Marvel’s Midnight Suns review – Avengers: Age of XCOM

The creators of XCOM are given the keys to the Marvel universe, in a supernatural themed strategy epic that has something for everyone.

Since XCOM 2 is one of the few games we’ve ever given a 10/10 score to, it’s safe to say that we have very much been looking forward to this new game from the same developer. When rumours first emerged of its existence it was described as XCOM meets Marvel and while that’s already stuck, it isn’t really accurate. Beyond being a turn-based game there’s almost no similarity at all, in what is one of the most wildly ambitious strategy games ever made.

We’d like to think that the Marvel connection guarantees a certain level of success but the failure of the (awful) Avengers and (excellent) Guardians Of The Galaxy games proves that’s not necessarily the case. Nevertheless, developer Firaxis has done their level best to make this as accessible and interesting to non-strategy fans as possible, with a between-mission structure that borrows heavily from Mass Effect and Persona – although inevitably that’s the part of the game that’s easiest to pick faults with.

The story set-up is relatively straightforward and is kicked off by Hydra resurrecting Lilith, Mother of Demons, who starts possessing heroes and villains alike, and wants to bring back the even more powerful elder god Chthon (based on Cthulhu, obviously). To stop her, a supernatural group of heroes called the Midnight Suns awaken Lilith’s offspring, the Hunter, and then team up with the Avengers to try to save the world and… form after work social clubs?

The Hunter is a customisable character that you also get to control between battles in a third person view, like a regular action game. Your home base is a spooky manor called The Abbey, with expansive grounds filled with collectables and side quests. The building itself houses various training and research facilities, as well as a common area where the dozen or so heroes can get together and relax between missions.

Just like Mass Effect, you chat to teammates as much or as little as you want and, just like Persona (or perhaps more accurately Fire Emblem), the better you get on the more you build friendship bonds that allow you to perform unique combos in battle. At a basic level this simply involves having a chat and answering questions, which have their own light/dark morality system that also affects what you can do in battle.

However, you can also buy presents to give to people and do things like organise a surprise birthday party or join a book club – so you can sit around discussing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with Captain America, while trying to get Blade and Captain Marvel to hook up. Despite the world being constantly on the verge of ending you somehow find a lot of excuses to waste your time trying to be popular but it’s very obvious why the game devotes so much effort to the between-mission segments and trying to build up everyone’s character.

We hesitate to start describing how battles work because we worry it’s all going to sound a lot less interesting, and a lot more complicated, than it actually is. The most accurate point of reference is not XCOM but Slay The Spire, in that movement of your characters (you take only three into battle at once) is only of minor importance and all your abilities are dictated by randomly dealt cards.

You create your own deck of cards before starting a mission, but which ones you get dealt each turn are always a surprise. Most attack cards need a certain amount of heroism points to work, which are gained by attacking enemies or using non-combat abilities. Unlike XCOM, you always hit your target and there’s no question of exactly how much damage you’ll do with a move, so instead the focus is squarely on the tactics of which ability to use at what time, and against which enemy.

All of the cards are completely different for each character and are very good at representing their unique powers. So, for example, Magik is a Midnight Sun and can create portals to boot enemies into or move their position. Meanwhile, the Robbie Reyes version of Ghost Rider takes damage from many of his attacks but can also drain life force and has a cool flaming car that can run over half a dozen enemies at once if you pick the right moment.

The Avengers characters are a rather random selection of the usual line-up, but Iron Man has lots of abilities that can debuff enemies or shield allies, while Captain Marvel is able to go ‘binary’ to increase her powers. Wolverine works surprisingly well as a turn-based character, with clear nods to his Capcom fighting game appearances, while Spider-Man is particularly good at taking advantage of environmental objects to vault off or throw at enemies (everyone can do that, as it doesn’t require a card, but Spidey has several abilities that allow him to do so at no heroism cost).

If anything, we felt our familiarity with XCOM probably worked against us at first, as there’s a lot to unlearn, but the system is actually very straightforward. Not only is accuracy not an issue but there’s no cover or overwatch either. Also, under normal conditions, only one character can move once per turn. That might sound weird, but it works fine in practice, especially as characters do move automatically as part of an attack, which is important when you’re setting them up to knock one enemy into another or trying to get the angle right on kicking a crate at someone.

The maps themselves are all very small, basically just a single screen in size, with most battles never lasting more than 15 minutes. Rather than being restrictive, this creates a wonderfully interconnected set of systems, that’s reminiscent of the chess-like machinations of Into The Breach. Midnight Suns is a lot more forgiving than that game, but it’s still filled with lots of painful choices about whether to focus your attacks on one particular bad guy, save some heroism points to heal an ally, or use one of your two redraw chances to try and get a better card.

The whole interconnected, puzzle-like design works magnificently well, and we haven’t got a single bad thing to say about the combat. The strategy level meta back at base isn’t as complex or non-linear as XCOM, but there is an equivalent to research and development, where you complete challenges (like going on a certain number of missions with a particular hero) in order to unlock new features and upgrade cards.

Cards are upgraded simply by fusing two of the same type together but it’s all much more interesting than that because the energy needed to do so can often only be obtained by sacrificing another card. About 20 hours into the game (out of a total of around 60) you also get mods you can add to cards, for additional perks, as the game’s sprawling story continuously introduces more elements.

If 60 hours sounds like a lot, you’re not wrong but there are a ton of additional features to explore and unlock that we’ve barely got the space to mention, from challenge modes and secondary objectives with their own unlockables, to additional features like sending heroes out on covert missions and crafting new cards and consumables. There is a mountain of content here, that absolutely justifies the mammoth campaign length, and it’s all interesting.

That said, it wouldn’t hurt if there were a few more mission types, or battles where you were fighting in the air or in vehicles, but the combat is so intrinsically entertaining that that barely registers as a complaint. What is more of a problem, though, is the story and dialogue, which often struggles to fill the lengthy running time.

It’s not that the script is bad per se, but it is workmanlike and many of the voiceovers are sub-par, especially the weirdly camp take on Doctor Strange and the not-quite-good-enough impression of Robert Downey Jr. Everyone trying to be flippant all the time is a clear attempt to be more like the Marvel movies, but inevitability the quip hit rate is low and it can all become a bit grating.

What works better is the central theme of troubled childhoods and poor parenting, which is reflected in almost all the characters, to some degree or another, and from various different perspectives. However, the science vs. magic angle, that fuels many of the inter-team arguments is less engaging, since it’s never successfully anchored to the real world.

Viewed in its totality, the storytelling works but the day-to-day business of doing a mission and then mooching about The Abbey does begin to get very rote. Waking up each morning to go into the War Room, only to hear more bickering between the various heroes, begins to feel very much like turning up to work and putting up with the same old complaints from colleagues who you really wish would just give it a rest.

It doesn’t help that, combined with the often mediocre voice-acting, the character graphics aren’t quite good enough to sell the melodrama. They look great from a distance, with an excellent cinematic camera for when you’re controlling everyone in a fight, but when they’re standing there in front of you, trying to emote, they just look like animatronic puppets. It’s also a shame that the art design isn’t more distinctive, with no sign of the 90s excess that fuelled the specific comic books the game is inspired by.

Strategy fans have eaten well this year and between this and Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope it’s been great to see not only an abundance of new ideas but successful efforts to ensure they remain enjoyable and accessible for all. Some will find the social elements of Midnight Suns too long-winded and repetitive but they’re inoffensive at worst and certain plot points do build to a crescendo at the end, along with some effective foreshadowing for elements such as the Hulk’s turn to evil.

In terms of action – and, despite being a strategy game, action is definitely the right term – the game works superbly well and no matter how you take the storytelling it’s clearly necessary in terms of pacing and variety. Midnight Suns requires your time and attention to get the most out of it, but the rewards are many and great, in one of the most daringly unconventional games of the year.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns review summary

In Short: A fantastically idiosyncratic approach to both superheroes and turn-based strategy, that manages to remain perfectly accessible without ever talking down to its audience.

Pros: The battle system is superb and never gets old, with an almost infinite array of ancillary elements and customisation options. Impressively unique heroes and skills with some successful storytelling.

Cons: The narrative and social elements can bog you down, especially given the mediocre voice-acting and facial animation. Despite all the distractions the structure can become very formulaic.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Price: £49.99
Publisher: 2K
Developer: Firaxis Games
Release Date: 2nd December 2022 (last gen TBA)
Age Rating: 12

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