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Move over, Kevin Feige!
Marvel’s Midnight Suns might be the biggest gaming surprise of 2022.
The narrative-driven tactics game, developed by Firaxis (the studio behind the XCOM franchise), manages to provide enough of a challenge for seasoned gamers while not being as obtuse as the genre sometimes demands.
Mixed in with tactics gameplay is also a series of surprisingly detailed character portraits that come together to create a rich comic book crossover – rivaling anything the MCU has produced this year.
You’d be forgiven for expecting the story in Midnight Suns to be an afterthought, but instead, we found a game that was a) absolutely stuffed with engaging characters and b) eager to reward players who spend the time getting to know them.
The bulk of the Midnight Suns is split between two modes: walking around your HQ chatting to teammates and building up friendships with them, and assembling a squad to head out on missions – either to advance the main story or complete optional objectives.
These squads will definitely be a draw for Marvel fans, and the team at Firaxis has pulled together a real mixture of favourites and familiar friends for both comics readers and MCU fans.
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This combination of deeper pulls, including characters like New Mutants icon Illyana and Nico from Runaways, as well as big-name heroes is emblematic of the approachability that runs through the game. Just as the character roster caters for two audiences, so do the mechanics.
Unlike Firaxis’s other, mechanically-deep tactics games, Midnight Suns employs a fairly novel card-based system to manage combat encounters and missions.
Before you embark on any particular assignment, you’ll choose three heroes from your roster (unlocking more heroes as the story goes along) who each have a unique deck of ability cards – made up of a combination of heroic abilities, combat moves and more.
The turns of any given encounter play out as ‘hands’, where you’re given the opportunity to play a certain number of cards to achieve your goal. Cards can attack enemies, buff your own team, or interact with mission items at play.
You also have a series of ‘moves’ that allow you to reposition your heroes around the field and interact with environmental objects (such as exploding a barrel or dropping a crate).
Most cards either cost and generate ‘hero’ points, and playing an optimal hand involves using specific cards in the right order to maximise your turn.
It’s all fairly simple tactical stuff, but the card/hand structure makes it really easy to understand what your options are.
The game also opts to surface a lot of information about what enemies are planning in any given turn, so you’re not worrying too much about percentage chances and hidden moves.
As mentioned, the game splits your time between missions and building relationships, and prepping for your next encounters at the abbey.
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Each day begins with the option to chat with your growing team, all of whom are treating the Midnight Suns HQ like a superpowered dormitory. Doing this builds up friendships, which essentially act as meters that unlock dialogue/story options, while also opening new ways to team up the player character with heroes while on missions.
You’re also able to start researching new abilities, which will be ready in your superpower inbox the next day, and check in on any other cooldown timers that are progressing.
Once you’ve got your ducks in order, you choose a single mission to tackle that day, and afterward, you return to the abbey to once again check in with your pals and progress any story decisions before turning in for the night.
We did find ourselves wishing we could do more with a given day, and perhaps knock off a number of certain optional missions (which are much easier as the game goes on) in a row without the need to chat with everyone. As a result of this stop-start format, the game also can feel a little long in the tooth – the current HLTB tally has a standard completion rate of 30-60 hours, depending on how much side content you tackle.
Overall, though, this structure really works and ultimately makes the game feel like a great comic book. So much of what makes ensemble superhero stories fun is the soap opera-like interactions between friends and former enemies, which this game has in spades.
The cast of Midnight Suns is split between members of the Avengers (Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, etc) and the Midnight Suns themselves – a crack squad of younger heroes assembled to tackle demonic issues.
All sorts of fun tensions arise from these groups interacting, all supported by some really strong writing. The only thing that lets it down is the sometimes janky production values, and we often felt like particular lines or moments would have been better delivered in a single comic panel with a distinct facial expression, rather than Midnight Suns’ middling character models.
If you can look past this, though, then you get some really funny moments with a cast of characters that genuinely feels like it’s been assembled with care – a feeling which extends throughout the entire game and which is a welcome surprise for this big-budget IP-driven title.
Platform reviewed on: Xbox Series S
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is out now on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X/S, with PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch releases planned.