Do I think Insomniac's first Spider-Man game is the greatest adaptation of a superhero to the video game format? Yes. Do I think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the greatest adaptation of the comic book form to a movie? Yes. Was I elated when insomniac announced the next iteration of their Spider-Man video game universe would star Miles Morales, the protagonist of Into the Spider-Verse? Yes. Am I biased? Definitely. But that doesn't discount that Spider-Man: Miles Morales delivered on every front, surpassing the elements of its predecessor to bring the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man swinging into the next generation of video games.
On a gameplay front, Spider-Man: Miles Morales retains the excellent movement system and dynamic combat of the prior game. It introduces new elements like a more complex trick system, and Miles' ability to alter almost every move with a burst of venom, his signature charge of bio-electricity. These new elements make Miles operate differently from Peter Parker, not being just a different boy in the same costume. At the same time in the game's plot, Miles is struggling to find his own identity as Spider-Man, beyond being the kid, the sidekick, the Spider-Boy. The game's design and its themes align in a spectacular fashion, creating a sense of connection between player and Miles. Unlike the prior iteration, I was reluctant to walk away even after completing the entire game, having become so invested in Miles as a character. In fact, the one of the game's last side-missions made me more emotional than any TV show or movie in recent memory, because I was so embedded in Miles' world.
Surrounding Miles and his path to heroism is a web of characters, each pulling or pushing him in different ways. Little snippets of conversations on the phone while Miles swings around New York, sometimes directly related to the plot, other times tangential, help build this network into a real family. Traversing New York is enjoyable not just because you're Spider-Man, but because you're Miles Morales, talking to his best friend, Ganke, about the latest homework assignment. I often delayed reaching the next objective, just to hear the end of the conversation. On that note, Rio Morales, Miles' mother, is the only supporting character missing some depth, with the writers seeming to work off an Aunt May mold without any alterations.
Though for the most part, the game is a smooth experience, seamlessly transitioning from plot to side-mission, the optional objectives for gangster hideouts or random crime encounters shattered the neat cohesion of the rest of the game. Often, these objectives would clash with one another, for example, asking the player to both stealthily take down 10 enemies using a certain gadget, and also achieve a combo of 50 hits. These objectives are incompatible, forcing the player to adopt the stealthy approach first, before awkwardly launching into a loud fist-fight. In moments like these, the player is driven not by character, but by arbitrary goals that directly contradict what Spider-Man would do in that situation. Obviously, it's still a video game and full immersion is impossible. But as other elements of the game show, when game design and worldbuilding connect, players get a much richer experience.
One of my favourite things about the prior Spider-Man game is that Spider-Man didn't just beat up thugs, he also helps people. Spider-Man: Miles Morales continues that trend, and deepens it with the Spider-App. In-game notifications prompt Miles to help people need him, whether they are stuck on a rooftop, have lost their cat, or simply want a selfie. It's a fun addition, that makes Miles feel like he's part of the city, rather than a fixture above it. And unlike the prior game, the Spider-App only has a few missions. It isn't stuffed to abundance with inane tasks, missions are deliberate, focusing on how Spider-Man integrates himself into the Harlem community.
This intentional decision to grapple with questions of community in New York City comes to a head with an entire side-quest focusing on gentrification. It's a great mission, that goes further than any AAA game I've played in unpacking why it would be wrong for someone to forcefully buy out a row of small businesses. Video games, and their audience, are not well-known for being particularly socially progressive. So when a series of quests culminates with Miles standing proudly before a massive "Black Lives Matter" mural, I was slightly shocked. I'm sure there will be some negative reactions, with gamers decrying that politics is being shoved in their face. To classify this moment as brave for Insomniac feels hyperbolic but, unfortunately, game developers have received flack for much less.
Though this moment is "progressive" with Insomniac actively taking a side on what some may consider a controversial issue, it also brings to light one of the flaws in Spider-Man: Miles Morales. In the game, Miles finds himself stuck between two sides. On one side is the Roxxon Coroporation, an energy conglomerate in Marvel Comics, the epitome of capitalist greed and environmental destruction. And on the other side, is the tech-powered Underground, a criminal organization, symbolically adjacent to real-world movements like Occupy or Antifa. They're pitted against each other, as if they are the same sides of the same coin. And though you eventually get to tussle with Roxxon's roaming private militias, most of the game involves preventing the Underground from attacking Roxxon, by sneaking into their base, dismantling their equipment, or beating up their members (most of whom are coded as non-white). There's an inherent bias within the game towards maintaining the status quo through Roxxon, which as the game even points out, was able to legally violate human rights and create massive harm simply because they have accumulated enough capital. I don't expect the game to deliver me the Communist Manifesto, but I had hoped that the decision to use Miles Morales as a protagonist would have led to a less pro-establishment plot-line, that demonized corporations more than the people who rightfully fight against them. (To read more on this topic, please check out this essay, which unpacks it much better than I do.)
Some may argue that Spider-Man: Miles Morales is just a video game, not a magnum opus. It can't possibly contend with contemporary issues and also maintain that level of immersion, escapism, and pure fun. Perhaps that's right. But that doesn't invalidate this criticism. In fact, if video games are ever to be taken seriously as a medium, critiques like FILM CRIT HULK's are essential to elevating the art-form. Criticisms of games need to go beyond gameplay mechanics, or the sheer fun factor. And if Insomniac wants to use a Black Lives Matter mural, they must also contend with the fact that their game at many times ignores the very systemic justice BLM opposes.
None of this is to say that I did not enjoy Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It is easily one of the best games I've played in recent years, and I lost myself in it entirely since starting it. It's a wonderful adaptation of an, dare I say, IMPORTANT comic book character like Miles. By developing unique gameplay mechanics, and creating a cast of fleshed-out empathetic characters, Insomniac makes Miles his own character, worthy of his own installment and not something for bigoted gamers to declare an insincere push for diversity. My only real hope for future iterations is that Insomniac will goes further and actually grapples with systemic issues rather than settling for simple conflicts.