REVIEW: Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)

A superhero mantle being passed down to a new character is a dicey concept – it can either be a completely benign change, moving from one loved character to another or an uninspired shift that appears to have awkward political motivations that can help spark creator rebellions like Comics Gate. Miles Morales lands somewhere in the middle of those. Brian Michael Bendis’ black-Latino Spider-Man was seen as many as the first step toward Marvel’s disastrous All-New, All-Different era, where they made Captain America a secret Nazi.But Miles Morales/Spider-Man doesn’t really belong in the same camp as Nazi Cap or Jane Foster Thor.

In 2018, fresh off of being fired from Solo: A Star Wars Story, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which was a very mainstream way to prove that love or backlash directed towards a new character taking on the mantle of a hero, has a lot less to do with the color of that character’s skin, or their gender and much more to do with the quality of the writing. Hell, they managed to make Spider-Ham and Nicholas Cage’s Black and White Spider-Man Noir work in a full-color movie about human characters, so in that context, Miles and Spider-Gwen don’t seem like tall orders. But was Into the Spider-Verse a fluke? Or is it possible to use Miles in different ways, which are also very effective?

I’m happy to say that, in the case of Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the answer to that is yes.

This stand-alone expansion for their Spider-Man PS4 game begins with a bit of an awkward premise. After spending a bit of time training Miles and a short battle with Rhino, Peter Parker and his weird new face skip away to Europe with MJ for a working vacation, just in time for a new supervillain threat to strike New York. But, once Peter has shuffled away and the storyline begins, Insomniac does a great job of making Miles a relatable hero, with a strong arc, solid supporting characters, and, most importantly, a fun, well-paced campaign to play through.

Fundamentally, the game doesn’t really play any differently from 2018’s Spider-Man. It’s still tons of fun to swing around the same New York City map, the combat is still flashy and fun, if a bit derivative of the Batman Arkham games and the side quests are equally easy to knock out quickly, making them fun and painless to pursue. Where Miles Morales truly mproves things is in the pacing, with absolutely zero “stop playing as Spider-Man and instead play as a normal person doing bad stealth” segments. This time around, stealth as Miles is much more fun, as you not only have Spider powers but a cloaking ability, which Peter did not have.

The enemy AI is only a few IQ points away from Simple Jack, the combat is easy enough that you never feel very punished for failing stealth – and, like the combat, the “take down an enemy, then quickly zip back up to the rafters” encounters are also derivative of Arkham – but that doesn’t make them bad, and they are WAY more engaging than the MJ or Miles segments in the original game. There is only one sequence where you play as powerless Miles: a flashback in which you’re walking around a science center with Miles’ middle school sweetheart Phinn, and it is totally focused on storytelling. No boring stealth, no fail state, just a few character moments to experience, a museum to explore, and a simple puzzle to solve.

Miles Morales, Spider-Man

In the normal missions, the puzzles have also been given a pretty major upgrade over the original game, with all of the Peter Parker science experiment mini-games now gone. Taking their place are various environmental puzzles that utilize Miles’ venom strike powers to manipulate electricity. It’s not too tough to figure any of these out, but they are all pretty engaging and a decent way to break up the combat encounters and web-slinging chases – though it did get a bit repetitive knowing that whatever problem you were about to face would definitely be solved by charging up a generator, or using your webs to conduct electricity between nodes. Some more variety in the puzzle concepts would’ve been nice, but they function sufficiently to break up the combat sequences.

The combat in Spider-Man: Miles Morales is very flashy, cinematic, and fun, but it is not very challenging, and the enemy types are few. There are four boss fights, two of them against Rhino, and none of them provide much of a challenge either. I was playing on Amazing difficulty, as I will generally play a game on a step below the most difficult, or a step above the standard difficulty for review, and I really wish I had picked spectacular… which I may have done, had the Ultimate difficulty been unlocked from the get-go, but it requires completing the game once. I’m not looking for a Dark Souls game or Devil May Cry here,  but considering how many combat options Miles has, including several variations which can be earned through suit mods, it would’ve been nice if I felt like I needed any of them. I frequently forgot that I had skill points to spend because I didn’t NEED new skills.

That feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to make Miles feel like a rookie. In Spider-Man 2018, we were playing as a veteran Spider-Man who knew his powers, understood his capabilities, and had been fighting crime for nearly a decade. But at the beginning of Miles Morales, Miles has only been Spider-Man for about a year, and ALWAYS with Peter around to watch his back. This game being the first solo flight for Miles could’ve been a bit cooler if we had begun relatively weak and could feel Miles gradually grow into the competent hero he is at the end of the game. Instead, we begin as a powerful Spider-Man and end as an even more powerful Spider-Man. Once you learn – or, if you’ve played the original, once you remember – how to attack, form combos, use gadgets, and dodge, you’ll have gained as much skill as you need to breeze through the game.

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, Rhino

As for the web-slinging, it is as incredible and fun as it was in 2018. Miles Morales’ new animations look good and do a better job of conveying “rookie Spidey” than the combat gameplay does, with Miles flailing his arms and seeming much clumsier than the graceful Peter Parker. This clumsiness doesn’t factor into the gameplay at all; it’s purely aesthetic, but it is cool to see new animations, which make it appear as if it is Miles swinging around, not simply Peter wearing the Miles costume. 

You may now be noticing a trend of criticisms being “It’s good, if not much different than the original game,” which is true. We’ll be addressing that later, but where Spider-Man: Miles Morales is NEW, and which is the biggest reason to play the game, is the story. After Peter Parker leaves town, Miles encounters two factions, around which the game revolves. The first is a gang of street revolutionaries called The Underground, and the other is a tech corporation called Roxxon. While Roxxon starts out seemingly good and VERY predictably turn coat early on, The Underground is a bit more complicated. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them nuanced, but it’s safe to say they have relatable goals, even if their methods are bad.

While the conflict between Roxxon, The Underground, and Miles is the main plot thread, Insomniac very smartly makes character the focus of the storytelling. Miles, his “guy in the chair” Ganke, his mom, his uncle Aaron, and his estranged friend/possible love interest Phinn are all well-written, well-acted characters who, each in their own ways, motivate Miles to resolve the main conflict, beyond a simple “Miles is Spider-Man, therefore he must stop bad guys.” The bad guys are a bit of a mixed bag, with the leader of Roxxon being a cookie-cutter “evil version of Tony Stark” who seems like he’d be right at home as the villain of one of the three standalone Iron Man movies. But the other main antagonist is much more complicated and interesting.

Miles Morales, Spider-Man

*SPOILERS*

About 1/3rd of the way through the game, we find out that the Tinkerer, who leads the underground revolutionaries, is none other than Phinn. This immediately makes the dynamic between her and Miles much different than just being “Peter and MJ with different names.” Instead, it forces Miles to grapple with how he is going to deal with saving, stopping, or helping a girl who is not only a childhood friend but the person who appears to be in love with him. Phinn’s interaction with Miles is similarly complicated, and she doesn’t immediately decide Spider-Man is no longer her enemy when she finds out he’s Miles, but she also doesn’t become a cartoon supervillain intent on killing him. The conflict between the two adapts and evolves before it comes to a head in the game’s impactful ending. It doesn’t quite knock you to the floor the way the ending of the original game did, but considering they were using lesser-known characters, with only one popular Spider-Man villain – who was a supporting villain at that – it’s pretty amazing that they still managed to tell a better story than a good chunk of the live-action Spider-Man films. I don’t know who is calling the shots on Spider-Man at Sony Pictures or Marvel Studios these days, but they should be talent scouting writers at Insomniac.

*SPOILERS END*

For the technical section, I will be talking about the PS5 version of the game, as that’s the one I played, but I think it’ll be safe to assume that the PS4 version will look and perform nearly identical to the original game. If you are playing this on PS5, I recommend IMMEDIATELY going into the visual option menu and enabling performance mode.

Swinging around the city in 60fps is precisely how these games were always supposed to play.  It feels so much better, and you can see so much more in motion than you ever could in the PS4 original, and it makes me wish that you could play the original game with this kind of performance, rather than having to pay an extra $20 for the remaster, which also has the weird new Peter Parker face. Fidelity mode is the default setting, for some reason, but I hope Sony looks at how many people took the initiative to enable performance mode because if the standard for PS5 is a player-selectable option for dynamic resolution at 60fps, or 4K 30fps with Ray Tracing (which is the case for this game as well as Demon’s Souls), that’d be a lot more acceptable than seeing the big Sony exclusives locked to 30fps like we were seeing last generation. I wish the standard were minimum 60fps, flat-out, but people love their photo modes and are willing to play with the framerate of a rave if it means they can say “4K ray tracing bRo.”

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, The Tinkerer

I did take the fidelity mode out for a spin, and it looks so much worse than performance mode in action that I don’t understand why anyone would select it. The only benefit I saw was slightly sharper reflections on windows and the wet streets, and I honestly think I wouldn’t even be saying that if I weren’t expecting to find SOMETHING different. I know my obsession with frame rates is a bit of a meme, but remember, you can see resolution and ray tracing, but you can FEEL frame rate.

The music is very good, with the original game’s themes being remixed with some hip hop flair that strikes a solid balance between cinematic and cool. The voice acting is top-tier. Miles may look a bit more imposing in stature than his small, boyish appearance from Into the Spider-Verse, (which is made worse by the much younger looking Peter Parker model), but Nadji Jeter’s voice has a very youthful sound, which helps characterize Miles as the sweet, optimistic hero who fans of Spider-Verse will find familiar.

Verdict: Great

Overall, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a great game and is absolutely worth your time, particularly at the performance it hits on PS5. However, if you aren’t absolutely pumped to play it, I would recommend waiting for a sale. As much as a lot of budget and effort has been put into the story and performances, it still ultimately feels like DLC for the original game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very robust DLC, with a fair amount of content, assuming you are putting time into the numerous side objectives, collectibles, and tasks. But considering it’s the same NYC map as the original game (albeit with a wintertime skin), and nearly every aspect of the core gameplay is identical, it’d be tough to argue that it’s worth $50, let alone the $70 ultimate edition, which, at present, is the only way to play the original game with next-gen performance. Contrast that with Ghost of Tsushima, which cost exactly zero dollars to be bumped up to 60fps, and Insomniac seems determined to give me things to criticize them for, despite otherwise doing a fantastic job with these Spider-Man games. Even removing the Remaster from the equation, the $50 on PS5, or even $40 on PS4 is a bit too steep for what you’re getting here. In contrast, Witcher 3: Blood and Wine cost $20 when it launched and was absolutely gigantic, with tons of dialogue and performance. I find it hard to believe that Sony couldn’t have offered this game as a $30 stand-alone or a $20 expansion, particularly in with this being the flagship launch title for PS5, which will be played even by the players who aren’t total badasses …the badasses are playing Demon’s Souls.

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