The biggest PS5 launch game stars a brand new Spider-Man and some impressive next gen visuals but is it as good as the original?
We weren’t really looking forward to playing this game. It may be the highest profile PlayStation 5 launch title, but we didn’t like the first one nearly as much as some people and found the shady way in which Sony slowly revealed that this isn’t a full-blown sequel, and sowed confusion over the PlayStation 4 version and Ultimate Edition, very distasteful. But surprise! It’s actually a fantastic launch game: an effective demonstration of the PlayStation 5’s capabilities and a tighter, more focused gameplay experience with considerably better storytelling than the original.
As was eventually made plain, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is not Spider-Man 2. It does take place after the events of the first game but it’s only around eight hours long and casts you as Miles Morales rather than the older Peter Parker – who spends the majority of the game on a working holiday in Europe.
We’re not very familiar with Miles from the comics, so we’re not sure if the game is adapting existing story elements, but the plot revolves around a feud between the obviously evil CEO of energy company Roxxon and a new female incarnation of the Tinkerer – who has a small army’s worth of followers and is desperate to steel Roxxon’s new, and predictably unstable, wonder-fuel.
Although it’s a neat coming of age story there’s nothing exceptional about the plot, and in truth Miles himself is not particularly interesting either. Although this game is much better at portraying him as a neighbourhood Spider-Man, with a real feeling of community to his Harlem home.
Like Peter Parker, Miles’ friend Ganke, and several others in the game, Miles is portrayed as incorruptibly virtuous, which is how we prefer our superheroes but it’s a difficult thing to get right without making the characters seem incredibly bland. Several movies have managed the trick, but the Spider-Man games have not.
Instead, what makes this game interesting is the identity of the Tinkerer, which creates a far more compelling relationship between hero and villain than anything in the first game. There’s also a second character, who we won’t name, who’s equally engaging given his moral ambiguity and his existing relationship with Miles. The last few hours in particular are hugely compelling and conclude with one of the best endings to any game this/last generation (we’re not quite sure how to aim that compliment).
If you’ve played the original – or indeed any Spider-Man game or Batman: Arkham – you know what you’re getting here in terms of gameplay, with the web-swinging being largely unchanged since last time. Miles himself does have some extra abilities that Peter Parker doesn’t though. We’re not quite sure why (or why he doesn’t have a separate superhero name) but in addition to web-shooting he also generates a bioelectric charge that can be released as a ‘Venom Punch’, as well as the ability to briefly turn invisible.
You’d think this would completely unbalance the combat but the venom-related moves all rely on you building up energy by landing or avoiding blows, which adds an appreciable amount of extra depth to the combat, especially as you still have to cope with enemies with shields, various different weapons, and venom-dampening equipment. It’s not quite Devil May Cry but it’s getting there, even if the foundation is still very obviously based on the Batman: Arkham games.
The stealth sections, which are so similar to the Predator sections in the Arkham games it seems almost criminal, were always too easy though and they’re even more so now thanks to being able to turn invisible. On the default difficulty the game is too easy in general, but the stealth gets old very quickly when you’re just dealing with cannon fodder grunts.
There’s various unlockable moves and gadgets as you progress, but there’s also not enough variety in the enemies to keep you interested in the combat if it isn’t also mixed in with puzzle solving or story elements (which, to be fair, it often is). There’s surprisingly few boss battles though, with only one straight-up supervillain. But that’s fine, as the encounters which are included are all memorable and there’s less reliance on QTEs than the first game.
Another reason we weren’t really looking forward to this game is that we knew that it was using largely the same map and gameplay as the original game. That is the case but it’s actually a bit of a masterstroke, as simply by virtue of all the skyscrapers using ray-tracing, so that they reflect everything else nearby, the game gains exactly the sort of, ‘Look! This is next gen!’ moment that we criticised the Xbox Series X for lacking.
The reflection effect is fairly low resolution, but it completely transforms some areas and can also be seen in everything from puddles to reflective floors. There’s also the near instant loading to marvel at, which means that death is never more than a two second inconvenience, and while the DualSense adaptive triggers and force feedback aren’t used as much as Astro’s Playroom there’s still some neat effects, such as the rumbling of a subway train.
It’s unfortunate though that you have to choose between either having ray-tracing and all the trimmings at 30fps or 60fps with no ray-tracing and only upscaled 4K. We’re still disappointed that neither next gen console can manage both at the same time but given this is a launch game that reuses so many last gen assets this is still a surprisingly impressive technical showcase.
Things like facial animation still look very last gen, even if they are good by those standards, but what impresses the most is just how slick and confident the game is with its presentation. It’s full of little cinematic flourishes, and great use of non-orchestral music, without ever indulging in overly long cut scenes – just effective mood setters that don’t spoil the pacing.
Eight or so hours might not sound like much but considering how drawn-out the original was we were absolutely fine with the running time. The story fits the length of the game perfectly and there is a significant amount of optional side quests, some of which are so long we kept forgetting they weren’t story missions. There’s also a substantial New Game+ which is the only way to unlock some special abilities.
It’s not been an epidemic, but one unwelcome trend of the current generation is that many single-player games have become very bloated and over-long in their attempts to justify their asking price, often obscuring the story they’re trying to tell. As far as we’re concerned Spider-Man: Miles Morales is the perfect way to avoid such problems, with its lower than normal price tag (compared to other first party PlayStation 5 games) and much more manageable running time.
We doubt it’s intended to have that kind of influence – its length is almost certainly just a case of making sure it was ready for launch – but we really hope that Sony and others recognise the much more sustainable template it lays out. But they probably won’t and Spider-Man 2 will end up being another 20 to 30 hour epic that doesn’t know to quit while it’s ahead.
That’s not a problem Spider-Man: Miles Morales suffers from though and this is not only one of the most satisfying story experiences we’ve had in an action game all year but a highly encouraging glimpse at the future of PlayStation 5 games, and next gen gaming in general.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales PS5 review summary
In Short: A far better advert for the PS5 than its short length and last gen assets might have suggested, with superior storytelling and more compelling characters than the original.
Pros: Highly assured storytelling and presentation, with a great villain and spectacular final act. Ray-tracing works very well amongst the skyscrapers, as does fast-loading and other next gen tricks.
Cons: The combat and stealth elements remain very repetitive and overly easy. The amount the game steals from Batman: Arkham is still outrageous.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed) and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release Date: 12th November 2020
Age Rating: 16
For more stories like this, check our Gaming page.