Although there are still a number of weeks until 2020 finally(!) sinks into the annals of history, I’d wager that “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” will be remembered as the year’s most ingratiating family-friendly video game. It is a feel-good, unabashed spectacle that controls well, looks great and has a hyper-efficient story line that never tries to overdeliver.
Everyone knows Peter Parker, the guy from Queens who was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man. But unless you’ve kept tabs on the comic book scene over the last decade or caught the visually-ravishing animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), it’s likely you don’t know much about Miles Morales, the Latino, African American kid from Brooklyn that was also bitten by a radioactive spider leading him to follow in the footsteps of his idol. In the context of the new game, Miles’s journey is one of twofold acceptance built around convincing both the protagonist and the player that he isn’t Peter Parker’s understudy but a bona fide Spider-Man in his own right.
Miles is nothing if not endearing. The game opens with him emerging from the New York subway tunnels onto Manhattan’s 125th Street — Harlem, his new neighborhood. Miles hardly covers any ground on the sidewalk before he stops to help a man struggling to push a couch into the back of a trailer. Such thoughtfulness is of a piece with his general bearing. As Miles bops down the street listening to music, he is perpetually on the lookout to deliver a kind word or a helping hand to his fellow New Yorkers. His strolling is interrupted when he receives a call from Peter Parker asking him to help supervise a prison convoy. Slipping on his superhero threads, he swings down to midtown just in time to see that the prisoners and the supervillain Rhino make a break for it.
Following a quick on-the-job tutorial that teaches players how to dodge and use melee attacks against a bunch of low-level criminals, the game treats players to the first of a number of set pieces as Miles and Peter tail Rhino as he charges through the streets of Manhattan into a shopping mall. After Miles uses his web slinging to tether himself to Rhino’s back, it’s up to players — if they want to avoid health damage — to steer Rhino from barreling into every conceivable piece of commercial property that stands between him and the mall’s exit.
On the PlayStation 5, this scene is marked by a fury of shattered glass and masonry — details made all the more dazzling by the game’s use of next-generation lighting techniques (ray tracing), which gives objects and surfaces a mesmerizing sheen. In terms of graphics, the other thing that immediately leaps out are the textures on the characters’ — particularly Miles’s — costumes. It’s rare that I think about the subtleties of virtual fabrics while playing a video game, but I was tempted to look for individual stitches and threads at least a few times during my playthrough.
Peter and Miles continue to give chase after Rhino makes it back to the streets. Eventually they corner him, but Rhino gets the best of Peter, pummeling him until he’s out of commission. Incensed at seeing his friend hurt, Miles steps to Rhino and discovers a latent preternatural ability in himself: bioelectricity/venom power.
By holding down the L1 shoulder button and pressing different face buttons, Miles can perform venom attacks. These strong, energy-charged attacks are essential against bosses and shielded enemies. After using this ability to defeat Rhino, the area is swarmed by the armed security units of Roxxon, an energy corporation looking to provide “clean energy” to Harlem. Of course, it turns out that the company is sketchy, but by the time Miles realizes this Peter will be overseas on a journalism assignment with the love of his life Mary Jane Watson.
“Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” delicately balances all-out combat sequences, stealth encounters and boss battles, which are particularly good. Boss fights are multiphase affairs, filled with destructible objects, that make for great eye candy. They’re challenging but rarely infuriating, as well-tuned as many of the game’s other components.
This lighthearted, superhero romp is an easy game to embrace.