You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Insomniac lately. Before Spider-Man, they’ve made great games for over two decades, many of which are all-time favorites of mine, but our […]
You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Insomniac lately. Before Spider-Man, they’ve made great games for over two decades, many of which are all-time favorites of mine, but our collective perception of them seemed to have changed. Early on, they were known as a fun developer, known most for their whimsical worlds, wacky weaponry, and vibrant color palates. This made their games just that, fun and the quality of their catalog earned franchises like Ratchet and Clank and Spyro that description. But making a game that was just fun wasn’t enough for the dawn of the PS3 generation.
Games like Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction were still highly rated and sold well, but with a taste for mature content becoming more prominent, it would have been considered insane to reward a Game of the Year award to a game about a talking alien and his robot friend. Insomniac knew this, and attempted to branch out; sometimes successfully in the case of Resistance 3, and sometimes unsuccessfully in the case of Fuze. Yet, these experiments still left the developer in that tier just below the Naughty Dogs and Biowares of the world.
But, with the creation of Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac began to understand something, a thing they would come to fully realize with the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man. And that is that they never needed to abandon the whimsy, color, and diverse weaponry of their older titles to finally be seen as a prestige studio. All of those elements appear in Marvel’s Spier-Man: Miles Morales as well, and the game remains fun and produces oodles of serotonin because of that. But with Miles, they’ve managed to do something that I didn’t think Insomniac could pull off: deliver a grounded story and characters without sacrificing any of the unique flavor of the developer. But, they don’t pull that off without issue.
Now, what about that whimsy and vibrancy I went on about? Miles has that in spades. Ganke’s jokes and puns in Miles’ ear always produce a smile, if not an outright laugh. Miles’ teenage naivete often leads him to humorous situations. And even the incredibly fluid animations found when swinging and flipping through the skyline of New York instill a sense of wonder. And of course, the game is a looker, even on the PlayStation 4, where I played the game. And if you are lucky enough, despite an unstable economy and limited stock due to a pandemic, it looks even shinier, and smoother, on PlayStation 5. And while it gets those good looks due greatly to Insomniac’s mastering the hardware, the warm and inviting, yet grounded and modern, art direction does a lot to deliver a game that’s pleasing to the eye.
But the game is more than a pretty face, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, too, and another Insomniac hallmark comes into play to make it so. The usual arsenal of punches, kicks, throws, and acrobatic variations of each are brought over from the original Spider-Man. And much like that game, the move set is given added spice due to that aforementioned vast arsenal. Though, here, that arsenal isn’t as vast, with only 4 different gadgets on Miles’ weapon wheel. But the Gravity Well, Web-Shooters, Holo Drone, and Remote Mine all complement the core combat and stealth in the same ways that the wider selection of gadgets of the first game did, just in a more refined way.
But the biggest addition, new electric ‘Venom” powers, is the most interesting new feature. If the gadgets of the first game improved mainly stealth and then melee combat, then the Venom powers of this game improve mainly combat, and then also traversal. The moment mechanics of the original game were already great, but the Venom Jump and Venom Dash make it a lot easier to maintain high and momentum. But in combat, these venom powers make combat with large amounts of enemies more manageable. In the first game, fighting dozens of enemies at once felt like spinning dozens of plates at once. With the Venom attacks, you can deal damage to multiple enemies at once, and even more when upgraded. This time around you are not only spinning a few plates, but it’s easier to balance each of them.
And speaking of keeping things manageable, the scale of the game is thankfully about half of that of the original. The campaign is barely eight hours long, and the number of collectibles and side activities to do has been halved when compared to the original Spider-Man. Now, despite how much fun I had getting the platinum in that game, it was full of several hours of busywork. While I’ve yet to get the platinum in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I’ve crossed 50% completion without even realizing it and without an ounce of fatigue. If not for the requirement to replay the game on New Game Plus, I’d say completing the game’s platinum would be way less repetitive. But, if you are like me and have yet to play the game on PS5, you can transfer your PS4 save and experience the game with raytracing or a higher framerate and breathe new life into that second playthrough.
But if you’ve known anything about Insomniac’s catalog, you could have expected all of the last four paragraphs of praise and descriptors. But as for the thing I didn’t expect from the developer, that would be the way they’ve portrayed Miles and the folks he calls friends and family. Now, no offense to fellow Peter Parker fans, but everything about Insomniac’s portrayal of the character is aggressively generic. Not to say their attempt at him was bad, but to me, having been exposed to half a dozen versions of the character through games, movies, and TV shows, it came off as incredibly safe. Sure, I still love the game despite that, but I’d attribute all of the biggest narrative twists of Marvel’s Spider-Man to everyone but Peter himself.
This is not the case with Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Miles himself is no longer the innocent, nappy-headed kid we knew, but a young adult, with the appropriately clean hairline any self-respecting black adolesent would have. His home was full of items and details depicting his Hispanic and Black heritage with care to not fall victim to the common stereotypes of either. Despite me not knowing Insomniac to be a studio full of diverse voices, they surely did their research here. Even outside of the house, characters like Miles’ Uncle Aaron were tastefully done, with an undying love for his nephew only complemented by his appreciation for hip hop and advanced cloaking tech.
These details, including the newly trap-infused score and swinging animations infused with the exaggerated swagger of a black teen, add a certain spice to Miles that makes the experience much more enjoyable. Plus, the game’s brevity and improved gameplay also add to that enjoyment. But it’s pretty hard to enjoy these narrative and theming elements and how they ground the universe of the game with how the real world is right now.
Mile’s mom, Rio Morales, is running for city council by the time we see her in this game. She’s running on the platform of changing policies to ones that would do right by the people of Harlem. Well, for the last few decades at least, Harlem, and the rest of the New York area, has been infamous for its corrupt police force, and black and brown folks, like Miles and thousands more in Harlem, are the ones that most commonly fall victim to them. The game doesn’t interact with this at all. It might reference how Miles is truly their Spider-Man, as he gives Harlem the true care and help that the city police force doesn’t always provide. But the game doesn’t mention exactly how that police force has failed them. That’s really hard to ignore in 2020, where most of America has seen, especially recently, how police forces have failed them, and the rest of us have experienced it firsthand.
I’m not sure if it’s because Insomniac still wants to hold up Miles’ father, a deceased police officer, in a heroic light. I’m not sure if it’s because they didn’t want to heavily contrast the intimate relationship that Peter Parker has with the city’s police force. I don’t know if discussing systematic racism in the police force would simply just put too much of a damper on an inherently light-hearted game. But no matter why they made this decision, the choice does make the game feel a bit uncomfortable to play at times. The game still produces enough serotonin for me to know the game will be one of my favorites of the year. But for as much as they ground the game in aspects of Black and Hispanic culture, it sticks out that they ignore this aspect so completely.
But that is truly the only, admittedly huge, blemish on what is otherwise a fantastic piece of art. As a launch title for a new console, an entry in a massive superhero franchise, and the 37th game from a beloved developer, the game has to be easily consumable. And thanks to its brief runtime, engaging and rewarding gameplay, and beautiful visuals, it is exactly that. But because it is so easily digestible, it fails to examine the unpleasant parts of the urban lifestyle that it loves to wear as an aesthetic. The gamer in me doesn’t mind that fact and overlooks it more with every perfect slo-mo dodge and impactful narrative moment. But the black man that I can’t help but be can’t let that fact go completely. It’s still a fantastic game, one I love even more than the original Spider-Man, but I still can’t get over that issue, even if similar stories like Into the Spiderverse have a similar problem at times. But don’t let that stop you from playing one of the most consistently enjoyable, respectably paced, and narratively compelling games I’ve played this year.