HEAT VISION

'Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales': Game Review

Spider-Man
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Insomniac Games' follow up to 2018's 'Spider-Man' is built on the idea that Black and brown lives matter.

Insomniac already proved to know a great deal about power and responsibility when Marvel's Spider-Man hit the PlayStation 4 in 2018, allowing players to do whatever a spider can as well as delivering one of the best interpretations of the character in any medium. Now, two years later, the developer is back with its follow-up. Only this time Peter Parker doesn’t get the spotlight. Instead, players are put in control of 17-year-old Miles Morales, who’s just getting the hang of his new abilities, struggling to manage his personal and superhero lives, and building up his own roster of rogues. So does Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales swing to the same heights as its predecessor?

For those who played Spider-Man, and the Spider-Man: The City that Never Sleeps collection of downloadable content, jumping back into this world comes with ease. There’s snow on the rooftops and it’s the holiday season, but the thriving and detailed map of New York remains the same. And if you spent as much time swinging around as Spidey in the previous game as I did, then you’ll quickly realize that finding your way across the city is second nature at this point. This ease in navigating allows for more time to pull off swinging tricks with Miles. While the mechanics remain the same, Miles’ form is noticeably different from Peter’s. Right out of the gate, it’s clear that Miles’ weight handles differently than Peter’s. He’s smaller and lighter, which affects not only his movements, but also his combat tactics. There’s an incredible amount of detail — some subtle, some instantly recognizable — that help make Miles feel like his own Spider-Man, rather than just Peter Parker in an alt-costume.

To the game’s credit, Miles doesn’t live long in the shadow of his mentor. Peter Parker joins MJ on a work trip to Symkaria, home of the Silver Sable, and leaves New York in Miles’ hands. Miles quickly develops his own relationship with New Yorkers, some who miss “the other guy” and others who easily embrace him as “our Spider-Man.” Players really find themselves immersed in the perspective of this new Spider-Man when they’re in Miles’ new home of Harlem, where his mother, Rio, is running for City Council. There’s a sense of community between Miles and his neighbors, which the game highlights through a celebration of street art, Black and Latinx culture, music and history. At one point, during a side mission in the back half of the game, I had to stop and allow myself to take in a wall with a beautifully rendered Black Lives Matter mural that was emotionally stirring, especially given the events of this year. There’s a rhythmic beat to the community, one that plays out in the game’s soundtrack, Miles’ interest in music, and his relationship with his uncle Aaron. It’s touches like these, along with hat tips to the importance of barber shops and ethnic corner stores and restaurants, that really makes Miles’ lens of New York feel unique from Peter’s.

One of the biggest questions I had going into the game was whether or not Miles’ experience as a young Afro-Latino in Marvel’s fictional New York would reflect our real world. Surprisingly, Spider-Man: Miles Morales does more than I expected in that regard. While Spider-Man showcased Peter’s working relationship with the cops, Miles doesn’t have that same privilege. Instead, he utilizes his best friend Ganke Lee to keep him abreast of the crimes and happenings of NYC. Even though his dad was a cop, Miles doesn’t rely on the NYCPD, and they don’t reach out to form a partnership in that regard. This dynamic means the player must utilize stealth in order to get evidence out of certain cop-heavy areas.

When it comes to the overarching narrative, much of the game centers on the threat of the Roxxon Corporation, which is building a new energy plaza right in the middle of Harlem with plans to distribute an experimental form of clean energy throughout NYC. This plan would mean tearing down locally owned businesses and turning much of Harlem into an industrial complex. While Roxxon lead developer Simon Krieger — a minor Marvel Comics character given eerie realism here — seems charming enough initially, with his promise to improve lives, he quickly warrants Miles’ suspicion. And when Miles gets wind of the fact that this experimental energy, NuForm, has deadly side effects for those who remain in the vicinity of it for extended periods, he realizes he’s going to have to take on the corporation or else see the people of Harlem lose their homes and business, and then their lives. But the new Spider-Man is not the only one in town with plans to take down Roxxon.

Early in the game, Spider-Man receives an interesting foil in his battle against Roxxon and its private army in the form of the Tinkerer, who has been transformed into a techno-vigilante. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the Tinkerer has partnered with young mafia wannabes, the Underground, and built them 3D hard energy weapons that can change into anything with a thought in order to wage a war against Roxxon. The Tinkerer recognizes, sooner than Miles does, that Krieger is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a man who has stolen the work of a Black scientist and sold it as his own without any concern for safety precautions. The Tinkerer’s militant methods are harsh, based entirely on power and no responsibility, but that perspective isn’t necessarily wrong. The character serves as the Killmonger to Miles’ T’Challa in one of a number of touches that speak to the influence of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Chadwick Boseman’s aura. Miles is pushed into a confrontation with the Tinkerer and Krieger that intensifies as the game goes on and isn’t without a few surprises and additional layers of real-world consequence.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales isn’t just doing the evil businessman routine, but really digging into the corporate policies that position Black and Latinx populations as second-class citizens, and their neighborhoods as land assets. The game is inherently built on the idea that Black and brown lives matter, and manages to achieve that without ever sacrificing the thrill of getting to play as a superhero. It isn’t easy to miss the references to gentrification and allusions to the water crisis of Flint, Michigan. There’s also a scene of a woman video recording a potentially deadly interaction between her community’s recognizably Black Spider-Man and Roxxon paid “law enforcement” abusing their powers. Krieger sees the people of Harlem as disposable, a fact that’s specifically stated in the game. The cultural richness of Harlem and diversity of its people are simply facets he doesn’t care to see because they don’t make him money. Miles and the Tinkerer see all of what Harlem encompasses. But while Miles would protect it at any cost, the Tinkerer would destroy it rather than see it become a staging ground for big business.

As for the members of the Underground, whom players spend the most time taking down, they make for impressive adversaries — a nice change of pace from the mobs of the Raft and Martin Li’s Demons in Spider-Man — requiring players to strategize a bit more about defeating each enemy. There’s an espionage angle to the game that touches on some of co-creator Brian Michael Bendis’ ideas on the latter arc of the character. Miles is equipped with new gadgets, though fewer than Peter had, which makes using them a more tactical affair. Whereas a gang of enemies usually stayed in one area in Spider-Man, here they’ll leap around to other buildings, and bring in backup more frequently, surrounding Miles and making every encounter a challenge. And as with the player movement, the combat does account for Miles’ size and lack of experience.

There are few things more satisfying in the game than using one of Miles' Venom Blast moves. Miles’ bio-electricity, another thing that separates him from Peter, is used better and with more variation here than it ever has been in the comics. Filling up the power bar and sucker-punching a Roxxon goon with a fistful of lightning never gets old. Likewise, Miles’ camouflaging abilities, which allow him to turn practically invisible, add a new layer to the stealth challenges. I found myself using gadgets less as I unlocked more Venom Blast powers, but never underestimate how helpful a single gadget can be, especially during the latter parts of the game where the combat challenges really increase in the lead up to a difficult battle royale.

The full experience of Spider-Man: Miles Morales is shorter than Spider-Man, and Sony’s comparison to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End spinoff Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is apt. It took me about 10 hours to complete the whole thing, including all of the side quests. While there are still a variety of challenges to complete around the city — collections to find, costumes to unlock, Easter eggs to hunt, crimes to stop, and yes, pigeons to catch — there aren’t as many rogues to fight as in Spider-Man. But what the game lacks in terms of subplots, it makes up for in its thematic focus and in the character moments that live up to Rio Morales’ advice for her son. “People are messy,” she tells Miles. And in the messiness of Miles’ relationships, there is an emotional honesty to Spider-Man: Miles Morales that’s profound and moving.

Much like its predecessor, Spider-Man: Miles Morales takes the best parts of the comics and movies to form its own unique take, one that should serve as inspiration to anyone who tackles the character in the future. And answers about the future of Insomniac’s Spider-Men, Miles Morales and Peter Parker, couldn’t come soon enough, especially given the game’s post-credit tease about what’s next for our heroes. It’s been amazing to see where Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s creation has gone in nearly a decade and how integral Miles Morales has become not only to the Spider-Man mythos but the myths that Black and brown people are allowed to tell about themselves. With Spider-Man: Miles Morales, so many of us can take that myth into our own hands and not only be greater, but be ourselves.

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