A XCOM with Marvel superheroes? That’s what you do Marvel’s Midnight Suns severe shortage. First of all, it is not just a tactical game, but a full-fledged RPG epic whose combat sequences happen to be tactical in nature. And the superheroes you put out on that playing field aren’t necessarily the most obvious either.
Wild Wild Mix
Anyone looking for a Big Game with capitals G this fall, an epic with a playing time of 40 to 60 hours, has so far had to make do with one of the countless JRPGs that Square Enix has tried to ram down our throats in recent months. But now, with the turn of the year already appearing on the horizon, western gamers are also getting their extended clapper with Marvel’s Midnight Suns.
It’s a somewhat wild mix of genres: the core of the gameplay is tactical action like the XCOM series, but a much broader role-playing epic is draped around it. One in which as many as thirteen Marvel heroes can be part of your three-man party in the battles. “It’s the very first Marvel RPG,” he said game director Jake Solomon. Which is technically wrong – action RPG series Marvel Ultimate Alliance beat them to it – but it is the first game with characters from the American superhero stable that you can sit next to a Dragon Age can put.
Change of tactics
We’re not exaggerating. Marvel’s Midnight Suns has that size, that complexity, that depth in its underlying variable system. According to Solomon, they came to Marvel itself at Firaxis, the American studio that was once founded by Civilizationcreator Sid Meier, because they envisioned a game that was an extension of Firaxis’ recent tactical smash hit XCOM 2. “But then we started working with their material, and we quickly realized that there was more was just an XCOM clone,” says Solomon.
Not that there are no points of comparison at all: the battles you always have with three superheroes Marvel’s Midnight Suns working with a turn system in which you have to deal as many blows as possible to your enemies within your own turn, after which you have to wait and see whether you don’t get too much knock yourself during the opponent’s turn.
But in the tactical sequences you mainly get a completely different kind of game than you might be used to from the XCOMs. Into the fights Marvel’s Midnight Suns are sharper, and the KOs come faster. That has everything to do with the characters around which the game revolves. Of course: also having to take a beating is part of being a superhero. “But you can’t make a superhero pull a miss like a shooter in XCOM. Or cause him or her to deal only very modest damage to their opponent,” says Solomon. “There were a few conventions we couldn’t ignore.”
Those principles of the superhero story have a fundamental impact on the gameplay. Lots of things you used to from one XCOMclone, you have to think away. There are no counting steps, no grid, no cover system: to create the power fantasy of a superhero on the tactical playing field, the latter was made a bit more dynamic, a bit like Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope.
Game of cards
To keep it exciting, the designers built a tactical action on top of that deck builderelement: in addition to a limited number of moves allowed, you are dealt a hand of playing cards, each representing one of your heroes and one of their powers. After playing three of those cards, your turn is over, and you can also replace a limited number of cards.
On top of that heroism the most important coin in combat: some cards build up that heroism meter, other – much more powerful – attacks drain it.
It is explained succinctly, because a number of side elements also come into play, and the way you built up the powers of all your Marvel heroes outside the arena also plays a role. It’s not just about playing your cards either: your three heroes also reposition important, including to land a number of environmental elements (such as furniture or exploding barrels) in your opponents’ canis.
The combat system gets relatively deep fairly quickly, but the smooth interface keeps it manageable and invites you to take risks and be creative. Practice will also automatically make perfect, because make no mistake: through the long playing time of Marvel’s Midnight Suns you will have many of those tactical confrontations. At times in the story you are even almost forced to take on side missions. But those obligations are few and far between, and they were obviously just built in to show you what’s left on the menu outside of the story missions.
And yes, it is spectacular. More spectacular than you might initially suspect. We’ve come to expect superhero games to be fast-paced and frenetic, more in line with the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But actually, the animations that you get served with every sledgehammer blow from your heroes are more in line with the comics: it’s a series of epic poses. Especially in the climactic missions where the story slowly but surely works towards several times (it is divided into three acts).
Another difference from the XCOMgames is that Marvel’s Midnight Suns not just about those tactical confrontations. They fit into a successful one gameplay loop, which consists of three steps. You start every ‘day’ with preparations and boosting your characters, including through a research system and training. Then you choose your tactical mission on a map. And finally there is the personal settlement, where you develop camaraderie with the other heroes. That all happens in The Abbeya hub section where all your heroes are housed and where there are also all kinds of entertainment and training options.
Here’s the point where we have to warn you: the tactical missions are in the familiar isometric perspective, but everything that happens before and after is in a fully-fledged third person game world. Those sequences feel a bit strange at first, but you quickly get used to it. That Mass Effect-esque hub does feel a bit too big: the landscape around the Abbey is so vast that you sometimes feel like you’re in an expanding fantasy RPG.
The story of Marvel’s Midnight Suns takes you to a dark, magical corner of the Marvel superhero stable, but in many ways it’s an adaptation of some existing Marvel comics (the narrative event Rise of the Midnight Sons (1992) – yes, with an o – in particular). “There’s a side to the Marvel universe that isn’t very well known to people who know the latter from the movies,” says Solomon.
“With characters like Blade, Nico Minoru, Ghost Rider, Magik and Scarlet Witch, as well as Doctor Strange, in addition to the worldly and cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, there are also Marvel stories that are grounded in mystical, magical and supernatural elements . Of Wanda Vision that side is gradually being exposed by the TV series, but it is still a dark corner at the moment. Which we drew from to deliver a slightly more unexpected Marvel story.”
But it’s a high-stakes story at the same time: Lilith, the Old Testament character who’s also a villain in those dark Marvel comics, announces her disastrous, destructive return, aided by super-villains like Venom and the villainous organization Hydra. The epic scope of the story was of course also a good excuse for the creators to throw in other Marvel heroes – Spider-Man, Iron Man and Wolverine, to name a few.
Then who are you? None other than The Hunter, the first self-buildable Marvel video game character. You are a 300 year old supernatural being (but in human form), who has special magical and healing powers. Oh yes, and you are the son/daughter of the central villain. Oedipal vibes guaranteed!
Not a little of the playing time of Marvel’s Midnight Suns you chat with the other characters, in a cast far too broad to cover here (next you’ll find our favorite Midnight Suns). It’s even a bit too much, all of them, to keep the quality level high enough. It contains no less than 65,000 sentences of spoken dialogue Marvel’s Midnight Sunsbut many of them are cheesy and long-winded.
The game more or less obliges you to regularly hangout to do with other superheroes, to gain friendship points, but fortunately those interludes are not accompanied by time-consuming, Grand Theft Auto-like mini-games. Marvel’s Midnight Suns might take dozens of hours to play through, but that doesn’t change the game’s respect for the time you have as a player. When you take a look at the story, you never get the feeling that a rolling pin has gone over the content.
All components of Marvel’s Midnight Suns – of you FriendshipXP to the personal levels of your champions – cleverly linked together. There are a lot of variables to take into account, as should be in a great RPG, but the game builds it up slowly. Ultimately, that system has so much depth that you keep discovering new mechanisms after ten hours of play. When you fire up Marvel’s Midnight Suns and play the first few hours of it, you may not get the kind of experience you expected. But the point of the game is that you get a lot more of it than what you necessarily signed up for.