Marvel’s Midnight Suns might have been talked about in hushed tones for months now as Marvel XCOM, but now that it’s finally been officially revealed we can see that it's clearly so much more than that. Sure, it might be coming at a time where the monolithic superhero studio’s stable feels omnipresent, but that doesn’t mean that this supernatural-focused tactical-RPG isn’t as refreshingly left-field as anything from Marvel in recent years. From a unique combination of heroes in its roster – including an entirely new character called The Hunter – to drafting in the team behind the devilishly brilliant modern XCOM series, our chat with Marvel’s Midnight Suns creative director Jake Solomon reveals a game that offers a fresh perspective for both its heroes and their creators.
Still, Marvel XCOM isn’t a bad starting point for understanding what Marvel’s Midnight Suns is. The creative director describes it as a tactical RPG, taking characters from across the Marvel universe – the trailer reveals Wolverine, Iron Man, Captains Marvel and America, and Dr. Strange, alongside cult favorites such as Magik, Ghost Rider, and Blade – to try and stop the demonic threat of Lillith. She's a villain from ‘Rise of the Midnight Sons’, one of Solomon's favourite comic book arcs from the ‘90s. While the untapped well of inspiration and unusual roster of Marvel heroes are all intriguing, the biggest surprise is that you’ll be taking direct control of a brand new character created entirely for the game.
Join The Hunt
The Hunter, the figure who is raised from a sarcophagus at the start of the trailer, is leading this merry gang of demon hunters and, according to Solomon, she’s been designed with Marvel to be the first customizable character in their history. "They look however the player wants them to look, and they will appear however the player wants them to appear, and they will also play in combat however the player wants them to play in combat."
It marks a big departure from how games have approached bringing Marvel characters to players recently. Insomniac’s Spider-Man series worked because it made you feel like Spidey, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy is aiming to recreate the hilarious bickering tension that made them breakout stars in the MCU, and Marvel’s Avengers tried to recreate the film’s mix of grandeur and family drama within a Destiny-style template. The link between these games is that they’re all trying to let you play hero, whereas Midnight Suns wants you to create one.
You'll shape The Hunter through combat and costumes, and build out her personality between missions at The Abbey, a supernatural hideout that houses your squad during downtime. "The key to The Abbey is that this is where you form your relationships with the other heroes and relationships are just as important as combat in our game," says Solomon.
The Abbey Road
The Abbey might seem like an easy comparison to XCOM 2’s Avenger – the place where you could focus on your squad and upgrades between missions – but it’s a substantially different type of experience in how Solomon explains it to us. For starters, you’ll explore it with a third-person camera, roaming around in real-time and getting to explore the home away from home for these heroes. More importantly, it'll give you a chance to bond with the heroes that you'll spend so much of your time fighting alongside.
"I think the equally powerful fantasy for fans of Marvel is not just fighting, it's actually how the heroes live with each other," he says. "We have a large roster of heroes, 12 Marvel heroes in addition to The Hunter, and you have to choose between these heroes in terms of who you're going to focus on developing relationships with."
"And that means [picking] your dialogue choices when you're talking with them, which happens all the time. You can solicit all these heroes to hang out with you after combat and you have to choose which one you're hanging out with and what the hangout is. Blade may want to lift weights or meditate, whereas Dr. Strange may want to read a book by the fire, while Tony Stark may want to drink at the bar or play video games. So it's a very social environment."
Taking part in these activities will help you bond with characters, unlocking their full potential on the battlefield. And while we don’t yet know if there’ll be a limit on how much time you can spend chatting with each character, it seems to offer a unique way of bringing the characters you want to get to know to the fore. By focusing on the characters away from the action, it gives us hope that Midnight Suns will capture the moments that give Marvel its humanity, such as The Avengers blowing off steam by getting Shawarma.
While we’ve touched on the Marvel side of the equation, this is as equally exciting as what developer Firaxis is bringing to the table. Solomon reveals to us that it was Marvel who approached the XCOM studio, and as a huge Marvel fan, he was immediately interested in collaborating – so long as he could find the right story to tell.
"We went back to my favorite comic from Marvel history, which is an early 1990s comic book event called the Rise of The Midnight Sons. And this is, for most people, a very deep cut. There was this all-powerful villain, and her name is Lilith – the mother of demons. She comes to Earth and the only way to stop her was to unite all the supernatural heroes of the Marvel Universe in this super awesome comic book event. And so I love this comic and it was something that was untouched, and I think untapped. And even just the supernatural side of Marvel remains untapped. I don't think for very long, but for now it’s untapped."
With the setting and characters in place, it then posed Firaxis a question of how they would bring their signature strategy style to this universe. When I ask Solomon about the potential of permadeath – a key element of the risk and reward in XCOM – he opens up on the new design philosophy that is driving Marvel's Midnight Suns. "When we started developing, I realized just how different this game was mechanically. [Because] superheroes are a very different thing than soldiers, right? With soldiers, they’re taking cover and being afraid of the aliens, as opposed to if you want to properly be a superhero, you're not taking cover, you're not afraid, and you're fighting," he explains. "I think that's thematic, that’s not mechanics, but like the thematics drive the mechanics where they're very, very different, so we actually don't have permadeath but it's more than that."
While permadeath may be gone, the core experience is still a turn-based one on the battlefield, with smaller tweaks – such as the removal of grids from combat as well – helping to build a different, faster style of strategy. Solomon is keen to stress that the team is looking to create the same levels of complexity that XCOM is beloved for, but now the choices you make are different. "You still have the same number of decisions, but there are a lot of different ways to achieve what you want. And it's more a case of ‘How many bad guys? Can I take them out with this one ability’, as opposed to ‘Oh my God, I'm gonna die’".
Wait your turn
While XCOM’s appeal arose from the suffocating tension of knowing one wrong move could be your last, Marvel’s Midnight Suns is forgoing that without forgetting what makes strategy so much fun in the first place. While a gameplay showcase is set for September 1, Solomon gives us a sense of what Midnight Suns wants to achieve from the game’s combat. "I guess the analogy we use as designers is carrot and stick, right? This game is much more carrot, in terms of how well did you succeed, not if you make a mistake – you know, ‘whoops, you're gonna get hit with a stick." In that sense, Midnight Suns is about taking the complex choices from XCOM and asking you to approach them in different ways. It's turning up the pace and challenging you in a way that doesn’t have you instinctively heading to the load menu every time you make a mistake.
The sense is that Midnight Suns is about to be ahead of the curve for both Marvel stories and strategy games. As the MCU starts to flirt with the idea of more supernatural characters – Wandavision felt like dipping a toe rather than taking the plunge – and few strategy games have nailed the pace that Solomon describes, it feels like this is the chance for a larger audience to discover the joys of both. When I ask Solomon about adapting the game for new players, he says: "If you enjoy XCOM, then you would understand that form and complex choices are, I think, what makes those games fun. And we wouldn't give that up, you know, for some sort of mythical wider audience. But I do think that this game is more accepting, simply because we thought of a new way to kind of present it to players." With this venture into the darker side of Marvel, we can’t think of many other studios who we’d rather have posing us those sort of challenges on and off the battlefield.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is set to launch in March 2022 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.