Marvel may be the name up top, but my first few hours with Midnight Suns has proved a brisk reminder of everything I love about Firaxis games – particularly the part of Firaxis that makes XCOM. For one thing, there’s tactical depth on the battlefield, which leaves you with plenty of options for getting out of jams, or accidentally getting into them. There are upgrade choices that leave you frowning as you pick and choose, not between what you desperately want, but between what you least care to be without. And then of course there’s a certain sense of wisdom in all things, and a belief that wisdom is in easy supply. This is a team that is not afraid to bust out a word like “commensurate” in a tool tip.
Something else too: XCOM games are surprisingly rich doll’s houses. You battle aliens, sure, but then you peg it back home and decide which rooms to build and where best to place your bedroom. Midnight Suns is an excellent doll’s house, by the looks of it. In the last hour I fought Hydra guards and chatted to Tony Stark. At one point, I actually punched a helicopter. But I also made it back home and spent a few happy moments deciding where to put a book case and picking out the best bedside table.
The reason for this doll’s house stuff is because ancient magic and evil has returned to the world in Midnight Suns, and a bunch of heroes have retreated to The Abbey, a rambling manor, where they can regroup, pick up new members, train up and all that sort of jazz. It’s the XCOM base, in a way: you get to choose what to spend resources on and what to research next. But it’s different too. You are asked to build up friendships with other heroes – a movie night here, an ice cream there. I am making up that last part, because so far I’ve only done the movie night. No matter: you build bonds to unlock new combat synergies between people.
You do this because while the house is riddled with famous Marvel names, and you get to control people like Iron Man and Captain Marvel on the battlefield, for the Abbey sections, and in the story generally, you play as a new Marvel hero, constructed just for this game. I keep forgetting their name, which is not the greatest sign – it’s The Hunter; just looked it up – but the promise is still very rich: kit out your own hero, from their face and haircut down to their powers and the colour of their hero boots. The story campaign even allows you to take them down a light or dark path, both, this being Firaxis, with their own rewards.
On the battlefield the game is also XCOM, but different. Kind of. At first, I felt rather unmoored. Where was the cover? Where was the movement radius and what should I be ducking behind? In truth, of course, superheroes don’t duck. Although combat is turn-based, and very much has the flow of an XCOM encounter, it’s quite different in the details.
For one thing, it’s card-based. Instead of two action points per unit, each turn sees you playing three cards from your hand, regardless, I think, of the size of your team, which tends to be quite small so far anyway. Cards might be an attack – an Iron Man-palm blast or a Dr Strange knockback – or they might do something neat, like create a lava-ish hole in the ground for other heroes to knock people into. I’m still learning this stuff, but one thing is key: some cards give you Heroism points, and some cards require Heroism points in order to play. But you can also use Heroism points for things outside of the cards, which means that actually you can do more than three things per turn if you manage your resources.
So maybe it’s your turn and you play three cards – two attacks, and then you use a limited pool of redeals to get yourself a heal card. But you still have a baddie left to take out. Alongside playing cards, you can also move one of your heroes once per turn – so maybe you move Captain Marvel over to a sofa, and then you use some Heroism points to punt the sofa into a bunch of Hydra guards.
There is such obvious richness in this stuff even in the early stages of the game. Despite the lack of a grid, I’m already learning that placement is key here. Knockbacks allow you to pick up extra KOs, and you also want your heroes to generally be near the interactive doodads like sofas, scattered around each level. Target prioritisation is also key, as some enemies have huge health bars, while others will keel over once they’ve been damaged even slightly – although they can still damage you pretty significantly before that.
Then there are cards that do cool things, like quick action cards, which give you a card play back if you manage to kill someone with them. One of my biggest surprises of the first few hours of play is not how much I like picking out bookshelves, and not how much Firaxis’ Tony Stark sounds like the Chopped presenter Ted Allen. It’s how much of an actual card game this is. It’s not XCOM, but your weapons menu is cards. You get dealt a hand and a lot of the cards affect the other cards – they shuffle or redeal, or power up certain cards.
All of this before you get to the heroes themselves and those synergies you inch towards one movie night at a time. Reader: so far I am loving this. The flow is pure XCOM, but the details are new and delightful. It’s as quippy and colourful as a Marvel comic, and as dense and interconnected as the best that Firaxis can offer. I can’t wait to play more.