Marvel's Miles Morales: Spider-Man - title

I could've played Miles Morales on the PS4 back when it was released in November of 2020, but I really wanted to wait until I got a PS5. So I waited. And waited. Eventually, my number on Sony's waiting list came up, and I got a PS5 just in time for Christmas. Miles Morales, Demon's Souls, and Returnal were the first games I bought for it.

Early set pieces put a large emphasis on protecting civilians and reducing collateral damage.

If you liked Marvel's Spider-Man for the PS4 -- and who didn't? It was great! -- then Miles Morales is largely more of the same, but with the distinct urban flavor that comes with the Miles Morales story, and a story about corporations using "not in my backyard" politics to exploit under-privileged communities. Combat is virtually unchanged, aside from a few new gadgets and powers, and the locomotion is even more identical. So pretty much everything positive that I had to say about that game also applies to this game, and I'll try to keep this review short by not retreading the same praise and critiques.

There is a greater emphasis early in the game on trying to protect civilians. This is a welcome change, and I wish Miles Morales would have gone a bit further with it. Protecting civilians is a large component of early setpieces, but it is largely dropped once the story gets started proper. It's a shame that this isn't carried through into the rest of the game, since a major theme of the story is Miles serving as a protector for the under-privileged, mostly ethnic minority, population of Harlem.

Spider-Man has always been a hero for the common folk,
but this Spider-Man is also a hero for the under-privileged and down-trodden.

Christmas vacation

The campaign itself is also considerably shorter than the first game, taking place entirely during the Christmas season. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it's nice to have a more focused, 20 or 30 hour campaign. I have other shit to do, and it's nice to be able to finish a game's story without feeling like I have to play it every waking moment of my free time for weeks or months on end. And that 20-30 hours isn't just the story; I actually completed 100% of the side activities in that time as well.

On the other hand, playing as a younger Spider-Man just learning the tricks of the trade would seem like it would be well-suited to a longer, multi-faceted campaign with a series of escalating challenges and threats. It would have been nice to see Miles start out by focusing more on fighting petty crime in the Harlem area and adjacent districts, before moving onto more widespread organized crime, and then finally the super villain threats. There's no such escalation in Miles Morales' story. It jumps straight into the big super villain story and relegates all the "friendly neighborhood" stuff to simple side quests.

Insomniac wastes no time getting to the supervillain plot.

This does also mean that it gets its super villain surprise twist out of the way early, since it's a twist that is almost as obvious as the appearance of Doctor Octopus in the previous game. On the topic of the super villain "twist", I did find it annoying that a large part of the conflict depends on the Tinkerer making such a big deal about Miles' perceived dishonesty, but the Tinkerer wasn't exactly forthcoming either. Yet Miles never points this out.

Considering how polished Marvel's Spider-Man felt, despite also having a much bigger story and more side content, I was surprised to find a number of side quests in Miles Morales that were broken. This was doubly-surprising considering that I'm playing the game well over a year after its release. That's plenty of time for Insomniac to have fixed these bugs, even if they only have a handful of people doing maintenance on the game, while the rest of the team works on Marvel's Spider-Man 2 and Marvel's Wolverine. Even more concerning is that the specific side quests that broke for me were all related to the F.E.A.S.T. storyline, which is the most narratively and thematically important line of side quests in the game. I would think these would be the most stable and polished side quests in the game.

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Elden Ring

From Software has released its newest, brutally-difficult game, Elden Ring, and it does quite a few things differently from the previous game's in From Software's "Souls-Borne" series. Most notably, Elden Ring has a full open world. That is, an "open world" by the definition that most players would use. Personally, I always thought that Dark Souls and Bloodborne counted as "open worlds" in all the ways that matter, but that's using a very generous personal definition. In any case, this legit open world in Elden Ring does dramatically change the way that Elden Ring is designed, balanced, and paced, and it should also change the way that players approach the game compared to previous titles.

I want to do the same thing that I did with Bloodborne and Sekiro, and provide my own personal tips and tricks for Elden Ring, from the perspective of an experienced, but not elite, player. These tips are geared towards new players coming into Elden Ring fresh, and for other experienced Souls-Borne players who may be having a hard time coming to grips with the new design of the game.

The open world dramatically changes how players should approach the early hours of Elden Ring.

In any case, I hope the following tips help you to get a leg up against the trademark challenge of From Software's Elden Ring.

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Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - title

When I played it last year (after waiting over a year for its timed Epic Store exclusivity to end), Outer Wilds quickly became one of my favorite games ever due to its innovative sci-fi, exploratory gameplay in its dynamic sandbox solar system full of interesting places that are genuinely worth exploring. It was a compelling sci-fi game about the nature of science and the desire to find out place in the universe. It was also a compelling player-driven mystery game that doesn't hold the player's hand and which provides genuine "eureka!" moments.

I wasn't expecting an expansion because the game seemed so perfect and self-contained that I struggled to even think of what could be included in an expansion. Would they add more planets to the solar system? Would it be a stand-alone prequel with the player playing as one of the extinct Nomai?

But I sure as hell was not going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

I wasn't going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

River rafting around the world

One of my favorite things about Outer Wilds is its open-ended exploration of the hand-crafted solar system. Each world is a little puzzle box for the player to unlock, with the solutions to every puzzle involving some sci-fi physics concept that the player has to learn and apply.

The puzzles of Echoes of the Eye don't seem to have that same sci-fi quality to them. Most puzzles involve the use of light, and feel like they could be puzzles in any earthbound adventure or fantasy setting. I just point flashlights at things to trigger mechanisms, turn lights off or on to trigger secret passageways, or turn off my source of light to sneak past photo-sensitive sentries in the dark. I guess I should praise the puzzle design for never falling back on the tried-and-true (yet rote) method of reflecting light off mirrors or through prisms. The actual puzzles are a bit more clever than this, but I just don't find it to be a very engaging or interesting gimmick, especially compared to how novel and creative the core Outer Wilds puzzle box is.

The use of light as the instrument for most interactions with Echoes of the Eye seems to be the result of a concerted effort by the developers to use base game mechanics that are under-utilized in the base game, such as the flashlight and ability to nap at bonfires. The puzzles just lack that sense of awe and discovery that comes with progressing in the base game.

Echoes of the Eye starts off strong with solving a space-based mystery.

Some of the late puzzles do start to embrace Outer Wilds's sci-fi nature. They hide some very fun and interesting surprises that really mess with the player's perception of reality in a very video-game-meta sort of way. But they are so esoteric that the game almost has to literally tell the player what to do. It's like "summoning the tornado in Simon's Quest" levels of esoteric at times.

Honestly, I think the single best puzzle in the game is the one that the player has to solve just to get access to the DLC! It's also the most "Outer Wilds" feeling puzzle in the game. The developers managed to cleverly hide the DLC in plain sight, as if it had been there all along.

The opening for the DLC tasks the player with finding a remote satellite and solving a simple puzzle involving it. Then the expansion treats the player with the awe-inspiring discovery of a massive hidden world that makes up the expansion's primary setting. After that, however, everything feels like pretty typical adventure game stuff. Instead of planet-hopping in a tiny space capsule, I find myself white-water rafting and watching home movies on slide projectors. Later on, there's some horror-adjacent exploration of dark spaces with just a flashlight, and even a little bit of hide-and-seek. Again, it's nothing I haven't seen in a hundred other indie games.

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Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - title

One of the thoughts that dominated my playtime with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was "Oh I hope the next game is a viking-themed game!". I felt that the open-ended sailing and naval combat would work well in a viking setting, complete with raiding coastal villages as an extra way of obtaining wealth and loot (in addition to plundering trade ships in the open sea). Black Flag was so good, it seemed like a sure-fire, slam-dunk idea! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out: almost everything could go wrong.

I've been hoping for a viking-themed game ever since Black Flag.

For starters, I refused to buy Assassin's Creed: Valhalla at its release because I did not want to give any money to Ubisoft, which has had ongoing legal issues regarding multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against high-level managers and executives. Like the Catholic Church, Ubisoft may have systematically hid these alleged transgressions and protected the executives who were committing them. Even the company's HR department has been accused of being complicit.

So fuck Ubisoft and its executives, who (if these allegations are true) should all be in prison, and the company's ownership should be given to the employees who were wronged. I wasn't going to give that company a dime of my money, so I waited and watched eBay for cheaper, used copies to show up. I specifically filtered for "used" copies -- none of that "new, sealed" wholesale scalping nonsense that is all over eBay. Buying a sealed copy from an eBay scalper is the same as buying a new, retail copy, as far as I'm concerned. Several months after release, I finally bought a cheap, used copy for about $30 from someone who claimed to have played the game and got bored of it, so that my partner could kill time while stuck at home during the ongoing pandemic in 2021.

She played through the entire game, and liked it just fine. I played a little bit, hated the early hours, and stopped playing it so that I could work on other projects. I only came back to it later (after she had finished) to see if the game had any redeeming qualities. And even then, I did not even come close to completing the game because it's just too damn long, and I have much better things to do with my time.

You had one job, Valhalla! And you couldn't even get that right!

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is a tedious, repetitive, drawn-out, copy-pasted, glitch-laden, slog of a game and story. It tries to copy the one thing that Black Flag did so well, and which inspired all future sailing mechanics for every Assassin's Creed game that followed, but it actually somehow manages to remove that thing! That's right, there is no naval combat in the game at all. Worse yet, there is absolutely nothing to do with the longship except use it as a vehicle for moving about the empty, sterile seas and rivers. There isn't even much in the way of islands to discover out in the open seas, so even the exploration incentive is gone. The Norway map has a few islands, but the England map has virtually none. In fact, you don't even use the longship to sail the seas around England; you only use it to sail up and down rivers looking for villages to raid. The key selling point of Valhalla, the longship, is nothing more than a glorified truck, and the rivers that run across England are basically just roads.

The longship is little more than a truck, and the rivers are little more than roads between raids.

Things are spaced out a bit more than I usually expect from an Assassin's Creed game. The map isn't quite as littered with mindless collectibles, even though it is still littered with mindless collectibles. But the map still isn't quite big enough, the distances still not quite far enough, and fast travel is still accessible enough, that I never felt it necessary to use the boat as the most efficient method of traversal. If you're stopping at every village to raid, to search for every collectible, and to play every side quest, then you're better off just using your horse, because any time you would save from using the boat will be offset by the extra time it takes to board and unboard the thing everytime you stop for a side quest.

It's like Ubisoft took the castle sieges from Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, stripped out the Nemesis system that gave those sieges context that made them worth playing, and then just put rivers between all the castle gates so you'd have an excuse to attack from the boat. But the longship feels completely unnecessary to the game. Early in the game, the longship feels like it might be a more integral part of the game, when you're sailing around the seas, fjords, and snaky coastlines of Norway, and crossing large bodies of water is necessary. But then you get to England, and the map is almost completely land-locked, save for those traversable rivers.

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I don't know if I'm going to be buying a PS5 anytime soon (or ever), so I may not have an opportunity to play Miles Morales, which is Insomniac's follow-up to its smash hit 2018 game Marvel's Spider-Man. Instead, I decided to go back and play the DLC for the 2018 game, "The City That Never Sleeps", which I had bought, but never got around to playing. This got me thinking more about how Insomniac implemented the web-swinging mechanics, and what I hope they'll do to iterate and improve the mechanic in future games.

This blog post is a transcript of the video essay above.

I had previously mentioned Marvel's Spider-Man essay about open world gaming's possible recent inflection point, but I didn't go into much detail. Basically, I just threw it in as an example of a recent open world game in which the traversal of the map had a large mechanical focus, turning the map into more of a play space and less of a convoluted, time-wasting mission-select screen. I didn't spend more time talking about Spider-Man, however, because as much as I like Insomniac's game, and as fun as the web-swinging is, I still felt like the web-swinging traversal in that game was pretty simple, and the environment did not act as much of an obstacle to the level of the other games in those videos.

Besides, Insomniac's Spider-Man didn't stray very far from the boring checklist-inspired open world design that my earlier videos were railing against. Traversal doesn't consume resources other than the player's time, and the player isn't responsible for balancing Peter's heroic and personal lives (the tension between the two has always been a big part of the Spider-Man story), nor are there any other mechanics that try to pull the player towards one set of content to the exclusion of another, and so where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you chose to get there is largely meaningless. It's any other open world game you've played in the last 10 years. The web-swinging is just a much more stylish and spectacular method of moving from filler content to filler content.

Spider-Man games make for an interesting case study in open world game design.

Spider-Man games in total do represent their own interesting microcosm of the virtues of open world, sandbox game design, and also of the ways in which open world games can fall flat on their faces and fail miserably. Spider-Man could make for an interesting case study to go along with Death Stranding.

Since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game, mainstream Spider-Man games have mostly been open world games. The most notable exceptions being Beenox's Shattered Dimensions (which was pretty good) and Edge of Time (which was awful). All the other Spidey games that I've played have been open world games in which you web swing around a virtual Manhattan to reach story missions or to thwart ambient crimes. The quality of these games has been very hit-or-miss, but (as we'll discuss soon) many of them still have their unique merits.

Beenox's Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time are notable Spider-Man games that are not open world games.

Web of Shadows, for instance, had lots of problems with its writing, pacing, and animation, but its novel aerial and wall-crawling combat mechanics made excellent use of the map's verticality in ways that other Spidey games (and open world games in general) rarely even approach. I won't be talking much about this game because I traded in my copy a long time ago, and I don't feel like blowing $45 of Patreon contributions on a game that I'll likely play for 10 minutes just to capture footage and refresh my memory of how the game played. So my apologies if you're a big Web of Shadows fan.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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