On paper, “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” seems pretty straightforward: It’s the follow-up to Insomniac Games’ wildly successful “Spider-Man,” a 2018 PlayStation 4 exclusive that dropped everyone’s favorite webslinger into an open-world Manhattan and allowed him to zip around the New York skyline in a friendly, gravity-defying riff on “Grand Theft Auto.” But a strange identity crisis sets in almost as soon as players swing back into action, and that cognitive dissonance only grows as you careen through the game’s electric 10-hour-plus campaign. The more that Miles — Brooklyn to the bone — starts to feel at home in his adopted Harlem neighborhood, the more obvious it becomes that his standalone new adventure isn’t just a cut-and-dry sequel with a different super teen subbing in for Peter Parker. Anyone can wear the mask, but that doesn’t change who they are underneath.
For one thing, the game is considerably smaller than its predecessor, as it was rushed through development in order to be ready in time for the release of the PlayStation 5 (and may only exist because of Sony’s urgent need for a splashy launch title). Too nuanced and expansive to play like a glorified piece of DLC, but too small and self-contained to be confused for a proper continuation, “Miles Morales” feels more like the video game equivalent of a Christmas special than anything else.
Also, Miles suffers from a major case of imposter syndrome that seeps into every facet of the game around him: Its relationship to the robust and beloved predecessor is mirrored by the self-doubt Miles feels about suddenly being Manhattan’s only Spider-Man after Peter Parker decides to join MJ on vacation. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, and Miles can’t do anything to change the size of his feet.
It doesn’t help that bad guys treat him like a cos-playing nuisance, and even NPCs grumble out loud about how they miss the other guy. One especially devastating encounter with a certain super-villain even ends with the declaration that “This Spider-Man is broken.” Ouch. But as that sinister enemy learns the hard way several times over, this Spider-Man just works differently. This is a game about Miles learning how to be a hero on his own terms (echoes of “Into the Spider-Verse” abound), and the intimate story it weaves hinges on local politics and gentrification in a way that allows Insomniac to make the bite-sized scale of this Spidey adventure into a feature, not a bug.
“Miles Morales” is even smoother to play than the previous game, and offers a more vibrant, living version of Manhattan to play through (the “Truman Show” effect of New York only existing so far as Spider-Man can see it has been greatly reduced, even if the paucity of interior settings and general lack of interactivity remains). It really doesn’t hurt that the PlayStation 5 edition takes full advantage of the system’s ray-tracing capabilities, and may just be the single most visually stunning console game ever made. The cinematic graphics help “Miles Morales” fill the hole left behind by the first year in forever that didn’t expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While some of us may not mind that gap, the wait for “Black Widow” is about to get a lot easier for everyone else.
A bite-sized, open-world game is a rather bizarre concept — imagine a Jewish deli that only served hors d’oeuvres — but “Miles Morales” organically builds on the foundation left behind by its predecessor, while zooming in on the new characters in a way that makes the story around them feel scaled to the right size. The action picks up shortly after “Spider-Man” ended, but the focus on Miles (voiced by a delicate and believable Nadji Jeter) is so narrow that newcomers won’t have any trouble cutting in mid-stream.
We catch up with our nervous webslinger-in-training at a time when the recent Harlem transplant is starting to get settled in the area, but still feels a bit shy about the prospect of being its friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; he can’t rescue a cat out of a tree without feeling like a poor imitation of Peter Parker. His widowed mom Rio doesn’t share any of the same hesitation over stepping into a leadership role and being an advocate for the people — her city council campaign is already in full swing, setting the stage for what might be the first video game ever set against the backdrop of a local New York election — but it’s hard for a teen to have the world on their shoulders when they’re still learning how to carry themselves.
Which isn’t to say Miles doesn’t have any help. There’s his best friend Ganke, who knows his secret and develops a social media app to help New Yorkers request Spider-Man’s help/provide a small handful of generic side quests. There’s also his estranged uncle Aaron — a taciturn guy with a secret of his own — and a brilliant, downcast girl named Phin who used to be Miles’ science partner back at his previous school (whatever your feelings on this game, the “Spider-Man” franchise remains an undeniable masterpiece of STEM propaganda).
Even so, it’s not a great time for Miles to be generating enough big “first day on the job” energy to power everything north of Central Park, and not just because ultra-slick Roxxon Energy CEO Simon Kreiger (voiced by “The Last of Us” legend Troy Baker) has gotten there first. The reckless uber-capitalist has just opened an eye-catching NuForm plant smack in the heart of Harlem — NuForm being a volatile nu power source that gentrifies everything it touches — and you just know he’s up to no good.
But possibly even worse are the goons from the Underground, a second-rate crime syndicate that’s been revitalized under the command of the mysterious Tinkerer; now, they raid NuForm shipments and use the stolen energy to fashion high tech new weapons that you’ll have to web out of their hands ad nauseam throughout the game. “Miles Morales” continues Spider-Man’s long tradition of mining real stakes from tethering the Marvel universe to local events.
In this case, the short but well-balanced story hinges on the human-sized idea that a real hero is someone brave for the people they love. And while the game’s writing is deeper than it is wide, it’s consistently rewarding to play along as Miles comes to appreciate that his personal attachments — and the self-identity they help to reflect — aren’t what stops him from being worthy of the heroes he knows so much as they’re what legitimizes his bid to join their ranks. That awakening pans out beautifully on a macro scale even though several of Miles’ relationships are underwritten (his bonds with Phin and his uncle most of all), which is only possible because Insomniac spins a web of overlapping moral struggles that allows the game world to feel alive even when much of Manhattan still feels like it only exists so far as you can see it.
The “Truman Show” effect has been diminished since 2018, and a slew of single-use indoor mission locations help chip away at the feeling that the whole city is just a two-dimensional Zoom backdrop, but Insomniac’s New York is still nowhere near as interactive as its graphic fidelity might suggest. It’s a common problem for an open-world game’s reach to exceed its grasp, but even compared to the rest of its genre, there just isn’t enough to do here. There are crimes to stop, time capsules to unearth, Underground weapons caches to sniff out, and even fake social media feeds to scroll through for all the masochists out there (the writing is actually pretty on point). But all of it feels about as substantial as the window-dressing on a Broadway set — it adds to the atmosphere, but can’t hope to sell the illusion. Factor in a plethora of useless power-ups, a forgiving checkpoint system that should allow even the most under-leveled players to brawl their way through endgame encounters, and a tiny skill tree that feels more like a shrub, and it’s safe to assume that most players will grow tired of the peripheral stuff and focus on the rewarding main quests.
But, as is often the case when it comes to Spider-Man, character saves the day — character and utterly psychotic next-gen graphics that make the game’s Manhattan a jaw-dropping spectacle even if it’s hollow inside. Here, those two factors are inextricably entwined. It starts with the way that Miles swings between skyscrapers, as the game’s ultra-expressive animation reflects the clumsy euphoria of a kid who’s just coming in to his own strength. The 2018 game was beloved for how it conveyed the sticky bliss of web-slinging above the world’s most iconic urban jungle, and this follow-up only lifts that sensation to new heights. It’s never been so much fun to just move around New York, and a certain strain of pandemic nostalgia lines that feeling with an unexpected new fringe of wish-fulfilling joy. Even after you’ve mastered Miles’ move set and gotten bored with his fresh batch of Venom-injected bio-shock abilities (there are only so many ways you can beat a henchman unconscious with his own machine gun, wallop his lifeless body a few more times in mid-air, and then charge a bolt of orange electricity into his skull without a drop of blood), it’s still euphoric to just pick up the controller and play. Just try not to get too frustrated with the wonky stealth attack mechanic, which is crucial to the combat system but only seems to work when it wants to.
But the real improvements are reserved for anyone lucky enough to be playing on a PS5. The next-gen version of “Miles Morales” is essentially the same game as the one that’s being released on PS4, but it offers a fundamentally different experience. The non-existent loading speeds and stable 30fps frame rates are nice (the 60fps “performance mode” isn’t worth the trade-off), but it’s the graphics that amaze you into paying full attention and weaponize your sense of wonder in a way that no PlayStation launch title ever has.
Much has been made of the PS5’s capacity for “ray tracing” — a rendering technique that replaces the rasterization of yore and produces remarkably lifelike lighting effects by converting 3D graphics into 2D pixels — and “Miles Morales” feels like it was designed for the specific purpose of showing this off. Swinging around the city is enough to make your jaw drop (the tinselly Christmas spirit twinkles through Harlem and captures a visceral sense of life in progress, even if this isn’t quite the same Harlem that New Yorkers know so well), but things really pop off whenever the Underground attacks in an electric storm of neon purple.
Screenshots might capture the game’s arresting color palette, but ray tracing can only be appreciated in motion, and the dynamic interchange in the light as it radiates from the henchmen and reflects against the city around them is appreciably cinematic in a lizard brain way that your eyes will register even when the brunt of your attention is focused on webbing bad guys. This phenomenon allows for an unusually palpable connection to the action on screen, and the effect bleeds into the rest of the game in a way that allows even the most intimate character-driven cutscenes to benefit from the spectacle of it all.
The mottled texture of Miles’ internal conflict is legible on his face, and the visual dynamism makes it so much easier for the rest of the cast — friend and foe alike — to anchor their ambitions in something a bit more complex than the usual comic book moralism. Strange as it may sound to argue that newfangled lighting tech might deepen your investment in Rio Morales’ city council race, the impact such graphical verisimilitude has on a game about impostor syndrome can’t be overstated. Plus, it looks cool as hell; even after completing the main campaign, this player was still screen-shotting each new location like an overeager tourist in Times Square.
“Spider-Man: Miles Morales” might not escape the sense that it’s just a gorgeous stopgap between the previous game and its “proper” sequel to come, but this welcome offshoot is so sure-footed and self-possessed that it finds a way to stand on its own. This is a game that was designed to salvage the launch of Sony’s latest system, and with great processing power comes great responsibility. Much like its namesake, Insomniac’s latest is able to exceed expectations because of its bone-deep understanding that saving the world starts at a local level. People don’t show up because they’re superheroes; they’re superheroes because they show up, and Miles Morales just got here right on time.
“Spider-Man: Miles Morales” will be available for the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 5 on Thursday, November 12. This review was based off PlayStation 5 code provided by Sony.