Marvel’s Midnight Suns is nothing if not brave. It’s brave enough trying to create a Marvel videogame at all given the popularity of this IP, and braver still to make it a strategy game based on one of the most niche comic runs from the ’90s. And considering this particular development team is known for XCOM, Firaxis achieves peak bravery by going off in completely new directions – adding an overworld RPG layer and a brand-new turn-based combat system, to name but two.
But as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave. I’ve spent the lion’s share of an afternoon playing through the opening sections of Midnight Suns, and I can say that this unique turn-based strategy game will defy any expectations you’ve formed since the original announcement.
The basics are still as were revealed during the announcement. You lead a team of Marvel superheroes as The Hunter, your avatar. This fully customisable hero will lead the actual greatest crossover event in history from a stronghold known as The Abbey, which is a hub area and the linchpin for Firaxis’ brand-new RPG mechanics. Unlike in XCOM, you can walk around this space in real time, talk to individual heroes, and explore the grounds looking for secrets, gear upgrades, and banter.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns follows a daily loop. You wake up, you do some stuff, you choose a mission, you save the day. You then go to sleep and the whole dance starts again the next morning, with key story beats and other threads evolving over time.
XCOM fans will find this cadence familiar, and the spirit of XCOM can be felt in many other places too, such as research. Elsewhere, the influence of games like Fire Emblem: Three Houses is also apparent, but it’s the bold strokes and new ideas that dominate the foreground. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the new combat mechanics.
I was honestly taken aback by how much I enjoyed Firaxis’ new vision for tactical combat. After the game’s initial reveal, the new card-based mechanics got a lot of attention. If this led you to make any assumptions, put them to one side; this is not a card battler. You’re only allowed three heroes per mission, and each hero is only allowed eight cards in their ‘deck’, for a maximum of 24 cards.
As I played, I saw few obvious synergies between cards – and certainly none between cards pulled from different heroes – so one must ask what Firaxis’ intentions are.
“It’s not a CCG, it’s not a traditional card battler,” senior franchise producer Garth DeAngelis explains. “We want dynamically distributed abilities, where you don’t know what you’re gonna get at any given time. And that’s the part I’m really excited about.”
The studio wants to subvert the traditional XCOM dynamic, the one where you know exactly what you can do and when, but not whether it’ll succeed. “We wanted to tap into what makes a hero special,” DeAngelis says, adding that the idea of a hero missing their shot didn’t really fit: “Heroes succeed.” So Midnight Suns is instead about putting the player through a series of tactical puzzles, to be solved by using a randomly pulled set of abilities to maximum effect.
“We happen to present them as cards, which are nice for presentational purposes. There’s a little bit of a lexicon there and gamer vocabulary with understanding what they are, if they are distributed as a deck.”
Framed like that, Midnight Suns’ combat makes a lot more sense – and is a lot more fun to play. Every round is a fresh puzzle as you’re given a new hand of ability cards to deploy against your enemies. Depending on the objective, you may not be solely concerned with beating the bad guys to a pulp; perhaps there are civilians you need to rescue, or a helicopter you need to stop from taking off.
Hero abilities are varied and fun to use, but what really makes Midnight Suns’ tactical combat shine is the environment. Most missions will have things dotted about the battle space – a lamppost, a rock, a big crate, and so on – and you can utilise all of these as additional pieces of the puzzle. Everything from knocking a foe into an electricity box to shoving them off a ledge is on the table. You can even jump off things to do aerial attacks that usually deal more damage than the basic attack abilities.
And that’s without mentioning the ‘cards’ themselves. One cool thing about the mechanic is, as you collect extra cards over time, the tight deck limit means you can spend your duplicates on upgrading in-use copies of that card. Over time, your hero’s power and abilities will evolve and change – maybe you focus on just upgrading the starting cards, or maybe you swap out with advanced cards as soon as you get them. Maybe you do both.
Firaxis is trying a few new things here, and is perhaps in danger of inviting inaccurate assumptions about the combat with the card presentation. There is also, I suspect, one resource too many; the cosmetic-based resource, GLOSS, seems specifically unnecessary, and certain mechanics like being able to collect resources just by inspecting furniture feels a bit game-y and dated. Add in collectables, hangouts, and sidequests around the Abbey, and you could almost accuse the team of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.
The usual caveats of early preview access apply, of course, so we’ll see how these elements gel together on release. For all the new ground being struck, Firaxis has already shown off some strong foundations – the tactical combat is already a triumph, and the studio can be proud of how it has uniquely captured the energy of Marvel superhero action. I can’t wait to get my hands on it again.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns will be released on PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store on October 7, 2022. It is available to pre-order now, and will have cosmetic microtransactions and a DLC season pass that will add at least four new characters after launch.