In 2018, Marvel’s Spider-Man gave us a vast recreation of Manhattan, beautifully smooth web-slinging traversal and a compelling story pitting Peter Parker against philanthropist-turned-supervillain, Mister Negative. The announcement of a follow-up starring Parker’s understudy Miles Morales caused great excitement in June, but that soured a little when developer Insomniac clarified that it would be a spin-off rather then a sequel – a shorter, alternative take on the original, but at full price. Anyone who played 2018’s game should be advised that from the combat to Manhattan itself, many elements are exactly the same. But although Miles Morales is definitely more condensed than its predecessor, it is hugely enjoyable and even moving in its own right.
Peter Parker is off on holiday for a few weeks, leaving young Miles to protect New York as a sort of substitute-teacher Spider-Man. Riven with self-doubt, which is compounded by the lukewarm reception he gets from locals on the first missions, Morales finds himself thrust into the middle of a battle between sinister clean energy corporation Roxxon and a violent protest group named The Underground, and he needs to fight both to get to the truth of the conflict. Drawn into the action are Miles’s mum Rio, who is running for political office in their new home of Harlem, and his old school friend and love interest Phin, whose brother Rick is a Roxxon scientist.
This is no straightforward Marvel Cinematic Universe tale of evil megacorps and sociopathic techbros (although it does have one of those, in the shape of Roxxon founder Simon Krieger). Taking its cues from the wonderful Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse animated movie, it’s a personal tale, pitching Miles as much against his own insecurities as the gun-wielding heavies: he has to prove his capability to himself, as well as the whole town.
The writers completely understand how the character of Spider-Man thinks, no matter who is behind the mask; he (or she in the case of Spider-Woman and Spider-Gwen) has always juggled domestic, romantic and heroic responsibilities, giving equal emotional weight to each of them. But for Miles, a black kid with a Puerto Rican mother, there are different dimensions to his struggles, and the game doesn’t shy away from that. Although this is, of course, the same city as the original game, Insomniac has made it reflect Miles Morales and his own take on New York; the people he meets, the music he listens to, the street art that surrounds him. While the midtown skyscrapers loom, the narrative focus is on Harlem and how its low income, ethnically diverse population has been exploited and abused by the billionaires further down the island of Manhattan.
As in Marvel’s Spider-Man, you fight your way through the story, enjoying spectacular set-piece battles such as an early destructive face-off on the fictitious Braitwaithe bridge. The city is divided into sectors filled with side-quests, collectibles and challenge tasks designed to test your web-slinging skills. A lot of the pleasure comes from swooping around the place, exploring the parks and city streets from above, watching the sun set behind the Avengers HQ or seeing the snow fall over the city in the cold blue of a December afternoon. On PS4 the city is wonderfully rendered and filled with life and detail, but on PS5 the landscape is so rich and graphically vibrant you could swing around it for hours. This is one game where a higher frame-rate really makes a difference, too, making the action buttery-smooth and responsive.
The story compels Miles forward from dockyards to high-tech science laboratories, fighting against thugs with machine guns and futuristic private law enforcement squads with laser batons. You can play with a vast range of swooping aerial attacks and web-based combos, with fresh manoeuvres unlocking as you progress. Two of the powers here are exclusive to Miles: the venom blast, which releases a surge of energy at enemies, and invisibility that only lasts a few seconds each time, but makes stealth more fun. Once you get the hang of things, combat feels balletic, as you spin, glide and wall jump around your foes.
You can shoot through the main story in a few hours, but taking on New Yorkers’ requests and stopping crimes in progress improves your abilities, opens up new suits and gadgets, and adds narrative detail. I’ve spent three days playing, without getting bored or running out of stuff to do, find, see and hear. I wasn’t anticipating a fun discussion of the Jane Eyre wedding scene in a Marvel adventure, but I got one.
Like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which was also billed as a shorter, complementary adventure, Spider-Man: Miles Morales gains something from its more limited focus. The story isn’t massively innovative, but it is full of heart and genuinely engaging, and the action feels as enthralling and intuitive as it did in 2018’s Spider-Man. The message at its core is that self-belief is infectious and that individual actions can reignite whole communities: perhaps not something we might expect from a combat-focused superhero adventure, but here we are. And in 2020, many people will gratefully and wholeheartedly embrace this kind of positivity, wherever they find it.