Spider-Man: Miles Morales shows how ordinary people can overcome the extraordinary

Unlike other heroes, Spider-Man’s identity expands rather than contracts. The costume is something anyone could theoretically wear. In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Stan Lee has a cameo as a shopkeeper selling the Spider-Man suit: “It always fits. Eventually,” he says. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the character’s creators, often spoke about Spider-Man being an “ordinary” person, rather than a billionaire playboy or godlike alien.

Miles Morales, a Black and Latinx Spider-Man created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, has become the new “ordinary” face of the hero. He has his own current Marvel Comics series; he starred in Into the Spider-Verse; and now, he’s the protagonist of Insomniac Games’ new PlayStation exclusive.

After finishing it, I was left with a sense of belonging, of intimacy with characters and relationships, in this scaled-down version of an open-world game. Miles Morales is a character who was created to make others feel like they belonged and were welcomed. And now, that’s accomplished off the back of one of the best action-adventure games I’ve ever played.

Miles Morales in the PS5 version of Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

What’s up, danger?

Insomniac Games has said that Miles Morales is a follow-up but not a full sequel to its massively popular 2018 open-world web-’em-up, Marvel’s Spider-Man. This is a more self-contained spinoff, à la Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The story is set in the same world and involves the same characters as the original game — including the newly redesigned Peter Parker, who was its main character. There are other notable cameos and larger roles I won’t spoil here.

Miles has a moveset similar to Peter’s, but it’s not entirely the same; Insomniac has created unique animations and abilities just for Miles. He’s less graceful, yet he always tries to show off, even if it’s for no one in particular. He’s scrawnier and smaller, too. He can punch, kick, dive, and perform a range of Spider-Man maneuvers that are easy enough to pull off, but make the player “feel” like a superhero.

Players don’t need to know the full details of the first game’s plot, let alone its three-chapter expansion, to appreciate Miles Morales. The previous game did show Miles gaining his powers after a genetically enhanced spider, numbered 42, bites him. This game recaps those events, along with the rest of Miles’ backstory, in a short catch-up video showing the trauma he experienced in losing his father, as well as him learning to tap into his inner strength, and eventually, master his powers. To be honest, the Miles sections of the first game were so short that they’re better off as cutscenes than as the boring insta-fail stealth sections they were. After the recap, Miles Morales shows us that Peter has been training Miles since the end of the first game’s campaign.

Like in the first game, players will play as a Spider-Man who is somewhat experienced. He can already fight and utilize his basic powers, with further abilities revealing themselves over the course of the game. Anyone who has seen Into the Spider-Verse or read the comics can take a good guess at what Miles’ other gifts turn out to be.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

And what wonders they are to witness! Because this game is a visual spectacle.

I have not been sent a PlayStation 5 at the time of writing, so I cannot speak to the next-generation console’s ability to do ray tracing and so forth, but, even on my base PS4, this is without a doubt the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen. The colors, textures, contrasts, animations, variety, and motion left me feeling constantly breathless, agape at the amount of incredible attention to detail that Insomniac’s artists and engineers managed to crank out of my nearly 7-year-old machine.

The opening of the game is a showcase in making players truly feel like a superhero. Miles and Peter give chase to an angry Rhino (the longtime Spider-Man antagonist, not the animal), who is charging through Manhattan, destroying everything and everyone in his path. You see debris and cars, sparks and rocks, all flying past Miles’ head as he tries to rein in Rhino and save helpless bystanders. Not even Marvel films have managed such a visceral moment: Rhino leaps into a large shopping mall, and you see chunks of concrete burst with dust and debris — all without a load screen. Miles is then inside the shiny mall, with shop windows and patrons flying past, some diving out of the way, their bags collapsing at their feet.

When the chase finally stopped, I literally swore aloud. Nothing from even the first game comes close to this and the other incredible set-pieces in Miles Morales. Insomniac has clearly learned from its previous work about how to extract synthesized superhero action with surgical precision.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Into this Spider-Verse

With Peter in another country, Miles finds himself as the Big Apple’s only Spider-Man. He’s caught between two warring factions: a strange, technology-obsessed underground movement called, er, The Underground, and a large, untouchable corporation called — sexily — Roxxon. While these appear at first to be two distant entities to Miles, the connections soon emerge, as Miles learns how close he actually is to people in both of these groups.

The story allows for incredible visual spectacle: Underground members are draped in vibrant purples, while the heavily armored Roxxon uniforms are a piercing, menacing red. Combat with either group makes for a striking visual feast — but when it’s both groups against each other, the colors are wild. Each side also contains unique enemy types requiring different interventions, much like the first game. One type might be immune to frontal attacks, while others use firearms or brute strength.

This requires players to adjust their response to the battlefield and utilize all of Miles’ moves and abilities. These are upgraded and acquired through a variety of differing and often confusing currencies: One type of mission will reward you with gadgets and tools, but not “tokens,” of which there are, in themselves, various types. I don’t like having to learn economics to figure out what I have to do to upgrade. It’s an annoying trend I’m sad to see here. I should note that this was in-game currency, not microtransactions — easily rewarded, just confusingly assigned.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Aside from the initial loading and fast travel, I saw no loading screens; when Miles enters or exits a building or underground base, the game doesn’t cut away from the action. While I’m sure the PS5 will negate basically all loading screens, there won’t be a difference during the game itself unless you fast travel.

Miles Morales also offers side quests about solving individual people’s problems. These are some of the game’s most fun and intimate missions. While they all eventually end up in punching people, there are sometimes puzzle elements. But the combat is exceptionally fun, joyous to watch and perform, just as it was in the first game; I never grew bored of it. Unique settings and locales mean that Miles won’t ever be performing the same combat against the same enemies — but, yes, at its base, it is almost always about punching something.

As in the first game, Miles can also approach missions using stealth. And he’s much better at stealth than his mentor! Miles can grab enemies with his web silently, then tie them up or stick them to the wall. And he can ledge-grab enemies while stuck to the side of a wall or the ceiling, which Peter frustratingly could not do in the first game. At the end of it all, you can hear enemies’ struggles and see them fight against their cocoons — a sticky memorial to your success.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon | Captured on PS5 (Fidelity)

Size and scope

As indicated, Miles Morales is smaller than the previous title: There are fewer missions, fewer objectives, fewer activities. This plays out in the story too, with Miles’ central focus being Harlem, as compared to almost the entirety of Manhattan in the first game. (Harlem is also a focal point for African American history, a place with a community that, in the words of Langston Hughes, fostered the “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves.”) Miles’ mother, Rio Morales, has moved the family into his grandmother’s apartment, and it is from here that Rio begins running for city council.

The game creates a smaller, more intimate connection between Miles and the other people he meets, especially in his neighborhood — from his best friend and computer whiz Ganke to his uncle Aaron, from the local store owner with an adorable cat called Spider-Man to an older woman who refuses to be bullied by capitalist criminals. These relationships build to a wonderful payoff at the end. Adding to the emphasis on community is that the game does away with the police scanner and cop alerts that were a focus of the original Spider-Man. Instead, Ganke builds an app lets individual people report suspicious activity, allowing Miles to investigate without relying on the police.

There’s something about a young Black American hero not trusting the police that hits pretty hard this year. Miles not relying on the cops to improve his predominantly BIPOC community is a notable turnaround from the white Peter Parker, who is aligned with the police in the original game. The cops here are also dismissive, rather than thankful, when they encounter Miles; their cheery familiarity with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man has been replaced with snark and distrust for Miles. Of course, the cops don’t know that Miles is a young Black man beneath the suit, but it’s almost fitting. There’s also no police ally character like the first game’s Yuri Watanabe. Overall, the police seem remarkably — and to my mind, thankfully — rather absent from this game.

Despite Miles Morales being smaller, I found its size far more manageable and enjoyable. Side missions have more weight, as they tie back into recurring themes and characters Miles encounters even outside the suit. Those who use Ganke’s app are more likely to operate out of Harlem or know Miles, so Miles gets to relish alongside them in his civilian clothes after Spider-Man has helped them. The people Miles engages with are a diverse and important crowd: a queer couple, whose relationship no one comments on, that cares for the homeless; a talented artist who communicates with ASL (which Miles speaks fluently); and Miles’ mother, who seamlessly communicates with him in both Spanish and English.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon | Captured on PS5 (Performance)

You’re the best of all of us, Miles

Miles’ personality comes through far more than Peter’s did in the first Spider-Man. One time, while I had him sit on a wall surveying the city, Miles suddenly started bouncing on his haunches. Then I heard him mutter, and I realized he was humming a song he had made up. His hands flailing, he was clearly enjoying this tune. But this fits: When you return to his apartment, you see his music setup, and he is often trying to get people to listen to his beats. One of the side missions even involves Miles learning to make music out of the city’s sounds.

Again, it’s all connected. In other large open-world games, you can have many self-contained but ultimately limp subplots. Here, there are no side missions that just sit there in isolation. Due to the smaller size of the game, everyone touches everyone else. Stories intertwine, themes mingle; they are all, as it were, part of a web of relationships. And it is Miles who sits in the center of it all. His juvenile and naïve attempts to rectify one part of the web send tremors somewhere else. This net of responsibility is pulled taut, and Miles always feels like he’s failing.

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

And, well, don’t we all feel that? In this chaotic year, I found inspiration in Miles’ ability to rise above challenges, to meet the face of catastrophe, to look darkness in the eyes. And not because he succeeds — indeed, he often fails. But it is his willingness to try, and also how other characters recognize his resilience and, despite his failures, remain by his side.

What makes Miles an important hero for the world of 2020 is not his successes, his abilities, his fighting moves, or even his moral compass to do good: It’s his belief in himself and others that we can rise above this. That’s also his mother’s central focus for her political campaign. Miles has a relentless, if sometimes naïve, belief in others’ goodness. He wants to help the city and neighborhood he loves. And watching him try, watching his small victories, and playing through it with such beautiful animations — with nods to Into the Spider-Verse — became one of my few joys in this dark-as-shit year.

Miles does almost all of this not as a powerful superhero, but as an ordinary person. He just happens to be wearing the suit.

And the suit always fits. Eventually.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales will be released Nov. 12 on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment, courtesy of Insomniac Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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