As regular readers (both of you) will recall, at the tail end of last year I let my PS Now subscription lapse with a final hurrah of Gravity Rush. I enjoyed that game in no small part due to its similarities with a certain web swinging hero based in New York city. So I embarked on a replay of 2018 title Spider-Man, which I now realise I never actually reviewed at the time. And part way through that, what should land on my doormat but a surprise pressie from the Best Husband Ever in the form of the 2020 follow up game.
Once Peter Parker had put all his villains to bed for the 2nd time, it was the turn of new hero-on-the-block Miles Morales. Miles is a prominent secondary character in the first game which helpfully serves as his origin story. He’s the kid of the policeman who was killed in the City Hall attack. Supported by his mother and Peter, he channels his grief into his volunteering work at FEAST, where a mysterious spider gives him a nip.
SMMM picks up pretty soon after the events of the previous game ends. Under the tutelage of PP, he’s developing his skills and figuring out his superhero identity. Which, as J Jonah Jameson is quick to point out, following a fairly chaotic cold open, mostly consists of ‘helping’ put bad guys away whilst causing eye-watering amounts of collateral damage to the infrastructure of Manhattan. Pete decides he needs a break and trots off to Symkaria with MJ, leaving his protege in charge of protecting the city, and off we go!
Much as Far Cry New Dawn takes place on a re-skinned map of the previous game, SMMM is, obviously, going over the same ground as before. Cleverly though, by setting the events a couple of months later New York wears a delicate blanket of snow, thereby creating a new aesthetic which feels fresh and interesting. A few new buildings have been thrown up too, which narratively makes perfect sense given how many building sites were scattered around the locale in the first game.
The snow also lends an urgency to some of the social themes in the game, particularly acute when Miles has to battle to get the FEAST North centre reopened as its inhabitants stand freezing around makeshift bonfires in the grounds. It chimes effectively with the over-arching plot around how historically ethnic areas fare when greedy property developers think they can literally steamroller over communities who stand in the way of their profits.
Although the action takes you all over Manhattan, the game feels like a love letter to Harlem. I can’t speak to the accuracy of its portrayal, (although I did once go to a lovely party in Harlem), but the love and pride for that part of the city oozes from every pixel.
The diversity of the characters is hugely welcome, particularly after more than a decade of white dominance across the whole of the MCU. Miles’ mother Rio, adeptly picks up the mantle laid down by the late Aunt May: caring, determined & perceptive. In place of MJ, Miles gets support, both technical and moral, from BFF Ganke which provides a refreshing and satisfying bromance of mutual appreciation (quite the palate cleanser after MJ and Pete’s constant bickering about whether or not MJ can be trusted to look after herself). I suppose given how young Miles is, a full romance sub plot would be verging on the inappropriate, but I could have stood to spend a little more time with the lovely Hailey, the hearing impaired street artist who seems to have caught Miles’ eye. And in a beautiful counterpoint to the gammon-y JJJ (although he does kind of have a point about accountability sometimes), Miles regularly tunes in to the podcast made by Danika Hart, who shines as a beacon of positive vibes and practical advice in a febrile media world of manufactured outrage. And last but not least, Phin/The Tinkerer makes for a compelling and rounded villain whose backstory is perfectly calibrated to engender sympathy and understanding while you try to foil her plans. Videogames still have a long way to go, but this game makes some positive strides towards better representation and inclusivity.
In terms of gameplay, the venom abilities provide for fun and visually interesting new way to put down your enemies beyond the straightforward web and punch combos, which were getting a little samey. In lieu of the challenges set by the uber-annoying Screball (if I never hear “GET THAT PHOTOBOMB!” ever again it will be too soon) and the disappointing Taskmaster (such a missed opportunity), Miles undertakes a series of training challenges with a holo-Pete which were so much more fun to play! I would also like to put on record my gratitude to whoever thought to revise the benchmarks to more easily achievable goals, because frankly who had the time to execute 3000 Point Launches?
A few gripes. First off I am Not Okay with Peter being re-imagined in Tom Holland’s image. This is not to cast any aspersions whatsover on Mr Holland, whom I actually happen to think is the best Spider-Man committed to screen. But Holland’s SM is a high-schooler. The Peter Parker of the 1st game is meant to be a grad student. But between the super-heroics and his not-regularly-paid job with Doctor Octavius, he almost certainly does not have either the time or the funds to pursue a doctorate on a full time basis. Which means I reckon he should be in his mid-late twenties at least.
(Ok I’ve just googled it and apparently Tom Holland is actually 25. Fuck I’m old!) But, the point still stands that it’s a bit jarring when a character’s appearance drastically changes between games!
More substantially, there are some annoying bugs in the game I have, mostly with the bonus achievements. At the start, these weren’t showing up at all until combat had started, which is a bit late to discover you were meant to be doing stealth take downs of at least 3 enemies. Then, after a software update, suddenly I had the opposite problem with all achievements suddenly auto-completing.
As with virtually every game I have ever played, clipping issues remain a perennial threat; somehow dropping into sealed cubes from which I can’t escape, having entire conversations with an NPCs elbow poking through my face, or on one occasion just casually falling out the bottom of the ground into oblivion. At least none of these was game-breaking!
Lastly, and I suppose it’s entirely up to you as to whether you consider this a bug or not: it turns out you can equip the Bodega suit with the feline Spider-Man – complete with a little red kitty cowl over his head – tucked into your backpack (unlocked on completion of the main campaign and epilogue side quest), and then replay the Looters mission from the FNSM app, thereby creating the pantomime of asking the baddies where the cat is whilst he is, in point of fact, behind you!
SMMM is a terrific game and a valuable asset to the cannon of Sony/MCU (not getting into the politics of that) depictions of the Friendly Neighbourhood web head. Heartily recommended.