As someone who has played most of the games developed by Firaxis, never have I thought they would go out to make a Marvel game, yet here we are. The team famous for reimagining the cult favourite X-COM games into a household name that is XCOM is making a game about a cult favourite Marvel superhero group, the Midnight Sons- now as the Midnight Suns.
From what I played so far the full game ahead of its full release, Firaxis might be two for two when it comes to reimagining cult hits (that happens to have its title spelt a little differently).
In Marvel’s Midnight Suns, the fascist group Hydra has resurrected Lilith, a powerful villain in the Marvel universe that is about to bring the world to an end, an Avengers-level threat if you will. Or rather a level above that, as the superhero group is teaming up with the Midnight Suns as they have the key to winning the fight- the sole person who has defeated Lillith before, The Hunter.
The Heart Of The Cards
Marvel’s Midnight Suns isn’t “Marvel XCOM”. Rather it’s “the XCOM team’s Marvel RPG”. I now see why publisher 2K insists that this is a strategy-RPG title. You’d be surprised how much this game plays like a Bioware RPG (with some elements reminiscent of JRPGs) than a strategy tactics title like XCOM.
Mechanically, it’s not XCOM, at all. The combat uses cards now, and generally, missions are just closed-off fight sequences with the occasional objectives- no exploring or sneaking about. Just straight to the meat and potatoes. When you drop into a mission, you’re all set to fight.
Compared to XCOM, Midnight Suns has flipped the philosophy of how RNG works. Rather than having a defined set of abilities but its outcomes being random, Midnight Suns give you the RNG first by way of random cards dealt into your hand, but all the abilities tied to these cards have defined outcomes that are guaranteed to happen. With keywords, specific descriptions, and exact damage numbers all being available.
(This also means that some cards can clearly define that a random thing can definitely happen- the keyword Roulette does that- but RNG is now an exception rather than the rule.)
Thankfully, the optional tutorial really eases you in on how to wrap your head around Midnight Suns’ card-based gameplay. Peculiar character-specific gimmicks from heroes like Dr. Strange and Iron Man won’t be available until you completed the tutorial as you figure out how the combat works in this game.
And it works. It genuinely works and I have been having fun with it.
In each encounter, I am forced to look around the arena, look at cards in my hand, and figure out what sort of cards I should play and in what order. And I’ll spend a minute or so planning out all the moves to play during that turn and making hard but interesting decisions.
And after many, many hours I sunk into vanilla XCOM and XCOM 2 where I can totally fall into a safe rhythm of doing the same thing over and over again (because there is an optimal strategy- should the RNG goes in your favour), Midnight Suns made me think about each move and made me make interesting choices ever so often. It’s refreshing. And you get access to half of the hero roster from the get-go to form your three-person squad- and each hero has more card abilities to unlock and upgrade. And as such, there are so many ways to play a turn, you’ll always learn a trick or two in the first 10 hours or so.
And I never felt at any time that the game cheated on me and felt compelled to save scum through encounters (though you still can). I played an attack card first but forgot to use a skill card that could have boosted said attack- that’s on me for messing up, not the game. And you can mess up big time- bringing in an unoptimal team, like two heroes with plenty of support abilities but no tank to cover them will make the encounter difficult, but not necessarily impossible. The deckbuilding aspect also has plenty of restrictions to stop you from making wonky, lopsided builds, and easy enough to grasp for those not familiar with Trading Card Games.
Yet Midnight Suns isn’t strictly a card game- as in- adapting this to a TCG is not as straightforward. Positioning plays a key part in Midnight Suns’ combat. Ironic since you can only move freely one hero per turn in this grid-less arena (unless you play the right cards that can add more). But instead of hunkering under cover and checking the flanks, you position the heroes mostly by triggering attacks they use. More often than not the heroes will reposition should you use an attack card so they can be in range. But there is at least one chance to move one hero manually per turn should you require repositioning, like avoiding a pending AOE attack that will burst once your turn’s over, or taking advantage of the environment.
Understanding the arena you are in and taking advantage of the surroundings adds more to your tactical considerations. You’ll learn to love the Knockback keyword, which knocks an enemy back at certain angles. Use it wisely and you can knock two birds with one stone- or rather K.O. two Hydra mooks with one card. Or better yet, use a card that has Quick (refunds a card play if you K.O. an enemy using it) and Knockback and have that kill be a free move, saving that important card play to deal with tougher enemies.
And I say all this as someone who doesn’t like card games and was apprehensive when the developers revealed how the combat works. Twenty hours in, I’m completely sold on this. The combat is nothing like XCOM, for the better.
(Side note: the one-save-file, no-save-scum Ironman mode isn’t available- it would actually be hilarious having one considering the devs get to include Iron Man in a game. But understandably, they are not making Marvel XCOM.)
It’s not like Firaxis has completely thrown away all their work from their previous strategy tactics titles, however. The opening tutorial definitely had an XCOM 2 vibe (recovering an ancient hero via a pre-determined squad). And look hard enough and you can find the cheeky references (some of the tech you can research sounds eerily familiar) and allusions (Dr. Strange and Iron Man is this game’s Dr. Vahlen/Dr. Tygen and Dr. Shen/Lily Shen, Caretaker is there on comms like Central). Some mechanics like a villain suddenly crashing in on a mission and the post-mission auto-generated comic book cover can trace their lineage from XCOM 2 War Of The Chosen.
Take A Break
But this is undeniably an RPG. The world is ending but you and the gang still have time to wind down and have fun amidst the chaos in the main plot. I’m getting flashbacks of Dragon Age Inquisition with a side of Persona 5 when it comes to Midnight Suns’ downtime gameplay.
You can talk to the heroes- pick the right option and the relationship meter ticks up. You can hang out with them to raise that relationship meter higher. Or later on, be part of clubs like the EMO KIDS. You can also give gifts – get the right one they’ll like you more.
And then get a nice scene where you and the hero of choice acknowledge the Social Link, to use a Persona term, has ranked up (one of them includes being forced to watch a camp movie with them- you’ll know what when you hear the line). You can even unlock new cosmetics for you and the heroes, which include casual wear and even… swimsuits.
While there’s no mini-game of it, one of the hangout activities you can do is go fishing. This here’s an RPG if you ask me.
The Hunter, the customisable player-character and protagonist, has a background, speaks, and has their own character, though you get to choose how they express that to others during conversations. There is a light and dark choice (not good or evil, more Paragon and Renegade choices if you played Mass Effect), but thankfully it’s not all binary. Sometimes the dialogue tree only has one light or one dark choice alongside other responses. I even saw choices between two light or dark dialogue.
And the game is totally okay with you being a centrist by picking either choices at any time, with gameplay bonuses applied for having a balanced alignment as well as for going full light/dark. So you don’t have to autopilot and pick one choice for the rest of a playthrough.
The plot is plodding in pace, in true RPG fashion, and the game won’t let you rush immediately towards the next story mission. You can take your time, do other normal missions and get rewards to improve the team, hang out with the heroes and develop bonds. The world might be ending if these heroes don’t take action, but there is no threat meter or any kind of pressure in gameplay form to pursue the main story. You can take your time, no schedules to follow.
I’m 20 hours in and still in Act 1, taking time to do general missions and do the optional thing of exploring the Abbey grounds. There’s even an optional crafting mechanic where you can frolic around the spooky grounds to gather plants, mushrooms and other crafting materials. Again, Dragon Age Inquisition vibes were felt.
The overall story so far is in some ways predictable, but I am still enjoying the ride so far. But prepare for a rude awakening though- the first scene where you see the Marvel superheroes will remind you that this is indeed a Marvel media. Expect quips, puns, zingers and one-liners, moreso than any of the current crop of Marvel games.
The joke egging on Iron Man at the start of the game made me cringe, not gonna lie, but after being inundated with the game’s tone, I kind of just embraced it. At least even other characters cringe at each other’s quips, so there’s that.
But it’s not all comical- things do get serious. Personalities clash and internal team drama are part of the storyline. If you think the hero roster in Midnight Suns is way too skewed in favour of more popular heroes from the Avengers, you’d be right. And it’s addressed as part of the main story.
Midnight Suns might be based on the more supernatural side of Marvel but it’s more “spooky” than it is scary. But by not being as dark and gritty in its writing tone, and having a good number of mainstream heroes in the roster, Midnight Suns should be more approachable to the casual Marvel fan who has watched the movies or the TV shows.
For me, I come from the perspective of not really having consumed much of Marvel media. And I do find the heroes being portrayed well, enough to make me invested to level up that relationship and see and hear more of them. Like any CRPG or western RPG, you get to learn each hero’s background, or what they were up to before joining up with the Midnight Suns, as well as their likes and dislikes as you spend more time being around them.
In other words, the writers have done their job wonderfully in introducing these characters to a newcomer. I know barely anything about Nico Minoru, Magik and the new Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes, and now I am rooting for this lovable bunch of zoomer kids with superpowers.
And Blade. Blade’s cool too.
Overall, I am enjoying my time with Marvel’s Midnight Suns. I approached the game as a fan of Firaxis games but ambivalent towards the Marvel universe. In other words, I got in with heavy scepticism. And so far I am impressed.
The card combat definitely has a learning curve but it’s so engaging and satisfying when you understand the rules of the table. The downtime is filled with fun moments that flesh out the heroes that you don’t even need any prior knowledge to be invested in and develop (platonic-only) relationships with the cast. The writing tone is a surprise but should make it approachable for any player who is looking for a Marvel RPG.
Because Marvel’s Midnight Suns really feels like a proper Marvel RPG, with a very out-there battle system that works.
Firaxis might have something special here, but it’s not without some faults which we’ll reserve judgment for now. Stay tuned for our full review soon.
Played on PC. Preview code provided by the publisher