Guest Post by Anthony Otero
I want to preface this piece by stating that I am a casual gamer. I’m someone who doesn’t play a ton of games due to a busy schedule and finances that dictate the number of games that I purchase. However, I jumped at the chance to pre-order Spider-Man: Miles Morales for the PS4. Now, I don’t usually pre-order games often but considering that this is my most anticipated game in a long time, I refused to be spoiled on Twitter.
That anticipation, of course, is followed by a ton of scrutiny about the size of the game. We really didn’t know what kind of game we were getting. Where are we getting a shortened game? Was this truly a DLC in disguise? How was Harlem going to be represented?
After playing the game over a series of three days and beating it, I can unequivocally tell you that this game is truly incredible. This game takes everything from the first Spider-Man game and brings it to a new level in terms of gameplay and advancing the pre-existing storyline. The fighting is ramped up and the mechanics of the game remain smooth enough for a first-time player and instantly familiar for a returner.
But, to be honest, I expected that. I expected this game to be every bit as good as Spider-Man in terms of gameplay. But what I was really anticipating was Miles Morales himself. And Insomniac Games did not disappoint me.
The story, Miles’ story, is an epic tale about a young hero. A coming of age story, if you will, told in a way that is both culturally enriching and emotionally stirring.
As an Afro Latino (Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian), Spider-Man: Miles Morales is everything I could’ve hoped for. This game has more people of color than I have ever seen in a video game. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a truer version of New York is represented in this game as compared to the original. New York City’s richly diverse population is woven seamlessly through the tapestry of the game which gives an authentic look and feel through the gameplay experience. Insomniac Games made sure to use the same map as the first game but shifted it with a seasonal context.
To start, we find Miles coming home from winter break with his friend, Ganke, who is staying with him and his mother Rio. For context, the mother and son have just recently moved to Spanish Harlem from Brooklyn after the death of his father and into Miles’ abuela’s apartment who has moved back to Puerto Rico. Additionally, Rio is also running for City Council and her platform is diametrically opposed to that of the Roxxon Corporation whose plan to supply clean energy to all New Yorkers is seen as just another attempt at gentrification.
In the middle of all this comes the antagonist, The Tinkerer, who wants to destroy Roxxon at all costs, which leads to the fundamental question of the story. Why would a rich oil company start an elaborate scheme in Harlem? Much like the film, Vampires vs. The Bronx, if something happens to the residence, does anyone care?
With such high stakes, Miles finds himself without Peter Parker who is taking a much-needed vacation in Europe with Mary Jane. Miles struggles with the moniker of “the other” Spider-Man and fights hard to prove to the world that his existence matters, which is why playing the side missions are designed to understand the neighborhood and gain support from all New Yorkers.
There is a specific charm to this game because of the cultural significance. While no one specifically states that he lives in El Barrio, he truly does. El Barrio is the East Harlem neighborhood also referred to as Spanish Harlem that has a largely Puerto Rican population. He lives on 123rd street where there are bodegas, salsa music, and Puerto Rican restaurants. The game developers did a good job at “coloring in” buildings from the first game to add store street-level storefronts that resemble the Spanish Harlem I’ve seen. Additionally, Spanish is spoken throughout the entire game. Rio speaks bilingually to Miles just as any Latino mom would. The dialogue feels real coming from Rio while you can tell Miles speaks as a person whose English is his first language. This is not a fault, this just feels real.
But it doesn’t stop there, the feel of the apartment with the Puerto Rican flags and multiple coqui magnets on the fridge shows that there is a nuance in the game that I was not expecting but fell in love with. Rio Morales throws down in the kitchen during a dinner cutscene serving the ultimate Puerto Rican holiday dish, pasteles! I was also almost brought to tears playing that, now famous scene, of Miles and Ganke walking through a street fair. There is a man playing the congas (Latin percussion drums) that reminded me of the kind my dad had in our basement. He used to play them when listening to salsa music. It was something I never thought I would see played back to me. All of the nuance is beautiful because it feels like the game was made for me.
This one scene is so much. 🇵🇷 are everywhere and it kinda brings tears to my eyes. All is this beautiful.
— OG Tony Snark 🇵🇷🇪🇨 (@Latinegro) November 13, 2020
There is no coincidence that they picked winter as the setting so the player does not have to worry about High School issues but it gives the player a chance to see snow on the ground and enjoy the holidays during a time when we cannot go outside to enjoy it ourselves. It also represents a time for family that is a heavy theme throughout the story. The other thing that makes winter great in New York that is portrayed in the game are the Christmas decorations that are strung up around the neighborhoods giving a familiarly festive sight as well as the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center.
An added bonus to the story is Uncle Aaron, his late dad’s brother, that plays a major role in ways that are both surprising and plainly predictable if you understand their story from the comic book and the Into the Spiderverse film. The twists and turns with Aaron, aka The Prowler, and The Tinkerer will force Miles to face the reality of who he can trust and is being a superhero more important than family. For the veterans of Spider-Man, there are tons of easter eggs in the game that advance the story we know. Also, the cut scene during the credits roll will have players of the first game scream in anticipation of what is coming in the next game.
With all of that being said, the game length feels shorter than I expected, however, with all the side missions and various places Miles can venture to, the game time will easily be compared to any “normal length” game that we can purchase. Also, knowing me, I will play this game several times over at a more difficult level to get extra bonuses like additional suits…
….oh yeah, let’s talk about the spider suits that are available to Miles. Players will want to unlock all of these, including the Into the Spiderverse suit that I absolutely had to play in. This suit interacts with the environment much like in the movie, making him seem a little glitchy. It takes getting used to until you fight a bunch of foes and see the words like “bam” pop up when he scores a hit. There are a total of 19 suits that can be unlocked by in-game activity tokens or scenario gameplay. Veterans of the first game will know that certain suits provide power-ups or protections that other suites do not have. One suit even comes with a cat, which I absolutely love, that is achieved by saving the local bodega cat from a bunch of thieving thugs.
— OG Tony Snark 🇵🇷🇪🇨 (@Latinegro) November 12, 2020
Sure, there are things that I wish could have been done better like not leaving out other neighborhoods (like Washington Heights) or not having the Apollo Theater (a landmark of Harlem). Any New Yorker that plays the game will know the map cuts of Manhattan cuts off at about 145 street which leaves out another 70+ blocks of other culturally rich neighborhoods. While I understand that makes the open-world concept hard to manage (although, have you seen Ghost of Tsushima?) missing out on these is sad to me because New York City is a sum of all its parts.
I made a big stink about the exclusion of the Apollo Theater in the first Spider-Man because finding landmarks is part of one of the many side missions. The fact that there were zero landmarks in Harlem is still truly annoying. However, Insomniac Games went the extra mile to add certain things that were not in the first game like basketball courts and street art. While that sounds a little nitpicky, these are things that a person who grew up and lived in New York City considers being synonymous with it.
Lastly, there is something to be said about playing a character that looks like you, whose familia is almost like yours. Seeing Abuela’s apartment gave me such a familiar feeling of being in a similar place of visiting family. The apartment looks like a typical apartment in Spanish Harlem with all the family photos and religious symbols on the walls. The moments with Rio are so special that it left me sitting in awe just thinking about how much we needed this representation. The love of her son is seen through her phone calls in Spanglish and the notes that she leaves him in the apartment. This representation of a successful Latina single mom trying to raise her son is something we do not see enough of and hits me just thinking of so many of my friends and family who have been through that struggle.
One of the scenes that really drives home the need for this game as well as the need to accept Miles as Spider-Man came in a powerful statement in the game from a Harlem Resident that simply said, “He is our Spider-Man.” The real power in Spider-Man: Miles Morales is that while Miles Morales fights for New York City, he is uniquely Black and Latinx and thus uniquely Harlem.
To quote the song from the Spider-Man: Miles Morales soundtrack, “I’m Ready” by Jaden: To Take on the World, I’m ready… I was ready for this game and I hope you are too.