A thoughtful look at the latest Marvel game, which gives the other webslinger a chance to shine in his own story.
When I was a kid reading comics, my favorite character was Spider-Man. The concept of a young hero dealing with issues in his personal life while also engaging in superheroics, felt more approachable and more real.
When Insomniac developed, and PlayStation published, Marvel’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4, the creators embraced that. The game had the cinematic action akin to recent Marvel films, but it also had the character stuff. Peter Parker dealing with friends and family, or local events, and not just fighting crime and supervillains.
One such character introduced in that game was Miles Morales, and it wasn’t just a cameo setting up for the future. There were crucial sequences involving him, as his life is changed by his policeman father being killed and him getting his own spider powers. Two years later, this Spider-Man has his own game too.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a pseudo-sequel, not quite a continuation of the last game, but not completely it’s own thing. But, it doesn’t feel just like a retread. In each act of this game, we are put in the colorful shoes of Miles under different circumstances. First dealing with the beginnings of becoming a superhero, such as the logistics of costumes and crimefighting. There is also training with Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man.
But soon, with act 2, Miles is left on his own to deal with the crime and the escalating events happening in his neighborhood of Harlem, which occasionally spill over to elsewhere in Manhattan. Act 3 finds storylines both personal and heroic come to a head and his mettle as a hero being tested.
It is an involved affair that keeps you engrossed, if you are into comic book melodrama — which the continued popularity of Marvel films indicates. Fans of the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will find some familiar ground to hold their interest. It certainly appealed to my story sensibilities, developed all the way back when I was collecting comics as a teen.
What about Miles Morales as a game? For generation after game generation, companies have been bringing the webcrawler to consoles. Over time, as the consoles have gotten more powerful, the games have gotten bigger and more realistic: side-scrolling action confined to a single street expanded to three-dimensional buildings, then to neighborhoods, and finally to the entire island of Manhattan.
The vastness of NYC from 2018’s Spider-Man game is back. We have different neighborhoods, a rich mix of building sizes from generic apartment houses to recognizable landmarks like the World Trade Center and Time Square. You have trains and taxis and food trucks and crowds of people. You have the sounds of the city surrounding you.
And as with the last game, Miles Morales delivers that impossible dream of letting you put on the costume and swing through the streets of New York City. The thrill of a long swing launching you high into the air, doing several backflips, then diving downward, pulling out of the dive with a new swing for a sudden burst of speed, it is unparalleled. Running up buildings, perching on the edges of roofs, chasing criminals in their getaway cars, it all becomes wish fulfillment. It is an experience that is completely unique to playing a Spider-Man game as compared to reading a comic or watching a cartoon.
And being Miles Morales is a different experience than being Peter Parker. Miles has his own unique powers, providing different kinds of combat action than the previous game. Miles gets his Venom Sting, providing an electric shot when he hits enemies. That evolves into variations across the game, changing things up. And as in the last game, you can upgrade your capabilities in ways you see fit, customizing your version of Miles, both traditional Spider-Man capabilities and new ones. You also gain a variety of gadgets with their own helpful uses, and a bevy of costumes that change up gameplay or allow you to simply change your style. All of these come together for you to put together your own distinct version of Miles Morales with the abilities and powers you like to use.
Going in prepared is important, since you will be facing a new threat: the high-tech anarchy of a gang called the Underground, led by the villain the Tinkerer. Miles’s Venom powers become quite necessary to counteract the tech the Underground uses, as well as the armor and weapons that mega-corporation Roxxon bring to bear against Miles.
Eventually the thugs you fight, no matter their affiliation, become a blur. Fights bleed together as you, the player controlling Miles, are driven to get to the next objective, to get to the next story beat. Seeing how the dominos fall into place, how Miles’s life is tested, is what kept me playing. Even the various side-missions, despite great dialogue, begin to feel repetitive after some time.
Any stagnation I felt was momentary though, as it doesn’t take much to bring you out of any basic sections and into the continuous excitement of being Spider-Man. Whether it is navigating the city with a mix of swinging and parkour, taking out criminals with uniquely spidey ways likes webs and such, or triggering an unexpected cutscene with a twist in the tale.
It is such a singular experience that Spider-Man is almost its own genre. There will be other action games where you fight bad guys, other open-world games where you travel through a world, and other games with cinematic dialogue exchanges. But only these Spider-Man games let you swing through air and endow you with the acrobatics and speed beyond mortals. Whether you are playing on the PlayStation 4 or with the new PlayStation 5 and it’s more fancy graphics, this is an experience that will stick with you.
Three and a half stars out of four.
[Hardware and Software provided by PlayStation. Images courtesy of PlayStation.]
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance journalist who has been playing games since the Atari days and covering them for 15+ years. You can find links to past work at KevinOhannessian.com and contact him with khohannessian AT gmail DOT com.