Our first look at Marvel’s Midnight Suns unmasks a new side of XCOM developer Firaxis Games
Rumours of a Firaxis Games Marvel title have been circulating since June. Long enough, no doubt, for us all to build up a mental picture of what the XCOM team would do with this licence. Whatever version has been living in your head these past few months, though, know this: Marvel’s Midnight Suns is not that game.
Rather than the XCOM reskin we might have anticipated, Firaxis has created a game that has as much in common with Slay The Spire and Persona as it does with the studio’s previous releases, one that borrows equally from fighting and dating games, and periodically ditches its trademark turn-based approach for realtime adventuring. But the surprises begin before any of that – right from the first time we see the game’s title.
By this point, Marvel might well be the single most profitable word in the English language. The two that follow it, though? They represent one hell of a deep cut. The game is a loose adaptation of Rise Of The Midnight Sons, a 1992 crossover event which launched such titles as Nightstalkers, Spirits Of Vengeance and Darkhold: Pages From The Book Of Sins. A part of comics history, it’s fair to say, that is not especially well-remembered. Except in the two cases that matter here: self-described “Marvel superfans” Jake Solomon and Chad Rocco, now creative director and director of narrative on Midnight Suns.
The pair grew up on the publisher’s monthly output. “We were reading comics at the same time, so our
FIRAXIS’S GAME HAS AS MUCH IN COMMON WITH SLAY THE SPIRE AND PERSONA AS IT DOES WITH THE STUDIO’S PREVIOUS RELEASES
golden memories of comics come from the same era – the late ’80s, early ’90s,” Solomon tells us. “It was all antiheroes and supernatural stuff and, you know, giant hair.” All of which are very much present in the original Rise Of The Midnight Sons, a story about Ghost Rider battling demons and necromancers alongside Blade and Doctor Strange. “For Rocco and me, this was a formative comic-book event.”
This youthful obsession would provide the solution to a problem Solomon and team never expected to have. “We had never considered the idea of making a Marvel game,” he says. “As much as I personally love Marvel, it just doesn’t even cross your mind.” It was actually Marvel that approached Firaxis, just as the team were wrapping up XCOM 2’s War Of The Chosen expansion. (And that fandom, it seems, runs in both directions. “Honestly, you often hear from execs, ‘Oh yeah, I loved that game’, and maybe they do, and maybe they don’t,” Solomon says. “But the very first call I had, there was an executive vice president of Marvel on the line, and he had very specific feedback about the finale mission of XCOM.”) Without a pitch at the ready, Solomon and Rocco were sent “flipping through decades of Marvel stories in our heads”, searching for the right approach.
Of course, Marvel’s standing today is very different to where it was in the early ’90s – and while its recent successes make this project more viable, Solomon says there is a downside. “The problem being that Marvel is everywhere now. Their movies are the biggest movies in the world, and they have been for over a decade. Now they’re making TV shows, and guess what, they’re the biggest TV shows in the world. There are decades of comics, there are theme park attractions, there are cartoons. They’re just everywhere. As a creative team, that’s actually a challenge, because you really have to find a corner of this universe that you can call your own.”
That’s certainly the case with Midnight Suns, which alongside the familiar faces of Tony Stark and Wolverine features heroes such as Nico Minoru and Illyana ‘Magik’ Rasputin. The threat they are being pitted against is Lilith, an adaptation of an obscure Marvel supervillain (and a sort of twice-removed version of the Biblical figure) rarely sighted since her ’90s heyday. When Solomon tells us this is an “untapped” part of Marvel’s back catalogue, he’s not joking. After all, who else would even think to tap it?
The game also seems determined to find its own corner within the tactics genre, a space that Firaxis
“MARVEL IS JUST EVERYWHERE. YOU REALLY HAVE TO FIND A CORNER OF THIS UNIVERSE THAT YOU CAN CALL YOUR OWN”
itself helped to popularise. 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, with its reimagining and streamlining of Julian Gollop’s classic design, opened the floodgates for turn-based tactics games. Into The Breach, Invisible Inc, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle – some of the finest games of the past decade have been made in the mould of XCOM. Which is perhaps why, for Midnight Suns, Firaxis has chosen to sidestep the competition and create a fresh template.
The game did start life as something much closer to its forebears – as Solomon says, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But it quickly became obvious that he needed to root around in his toolbox some more. “Within the first couple of days, when I really started looking at the problem from a design standpoint, I realised, oh, man, this is like nothing we’ve done before. A lot of the tools we’ve used before don’t even make sense here. We’ve got to do something completely new.”
He’s not exaggerating. Gone are the tiled maps; the chance-to-hit dice rolls; even the slightest consideration of taking cover. The camera has left its old position up in the rafters and is instead pulled in so close to the
characters the game could, at times, pass for a thirdperson action game. Maps are a fraction of the size, with heroes able to get from one side to the other in a single bound – internally, they’re referred to as ‘arenas’.
The overall feel, too, couldn’t be much more different. Where XCOM is a game about being constantly on the back foot, facing alien enemies that can steamroller your entire unit in a single turn if you aren’t careful, in Midnight Suns the roles are more or less reversed. Many of the more minor opponents you face don’t even have health bars – after all, Captain America rarely needs a second punch to dispatch some rank-and-file henchman. “It’s not about ‘Can I beat this guy?’” Solomon says. “It’s about ‘How many guys can I beat with this one ability? How can I take out three guys at once?’”
Even with the low-level characters on show in our demo, this is immediately evident. It begins on a rooftop, where seven Hydra goons swarm our three heroes. It’s not nearly enough to present a threat. Blade darts across the battlefield and unloads a pair of submachine guns into them, taking down the first enemy so quickly it doesn’t even register as an action, then chains sword strikes between two more, before turning his guns on an explosive barrel. This sets up Captain Marvel to send out a photon beam that bisects the entire map, knocking out another couple of minions and leaving their armoured leader with a tiny shred of health.
The game is constantly throwing reinforcements into battle, because, as Solomon puts it, “we cannot keep the player fed with bad guys”. Hydra’s numbers immediately swell once more, but it doesn’t matter. By the end of a second turn, they’re all eliminated. “Play fast” is a mantra we hear a lot during our conversation, and for good reason. Midnight Suns’ more complicated narrative missions can take a little longer, but your standard encounter should last ten minutes or less – a fraction of the time spent on a single XCOM battle.
This new approach to turn-based tactics took a long time to come together, Solomon admits. “I don’t want to be dishonest and say, like, ‘Oh, it was so exciting.’ Because actually it was terrifying for the first couple of years.” After being offered the Marvel licence, Firaxis had to do what many of us have done since the rumours first emerged: try to imagine how it might overlap with the kind of strategy games in which the studio specialises.
That process began in the same place as Enemy Unknown’s design did all those years before: on the tabletop. “We had all these old Heroclix figures and we got a map of a helicarrier or a New York alleyway or something,” Solomon explains. As the team started to hash out a game with the miniatures in front of them, the first idea that emerged was Midnight Suns’ environmental interactions. You might not be using your surroundings for cover any more, but that doesn’t mean things within the environment are useless. Heroes can leap off the
bonnets of cars, kick or throw chunks of scenery at enemies, and bring traps crashing down on their heads. This interaction all goes hand in hand with what the Firaxis devs refer to as “combat geometry” – Into The Breach-style knockback effects and directional attacks that reward smart positioning.
Otherwise, though, the physical prototype they ended up with worked an awful lot like XCOM. “OK, if you’re Captain America, you can do these four abilities,” Solomon says. “It was very similar to other tactics games, and it was OK, but it wasn’t that great.” The turning point in the design wouldn’t arrive for another year, with the simple addition of a deck of cards.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t sound as though this idea came out of the physical prototype at all. Less surprising is the game that did inspire it. “It really came out of me playing Slay The Spire. As a designer, you’re always thinking: ‘How can I use this? I’m in a terrifying situation right now, the thing I’m working on is not very fun.’ You’re grasping at straws,” Solomon says. “And so I was playing that and I thought, ‘Man, could I make this work?’”
And so Midnight Suns became a deckbuilder, of sorts. Each hero goes into battle with eight cards to their name, a selection of character-specific abilities that can be tweaked between missions as the card pool grows. It’s the usual mix of direct attacks and non-offensive skills, with a lot of familiar keywords and concepts: taunt, block, bleed. “No ability just does damage,” Solomon says. “That’s one of the big things we want to do design-wise. Every ability should have at least some way that requires you to think about how best to use them.”
Each hero’s deck can be pushed in multiple possible directions – Captain America can be “a real tank”, using that shield for its originally intended purpose, or wielding it as a weapon to become “an all-out brawler” – but they’re also intended to feel distinct from one another. There are a dozen heroes in total and, we’re promised, a dozen different twists on card design. Ghost Rider’s attacks hit harder than most, but at a cost: “they all inflict damage to Ghost Rider too”. Nico Minoru, a young witch, can’t target her attacks at any particular enemy, requiring some careful management of the order in which cards are played. Iron Man’s cards get better each time they’re redrawn, “because it makes sense for him spiritually”. Playing two Captain Marvel cards in turn allows her to go ‘binary’ (a nod to the Chris Claremont X-Men comics of the ’80s, another major influence from Solomon’s childhood), piling on the block and doubling damage – at least, until that block is chipped away, an eventuality made more likely by the fact that most of Danvers’ abilities come marked with ‘taunt’, drawing attacks in her direction.
With three heroes on the field at one time, it feels a little like some strange Slay The Spire mod that lets the Ironclad, Silent and Watcher characters fight alongside one another. If that all sounds a bit too freeform, be assured that there are some limits on your power: you can only play three cards and only move one hero once per turn. Both restrictions, though, can be circumvented in multiple ways. Blade specialises in ‘quick’ cards, which refund their play cost if that attack eliminates the target, while most melee attacks seem to close the gap automatically – the daywalker will never be left swinging his namesake at dead air.
Playing cards also builds up a secondary resource, known as Heroism, which can then be spent to play powerful Heroic cards, paired with big showstopper animations. We see Ghost Rider unleashing the Penance Stare; Magik bringing down a portal to swallow a soldier whole; Wolverine somehow setting fire to his claws. These are your reward for smart play – and the pride and joy of art director Dennis Moellers, who drew inspiration from some unexpected sources.
Unlike his teammates, Moellers was never a Marvel fan, but he had been studying the “dynamic poses” within superhero comics for years, before he had any idea a Marvel game was – forgive us – on the cards. Also on his curriculum: the likes of Attack On Titan and Demon Slayer, anime series adapted from manga, and the way they “translate these amazing comic-book poses into animation”. You can see it in these Heroic attack animations, the way they seem to jump between keyframes as if skimming across comics panels then linger, in slow motion, on images you could imagine filling a whole colourful page: Captain Marvel delivering an uppercut with glowing fists, Doctor Strange opening the Eye Of Agamotto, Nico sprouting wings of black energy.
“Another art inspiration, other than the comics and anime I was talking about, was Dragon Ball FighterZ,” Moellers says. “There are some moves where they zoom out to show the entire planet and you can see this explosion going off. Studying that, and Street Fighter – new and old – that was a big influence.” Suddenly it all clicks into place. Heroism is, in part, a mana system of the kind we’ve seen before in many card games, but it’s also a special meter, like Street Fighter’s Super Combo Gauge. Solomon underlines it for us: “We view ourselves as having a lot in common, not with the games we’ve done before, but with fighting games, oddly enough. The animations are inspired by fighting games – they’re very over-the-top. The arenas are about: how do you position yourself for these attacks?”
Making a “tactical fighting game”, as the team call it, wasn’t necessarily the intent, but rather the natural
HEROISM IS, IN PART, A MANA SYSTEM OF THE KIND WE’VE SEEN BEFORE IN MANY CARD GAMES, BUT IT’S ALSO A SPECIAL METER
outcome of a design mantra which Solomon repeats multiple times during our conversation: “You’ve always got to think about the fantasy.” In this case, first and foremost, that means helping the player feel like a superhero, “one of the most powerful people on Earth”, even before they’ve levelled up their abilities. “In our game, Iron Man doesn’t need to learn how to become Iron Man – he should be awesome from the very first time you play,” Solomon explains. The cards and Heroism meter are what make this possible. “Because the player can’t predict what is in their hand from turn to turn, that means we can give them extremely powerful abilities right from the start of the game.”
This, though, is just one of two player fantasies that Solomon and team are hoping to fulfil with Midnight Suns. “The other is living alongside the legends. What is it like to not just fight alongside these heroes that you know and love, but to live alongside them, and see how they interact with each other?” This is a huge part of, in particular, the
X-Men comics of the era that inspired Solomon and Rocco. “I always loved that in the comics,” Rocco says. “Those moments where you’d see the heroes chilling, and just talking about something in their lives.”
So, between missions, Midnight Suns offers an opportunity for a spot of downtime. At the team’s headquarters, a magical mansion known as The Abbey, you’ll be able to hang out by the pool with your fellow heroes, à la Jim Lee’s X-Men. (“Jake’s excitement level for the swimsuits is on par with some of our best work,” Moellers adds.) You can also work out with Captain Marvel, play videogames with Ghost Rider, or meditate with Doctor Strange. And our personal favourite: “You can hold a book club with Blade.”
This particular part of the game is one we’re still wrapping our head around. There’s a touch of XCOM’s base building here, clearly: picking through the rewards of your most recent outing, choosing between research projects that will take a set number of days to complete, switching out cards in your decks. But what it resembles more than anything else is an RPG, something akin to the Normandy sequences in Mass Effect.
While you’re back at the Abbey, Midnight Suns fully embraces that thirdperson camera view, pulling it in tight over the shoulder and giving you realtime control over one character. You can approach other heroes for a chat, take part in a spot of combat training, or just wander the grounds, which offer snippets of backstory, optional challenges and even unlockable abilities that will open up fresh areas for exploration.
It’s worth noting that the character you control here isn’t one borrowed from Marvel lore. They’re the Hunter, a new hero created for this game and thoroughly customisable by the player. “When you’re playing this game, you are not Iron Man, right? You’re not Blade. You’re not Doctor Strange. I want the player to feel like you’re you,” Solomon says. At the same time, though, they have to stand alongside those icons, whose visuals and characters “have been worked and reworked over decades”.
While you’ll be able to choose how the Hunter looks, they have a few distinct features: a pair of crossed swords over the shoulders, a collar around the neck, a white-andblack colour scheme that encompasses their costume and powers alike. The Hunter’s abilities are broken up into ‘light’ and ‘dark’, focusing on support and offensive capabilities respectively. Combining mystical energies with physical weaponry, Solomon says “the closest
AT THE TEAM’S HEADQUARTERS, A MAGICAL MANSION KNOWN AS THE ABBEY, YOU’LL BE ABLE TO HANG OUT BY THE POOL
analogue would be Thor” – who, notably, is not on the game’s roster. Still, Firaxis’s aim was to “make sure they’re not just some facsimile of some other superhero, making sure they don’t come off as generic”. On this front, the jury is still very much out – but then, if the Hunter is meant to be the player’s proxy, it’s worth remembering that we’ve yet to see our Hunter.
Then there’s the question of a narrative hook. “Almost every Marvel hero has issues they’re working through, they’re all trying to find where they belong in the world – and the Hunter is no different,” Rocco says. They’re the child of Lilith, who lost their life repelling the last demonic invasion, centuries before, now resurrected to do it again. “The warrior out of time, raised as a weapon against their own mother, brought back from the dead.”
The other thing Marvel heroes tend to have – arguably the single secret ingredient of the brand’s cinematic success – is a characterful quirk, something that defines their role within the larger group. Think of Iron Man’s relentless quips, Star-Lord’s easily bruised ego, SpiderMan’s puppylike earnestness. The Hunter, essentially, is a bit of a square. The impression we get is of a perpetual straight man, someone who takes those trademark jokes and references very literally. It’s not their fault – they were last alive in the 1600s, after all, and have only known conflict. “Over the course of our game, the heroes actually pull the Hunter out of that,” Solomon says.
Trained to be a weapon, needs to learn to be a person – it’s a good hook, with just enough blue sky between it and the nearest comparable Marvel character. And it sounds as though this will be the backbone of Midnight Suns’ story. It’s certainly the part that interests us, much more than all the usual business with a worldending threat. The Abbey sections are a chance to get to know Midnight Suns’ cast, who have been written to be distinct from the incarnations we already know – another example of the game trying to carve out its own niche amid the Marvel oversaturation.
The snippets of Tony Stark we see, with a neatly trimmed pencil moustache rather than the Downey goatee and a voice performance that has a touch of old radio drama, suggest more of an ‘early-20th-century captain of industry’ take on the character. He’s paired with Doctor Strange in the Abbey’s forge, handling upgrades and unlocks, a little like XCOM’s Drs Shen and Vahlen. “They’re our odd couple,” Solomon says, describing this version of Strange as “sort of fussy”.
It’s not just the Hunter – and thus you – getting to know these heroes. The roster is divided in two, between the well-established Avengers and the younger Midnight Suns team, who specialise in supernatural affairs. “To the Suns, the Avengers are the old guard, they’re trying to come in and take over,” Rocco says. “There’s tension right from the start when the heroes show up – there’s this young-versus-old, ‘OK Boomer’ vibe that will carry across the entire game. It’s a big theme for us.”
This kind of interpersonal soap-opera drama seems to get the team just as excited as the tactical combat. The Abbey is a major part of the game, at least as much as the strategy layer of the XCOM games ever was – and seems to have just as much impact on what you’re taking into battles. Those hangouts we mentioned are an opportunity to level up your relationship with each individual hero, and will reward you with everything from passive boosts to combo cards that’ll be added to your deck if both heroes are present.
To maximise the amount of friendship squeezed out of each interaction, you’ll need to pick the right location or activity, and say the right things in dialogue. You can even buy them gifts. “I want to make it very clear, it’s not romancing,” Solomon tells us. “Don’t get me in trouble!” Nonetheless, there’s a definite influence from dating games, along with other titles that thread character development between outings. Solomon namechecks the Persona and Mass Effect games, as well as the game that leapt to mind for us, with its blend of tactical battles and social elements, Fire Emblem: Three Houses. “There are a lot of games, I think, [that] do awesome stuff with relationships that we have all played and been impressed by.”
This game is the natural evolution, in some ways, of War Of The Chosen’s experiments with character bonds, which reward you for taking certain pairings of soldiers on missions together – and make it all the more heartbreaking when one of them is lost in battle. There are shards of XCOM design everywhere, if you squint, but Midnight Suns is certainly not the game we’d have expected Firaxis to make next.
Put aside the Marvel of it all – it’s this element of surprise that has us most excited. Firaxis has rolled up a disparate selection of influences into something that doesn’t quite resemble any of them. Midnight Suns isn’t exactly a card game, nor is it a relationship-building RPG or the turn-based answer to Street Fighter. It’s certainly not a straightforward tactics game in the mould of XCOM or the wave of games that iterated on its ideas, though it does borrow from them in places.
In all its strangeness, Midnight Suns looks like it could actually be something new. Can Firaxis pull off the same trick twice? Could Solomon and team have struck on the formula for the next wave of brilliant imitators? Will all these ideas even manage to gel into something that feels like a coherent piece of design? That all remains to be seen. But we’re certainly ready to be surprised.
“ALMOST EVERY MARVEL HERO IS TRYING TO FIND WHERE THEY BELONG IN THE WORLD, AND THE HUNTER IS NO DIFFERENT”