Have you ever been watching one of the best Marvel movies and thought to yourself, "You know what would be good? If Blade, Captain Marvel, and Captain America started a book club, and sat down for a lengthy discussion of Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'"? If so, your dreams have finally come true. Marvel's Midnight Suns features this specific delight and many such mundane treats, as it reveals what your favourite super people get up to when they're off the clock.
Release date: December 2, 2022
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
Publisher: 2K Games
It's not all long walks and movie nights, though. There is a world-ending threat to deal with in the shape of demon witch Lilith and the forces of Hydra, and you'll have to leave the comfort of your base each morning to give their minions a sound thrashing. But Midnight Suns remains mindful of work-life balance. Your team are world-saving crime fighters by day, mild-mannered hobbyists and social butterflies by night. It's a lot to juggle, and the loop of this total superhero experience does get baggy. But like the disparate group of Earth's mightiest heroes under your control, the components pull together for the greater good.
Let There Be Carnage
In the early stages of Marvel's Midnight Suns, the most captivating endeavour is the central part of the daily cycle, where you partake in turn-based strategy battles, which is no surprise given the pedigree of developer Firaxis – the despotic mastermind behind the modern XCOM games. Not that the missions here are merely XCOM with superheroes. While they share a similar level of balance and polish, the systems work very differently, which befits the fact that you're now in control of individuals juiced up by technology, magic, or mutations, as opposed to vulnerable freedom fighters.
Grid-based sprawls strewn with cover points are thus exchanged for fenced-off arenas, in which a trio of heroes goes toe-to-toe with mobs of Hydra troops and demons. There's no hiding here. All that matters is that you chew through enough of the enemy forces before it's their turn to act, so they can't cause you serious harm. Your aim is thus to be devastating – smashing hapless evildoers through the scenery or each other, wiping out whole rows with an energy blast, and chaining attacks that demolish three or four in the blink of an eye. The results can be quite spectacular, with an almost slapstick energy to your efforts, thanks to keenly observed animations, explosive effects and all too breakable scenery.
Limitations on your destruction are imposed by a card-based system that takes cues from Slay the Spire and other deckbuilding games. Each character can equip eight 'ability' cards which are shuffled together and dealt six at a time at the beginning of a round. You can only play three cards in a turn (although some cards grant bonus plays), and there are effectively two kinds – regular attacks and skills that increase your 'heroism metre', and powerful heroic cards that cost hero points to play. So in order to pull out the big guns, you first need to deploy lighter strikes and buffs.
If you're coming to Marvel's Midnight Suns after XCOM, this may sound quite restrictive, but you'll discover plenty of tactical scope, not least because of how characters move around when executing your commands. Distance is rarely a factor in choosing attacks – a hero will run to their target automatically – but the angle of approach can be critical, especially when using 'knockback' moves that send enemies flying away from you. You can also cause damage by chucking or kicking bits of scenery at your opponents, which costs hero points but doesn't use a card, and getting in line with your victim can be essential too. One consideration when plotting an assault then is whether a character will finish in an advantageous position for the next.
There are many other variables besides, including numerous status effects, plus each hero – from a cast of around a dozen drawn from the Midnight Sons, Avengers, and X-Men comics – encourages distinct play styles in accordance with their powers. Magik's ability to create portals, for instance, is perfect for shifting enemies around the environment, while Spider-Man can bind them with webs or perform bouncing kicks off of multiple Hydra heads in quick succession. Other heroes become more effective as battles wear on, such as Captain Marvel, who can 'go binary' once she's played a few cards, increasing her strength considerably. Each particular combination of heroes asks you to think a little differently.
Love and Thunder
It's clear throughout the game in fact that Firaxis has done its homework when it comes to the combat skills of its cast, and that attention to detail stretches to their backstories and big-ego personalities too. After missions, you return to the Suns' home, the Abbey, where you're drawn into the latest plot developments, which often means conflict of a different kind, thanks to the strained relationship between Marvel factions forced to pool their resources against Lilith. In particular, the tech-based methods championed by Tony Stark (as arrogant as ever here) and the Avengers clash against the mystic powers of the Suns, conjuring up a cauldron of resentment.
In the Abbey, you control the protagonist, the Hunter, an original creation for Marvel's Midnight Suns whose gender and appearance are yours to decide. As a champion demon killer of old brought back from the dead, you're a largely independent force within the group, so you'll be building friendship bonds with them from scratch, while also mediating their disagreements. It's a testament to the character design that the Hunter feels like a significant presence amongst such familiar faces, and since they bring no baggage from previous Marvel stories, you can relate to the team as you see fit through frequent dialogue choices.
With that, life in the Abbey becomes something of a cross between XCOM 2 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The XCOM bit comes from managing resources and mission rewards, which include new cards as well as materials that can open up research projects, build new training equipment, produce intel for solo excursions, or upgrade your abilities. Balancing the supply of different currencies required for these actions is a key consideration when selecting side missions, and the only way to grow every aspect of your operation.
As for the Fire Emblem bit, you boost personal friendship ratings by hanging out with individual heroes in the evening, sympathising with them in conversations, offering gifts, or paying them compliments. In truth, some of the socialising is tonally odd, as if all the heroes are back in high school, with Blade coyly admitting he fancies Captain Marvel, or Nico asking you to help organise Magik's birthday party. But it's also quite charming and amusing. Marvel's Midnight Suns' script can be heavy-handed, not least when it's shoehorning in cringey '80s film references, but it invariably handles the characters themselves with empathetic nuance.
There's still room for more too, with yet another dimension added to Marvel's Midnight Suns in the form of a mystery to solve around the Abbey's sizable grounds. With the help of Agatha, the ghost of a friendly witch, you can venture at night into a forest guarding abandoned ruins and runic symbols, seeking clues and objects that open further paths. This off-shooting plotline has you scouring the corners of this magic-infused enclave to uncover its intriguing history, while rewards are to be found in chests and herbal ingredients, from which you might craft items that'll help when you eventually return to combat.
The individual parts of Marvel's Midnight Suns, then, are all attractive, and they also function as tributaries back into the core systems, with exploration, hangouts, and resource management all bestowing battle boosts of one kind or another. When you add everything up, however, it's a lot to get through every day, and before you know it half-an-hour has passed since you last went out on a mission. Some condensing would be welcome here – for example, preparations for battle each morning involve a whole checklist of chores if you want to get the most from your party, but instead of actioning everything through XCOM-like menus, you have to do a routine tour of the Abbey. It feels like getting ready to leave for work: keys, check. Phone, check. Oh, and don't forget to pet Hunter's dog on your way out.
These tasks may be optional, but maximising your powers makes for more versatility in battle, so it doesn't pay to skip them. Rather, when you've gone to so much trouble, it's a shame the missions themselves aren't a little beefier, with a wider range of enemies, and objectives that demand more substantial tactical shifts. For a large chunk of the game, you'll be knocking countless Hydra goons around more often than not, and they only come in so many flavours. The introduction of supervillains such as Venom and Sabretooth adds bite, but some side missions especially don't seem to warrant all the extra-curricular activity.
As you progress, though, you'll unlock a series of steadily higher difficulty levels, so you can keep nudging up the challenge, and skin-of-the-teeth victories are no less thrilling than they are in XCOM. There's also extra variety in the shape of puzzle-like challenge rooms, made for each individual hero once you've raised your friendship level with them sufficiently. Simply put, there's a lot here, and if you like the sound of a superhero game that encourages you to stop and smell the flowers before they get burnt to a crisp by Iron Man's lasers, you should remain spellbound for the dozens of hours it takes to see Midnight Suns through. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a picnic with Ghost Rider.
Marvel's Midnight Suns was reviewed on PC, with code supplied by the publisher.