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Miles Morales and Peter Parker pack an emotional punch in 'Marvel's Spider-Man 2'

Peter Parker and Miles Morales work together to defend New York City from new and returning threats.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Peter Parker and Miles Morales work together to defend New York City from new and returning threats.

Nearly one hundred years after Langston Hughes wrote the seminal poem "The Weary Blues," the words "He did a lazy sway. . . . He did a lazy sway. . . ." adorn my screen as I walk through a Harlem cultural center.

I'm exploring the virtual space as Miles Morales, co-star of Marvel's Spider-Man 2, whose presence elevates Insomniac's latest title to a level of art worthy of Hughes' poem. It's a game about web-slinging and fistfights, sure, but it's also about sacrifice and redemption, and every mile of its gorgeously-textured New York teems with human stories that redefine what heroism means.

With great power...

Releasing exclusively on PlayStation 5, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 is the sequel to two past titles — one a familiar Peter Parker origin story; the other, Miles Morales' main gaming debut.

Peter Parker and Miles Morales confer with their allies.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Peter Parker and Miles Morales confer with their allies.

In the 2018 PlayStation 4 game, Peter fought off members of the Sinister Six while juggling his relationship with Mary Jane. The story crescendoed with the death of Aunt May at the hands of Otto Octavius. Miles Morales lost his father in the events of that game, but later headlined a smaller follow-up title, where he saved the city from the corrupt tech corporation Roxxon Energy.

Now, in Marvel's Spider-Man 2, players alternate between both heroes with the press of a button. Peter's trying to hold down a new teaching job at Miles' high school, while Miles has his hands full with college applications. You'll watch them navigate their intersecting civilian lives while teaming up to protect the city.

The story sparkles with personal moments, and nowhere is that more true than in side-missions like the one that has Miles help his mom, Rio Morales, open a Harlem community center dedicated to preserving the works of real-world writers, musicians, and artists in a media experience equal parts history lesson and spectacular showcase.

Like many of the game's quests, the central premise transforms what you'd think superhero work typically looks like. After saving stolen artifacts for the museum, Miles remembers his departed father through his connection to jazz. "My dad really loved Charlie Parker... I guess I need to start listening closer to my playlist now," he muses. These reflective moments deepen not only the game's stand-out side content, but also its larger plot.

Miles confronts Scorpion, a returning supervillain in Marvel's Spider-Man 2.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Miles confronts Scorpion, a returning supervillain in Marvel's Spider-Man 2.

The Bad and Not-so-bad guys

The game opens with a battle against a super-sized Marko Flint, known as Sandman, as he towers above Midtown. You swap between both Miles and Peter to bring him down as he blasts apart whole city blocks in a blind rage.

But after defeating him, Miles and Peter learn that Marko's haunted by memories of his daughter. You'll literally collect these scattered memories across random alleys or atop skyscrapers in the boroughs of the city. Every fragment pieces Marko's humanity back together, with sound clips illustrating the pain he's endured over the years.

Meanwhile, classic series nemesis Kraven brings mercenaries to the city to seek out previously-captured villains (like Scorpion and Vulture) as worthy prey for their boss, the world's best hunter. Even while foiling Kraven's plans, Peter and Miles try to help their former adversaries find redemption.

Tombstone, another infamous villain, has traded in his leather jacket for a Coney Island carnie's uniform (and yes, the rides are adorably fun). Much later in the game, Peter (and a wildly souped-up Harry Osborn) spring Tombstone from Kraven's henchmen.

Venom, the baddest of Marvel's Spider-Man 2's bad guys.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Venom, the baddest of Marvel's Spider-Man 2's bad guys.

But out of this expansive rogues gallery, Venom is the magnum opus that reprises every emotional note the rest of the game has played. Spider-Man 2 foreshadows the looming threat he poses over dozens of its 31 main story missions. Thankfully, you'll have massively-enhanced gadgetry and powers by the time you finally face him.

Suiting up

As with its thoughtful missions and characters, the game's traversal system takes the best of the previous two Spider-Man games and expands them tenfold. Both Peter and Miles retain their own unique way of swinging and flipping through the city, replete with a collectible wardrobe of suits that sent this reviewer to the game's photo mode for hours.

Miles soars with one of the many customizable suits you can unlock.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Miles soars with one of the many customizable suits you can unlock.

However, the new Web Wings really make the game shine. At any airborne moment, you can press the triangle button to start soaring, building even more momentum with webbing that stretches between your arms. With newly added rooftop launch points and wind tunnels across the city, flying is so in.

Then there is the big symbiote in the room. Bestowed by the same force that created Venom, the Black Suit is a Spider-Fan's dream come true — the strength and ferocity of an alien powerhouse are packed into Peter's new suit after the lifeform latches onto him.

The suit expands your diverse arsenal and amplifies your moves through a new "Symbiote Surge." The meter fills when you're beating up baddies and using abilities like Peter's new Venom Strike, which looks like an homage to Venom's special move in the arcade classic Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

When the meter is finally full, the player flies into a fit of massive haymakers and powerful uppercuts that sees the symbiote lunge from Peter's body and into the faces of his enemies.

Peter can use the symbiotic power of his new Black Suit to devastating effect.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Peter can use the symbiotic power of his new Black Suit to devastating effect.

With thrilling action gameplay and a deep story, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 capitalizes on the heights of its predecessors and somehow makes New York big enough for the two web-slingers who inhabit it. What's more, it transforms villains from dated tropes to complex characters, and humanizes the people we save, and the ones who save us, in unforgettable ways. It's hands-down the best Spider-Man game I've ever played, and a strong contender for the best game of a stellar release year.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jamal Michel
Jamal Michel is a freelance writer whose work focuses on video game culture, entertainment and the stories in between them. He is currently a member of the Life Kit and It's Been a Minute teams.