Creative director Jake Solomon explains Firaxis’ ambitious attempt to craft a new kind of superhero experience in Marvel’s Midnight Suns…
Not every superhero saves the day with a smile, and Firaxis’ more strategic spin on the Marvel universe proves it. Taking its name from the nineties comic-book series of a similar name, Marvel’s Midnight Suns forgoes the squeaky-clean idealism you’d expect from characters like, say, Captain America and Mister Fantastic, in favour of a far grittier tone. Choosing to instead focus on the supernatural side of this world comprising countless heroes, after Hydra revives an ancient evil, it combines cinematic battles and in-depth character progression with a new flavour of the tactical gameplay the studio is known for.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to make Midnight Suns play like XCOM with a Marvel coat of paint? “We actually tried that more XCOM-styled gameplay from the start,” creative director Jake Solomon reveals. “But it turns out creating a narrative-driven superhero game is very different from creating a tactical sandbox game like XCOM. Each game is designed to provide a different player fantasy – in XCOM, you have these cadets who can barely aim fighting against a superior foe in a war of attrition. In Marvel’s Midnight Suns, you’re a superhero. The latter means that some mechanics from XCOM quickly start to fall apart. Superheroes don’t take cover, so we have to remove that system. Oh, and Iron Man shouldn’t have to learn how to use his Repulsor Blasts over the course of the game, so we need a way to give you badass moves without letting you spam them.”
This realisation inspired Firaxis to make the switch to a card-based tactics system, one where moves and attacks are determined by how strong your deck is, as opposed to the amount of available cover and unknowable hit percentage chances. However, with this new approach still comes a fair bit of randomisation, and Solomon suggests there’s good reason. “Every tactics game is essentially a puzzle,” he says, “and that puzzle has to be ‘unbeatable’ or else there is always just one ‘right’ way to play. To make it ‘unbeatable’ you need randomisation. Cards are a perfect delivery mechanism for this; all abilities are represented via cards, and because these abilities are dealt to you at random, we can give you those badass abilities [as] there’s no guarantee you can draw them whenever you want.” People already being familiar with cards also serves as a shorthand. “Most people know what a deck is, how cards are shuffled, how they’re dealt to you.”
Every squad member, from Blade to Ghost Rider, has their own set of attack and support cards to deploy, with battles playing out uniquely based on which heroes you’ve decided to bring with you into any given scenario. Certain situations will see all their slots filled by a recognisable Marvel face, but a lot of the time you’ll be using them to support The Hunter, an entirely new player-character Firaxis has created alongside Marvel exclusively for Midnight Suns. Watching them transform and grow throughout the course of the game is intended to better-help players role-play.
“One of our pillars in Midnight Suns is that we want the player to really feel like they’ve stepped into the Marvel Universe and live a life like a superhero, making friends with legends like Iron Man and becoming confidantes to heroes like Magik,” Solomon says, further hinting at how forming character bonds at your base, The Abbey, between battles will have a surprising impact. “By having an original, customisable hero in The Hunter, the player is able to really make this character their own. In regard to the design of The Hunter, this is where our partnership with Marvel really shines. Would it surprise you to learn that Marvel is really, really good at creating heroes? They were essential in helping us make sure that the design, colour-blocking… everything related to The Hunter allows them to stand toe-to-toe with their fellow superheroes.”
Another difference between Midnight Suns and XCOM is that the narrative is totally linear, free of limited-time events and fail-states, in an original story centred on the eponymous group’s attempt to thwart Lilith, Mother of Demons. Firaxis not only made this decision to keep the game approachable for a modern Marvel audience, but to also let players tackle the game at their own pace. There’s no limit to the number of side missions you can play before jumping into those that are story-critical, and the more time you spend back at The Abbey nurturing friendships, the stronger that hero’s passive abilities can become. For turn-based tactics purists, though, the game is set to feature “a ton” of difficulty settings.
So ambitious is Firaxis’ first foray into the Marvel universe, Midnight Suns has suffered several delays, including one as recently as last month. It’s now set to release some time in early 2023. Summing up, Solomon indicates this extra time provided by publisher 2K is being used wisely, letting this tactical, tenacious take on such recognisable heroes live up to its full potential. “Midnight Suns is easily the biggest game we’ve ever made, and this is the first time we’ve tried to make this type of game,” he says. “With such a large game, we have a lot more edges we need to smooth out, and extra time is absolutely essential in making sure we’re doing something at a quality bar we feel proud of. We’re really appreciative of the community for being patient with us.”
There’s no generic “punch” or “kick” ability in any of the decks. In fact, no hero shares the same card, making each a truly unique asset in battle. Cards are broken into three types: Attacks, Skills, and Heroic abilities, as Solomon reveals: “Attacks are straightforward – they do damage. Skills do anything but damage, but offer valuable buffs or debuffs for your team. Heroics are the most powerful and devastating abilities, but cost you a resource called Heroism which you can only build by playing Attack and Skill cards. A lot of the fun in Midnight Suns comes down to building the right deck of abilities, and being able to read and react off the hand you’re dealt with.”
Genre: Turn-based RPG, tactical | Format: PC / PS4 / PS5 / XBO / XB S/X / Switch | Developer: Firaxis Games | Publisher: 2K Release: Q1 2023