Marvel’s Midnight Suns Is a 2005 Masterpiece Stuck In 2022

Games

Marvel’s Midnight Suns is one of the biggest surprises of 2022. Marvel’s Midnight Suns is also one of my personal favorite games of 2022. Those are both big statements, but as we reach the end of 2022, it’s hard to not contextualize every piece of entertainment within the scope of the year. 

Yet, there are times when Midnight Suns doesn’t even feel like a 2022 game. It feels like a game from a bygone era in ways that often infuriated and delighted me in equal measure.

That’s the thing about Midnight Suns. It’s the kind of game that makes us confront the current state of gaming, what we’ve lost along the way, and how certain innovations and improvements have become irreplaceable standards that just might be more valuable than we’d sometimes like to believe.

Midnight Suns Controversial Card-Based Combat Is The Game’s Best Feature

Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a card-based strategy game from Firaxis Games: a studio you may best know for their work on the recent XCOM titles. I can’t tell you how much confusion that basic concept has caused so far. There are times when it feels like half of the gamers out there come into Midnight Suns expecting an XCOM experience and the other half come into Midnight Suns expecting a Hearthstone-like CCG. Well, Midnight Suns is neither of those things. 

The average Midnight Suns battle sees you assemble a team of Marvel heroes (mostly) and build a deck of various ability cards. Some of those cards deal damage, some trigger special abilities, and some allow you to support your teammates or work towards incredibly powerful attacks. They’re basically card versions of standard strategy commands, though the fact you can only bring so many of those abilities into battle soon creates some fascinating conundrums.

See, you’re randomly dealt a hand of six of those ability cards at the start of your turn. Each turn allows you to play three of those cards, shuffle and redraw two of them, and occasionally use incredibly powerful abilities that you slowly power up throughout the course of combat. You can also move your heroes across limited distances in order to put them in better attack/defensive positions and utilize environmental objects for additional damage opportunities. Some cards/strategies allow you to pull off additional maneuvers, but those are the basics. You’re ultimately looking to play your hand to the best of your ability and defeat increasingly powerful foes across various, arena-like environments.

While I was among those who wondered if developer Firaxis wouldn’t be better off just making a Marvel-based XCOM game and calling it a day, I have to say that Midnight Suns‘ card-based combat is a simply brilliant breath of fresh air that I didn’t know I needed.

Yes, a Marvel-based XCOM game would have probably worked from a purely mechanical perspective. The XCOM gameplay formula is incredible, so you can reskin it any way you want, and it tends to be pretty fun (just look at Mario+Rabbids). Thematically, though, I agree with Midnight Suns‘ creative director Jake Solomon who insisted that an XCOM game starring superheroes wouldn’t have made much sense. You can’t permanently kill off Spider-Man, and it’s not fun to watch Captain America whiff on a 99% punch because an invisible dice roll said he should. 

Midnight Suns also reminds us that card-based games only have a bad name these days because of predatory pack practices. A well-done card-based/deckbuilding game often combines the best elements of short-and-long-term strategy. The most demanding of those games require you to build a deck with as many options as possible and then make the most of the answers that you happen to draw throughout the course of the game.

Well, Midnight Suns is that kind of game. It’s not as punishing as XCOM (though it is consistently challenging, especially during the later stages), but even simple battles require you to come in prepared and think on your feet. The only thing better than pulling off the perfect deck and team strategy is rescuing such a strategy from defeat when things inevitably go wrong. The randomness of which cards you draw is never so punishing that you feel entirely beholden to it, but it’s just chaotic enough to ensure that you really need to be aware of every possibility across the course of a battle rather than simply react to your circumstances and play it safe. It’s an exhilarating strategy experience.

Fun factor aside, the best thing about Midnight Suns’ combat is how different it is. Yes, we’ve seen similar card-based systems before (Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, Metal Gear Acid, etc.), but such games are quite rare in the grand scope of gaming history. Again, the quickest path to Midnight Suns‘ success would have been to make it “XCOM with superheroes.” Instead, Firaxis made the bold decision to ignore the most obvious path and use a unique opportunity as the chance to try something different that felt right for the hand they were dealt.

That’s where Midnight Suns’ best “2005” qualities come into play. The game is representative of a time when major studios like Square Enix, Rockstar Games, and Ubisoft regularly produced a series of smaller titles that gleefully abandoned franchise formulas in pursuit of something different. Mind you, those experiments didn’t always work. It would be foolish to pretend they did. Yet, there’s a reason why so many of those games end up on our “games ahead of their time” articles. The ways those games thought outside of the box (if only just a little bit) were either not appreciated in their time or were simply not perfected the first time around in the ways that more established design formulas were.

Midnight Suns often feels like the modern equivalent of those games. The joy its developers experienced crafting nearly every mechanic, scenario, and setpiece is so palpable that even this game’s mechanical creeks and groans start to sound like a symphony. It’s familiar enough to draw you in yet different enough to constantly surprise you and keep you engaged in what will happen next. 

Yet, like so many of those legacy experimental titles from acclaimed developers, some of Midnight Suns’ biggest swings result in hits while others leave the game flat on its face. 

Midnight Suns Relationship System Shows the Difference Between Great Ideas and Great Execution

When you’re not participating in card-based battles, you’ll spend most of your Midnight Suns adventures getting to know the game’s roster of Marvel characters a little better. Yes, Midnight Suns allows you to form a relationship with some of the most powerful figures in the Marvel universe. No, it doesn’t allow you to romance them. Sorry.

The heart of that relationship system is the Abbey: a hub-like area where our heroes gather between missions. There, you can choose to hang out with different characters, visit their favorite spots, train together, and even give them gifts. By choosing the right dialog options, exploring every action, and giving the right gifts, you can raise your friendship level with that character. Raise your friendship level high enough, and you’ll unlock special moves, unique story sequences, and various cosmetic items. 

While the XCOM games utilized a hub-like area, Midnight Suns’ friendship system is closer to something we expect to see in a BioWare RPG. At its best, that’s exactly how it functions. In lieu of a permadeath system, the ability to get to know your teammates a little ideally adds a little weight to every battle.

More importantly, the interactions themselves (and the stories they open up) can be genuinely fascinating. Hanging out in the garage with Ghost Rider or by the pool with Captain Marvel can often lead to somewhat surprising moments and revelations that make the detours worthwhile for reasons beyond the obviously beneficial rewards. Even better are the various little sidequests spread throughout the Abbey that almost feel like they could have been the star of an entirely different action/adventure game. Midnight Suns‘ overarching story is solid, but the game’s best storytelling moments are often tucked away somewhere in the Abbey.

Conceptually, I love the game’s relationship features. It not only showcases the developers’ understanding of the Marvel universe, the characters in it, and their backgrounds/lore, but again, it’s a feature that just feels like it belongs in a game like this. Firaxis could have easily offered a toned-down version of XCOM’s hub or simply offered nothing at all. Instead, they bothered to step outside of their comfort zone in order to explore a complex storytelling and worldbuilding concept that touches upon nearly every other aspect of the experience and uses these characters for more than combat.

If the best thing about Midnight Suns is Firaxis’ willingness to dive so deeply into something different, then the game’s relationship system has to be the most notable example of their willingness to be a little bolder than what the assignment called for. Unfortunately, it’s also a reminder that ambition can sometimes be more admirable than productive.

One of the big problems with Midnight Suns’ relationship system is actually the game’s protagonist: The Hunter (also known as simply “Hunter”). See, The Hunter is a player-created, customizable character designed to serve as a kind of player surrogate. On paper, that’s a great idea. So many of the game’s established characters have a relationship with each other, so why not introduce a character that naturally has to get to know everyone a little better?

In practice, though, The Hunter comes across as this strange blend of the suddenly most important character in the universe and a bit of a blank slate. Do you know when you used to play with your toys and you would insert yourself as a kind of overseer that all the toys had to look up to and generally be fascinated with? That’s kind of how The Hunter comes across. 

That wish-fulfillment approach is admirable, but it’s not especially satisfying to feel like both the center of the story and the least developed person in that same narrative. More importantly, your ability to interact with the established Marvel heroes as The Hunter quickly proves to be somewhat limited. 

I joked about not being able to romance any of the Marvel heroes in the game, but that actually touches upon the bigger problem of not really being able to do much of anything with the characters you’re trying to form a relationship with. All the basic ideas of a BioWare-like relationship system are in place, but those games often succeed in making you feel like you would fight and die for the people in your party. Your relationships in this game are much simpler than all of that. The mechanics are there, but the heart is sometimes missing.

The game tries to address that issue via a Light/Dark morality system that is more complicated than “good/evil.” Basically, “Light” interactions are a little more encouraging whereas “Dark” interactions are a little more direct. Furthering your relationship with certain characters requires you to know when to use each type of interaction. Other times, you have the option of choosing one path or the other in order to unlock different abilities/sequences.

That system does occasionally lead to interesting mechanical choices (do you opt for a light or dark ability?), but too few interactions require you to carefully consider those options for anything deeper than potential unlocks. Actually, there were so many times when I was surprised by what my character actually said when I chose certain dialog options that I began to base many of my dialog choices on which options I felt would lead to my desired unlocks rather than what I would want my character to say in that situation.

Again, some of the game’s individual interactions and mini-stories end up being entertaining enough in their own right, but the journey through them begins to feel more like an obligation than it should. You can attribute some of those struggles to a studio trying a navigate such a complicated form of storytelling, and you can even attribute some of them to the natural limitations of working with such established characters. Unfortunately, too many of the relationship system’s problems can be attributed to the biggest reasons why Midnight Suns feels like the product of a different era.

Midnight Suns Writing and Presentation Can’t Match the Quality Of Its Gameplay

There’s no beating around the bush regarding Midnight Suns‘ presentation problems. The game struggles to reach Triple-A (or Double-A) standards in that area, especially when it comes to the writing.

To be blunt, Midnight Suns is filled with bad one-liners and other forgettable bits of dialog. While some characters are worse than others in that department (Iron Man’s constantly quippy dialog is the biggest offender by some distance), the fact of the matter is that too many characters talk too much without ever having anything to say. The joking characters are trying too hard for laughs, and the serious characters feel closer to bullet point collections of personality traits than actual people.

I’ve heard some say that some of the game’s characters feel like cheap versions of their MCU counterparts. While I understand that viewpoint (especially when it comes to Tony Stark/Iron Man), I don’t think that’s the real issue. After all. there are numerous characters in this game without MCU counterparts who suffer from some of the same issues. 

I also don’t think this is a problem of the creative team not understanding the assignment. Indeed, the game is filled with incredible little character moments that showcase the team’s love, understanding, and appreciation of this universe. The same is true of the game’s visuals. They’re a bit weak from a technical perspective (this game is certainly not a looker outside of some neat particle effects), but there are so many little environmental storytelling details or flourishes that clearly showcase the artistic talent that went into the game’s visual design. 

Instead, the whole presentation package really does feel like it was transported directly from the mid-2000s or some other time when the standards were just different. A game like X-Men Legends didn’t feature the best writing, acting, or visuals, but the novelty of its concept, and the excellent core gameplay, made it easy to look past all those things. For that matter, you really only notice those issues when you go back and play that game now. At the time, all of those things felt standard or better.

The problem is that we’re not looking at Midnight Suns in retrospect. This is a 2022 game that feels somewhat outdated in some pretty key presentation areas that hurt the overall package. While I will almost always champion novel ideas and great gameplay over stellar visuals and other cinematic elements, it’s incredibly difficult to play this game and not eventually get at least a little frustrated with the non-combat shortcomings and how “cheap” it can sometimes feel. If anything, a game like Midnight Suns highlights how spoiled we are for excellent dialog, performances, and raw visuals in modern gaming when exceptional examples of those same qualities used to be comparatively rare.

I want to endlessly praise Marvel’s Midnight Suns. I want to tell you how much fun it is, how engaging its combat is, and how the game feels like such a breath of fresh air at a time when franchise formulas feel like religions. We need more incredibly talented studios like Firaxis parlaying their success into big swings like Midnight Suns. That’s how the industry will move forward, and that’s how we as gamers will discover more games besides the ones we’re pretty sure we’re going to love going into them.

Much like recommending a YouTube video or song to someone only to watch them agonize as they struggle through it, though, I know that Midnight Suns’ presentation problems, initial adjustment period, and half-formed ideas will scare off a lot of people. I can’t say I blame those who walk away from this game calling it a bit outdated. Many of its biggest weaknesses are the very things that have come to define the Triple-A gaming scene. 

Yet, you’ll forgive me for falling at least a little bit in love with a game that feels like some surprising title I once spent a memorable weekend with after taking a chance on blindly renting it from a Blockbuster. I believe there is enough of an audience for this game to eventually justify what will almost certainly be a superior sequel. I just hope they find a way to eventually try it for themselves now that most of the Blockbusters are all gone.

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