the Tinkerer, the drama between Miles, his friends, and his family spiral out and provide as much dramatic pathos as the splashy superheroic fistfights.
Peter’s conflict with Octavius was made more personable in Spider-Man thanks to this universe’s twist putting them in a closer relationship. Miles doesn’t need a “twist” to have that sort of intrapersonal drama be crucial to his stories because it’s there in his comics in the first place. Miles Morales as a game and as a love letter to this version of Spider-Man understands that this sort of intimacy is fundamental to his best stories. It makes for some truly powerful emotional highs, built out of compelling character work and dramatic tension rather than some electrified, superpowered spectacle (which it also happens to have).
It’s this element — in spite of the game’s familiarity to its predecessor — that makes Spider-Man: Miles Morales feel not just like a fresh entry in this Marvel gaming world, but a stronger and tighter one than its predecessor. It realises that being smaller-scaled does not have to simply mean there’s less to do, or a smaller scope to play with these characters. It uses its tighter remit to really drill down on what matters most, making this story feel like more than just a Spider-Man story, but a quintessential Miles Morales one. They might have similar tricks up their Spandex sleeves, but Miles Morales tells a tale that truly understands why Miles is every bit as worthy of the spotlight as Peter is.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales is out for the Playstation 4 and Playstation 5 on November 12. A Playstation 4 copy of the game was provided for this review.