Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)
Insomniac Games | Reviewed on PS4
This review will contain mild spoilers.
Yay, we’re finally back! My dizziness hasn’t 100% subsided yet (despite going on 3 months with this inner ear trouble) but its gotten to a point where its tolerable enough for me to return to my regularly scheduled programming. I jumped back into gaming with Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and overall, it was a pretty solid experience. Miles Morales picks up shortly after the events of the original Spider-Man, with Peter still teaching Miles the ropes (webs?) of being New York’s watchful guardian. But with Peter and MJ jetting off on vacation, it falls entirely on Miles to shoulder the burden of keeping New York safe. And just as a whole heap of trouble is brewing – who would have guessed? The Roxxon corporation is making a public battleground of the city as their corporate goons clash with the mysterious Underground – all over a new form (conveniently known as Nuform!) of energy that may or may not be making people sick. Suit up, Spider-Man – it’s time to go to work.
The people’s Spider-Man
I’ll just quickly address the elephant in the room: I didn’t like Peter’s new look. There is nothing objectively wrong with the new model, but I loved the original for Peter – he suited the voice and age perfectly. The fact that they went back and retconned it (for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense) is kind of baffling to me. I’m not going to riot in the street about it or anything, but I’m not a fan. Oh well – moving on to Miles!
Miles is a relatable character right off the bat – he’s got Peter’s down-to-earth nature, and good heart, but his lack of confidence lends his character a different vibe. Seeing him test out “Spider-Man” voices, try to quip, and carry himself with a confidence that he obviously doesn’t feel was pretty amusing. Insomniac had a careful line to tread – they had to make a distinct character, one that was likeable and strong, that wouldn’t simply exist in Peter Parker’s shadow. I think they pulled it off – Miles’ slightly more bumbling attitude (as he tries to find his groove, and what makes him unique as Spider-Man) is endearing – everything from his combat animations, swinging style, and the hip-hop soundtrack give his character flair that is completely his own. They obviously took some inspiration from the hit movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (maybe a little too much inspiration, honestly) when developing his identity, and some of his mannerisms. Miles’ costumes are also 100 times better than Peter’s. That is all.
Ultimately, Miles’ character is strongest when it leans into his roots – his relationships with Ganke, his mom, and how he interacts with the people in Harlem. His desire to protect the vulnerable segments of his community, and recognizing that the title’s antagonists treat the people of Harlem as “disposable” gives his version of the webbed hero a very grounded feel; Miles’ motivation to protect the underdogs, and his recognition of those societal discrepancies made his brand of heroism much more realistic, and I loved it. They could have dug further into Miles’ feelings about being the second Spider-Man – the kid, the newcomer – as it would have given him a bit more dimension, but alas, they barely scratched the surface. I’m sure his appearance in future games will delve further into these different facets of his character. Beyond Miles, most of the minor characters were likeable enough, but underdeveloped. Ganke, Rio, Uncle Aaron, and Phin just aren’t given enough screen time to have satisfying arcs – mainly due to the compressed feeling of the story.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales isn’t as strong in its narrative as the original title – mostly due to the pacing. Its been a popular gripe among players that the game is short (too short, in all honesty) and the length hurts both the narrative and character development. Though all the characters are memorable, and have clear motivations on a surface level, there’s a certain depth beyond that lacking. Where Insomniac’s first title had the incredibly hard-hitting build-up to the confrontation between Peter and Dr. Octavius, and the emotional payoff of their battle, Miles Morales falls a little flat in comparison. You have the Roxxon CEO, Simon Krieger, but he is fairly stock standard in terms of his antagonism (i.e. he’s a rich, callous prick). On the other hand, you have Phin, who isn’t given enough space to develop as the Tinkerer, and aspects of her character feel inconsistent as a result; in short, she goes from 0 to 100 real quick. I didn’t fully buy into her as the villain, and it made the finale of the game less impactful than it probably should have been. Because the game is so short, both the story and the characters are pushed along at a blistering pace, and we don’t get to see them grow because they aren’t given the space. I personally would have loved to see more interaction between Miles and his uncle (who we know is the Prowler) before the inevitable betrayal. Again, the emotional payoff isn’t there. While I know some players will be a fan of the shorter title (not everyone loves a 30 or 40 hour adventure), I think the game could have benefitted from giving its story and characters some more breathing room.
Call me, beep me!
Main story aside, I think Miles Morales shows a marginal improvement from the original in terms of the side content it offers. One of my main complaints about the first Spider-Man was the repetitive, somewhat unimaginative side missions. In this title, you have access to the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man App (thanks to Ganke, the real MVP) where you’ll be able to find a variety of requests from New Yorkers in need of some Spidey assistance. Most of these side quests were concentrated on helping out in Harlem specifically, which I really enjoyed – thematically, it was an entirely different feel from the previous title. Being Harlem’s Spider-Man felt like being a part of the community, and by defending local businesses from thieves, or even finding a bodega owners lost cat, I was genuinely making a difference to people who needed it. I loved the smaller scale, more focused approach that Miles Morales took, because it tied into the theme of community and helping to build something from the ground up. It works to jumpstart Miles’ gig as Spider-Man, and provides his character with some added depth that differentiates him from Peter Parker.
Though not all the side missions are gold (guess what – pigeon chasing is back! Yay!) most of them were enjoyable and well-executed. I wasn’t a fan of the challenges in this title however – in place of Taskmaster’s trials, Miles has to complete some training prepared by Peter, in stealth, combat, and traversal. The stealth challenges were particularly aggravating for me (mostly because I’m not a fan anyway) and the combat and traversal were simply alright. I never thought I would miss the drone challenges from the original. Many of the other collectibles and optional city-wide activities are nearly identical to the 2018 title – you have the enemy bases, and items to collect. Miles Morales has a slightly different flavour to certain new tasks, for example, collecting sound samples for a mixtape with Uncle Aaron, but nothing was particularly unique or clever. The most enjoyable fetch sequence for me was the final scavenger hunt, because of its heartfelt nature. If only they could all be so thoughtful.
What’s up, danger?
Gameplay, at its core, also remains virtually unchanged from Spider-Man: the swinging and traversal mechanics are the same, as well as the basics of combat. They were great in the original, and they’re great again in this title. However, in Miles Morales, you have access to his signature Venom and camouflage powers. While I enjoyed the style change from the first game, I found combat to be a bit messy with these new additions. The game feels overly reliant on the Venom powers (necessary to disarm, stun, and deal with certain new enemy types) and if you find yourself without any charge, you’re in big trouble. Because the game gives you so many tools to manage crowd control, its comfortable throwing obscene hordes of enemies your way – however, if you run out of Venom, this becomes a serious problem. It’s even more annoying when fighting the Roxxon goons that are capable of suppressing your Venom abilities for a time. On the harder difficulties, where you’re taking a lot more damage, this becomes even more of an issue. The limited skill tree feels like it has few useful upgrades, and I found myself relying much more heavily on the gadgets than ever before. While I still love the fighting style of these games, the addition of Venom and camouflage added some major bumps to the flow; I walked away from more than one combat-heavy encounter extremely frustrated.
I also want to add a final comment on the technical performance, which I usually don’t even bother to mention. On my base PS4, the game was buggy as hell – I ran into occasional issues in the 2018 Spider-Man, but this one was much worse. Random T-posing during cutscenes, certain audio not working (for example, watching a fighting cutscene without any of the punching/falling sound effects) and random freezes were quite frequent. In one particular cutscene, Uncle Aaron’s voice was completely absent – if I hadn’t had subtitles on, I would have missed his dialogue entirely. It was kind of disappointing for a game of this caliber to run so poorly.
We on the way up
Minor issues aside, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a satisfactory entry in the Spider-Man franchise. Though I wasn’t as overwhelmingly impressed as I was by Insomniac’s previous title, it has good bones, largely due to the leg work of the 2018 game. It may be unfair to constantly compare the two, but when they are so closely intertwined, it feels impossible not to. The narrative, characters, and general gameplay, while not quite up to par with the original, are still well-executed here. The breakneck pace of the story could have been throttled back to give these characters room to develop more organically – the short run time really cuts the legs out from under the emotional impact of the plot. Thematically, the narrative felt solid with its community-centric message – it simply needed more bandwidth. While I wholly enjoyed my time playing this game, I can’t say without reservation that it was an unforgettable experience, or a must-play. Because it utilizes all the same building blocks as Insomniac’s previous title, it feels just a bit too samey for it to be fantastic on its own merit. It loses a bit of its “Be Yourself” authenticity, however, I can say with certainty that I’m looking forward to seeing where Miles is headed in future titles. They’ve laid the groundwork here, and it’s looking promising.