Spider-Man is never safe. It’s part of the whole ethos, an inherent and inalienable aspect of the great power/great responsibility credo. Whoever it is under the mask—Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Nicolas Cage—they’re out there because they have to be, not because they want to be, getting the shit kicked out of them on the daily by psychotics, supervillains, and, more often than not, close family friends who’ve somehow gone to the bad. It’s a huge part of why we love them, these Spider-Folk: They’re the underdog, barely keeping one desperate flip ahead of lethal laser blasts and tentacles, cracking wise to keep the fear out of their voice, putting it all on the line because someone’s got to.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is not an underdog. The semi-sequel to one of the most popular superhero games ever made, and one of the flagship titles of a highly hyped new console generation, the game adopts the same basic design ideas that also seem to drive the PlayStation 5 it’s meant to launch: Don’t evolve; refine. Don’t offend; comfort. Don’t take that one big leap of faith, falling up through the void, and damn the consequences; stick to the baby swings, instead.
Set a few months after 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, Miles Morales sees its sub-titular hero taking over the protection of New York while his mentor, Peter—and yes, Pete’s new face is incredibly distracting, thanks for asking—heads off on a vacation with MJ. In typical Spidey fashion, Miles is quickly beset on all sides with fresh problems, from the emergence of new powers, to coming to terms with the death of his father in the original game, to a brewing conflict between a new youth gang, The Underground, and go-to Marvel tech giant baddie Roxxon Energy. (Complete with Simon Krieger, a fresh new Elon Musk-a-like, pulling the strings.) Through it all, he has to balance the typical blend of responsibilities, secret identities, and relationships, most notably with his childhood friend Phin, who comes back into his life just as New York gears up for a massive blizzard, and Roxxon amps up plans to deploy an untested “clean” energy source in Miles’ new home of Harlem.
It’s in the relationship between Miles, his new neighborhood, and the smiling white man with the private army trying to take advantage of them both that Miles Morales comes closest to establishing an identity for itself outside the shadow of its 2018 predecessor—and where, ultimately, it flinches away from any sort of actual statement on the topics it tries to pay lip service to. Insomniac Games, which developed both this game and the previous one is happy to build up a narrative that sees Miles heralded as “our” Spider-Man by the people of the largely POC neighborhood; more distressingly, it’s also willing to mine the #BlackLivesMatter movement for moments of genuine unease, as when a crew of faceless Roxxon guards train their guns on Miles while bystanders scream in protest and film the potential murder with their phones. But it’s telling that this is a video game starring one of Marvel’s most prominent POC superheroes that, as far as we can tell, contains the word “Black” in only a single instance—on the #BLM mural that decorates a wall in Harlem. Miles Morales traffics in the trappings of topicality, pitting a violent protest movement against heavily armed paramilitary oppression in ways that are meant to feel real but not too real—shunting actual conflicts to a safe distance and firmly into the fantastical. For a game whose predecessor was harshly criticized for depicting Spidey as a proxy cop cheerfully setting up vast surveillance networks on behalf of the NYPD, having the imagery of state violence pushed off of police and onto a private corporation’s armed goons feels cowardly in a way not even the most beleaguered of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Men could ever be.
But while the personal and the political are, as ever, impossible to fully untangle—especially as the plot kicks into gear, and the game’s conversations about the “right” way to stand against systemic oppression escalate—Miles Morales does admittedly work far better on the level of the purely human. As with the previous game, Insomniac has a talent for depicting the way any good Spider-Man’s emotional and professional lives inevitably end up colliding in catastrophic fashion. The game is full of clever touches on this score, like the new app that Miles and his friend Ganke use to track help requests across New York or sidequests that deepen Miles’ connection to the most important people in his life—and the city itself. Even here, though, there’s a heavy element of inspiration (or maybe just imitation); it’s not Insomniac’s fault that its game comes in the wake of Into The Spider-verse, one of the best superhero origin stories ever made. But they do have to take responsibility for directly invoking some of the film’s most iconic scenes in ways that come off as cheap copying, rather than respectful homage. (That being said, the actual Spider-Verse suit that you can unlock, which not only gives Miles the body language of his animated self but also the slightly hitching feel of the film’s animation, is an amazing, if distracting, touch.)
And if Miles Morales cribs, at least it cribs from the best. The game lifts narrative references from the best scenes from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, any number of classic comics, and even (in a roundabout way) The Last Of Us Part II, using story beats that are time-tested, if not exactly original. And it joyfully adopts the basic mechanics of the 2018 game, including what’s still one of the best-feeling “move around an open-world city” systems ever deployed in the service of a superheroically good time. (Seriously, there’s still nothing quite like skimming like a daredevil 10 feet above the rush hour traffic.) The combat is still exceptional, too, if a little streamlined, with several of Pete’s gadgets being swapped out for Miles’ new Venom Strike powers. The worst thing you can say about the play is that the truncated skill trees leave leveling up feeling a little less than super-powered, and that you’ll inevitably end up annoyed by the constant influx of random streets crimes (just like in the first game), which are always hard to ignore when your brain is locked in a proper Spider-Man mood.
In a wider sense, it’s not necessarily fair that Miles Morales has found the fate of an extremely prominent console launch resting on its slim shoulders. (The PS5 version looks great, by the way; the graphics aren’t a revolutionary step up from the previous game, but Miles moves with gorgeous fluidity, and load times are practically non-existent. And the faces… Well, again, the faces are still kind of rough.) In a different environment, it’d be widely heralded for not fixing what ain’t broke, fulfilling the role an expansion pack would have occupied in the days before DLC. As more of the same of a genuinely good game, it nails all the benchmarks—even if its efforts to be about more than just “Spider-Man hits the bad guys” steer it into some regrettable half measures and questionable choices. And judged on its own merits, there’s nothing automatically wrong with more of the same. But its status as a flagship part of the launch of the PS5 confers extra power on this unassuming little title—power it doesn’t always wield with the great responsibility such a prominent position demands.