Sony needed something big out of the gate to launch the PlayStation 5, and it doesn’t get much bigger than a follow up to the one of the best games of 2018. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is an interim game that picks up after the end of Peter Parker’s last outing, and has been billed as much, but that doesn’t mean players are getting short changed. Insomniac have taken what worked, kept that in, and focussed on bringing a relatable new story to the fore. It’s an almost perfect allegory as well – both the new console and the new superhero finding their feet and discovering their power. With it straddling both of the generations though, does it feel like it’s being held back by the PS4 version, or is there enough that can be leveraged from the hardware improvements that make it feel a step on?
It’s an interesting route to take in pitching the “add-on” as a main game, and it’s probably a reasonably easy decision to make as a developer. All the assets are there, the map is available, and the engine has probably been fine tuned as well… so why not make use of it. The challenge becomes making it not look like a copy and paste, and in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales that’s harder to do because it feels like being introduced to our hero all over again. This is the story of Miles learning what his powers are after being mentored by Peter post-events of the last game, and being left to figure out his own feelings about managing his superhero/life balance. Being the second Spider-Man in the city is handy in that there’s not as much expected from him, but a drawback in that he’s not people’s first choice to help them out. It’s this fresh faced approach that makes him different from the last game. That Spider-Man is confident in his powers and knows what he needs to do, this one more like an enthusiastic puppy that brings an element of disarray along with it. Fortunately Miles is just too nice a kid to feel any kind of animosity towards.
Having moved to Harlem after his dad died in a bomb attack, and seeing his mum tied up in running for city office, Miles is pretty much given free reign to master his developing powers, and heads to his new neighbourhood to help out. It’s not long before the real tale unfolds and that starts to challenge his friendships, strength and fortitude, and even some of the family truths. Incorporating the “not at all evil, honest” Roxxon, the mysterious Underground terrorists, and a new wave of crime spreading through the borough, there’s a lot to get on top of quickly, and there’s a danger he’ll get overrun. As luck would have it, Miles has inherited different abilities to Peter and starts to harness the use of bioelectricity and natural camouflage. Effectively this means his punches sting (hence the venom moniker, not to be confused with the Venom) and he can turn invisible for short periods of time. Mastering these help go a long way to cleaning up Harlem and stopping it from being wiped from New York. It’s a much smaller scale tale than before, and tightly wound around the familial links, but set against the backdrop of the whole city so still feels epic in scale.
Swinging between the high rises, dashing across walls and zipping through vents are present and correct, and feel as thrilling as ever. Heading all the way across the island whilst staying off the ground is still huge fun, and it’s easy to get side tracked by the fluid motion. This version of Spider-Man is noticeably different though, and not just in the looks of a different person. Miles is learning so he’s a tad clumsy with the leaps and catches, and always seems to be right on the edge of losing control. His combat skills aren’t as sharp and he can get easily overloaded, though he does make up for it in the energy he brings and the additional powers. He’s also not as world weary and is more optimistic and hopeful about everything. That works for his character arc and establishing Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales as a very different narrative, though there’s maybe a gameplay point or two where as the player you’re wanting Miles to drop that attitude so you can dive in and kick some ass.
Moving from traversal to combat to stealth is a key flow of gameplay, and with it perfected pretty much already there’s no reason to change it up. Fighting is combo based with finishers and venom energy built by not getting hit; and silent takedowns become much more efficient when Miles becomes invisible. There’s a typical setup of multiple guards that need to be distracted to separate them from each other to quietly web them all up, and it can be tactical and challenging. The camouflage helps a lot, though isn’t a magic bullet as it’s only active for a very short period of time. When it goes wrong it’s time to brawl, and the athleticism and sinewy moves of Morales impress a lot, as do the gadgets that help even the odds. Outside punching bad dudes simple puzzle elements come into play with wires to follow and circuits to create, and as always it’s a nice change of pace to think about something. These characters are clever people and it shouldn’t be all “Arrgh! SMASH!”. About 80% of the time is enough.
From a mission structure view point it’s very fast paced, and arguably that’s where people may think it’s over too quickly. There’s the odd pause to teach the player about how to upgrade suits and gadgets, or how the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man app works, but most of the time you’re being propelled from place to place, and if you’re not careful you’ll hit the conclusion before it’s welcome. Taking a step back and seeing what else it’s offering is where you realise the value is, and also where the love of the source material is too. A lot of attention to detail has gone into crafting Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and it’s in the subtle changes to the streets and their decoration with it being winter, the addition of a Stan Lee statue outside the pizzeria he cameoed in before, and in the sheer amount of design that’s gone into the various suits. Photo mode here is not just a tool for nice screen grabs, it’s a way of getting up close with the models and really seeing the effort on hand. There are the usual collectibles, some unusual ones (sounds anyone?), and a fairly decent holographic training setup that will keep you distracted for a decent while, if the scenery doesn’t manage to stop you in your tracks.
The cityscape remains one of the real stars of the show, and it’s been amped up for the new generation with it running in full 4K. How detailed this version of New York is depends on what you want your shiny new PS5 to show you, and how smooth you like your games. Fidelity and Performance options are available that will either run it at 30 FPS with all the graphical effects you’d ever want – including ray tracing; or 60 FPS at 4K with the ray tracing disabled, but standard reflections present. Surprisingly there’s not as big a difference visually between the two as you might expect, though turning on Fidelity highlights how gorgeous the reflections and particle effects can be even when swinging at speed. As this isn’t a launch day review we’ve also got the benefit of the patched in Performance RT option which seems to run it at 60 FPS/1080p with fewer pedestrians, yet full ray tracing, and that equally looks stunning and fast. It’s tough to say which is the better option as they’re all so good, and I’ve found myself trying each for long periods.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales doesn’t just benefit from the graphics processing, there’s a big gain with the SSD and the DualSense controller too. Load times are very fast, and really give meaning to the phrase “fast travel”. It can only be a few seconds between loading from the home screen and starting to play, and changing locations via the subway in the game is almost the blink of an eye. For collectible hunters it’s a real bonus. On the DS side, the haptic feedback is tailored and supportive of the actions on screen, whilst the adaptive triggers are great for firing webs off and feeling a “grip” on them. There are also little complementary noises from the internal speaker to accent what’s going on and create that feeling of inhabiting the character. It pulls it all together with the excellent audio design to deliver a top notch presentation that feels about as polished as you’d expect from the high standards of the studio. That’s not to say there aren’t a few issues here and there. Bugs aren’t frequent but occasionally I came across tasks I couldn’t complete without restarting from checkpoint to bump on some invisible trigger. Hardly a major issue given the save frequency and loading time. Oh, and be prepared for an un-telegraphed difficulty spike in boss fights on the harder settings.
What it ends up being is a bit Spider-Man 1.5 – it’s there to fill a well shaped a gap and provide good times for early adopters. For all we know it might tie in to the next game in some critical way, though for now take it as standalone. It keeps the focus on one area of the city which makes sense with Miles’ story, though that means the rest of the map is there for fetch quest stuff in the main rather than really being used to the full. However, this compactness means it manages to be personal, compelling and even touching in some of the final side missions. Getting to 100% isn’t a quick job either, it’s probably about 15 – 20 hours for everything to be checked off, then there’s a new game plus to dip into. Who knows where Insomniac are going next and how they’re going to deal with two web-heads in Manhattan (a co-op Spider-Man game anyone?). That’s something for the future, let’s just enjoy the sublime experience that’s in the here and now.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is available now on PS4 and PS5 for around £50 depending on where you buy it from, and the Ultimate edition includes the remastered version of Marvel’s Spider-Man too.