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How Marvel's Midnight Suns lost the race with the MCU, but came out all the better for it

We go hands on with the first 4 hours of Firaxis' new tactics RPG

Chance has always been an integral part of Firaxis’ turn-based tactics games. Just ask the many thousands of players who missed a shot with a 90% success chance in one of their XCOM reboots. Marvel’s Midnight Suns, however, could be the Civilization studio’s biggest gamble yet. Not only is it their first game to mix substantial RPG elements into its tactical combat, but there’s nary a hit percentage in sight. In the four hours I spent playing the opening of Midnight Suns last week, I saw precisely one scenario that had any kind of per cent number attached to it – and that was booting a goon (100%) or Venom, one of the newly confirmed villains of the game (0%), off a rooftop. All your other attacks, represented here as a deck of cards, are guaranteed hits.

It’s a strategic evolution I’ll talk about in a second, but this switch-up in approach isn’t the only part of Midnight Suns story that’s been subject to the whims of (mis)fortune. No sooner had Firaxis announced the game it was delayed in the snap of Thanos' fingers (from March to the second half of 2022, now confirmed as October 7th at tonight’s Summer Game Fest). But speaking to creative director Jake Solomon, the extra polishing time they set aside gave them an unexpected benefit. And it’s all down to a fish witch called Wanda.

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While the game’s name is a reference to Solomon’s favourite 90s Marvel comic - Midnight Sons: Spirits Of Vengeance – he tells me that “Wanda’s story is the story of Midnight Suns.” If you’re not ITK about the MCU, Wanda Maximoff, aka: the Scarlet Witch, has become a key player, both in last year’s WandaVision miniseries and this year’s Dr Strange movie The Multiverse Of Madness. Without veering into spoiler territory, the last 12 months haven’t just put Wanda on the MCU map, but also introduced orbiting parts of Scarlet Witch lore, including Agatha Harkness and all-consuming book of evil the Darkhold – both of which feature heavily in Midnight Suns. Now, we all know Marvel has a bad habit of making films that are more or less pure setup for the next MCU instalment, but Solomon assures me this wasn’t at all planned in the slightest.

"I remember watching WandaVision, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be shitting me.’"

“Ha hah!” he bellows when I put the question to him. “I mean this is a problem with, you know, developing a story four or five years ago. We were real proud of ourselves. We’re like, ‘People are going to be like: What!?’ And then we were laughing. I know Agatha as the babysitter of the Fantastic Four, but she’s a witch and she’s tied to Wanda, and I was like, we should use Agatha! So we put Agatha in the story and our Agatha is very different. But then I remember watching WandaVision, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be shitting me.’ But I mean, I laughed, because it’s so different. I think if anything it’s positive. You have these moments where you’re just, like, ‘Son of a gun! I thought I was going to be the first one to bring that thing out!’ […] But in the end, I think it just helps.”

Scarlet Witch says Oh God in Marvel's Midnight Suns
In this version of the Marvelverse, Scarlet Witch has become Doctor Strange's apprentice. Lilith, however, has other plans for her.

Solomon, a Marvel fan way before he was put in charge of designing and eventually directing Firaxis’ XCOM games, certainly seems to have taken it all in his stride. He tells me he did ask Marvel’s games division “in a joking way” whether this was all some grand, Fiege-ian level plot (after all, it’s not entirely unheard of for Marvel to change their running order or cut entire characters out of one film only to stick them in another), but, “They’re like, ‘No! We don’t talk to Marvel Studios, we’re Marvel Games’,” Solomon tells me. Ultimately, he puts it down to “just good stories interconnecting,” although not without adding that he and his team will have to “go super, super deep for our next game” if they’re going to avoid a similar situation in the future. Marvel’s Midnight Suns 2 confirmed? We’ll have to wait and see.

So yes, that six-month delay really was just “purely quality” related, says Solomon. “The game just wasn’t ready. This is the biggest game by far that we’ve ever made, and so it’s funny because games like this, they seem ready for so long, in my experience, you know? [But then] it’s like, ‘Wow, there are all these edges to polish!’ And the closer we got to it, we were like, we just need more time. But yeah, before it was like, ‘Oh! I think we’re going to be before the Doctor Strange movie…’ and then it was like, ‘Ah, nope, we’re going to be after the Doctor Strange movie.’ So we figured they’d get to tell some of that story earlier. […] However many hundreds of millions of people who saw that movie. You know, some of them have to be gamers!”

The Hunter uses their whip to knock Hydra soldiers into each other on top of a roof in Marvel's Midnight Suns
The Hunter uses a knockback attack to send one Hydra goon flying into a nearby barrel in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Blade uses a chain attack to biff multiple Hydra goons in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Superheroes fight Venom in Marvel's Midnight Suns

He's not kidding about the size of it, either. Firaxis want to take you on “a tour of Marvel” in Midnight Suns, starting with fighting in the likes of Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum and Stark Tower in New York City, before shifting the action to the Quentin Carnival in America’s southwest in a nod to Ghost Rider fans. You’ll also be visiting various Hydra facilities en route to Transia, the birthplace of Scarlet Witch. It’s all in aid of taking down Lilith, the ultimate big-bad of the game whose “Omega-level villain” status puts her in the same camp as Thanos and Ultron. She’s working to resurrect her even bigger bad master, Chthon, by causing the titular cosmic event of the Midnight Sun, and she’ll grow in power every day as the planets start to align.

Indeed, before I’m let loose with my four-hour preview build, Solomon tells me he expects a regular playthrough of Midnight Suns to take at least 60 hours altogether, if not more depending on how much time you spend wandering the grounds of your new base, the Abbey. This is effectively an expanded version of your headquarters in XCOM. Inside, you’ll find your familiar research and upgrade stations, manned by Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, not to mention a training ground run by Blade. Outside, though, the Abbey is home to a sprawling wilderness of nooks and crannies to explore. The days of the ant-nest are over, my friend.

The Hunter walks down some steps with Captain Marvel in Marvel's Midnight Suns

You can choose to explore the Abbey grounds any time between missions, but you’ll have to expand and upgrade the Abbey’s facilities, as well as unlock magical incantations known as Words Of Power, in order to push deeper into its tangle of thorns and overgrown thickets. It’s part Metroid, part XCOM in this respect, but Firaxis haven’t just stopped there. There are also mushrooms and plants to gather for a spot of crafting (although for what I never got to see during my play session), as well as special hang-out spots for when you want some extra downtime with various members of your newfound super squad.

The Hunter decides whether to make a light or dark dialogue choice in Marvel's Midnight Suns
The look and design of other Marvel heroes takes inspiration from the Marvel comics of the 80s and 90s, so it only seems right to follow suit with big 80s 'Volume' hair.

That’s right. You’re no longer a pair of eyes in the sky in Marvel’s Midnight Suns. You play as your own customisable superhero called The Hunter, a unique character Firaxis created in collaboration with Marvel. Despite the female-heavy promo art, there’s no canonical gender for The Hunter, giving you free rein to create whatever kind of hero you like, starting with their “body type” (gender isn’t even mentioned in the menu screens) before moving on to pick various different hair styles, skin tones, face shapes and facial hair - although when you’ve got the option of big 80s ‘volume’ hair (as you can see from my screenshots), there really is only one viable choice.

The Hunter’s customisation options are more than skin-deep. As the child of Lilith (and thus, by the law of comics, the only one capable of defeating her), you have the option of tapping into both light and dark side tendencies, which unlock new cards and abilities depending on the kinds of dialogue choices you make between story missions. Think Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade system, but without questionable moral consequences. You don’t have to go full light or dark if you don’t want to, either. A balanced Hunter build is an equally viable choice in Midnight Suns, and it looks like you’ll have plenty of freedom to dabble in a variety of different skills to create your ideal hero.

The Hunter upgrades her card attacks in the Yard's menu screen in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Duplicate cards can be combined into stronger ones in Blade's training yard.
Tony Stark analyses gamma coils in front of an infernal forge in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Tony Stark will analyse gamma coils you retrieve to unlock new cards for your deck.

You’ll need to be a little bit careful, though, as the way you role play The Hunter will also affect their relationship with other Midnight supes. While some heroes respond positively to darker tendencies, others recoil, decreasing your friendship level with a sad, -1 heart icon. This is what excites me most about Midnight Suns. There’s no Fire Emblem-style romance, alas (that wouldn’t be canon, says Solomon), but it borrows from a similar playbook. Every hero has likes and dislikes to discover, and you can choose to ‘hang out’ with one of them at the end of each day to give your friendship level a hearty boost in the warm vibes department. It’s very Persona, which, alongside Fire Emblem, Solomon cites as “games that I played the shit out of, for that reason.”

Fire Emblem and Persona are “games that I played the shit out of, for that reason,” says Solomon.

“I think there are a lot of Japanese developers who do this really well, who combine tactics with RPG, specifically relationships,” he says. “Once it gets into, like, being able to worry about these characters on the battlefield and then, in a more light-hearted way, worry about them off of the battlefield, I think it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just there’s like resonance there where it just makes you care even more and more about the characters. So yeah, I love it.”

Iron Man's card deck menu in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Each hero has a deck of eight cards they can bring into battle with them, and you can customise them at any time when you're in the Abbey.

Creating an RPG like this for the first time didn’t come easily, however. Solomon admits the team did “a lot of stumbling” and made “a lot of bad decisions” before they came out the other side, but from where I’m sitting the end result is shaping up to be just as compelling as Nintendo’s finest. At this early stage, there’s no way of telling just how frosty a relationship can turn – and whether characters will act out or proffer different dialogue when you try to engage with them, for instance – but Solomon did speak at length about what the benefits are of becoming best pals with them. Like Fire Emblem, everything feeds back into the combat system, unlocking better cards for the heroes in question and, most importantly, more powerful Heroic combo attacks.

Yes: the cards. There are three types you’ll encounter in Midnight Suns: your standard Attack cards, your buffing and special effect Skill cards, and your special Heroic signature cards. The latter can only be played when you’ve built up enough Heroism points, which you gain by playing Attacks and Skills. Bolstered by an array of beautifully animated fisticuffs and three-point impact poses, it creates a satisfying cadence of flashy peaks and jaw-crunching troughs, ensuring each wave of Hydra goons thrown your way are dispatched with style and panache, regardless of whether you’re unleashing a two-henchman chain attack with Blade’s sword, or crushing them beneath the flaming hot wheels of Ghost Rider’s Hell Charger.

Ghost Rider stands on top of a flaming car in Marvel's Midnight Suns

Having waves of enemies does come as a surprise. Instead of all goons appearing onscreen at the start of battle, a handful of back-up bods keep flooding the compact battle arenas at the end of each turn until everyone’s felled at the same time. Compared to XCOM, battles are much more about effective crowd control than picking off troublesome loners, which perhaps sounds tedious on paper, but it feels pretty rad under the thumbs. The best comparison I can give is probably Into The Breach, just with superheroes instead of giant mech suits.

It helps that battles are much shorter than XCOM’s. There are no hour long wars of attrition here; nearly all of my Midnight Suns missions were done and dusted in around 20 minutes. Solomon has spoken before about how fast this game is compared to Firaxis’ previous work, and battles really do have a welcome zip. With each attack guaranteed to hit, you’re free to plot epic takedowns rather than cringe through dice rolls, especially as you can also use those cards to shove enemies into sparking electrical transistors for extra damage, or put them down altogether to topple a lamp post onto their skulls, or lob a stack of Daily Bugles into their kneecaps. Say goodbye to cowering behind cover in Midnight Suns. Here, it’s just another supercharged tool for your toolbox.

Captain Marvel strikes a pose after biffing a Hydra soldier in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Captain Marvel fires a laser to drop a cargo hold on top of a Hydra soldier in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Captain Marvel uppercuts a Hydra soldier in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Blade prepares to throw a stack of Daily Bugle newspapers at a Hydra soldier in Marvel's Midnight Suns

These environmental attacks can only be used once per turn, but slotting all these puzzles piece together is just as stimulating for your little grey cells as it is watching the action playout in front of you. I instantly become hooked on Quick attacks, for example, which refill the number of cards you’re able to play if you KO an enemy – and when some henchmen are so weak they don’t even have a health bar to their name, you can end up doing quite a number on them in a single turn.

I instantly become hooked on Quick attacks, which refill the number of cards you’re able to play if you KO an enemy.

That’s not to say Marvel’s Midnight Suns is easy. While you definitely ride the power curve with greater confidence than you did in XCOM, there are plenty of tougher Hydra soldiers to take care of that will require multiple turns to take down, which become especially problematic when you’ve also got one of Lilith’s Fallen villains to deal with at the same time. Indeed, in a particularly nice twist (and perhaps a nod to XCOM: Chimera Squad), battles will often roll from one to the other, capturing a similar sense of scale and pace as the kind of city-spanning smackdowns seen in the films.

In one multi-part mission, for example, I started by fighting Hydra forces on the ground outside Doctor Strange’s besieged Sanctum Sanctorum, before moving to a nearby rooftop where I ended up acquainting Fallen Venom with the business end of our super fists. Spider-Man then pitched up to give my heroes a much-needed reprieve, leading Venom downtown while I regrouped at the Abbey. This gave me a bit of breathing room to follow other leads and missions (and spend an inordinate amount of time exploring the grounds round the Abbey), until finally they all reunited again in another climactic story battle against Venom that capped the end of my demo session.

Doctor Strange and Tony Stark play Monopoly in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Each superhero has their own favourite activity and likes and dislikes to discover.

The neat thing about Midnight Suns is how it made smaller story moments feel just as important and momentous as those larger boss battle set-pieces. While Spider-Man was leading Venom a merry dance down in NYC, for example, I had a mission to retrieve an object simply known as an Artifact from an abandoned warehouse facility thought to be owned by Hydra. The opening cutscene and subsequent two-part battle, replete with a new, shield-bearing enemy type to get to grips with, implied it was this grand, critical story beat that would cast our heroes on a brand-new line of attack in the wider narrative. What this “spooky crate” actually was, was just the thing you hand to Doctor Strange every now and again so he can analyse and research more Abbey upgrade projects. A simple, common resource, in other words, but cor, what a lively introduction to it.

For all its energetic pep, there are a few lingering concerns. Compared to the wonderfully fluid battle animations, for example, your super crew feel less characterful when they get back to base. Conversations, while well-written and brilliantly voiced, often play out very static and still, the fixed poses and slow camera pans calling to mind the slightly jarring encounters of Mass Effect and Horizon Zero Dawn rather than, say, the lively Baldur’s Gate 3. Traversing the Abbey grounds could also really do with a jump button, as the tight, over the shoulder camera angle can sometimes make it hard to see where the main paths are, making for a very inelegant-feeling Hunter who’s constantly crashing into invisible boundaries. You can tell its Firaxis’ first RPG, in other words, although given the depth of its design on show here, as well as how deeply it all ties back into its wider battle system, I have a feeling it’s something a lot of people will end up forgiving when they actually get their hands on it.

I certainly feel like I’m in that camp at the moment. Sure, it’s a little bit wonky in places, but this is hands down the most thrilling and engaging Marvel game I’ve ever played, and arguably the kind of Marvel game that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics’ actual Avengers game should have been all along. There’s so much to dig into here - even after four straight hours with it I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface - but I’m excited to begin again come October time and see exactly what kind of hand Solomon and his team have been waiting to deal us ever since Midnight Suns was first unveiled at the end of last year. There’s still a chance it could succumb to the same curse as other Marvel games, of course, but if I had to put all my cards on the table, I reckon this might finally be the one to come up trumps.

Not E3 2022 is in full-swing - see everything in our E3 2022 hub, as well as our complete round-up of everything announced at Summer Game Fest 2022. Many more big game showcases and streams are still to come this summer, so make sure you stay up to date with our summer games stream schedule.

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