It’s not the drastic departure some might have been expecting from Insomniac Games’ first outing with the webhead, but the charm and quality of life improvements introduced in Spider-Man: Miles Morales places it well and truly above the original.
Taking a queue from Naughty Dog’s work with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Miles serves to iterate upon what’s come before in order to tell a tighter, more refined story with a far more compelling cast of characters. That’s not to say 2018’s Spider-Man was lacking in memorable characters, but they always felt underdeveloped in comparison to its lead.
Insomniac’s Peter Parker distilled the unbridled optimism of its titular character to create a believable “friendly neighbourhood” superhero, but the supporting cast failed to meet the depth offered by Pete. Miles Morales’ greatest strength is found in the feeling of community it builds, beginning from Miles’ tight-knit chosen family and branching out to the neighbourhood outside his stoop.
Set roughly a year after the events of the previous game, Miles picks up with the teenage web-slinger making the move to Harlem to follow his mother, Rio, in her bid for city council. It being his parent’s old neighbourhood gives Miles the opportunity to organically delve into some of his immediate family’s history while he regains his bearings in his new home. This being without the mentorship of Insomniac’s wiser Peter Parker, as the original Spidey enjoys a well-deserved break abroad, affording Miles and his supporting cast space to carve out their own stories without being overshadowed by 60 years of comic history.
Regardless of where you’re experiencing Miles Morales, the visuals have seen a significant improvement across the board. Most notably, the character’s faces have been brought in line with current technology. So, as much as it hurts to see a different looking face on Insomniac’s Peter Parker, it’s a small price to pay in order to have a character’s face actually resemble a human being more than a plate of mashed potato. This greater attention to detail breathes life into Marvel’s New York, making it feel that much more like a bustling city than simple set dressing.
The way you traverse the environment, however, has seen very little change from its predecessor with swinging feeling better than ever thanks to Miles’ more expressive web-swinging animations. Just by navigating the city, players perhaps unfamiliar with the character of Miles immediately understand that this new Spider-Man has less control over his powers than the graceful moves Peter had in the first game. Helping this is the larger pool of animations the game has to pull for Miles’ swinging, making movement feel even more dynamic than before.
While it has always felt good to swing through the city, the trick system used last time felt like a last-minute addition to add some variety to traversal, the new iteration of the system feels much more rewarding. These spectacles feel that much more impressive given that now there’s no invisible barrier preventing Spidey from wiping out when pulling off that one last corkscrew before eating pavement. Pulling off a couple of somersaults here and there rewarded a pretty laughable trickle of XP in the past, but now provide an opportunity to recharge Miles’ supercharged new abilities.
It’s largely similar, but the small refinements made to combat make for far more engaging decision making. Notably insta-kill attacks are no longer rewarded for filling up a meter, rather they’re performed when reaching certain combo multipliers, functioning similarly to the Batman Arkham games.
The largest addition, however, is found in the meter previously reserved for pulling off the fatal blows now powering those electrically-charged “venom” attacks I mentioned before. Although not made immediately available upon starting the story, new venom powers are regularly made available throughout the campaign bringing new strategies and increased dexterity at such a pace that it always feels like you have a new toy to play around with.
It’s a shame then that the selection of Spidey gadgets available this time around has been so significantly reduced, and the four (yes, four!) featured struggle to feel as dynamic or useful as the previous offerings.
This brings to light one of my greatest frustrations with the controls in Miles Morales, being that for no discernable reason bringing up Spidey’s gadget wheel is now done by holding down R1, the same button you press to fire said gadgets!
The obvious reason behind this being that with the new venom powers being performed with L1, it just made sense to have all gadget related commands be on the right side but again, the venom attacks are pulled off via a combination of L1 AND a face button, so it just feels like an arbitrary change.
The real problem, however, lies with the game struggling to read either input in the midst of battle, too many times have I gone to fire off a quick blast of webbing to a baddie’s face only to have my actions fail to be reflected on screen because I held the button a fraction too long.
It’s so jarring that it almost makes me think that it was a decision made only to better market the PS5 controller’s improved vibration, having Miles’ electrifying abilities begin crackling in your left hand, before landing a super-powered uppercut with your right sounds great on paper, but makes for a clumsier, overall less responsive experience.
Of course, there’s plenty of distractions littered throughout the city to keep players occupied while swinging between objectives, and it’s here that it’s obvious the creative team has been listening to the feedback levied at them in the past. There’s still plenty of collectibles tucked in alleyways under overpasses, but it’s the optional skill-based challenges and side-missions that show the team are earnestly trying to keep each second of gameplay flowing as well as their traversal.
It’s displayed most elegantly in the way you retry failed objectives, no longer sitting through a load screen or an abrasive system menu, the characters will simply remark that they need to get back into position and perching on the specified object will instantly reload the diversion. It isn’t even a benefit found exclusively when playing Spider-Man: Miles Morales on a next-gen system either, but a fundamental design decision implemented from the ground up regardless of where you’re playing.
It’s emblematic of where Insomniac sees their new mega-franchise heading, a silky smooth single-player experience that doesn’t waste a second. It’s to be expected from this calibre of the sequel, but by the time we see the inevitable Spider-Man 2, I hope they’re able to find some way to shake up the formula before it begins to get stale.
As it stands though, there’s no other way to say it; Spider-Man: Miles Morales surpasses the original in every way.
It trims the fat to deliver an incredibly paced single-player narrative, with a charming cast of believably written characters. It might be the next big step forward for the franchise, and a handful of changes made to combat had me scratching my head a little, but I can firmly say that this is a game worth picking up no matter where you decide to play it.