Christmas in New York, and the streets are lined with slush. Miles Morales, a 16-year-old kid living in Harlem, is asked by his mother to pick up groceries on the way home. “Sure thing ma’” he texts, ever the dutiful son. As he walks, bobbing to the tune in his headphones, he waves to people, helps lift a sofa, and stops to compliment a graffiti artist. He’s a friendly neighbourhood young man, doing whatever a young man can. He soon receives another couple of texts, from a friend called Pete: “Convoy’s leaving early,” and then, “let’s shake a leg!” The next 20 minutes of Miles’s life will include: a quick train ride, along the tops of its hurtling carriages; coffee with Pete, who will sip it while hanging upside down; and a brief bound through a shopping mall, on the back of a bipedal armoured rhino. He forgets to get the groceries.
We have already met Miles, in Marvel’s Spider-Man, back in 2018, but there he was a supporting character, living a life unbitten by the obligations of a superhero. However, after a late-game run-in with a radioactively charged arachnid (the city seems to have a real problem with them), he, too, started to spring and cling. Now he is in possession of a costume—cobbled together with shorts, trainers, a bug-eyed mask, and a blue puffer jacket—a pair of wrist-mounted web shooters, and, most important, a game of his own. Sort of. Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a standalone spin-off, around eight hours long; it’s heftier than a chunk of DLC, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Part of the reason for this is Miles, whose gangly movements betray his status as a passionate amateur. Check out the way that, after zipping to a perch, he takes a second to steady himself; his arms may wobble, but his conviction remains unshaken.
He has to cover for Pete—as in Parker—who is going away for a few weeks on a photography assignment. This means that New York’s criminal elements only have to keep their eyes to the skies for one flash of spandex, rather than a swinging duo. And it means that Miles has a lot on his plate. He must obey the demands of a Marvel spectacle—clashing with a shady energy corporation, called Roxxon, and a clan of high-tech vigilantes, known as The Underground—while also helping his mother, Rio, recently widowed, who is running for city council. Add to that the appearance of childhood friend Phin, who is back in town and looking troubled. And he hasn’t even started to read Jane Eyre, his homework assignment for the holidays. Still, as Miss Eyre points out, after arriving at Thornfield, “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.” Quite right.
Fortunately, along with the extra heaping of responsibility comes a fresh dose of power. Miles is able to squeeze his anger into bursts of bioelectricity: a writhing orange crackle that juices up his punches and zaps his opponents—particularly those with shields—laying them out cold. Plus, when he grows anxious, he can vanish, turning his body into a shimmer of see-through blue (this flourish is for our benefit; his enemies can’t see a thing). These new mechanics do double duty. First, they add variety and pep to the well-established procedures of the 2018 game. The stealth sections, where you slink and dart through the shadows, cocooning hapless foes from above, now have an extra element of prowl. Combat, too, has an added voltage, as your unbroken combos build up not only finishing moves but also bars of bioelectric current, which Miles’s nerdy friend Ganke dubs “Venom Power.”
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Second, they speak to the essential spider-themes that spin throughout. What teenager, in the throes of puberty and having moved to a new place, wouldn’t wish for invisibility? Or worry, fraught with guilt after losing a father, that his very touch might turn venomous? The strain on Miles feels greater than that which was exerted on Peter, who, all of 23, was a veteran, long in the fang and used to life’s frustrations. Here, it’s all summed up in a single image: a lone sliver of red and blue suspended in the air, holding a collapsing bridge together with a tangle of web, just as he clutches at the threads of his life, even as they tear asunder.
Compare that with the scene, no less telling or composed, in which Miles, sitting in a café with Phin, ponders revealing his secret. The developer, Insomniac Games, has a similar storytelling confidence to that of Naughty Dog—a natural cinematic ease, bolstered by money and technology, which gives equal weight to ground-level struggles (the groceries, the homework) as to those beyond the rooftops. Sam Raimi made the most of this elastic tension, between the heroic and the no-less-urgent demands of the humdrum, when he made the first two Spider-Man movies. To witness their star going head-to-head with the cackling Green Goblin or the glum Doc Ock was nothing compared to the strung-up expressions on Toby Maguire’s face, as he hustled to get cranberries for Thanksgiving dinner, or to deliver rapidly cooling pizza through crosstown traffic. The new game is rich with the same irony that Raimi traded in: that our hero, much like his foes, finds himself in a sticky bind.
The advice proffered, rather unhelpfully, by the tagline at the end of the trailers is “Be Greater,” which is both an acknowledgement of Miles’s need to rise to the occasion and a sly nod to the superpowers of the PlayStation 5. As a launch title for Sony’s new machine, the game boasts good use of the DualSense controller. The adaptive triggers emit a slight tingle, as you fire a loop of thread with a half-pull; then a compacted crunch, as you grip all the way. Maybe even more exhilarating, if a little less romantic, is the use of the console’s laser-fast SSD. You want to feel really free in a video game? Forget lashing through the heavens on a silken tether; try heading to the map screen and fast-travelling from the top of Manhattan to its southernmost tip—a journey that takes all of two seconds. Then, there are the graphical improvements, which include upgraded visual effects, ray tracing, and the ability to play in 60 frames-per-second.
What about those playing on PS4? Well, you’ll still have the benefit of a beautiful game. The art direction, led by Brian Horton, offers up a frosted metropolis, and if you’re feeling numb to the festive season almost upon us, I recommend the trip. Ten minutes—diving through swirls of snow, above the golden glaze of the street lamps—will do the trick. Unfortunately, when it comes to the villains, we still get the same clanking reliance on the mechanical. What I wouldn’t give for the character artists to return to the soft, supple designs of old. My heart sinks at the sight of Rhino, who, instead of consisting of a rippling mountain of grey muscle, looks like Iron Man’s misshapen, horny brother. The same goes for the troops of Roxxon and The Underground, who look as if they were assembled from competing Lego kits, one red and the other purple.
While we’re on the subject, what’s up with the villain—a blonde, business-class schmoozer with a shit-eating grin? Please. It’s a shame that Miles has been shortchanged with such a forgettable group, especially given the generosity that abounds elsewhere. Outside the story there are side-missions, collectibles, time trials and combat challenges, to keep you busy well after the end credits. It has been compared, in scope, to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Only, that game was £29.99; this is £49.99. To lessen the blow, you could plump for the Ultimate Edition, at £69.99, which includes Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered, a spruced-up version of the previous game. Whether or not you feel as though you have gotten your money’s worth will depend on how you measure that worth. Is it solely on length? If so, fair enough, but may I suggest a rejigging of the assessment. This is that rarest of things: the lean AAA release. And I for one wish to congratulate it for not bowing to the usual blockbuster diktat: Be Longer.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4
Release Date: November 12, 2020
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