Insomniac Games is back with the follow-up to its hugely successful Marvel's Spider-Man game, Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It's not quite a full sequel that gives players control of the new Spider-Man introduced in the first game, and the gameplay is familiar but not identical to what came before. The more essential differences come in the themes and points of view expressed by the game's brief but satisfying story and side missions. Simultaneously, the story hammers on familiar Spider-Man themes and it pushes the idea that the Spider-Man experience, with all of its tragedy and triumph, does not belong to any single individual alone.
The game begins with Miles Morales fighting alongside Peter Parker, and some of the people of New York are unsure how they feel about this new, second Spider-Man. The hip-hop beats in the game's opening immediately suggest a different perspective from the first game while Miles' animations reinforce the idea. Swinging through Manhattan will come naturally to anyone who has played the first game, but the way Miles looks while swinging is something else. He's both less graceful, marking his inexperience, and showier, suggesting his eagerness. These differences are present in his fight animations too.
Miles soon has to step out of Peter's shadow, however, as his mentor is leaving the city for a while and asks Miles to step up as New York's only Spider-Man. Before leaving, Peter gifts Miles his first full Spider-Man costume, which is basically like Peter's original costume.
This first costume is a potent symbol of where Miles is at the beginning of the game. He's trying to imitate Peter, and Peter even leaves behind some holographic training simulations to keep Miles' progress going. But Miles can only learn from Peter what Peter already knows, and thus Miles fights like Peter in the early stages of the game.
It isn't long before a new threat forces Miles to start leaning on his unique gifts and experiences. The Underground, a mafia for millennials led by the Tinkerer, begins targeting Roxxon, the energy company looking to launch a new power source called Nuform in Harlem. While trying to stop the Underground, Miles discovers his Venom Blast ability. When Roxxon turns on Miles, he unlocks his camouflage skill. Suddenly, Miles is doing things that the other Spider-Man never could.
It's a superhero coming-of-age story. The game punctuates Miles' self-discovery by trading his imitation Spider-Man costume for one he designed with his friend, Ganke. Once these new powers unlock, players can partake in fresher forms of combat. Miles' Venom Blast works on a meter that fills as the player scores combos. It can stun and disarm opponents, depending on which move unleashes it. Fighting with Peter in the first game could lead to chaining together finishers one after another. Miles depends more on this debilitating attack and spreading its effects from one enemy to the next.
Camouflage allows Miles to roam more freely during stealth missions, sneaking up behind enemies to take them out on the ground and then zipping away before the camouflage bar runs out. The more of these skills the player unlocks, the more Miles feels like his own Spider-Man.
Narratively, the game focuses on Miles' growth and connection to his community. There are several scenes of Miles out of costume at home or in Harlem communicating with its residents. Most of the game's side quests -- delivered by the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man app that Ganke creates -- have Miles fighting off attempts by unsavory outsiders to gentrify the area.
Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the game emphasizes, without ever spelling it out, that Miles comes from a life experience that Peter could never have had. That someone from that community is now wearing a Spider-Man mask to keep it safe is significant. Along the way, the story hits many familiar Spider-Man beats. It touches on how the power and responsibility mantra weighs on Miles' personal life, the physical and emotional sacrifice inherent in being Spider-Man, and the weight of the lies he tells to protect his identity. The community watches, and eventually, even the skeptics learn to appreciate their Spider-Man as he proves his worth through actions. And, in a meta-narrative sense, Miles proves his worth to the players at the same time.
While the game handles its hero well, its presentation of the Underground is clumsy. At first, they're presented as an anti-corporate movement fighting against Roxxon, but it turns out this is more the Tinkerer's mission. The rank and file are youth criminals looking to garner enough popularity that they can get away with anything. The game could have shown us the tension in these two opposing motives. Instead, it layers one theme on top of the other, suggesting the more noble cause is a means to achieve more selfish goals. It creates an unfair, overly-broad caricature of an entire generation.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales is as much an open-world game as its predecessor. The further players progress, the more icons will spread across their map for Miles to seek out and add to their collection, including some that only show up after the credits roll. None of them are hard to find, and even the few that require a little puzzle work are simple to figure out. All it takes is the patience to swing from place to place. Since web-slinging is just as fun as in the first game, that's hardly the worst price to pay. Similarly, the combat and stealth systems are still satisfying, which means infiltrating an enemy base or busting a crime never gets old.
One area where Spider-Man: Miles Morales does underperform is in its boss fights. The game is roughly the size of Marvel's Spider-Man's three The City That Never Sleeps DLC episodes put together. With that in mind, there are fewer chances for boss fights simply because fewer story points warrant them. But the boss fights in Miles Morales are either recycled from the previous game or simply don't measure up to what its predecessor offered.
Even so, Spider-Man: Miles Morales tells an intimate, emotionally resonant superhero story about a young hero trying to live up to the role models that inspired him and do right by the community that supports him. The subtle marriage of gameplay progression to themes helps make the story that much more engrossing. The boss fights could be more impressive, and the side content can, at times, feel perfunctory. But the game is fun, poignant, and powerful all the same. Spider-Man fans should be swinging high while playing.
Rating: 4 out of 5