For a long time, DC wore the crown when it came to comic book games. Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham series was the first modern title that was legitimately in the game of the year discussion and entries such as Lego Batman and The Wolf Among Us were deserving of praise.
But in the past few years, Marvel has made strides. Developer Insomniac has done wonders with the Spider-Man franchise and Second Dinner beautifully translated the Marvel universe into a fast-paced card game. Now, Firaxis Games, the studio behind the Sid Meier’s Civilization series and the rebooted XCOM, has taken its hand at mutants and Avengers with surprisingly good results.
Marvel’s Midnight Sons is the studio’s take on the superhero genre. It puts players mostly in the shoes of an original character called the Hunter. The player-created hero is the offspring of Lilith, the mother of demons, who is reawakened by Hydra. While the evil organisation wants to use her power, she aims to reawaken the elder god Chthon. The Hunter defeated Lilith in the past and is resurrected to take her on once again.
A Hunter leading an eclectic group
As the leader of the Midnight Suns, players lead a mishmash group of heroes that includes Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Blade, Ghost Rider, Scarlet Witch, Magik and Nico Minoru. It’s a mix of Avengers, mutants and prickly loners. Players will have to learn to maximize their powers while also navigating their intertwining relationships.
Fans of XCOM should feel at home with the campaign. Midnight Suns is divided into two phases. The first takes place in the Abbey, which acts as the team’s headquarters. It’s full of mystical and magical elements that make Doctor Strange feel at home. This is where the Hunter forges bonds with teammates while also researching better gear and training the Suns’ forces.
A focus on player choice
The game gives players plenty of decisions as they craft the Hunter into a paragon of goodness or a ruthless antihero. Their responses impact the friendship level with each superhero, and that stat is tied to beneficial perks that help in combat.
The choice to opt for a dark, light or neutral character also influences a player’s role in combat. A dark-focused hunter specializes in dealing damage while a light-attuned one has a support role healing allies. At times, the often-binary choices players have make the Hunter feel like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, but overall, Firaxis does a good job intertwining player choices into the overall gameplay so that it seeps into the deeper narrative.
The second phase of the game is the combat. Players pick a mission and jump into the action with a team of three. The Hunter doesn’t necessarily have to take part, so players can mix and match heroes for the type of mission at hand.
Although the first half of the game has an XCOM influence, the combat is entirely fresh. Because Midnight Suns centres on superheroes, cover isn’t a focus. Instead, Firaxis opts for a card system that determines which moves are available for the team.
The system normally limits players to three card uses for each round, but each card has an action and a keyword. Some deal damage, and when played, players will see a hero perform an attack on a Hydra thug. Others have support abilities that heal allies or give their stats a boost. A third series of cards specialise in gaming the system by drawing more cards so players have more options or building up the all-important Heroism meter.
Heroism is what’s needed to use the most powerful abilities, and simple attacks and support cards usually generate it. When players want to do a super-powerful team-up move, they’ll need to build up Heroism over a round to fire it off.
Learning the system and knowing how to manipulate the cards are big keys to mastering Midnight Suns. Limited redraws, which let you mulligan a card, and movement adds even more depth to the combat. Half the battle is knowing when and how to use the hero cards for maximum effect. The other part is figuring out how best to position each hero.
The learning curve
At first, it can be overwhelming, but Firaxis does a solid job of teaching players the basics, while adding more refinements and layers as the Hunter adds more amenities and more hero abilities to the base. At times, all this constant management feels rote, but the developers try to break up the monotony of base building and progression with side stories and team drama.
That sometimes works, but the biggest problem with Midnight Suns is that it has a difficult time finding the right tone. The voice acting doesn’t help the narrative. Most of the performances are uninspired while the writing itself never strikes on a theme that pulls the jumble of heroes together.
Unlike the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy game, Midnight Suns lacks cohesion. The game has a lot of great pieces to work with, but the parts don’t amplify each other to create a greater whole. The heroes feel more like cool tools for players to use in a new lineup than a cohesive and bonded team. That and the bugs and crashes detract from an otherwise refreshingly good strategy game.
It’s not a game on the level of Insomniac’s Spider-Man series, but it definitely carves a compelling niche and becomes another strong game in Marvel’s expanding universe.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns
3 stars out of four
Platform: PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S
Rating: Teen – Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service