Marvel's Midnight Suns Preview - Firaxis brings their strategy pedigree to the Marvel Universe and sticks the hero landing
When it was first revealed, Marvel’s Midnight Suns caused a bit of a ruckus with the reveal of its card-based combat, leaving longtime some Firaxis tactical fans confused & concerned, myself included. However, after my recent hands-on with the first 5-ish hours of the game, I have come away from the experience a believer and far more excited than I was going into the demo.
Before we dive in, this preview will be going over aspects of the story, characters, and other potential spoilers, so if you are trying to stay in the dark about the game, turn back now.
Midnight Suns is an adjusted retelling of the 1992 comic story arc Rise of the Midnight Sons, which spotlights a group of super-natural specialists from the Marvel Universe as they attempt to stop Lillith, Mother of Demons, from destroying the world. Instead of rigidly sticking exactly with the source material, Firaxis has taken their love of the comics and has expanded & tweaked the narrative, adding & removing heroes, and even creating the first Marvel Create-a-character hero to handle Lillith and the prophecy of the Midnight Sun.
Described by the game’s developers, Lilith is an OMEGA Level threat on the same level as Thanos or Phoenix, and her revival poses a great danger to the safety of the world and beyond. With nothing but a simple touch, Lilith is able to gain control and the loyalty of anyone. To enact her plan, Lilith has gained control over the likes of Hydra and even incredibly powerful individuals such as the Hulk, Scarlet Witch, and Venom. To counter this supernatural threat, a new team of heroes will have to meet her head-on, the Midnight Suns.
This time the members of the Midnight Suns include Blade, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Magick, Nico Minoru, Robbie Reyes’ Ghost Rider, Wolverine, Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Hunter, and the newly revealed Spider-man and Scarlet Witch, plus one final secret character. This new team of heroes has made the Abbey, a special hall located in a pocket dimension near Salem Massachusetts, their base of operations to strike back against the forces of Hydra and the demons of Lillith.
Over the course of this 60-hour adventure, players will travel around the world over the span of three different acts, set in locations like New York and the land of Transia. Each area will feature its own unique battlegrounds and familiar locations for longtime fans of the comics, such as Avengers Tower, the Sanctum Sanctorum, and the Quentin Carnival, as you work to halt the plans of the Hunter’s mother, Lilith.
Perhaps the most controversial revelation with Midnight Suns has been the combat. Traditionally known for their suburb grid-based tactical combat, the XCOM team at Firaxis has opted for a gridless card-based alternative this time. At the start of each turn, you will draw a hand of cards, pulled from individual 8-card decks belonging to each hero that you have brought with you into the fight. By the end of the game, you will be able to customize these decks with around 20-ish different abilities for each character.
Battles (at least in the demo I experienced) took place in small to midsized arenas scattered with different interactive environmental objects to take advantage of. Turns to split up into letting you take all of your actions and then it swapping over to the enemies where they all go, before giving you back control. On your turn, you can play three ability cards, discard and redraw some cards, and manually move a single character.
Enemies don’t have decks and cards to worry about, so every opponent on the screen will perform an action, meaning it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with new reinforcements coming each turn. To balance this, enemy units are categorized into two camps, Minions and Elites. Elites will have life bars and usually some sort of special ability they can use, such as buffing or enraging someone. Minions, on the other hand, only take a single hit to take out and are basically cannon fodder for your heroes, helping give you that “Superhero” feeling.
Unlike most other tactical and strategy RPGs, moves don’t have a range associated with them, meaning you can hit any enemy or ally that you target, regardless of distance. While I just mentioned you can only manually move one character a turn, when you use an ability card, that character will move into a position to use said attack, so you can also move out of danger simply by using cards.
Midnight Suns doesn’t constrain players to grids, either. Early on in testing, the team realized that sticking with a grid simply wouldn’t work for the dynamic action and interactivity that they were going for, so instead, characters move freely around the arenas. I’m happy to say that it really works well, and figuring out the best approach or order to take out enemies to maximize your turn felt a lot better than I expected.
Fans of TCGs such as Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone will recognize the use of keywords on cards, which denote certain properties a card may have. These include terms such as “Knockback” which will shove an enemy in a specified direction after being hit, or “Chain” which will allow you to hit multiple selected enemies with a single attack card. It can take a little time to get used to what they all do, but thankfully keeping a card highlight for a moment will pop up tips and descriptions of what it all does, which is great for newcomers!
When you aren’t busy beatin’up baddies, you will be spending the rest of your time at the Midnight Suns secret base, the Abbey. These segments at the Abbey feel like a completely different game, one that encourages exploration, finding secrets using Metroid-like upgrades, growing friendships, and more. And the abbey and its grounds are big, like, surprisingly big.
The primary function of the Abbey is to prepare for missions and improve your relationships with fellow heroes. Downstairs you will find the large demon forge along with Dr. Strange and Tony Stark, where you will invest in research to unlock additions to the Abbey or open Gamma Coils, Midnight Suns’ version of card packs. In the courtyard, you will find Blade and the Yard where you can upgrade your cards or engage in friendly sparring sessions with other heroes. And in the War Room, you will find the Mirror Table and the C.E.N.T.R.A.L Unit where you select missions to tackle or send heroes out on.
When you aren’t doing all that preparational stuff, you can spend your time exploring the expansive grounds. Scattered around you will discover locked chests, resources that are required to complete side stories with characters, tarot cards, and more. It genuinely felt like I was playing a Witcher-like open-world RPG. It is a bit of a shock how drastic of a change the two sides of Midnight Suns are.
And then, when you aren’t going on missions, upgrading your cards, or exploring and unlocking areas around the Abbey, you will also be spending time with the other members of the team. It basically is the Social Links from Persona, where by answering correctly, taking characters on not-dates, and giving them gifts, you will raise their friendship levels granting you bonuses and buffs when you take them on missions. The team did confirm that players will be only able to max out the friendships of three or four heroes in each playthrough, requiring multiple New Game Plus playthroughs to get all the 13 heroes to max friend levels.
One area that I made sure to look a bit into during my time with Midnight Suns was the accessibility options that Firaxis has included. Unfortunately, the options present currently are rather lacking. Color blind options and Closed Captioning were the only accessibility toggles in the menu, lacking even a scalability adjustment for the size of the captions. To Firaxis’ credit, when I brought this up to them, they said they are very open to expanding and adding to the options, and if folks have suggestions for additional options, to let them know, so get to tweeting!
I got a glimpse also at some of the skins that will be available through Midnight Suns' premium real-money currency. It was revealed last year that Midnight Suns would contain microtransactions but that they would strictly be limited to non-gameplay altering skins (costumes) for characters and so far that remains the case. In order to get these outfits, it appears that Firaxis is going the route of a special currency that can only be bought and not specific costume purchases.
The ones that were present in the demo to view included a futuristic-looking Dr. Strange, a classic Ghost Rider skin, and a medieval templar-looking Iron Man. The most distressing of the real-money outfits though was the legendary Black Suit for Spider-man. Yep, perhaps the most popular and well-known outfit of Spidey’s, next to his classic red and blue, is only available to buy through this premium real-money currency. Come on Firaxis, really? Not cool.
So far, Firaxis is sticking to their guns that Gamma Coils, the various crafting resources, keys for the locked chests, and other resources will not be purchasable through the game’s marketplace. The length of time and grinding that can go into earning these in-game I could see becoming tiring over the course of the game, and could easily be made into marketplace additions. We will just have to wait and see what the marketplace looks like a year from now.
After the five hours of checking out the demo was up, I found myself with far fewer concerns than I thought I was going to have going into it. Truthfully, I don’t know if I would even classify them as worrisome, but more simply a curiosity about the final release.
First is the variety in abilities that characters get. I think a lot of the staying power with Midnight Suns will come from much customization players will have access to with the cards that you get and the synergy that can be formed among the party members. With the restrictions of 8-card decks, no more than two copies of a single card, and more, I hope that you will still have options to change the heroes’ playstyles a bit.
The second aspect that I am going to keep a close eye on is the variety in side missions. The few that I had a chance to play all revolved around killing all the bad guys, securing a mysterious item & then killing the bad guys, stopping the bad guys from destroying something by killing them, or blowing something up and then killing the bad guys. Combat is fun and all, but killing waves of reinforcements of the same kind of enemy, with inconsequential differences in bonus objectives had me already starting to feel like they were getting to be a chore. I know there will be new enemy types the farther you get into the game, but I really hope we get more unique missions to that spring up.
I will openly admit that prior to the preview event, my interest in Midnight Suns ranged from low to interest slightly piqued. Leaving the event though I was excited to try out the other heroes, and was actively sharing and comparing team strategies with the other attendees. There was an electricity and sense of optimism among us about what we had played.
Midnight Suns doesn’t try to be XCOM, and the team at Firaxis has shown that their pedigree for amazing strategy games isn’t locked to grids and deserves players' trust that they know what they’re doing. They’ve sold me on their vision and I can’t wait to crack more gamma coils and try out more strategies with the heroes in October!