I like it 3000
When Firaxis Games has anything in the hopper, I perk up. Hell, even 2013’s now-defunct Haunted Hollow was fun. So when Marvel’s Midnight Suns was announced, with no “co-developed” chicanery, I was in.
What I got was a fun little romp that’s very different from many games they’ve made in the past, XCOM included.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Released: December 2, 2022 (PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S) | TBA (PS4, Switch, Xbox One X)
Most of the XCOM comparisons started to wane as more footage showed up: and I’m entirely OK with that. Midnight Suns is really more akin to Fire Emblem than anything else, complete with a (friendship) relationship minigame between party members, and a literal abbey that serves as your hub. Yes, you’re going to be rubbing elbows with big-name Marvel heroes like Blade and Iron Man, but you’re also going to be controlling an original character named “The Hunter,” who serves as a blank slate fish out of water pen that inks the overarching story as you go along.
It’s a veritable who’s who of Marvel heroes and villains: big and small. The reliable heavy Crossbones is one of the first characters you even see, amid a sea of Hydra soldiers and mystics. In a very Indiana Jones opening sequence, Lilith (a powerful demon and main big bad) is awakened, and is immediately bad news. Cue Doctor Strange and Iron Man, who try to unite the clans and stop her. Amid a roster of big name heroes, most of which have headlined feature films, you also get to create the aforementioned Hunter that’s part of the Midnight Suns: the magic-backed resistance effort against Lilith.
It’s a clever move by the storytellers to provide the “chosen one” trope that all of the big stars play off of: but it in turn leads to some predictable beats. More than I anticipated, there’s some real ham-fisted dialogue, but the boot can fit standard the MCU has set. By any standard, it can be cornbally. Like many games with huge casts, a lot of the better moments are in the quieter moments: though there are some character intros that are pop-worthy, and will elicit audible gasps or cheers from Marvel fans playing along.
Those little moments? They center around some of the light dialogue choices when talking to people, to drill down aspects of their personality, or the mission at hand. Midnight Suns also has a cute little social network for heroes: which you know some writer was completely jazzed about working on. You aren’t just selecting missions from a menu either (Midnight Suns has a war table where you do do that!). There’s full-on RPG elements, like map exploration (with your avatar), crafting, party management, quests, and a hub (the abbey). The abbey is just big enough where it has a decent amount of things to do; without feeling so sprawling that there’s a lot of wasted space.
So how do you actually play? Cards!
In Midnight Suns, card types include attacks, skills, and heroics. Each card costs a unit called a “card play,” which you’ll use to actually enact actions. You get three card plays per turn, barring special abilities that can refund them, or grant more plays on future turns (banking). There’s more! Attacks charge your heroism, which can be used for more powerful heroic card effects (which might blast every enemy on the battlefield, for example). Skills are classified as support and buff effects, including card draw. You can also use the environment on occasion, at the cost of heroism. Playing a quick card lets you refund a card action on a KO (meaning, it’s perfect to save to clear out fodder).
Lesser minions can be killed instantly (they don’t have a health bar), and elites need proper damage to kill. Some effects have bonuses like knockbacks, which you can aim. It’s a smart system that keeps things quick, while maintaining the theme of stepping into the role of powerful larger-than-life heroes. Some missions have constant reinforcements coming in, which ensures that Midnight Suns isn’t a cakewalk on higher difficulties.
Nothing is strictly grid-based. Battlegrounds are more like a loose arena with guidelines, littered with objects like dumpsters and power transformers stuffed in that you can slam enemies with (or into). There’s light movement considerations, which can matter for positioning, range, and some moves that knock enemies into each other.
Once you pick it up, it’s easy to get in the groove, especially on PC with quick clicks. I was impressed at how the game carried itself as soon as I shot my first repulsor blast. The effects are awesome looking in the literal sense, at least on PC: I can see why the team opted to forgo previous generation console releases for the time being. The combat banter is fun to listen to as well, especially with characters who don’t like each other: it’s all playing off that small-time dialogue strength that so many modern RPGs are good at, like most of the Dragon Age series.
The more you play and the more cards you get, the more interesting the mechanics kind of layer on top of one another. Do you KO weaker enemies and clear the board or soften up elites? I started to spot environmental objects with a keener eye, attempting to weave together combos that could take out bigger enemies in one turn, rather than one and a half. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s all in the moment.
Where Midnight Suns faltered a bit for me was with what I’d call “fluff” missions. Things can get samey, especially when fighting repeat enemy types like Hydra Soldiers with standard tactics. The action is great, even after seeing the same animations and dialogue cues over and over, but the enemy layouts and arena-based formula don’t always hold up, and are conducive to taking breaks between sessions (or spending more time in the abbey). Some story missions have required heroes (the Hunter included), but others let you mix in your favorites, so you can change things up that way.
Crazily, there are eight difficulty levels: easy, normal, three versions of heroic (billed as an “increased challenge”) and three levels of an ultimate tier (“a serious challenge”). Most of the nuances include bonus hero XP and mission bonuses at the cost of higher enemy health. Every single one of these barring easy and normal are locked at the start, asking players to “complete missions and collect star ratings” to earn them.
If you’re wondering about any 2K-related meddling, there’s a “NightStalker Blade” newsletter skin, and a marketplace for special skins [suits] was open, but we were provided with all of them. A few look like palette swaps, and several are extremely transformative, like Fallen Hulk for Hulk. So far, this seems to be the main premium content push (knock on wood).
In several respects, Midnight Suns reflects the tendencies of the more streamlined, popcorny, and entertaining MCU films. It isn’t what I expected, in a good way. It’s incredibly easy to recommend to any Marvel fan, and is simple enough to pick up and play for strategy newcomers. Although the highs aren’t as high as some of Firaxis’ past work, those of you who latch onto the relationship building, social network, and silly moments will find a lot of joy here: I absolutely wouldn’t be surprised to see Hunter cosplay at future conventions.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]