Wednesday 28 December 2022

Midnight Suns

Lilith, a powerful supernatural force of evil, has seized control of Hydra and launched a series of attacks across the Earth. The world's mightiest heroes, the Avengers, have failed to stop her, so reluctantly agree to join forces with a superhero group specialising in the occult, the Midnight Suns. The two groups, who do not get on well, still find themselves outmatched, so have to summon back to life the powerful hero who defeated Lilith three centuries ago, the Hunter. The combined group must now wage a lengthy campaign to reverse Hydra's gains, defeat Lilith's champions and then take the fight to her before she can summon one of the dark elder gods to destroy the world once and for all.

Midnight Suns has seen varying levels of hype during its development period. Initially teased as "Marvel XCOM," even made by the same team as XCOM and XCOM 2, it was then revealed the game would use card mechanics for its battles. This made people think of mobile games and write this title off immediately (especially as a solid Marvel card game on mobile, Marvel Snap, had become popular). Then, as the game got closer to release, it was revealed that the game would have a heavily Japanese RPG/tactics-inspired layer as well, which reignited interest amongst some gamers but turned others off even more.

Now it's here, Midnight Suns emerges as a game which draws upon a ton of other games and genres for inspiration. Elements from XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics, plain old regular Final FantasyFire Emblem, Valkyria Chronicles, Persona, any open-world Ubisoft game of your choice and Mass Effect combine with the Marvel universe in ways that initially feels messy and unfocused, but over time coheres into a strong strategy title that makes for a generally great gaming experience, albeit one that feels like it needed a better, more experienced writing and RPG team on board to bring everything together. Still, if it's a messy collision of influences at times, it's never a dull or uninteresting one.

Once you get past the opening cinematics and early, slightly tedious, tutorial-like battles (and this section of the game does drag on interminably), the game decides to get going. To start with, you create your character, the Hunter. In grand old Mass Effect style, you choose the Hunter's appearance, gender and voice, as well as their combat abilities. The Hunter is your avatar and you generally spend almost the entire game playing as them, apart from the occasional side-mission where you can send three other heroes whilst keeping your main character back at base. It's an interesting approach, and initially has the reek of fanfiction about it, as your avatar chats with Dr. Strange or Iron Man about their backstories and they tell you how awesome you are. But it does end up working reasonably well, and it allows the game to unfold with some tension about it. If you were playing Scarlet Witch or Spider-Man, it's probably safe to assume that you're safe from death or mutilation, but with an original character that's not such a given.

The game unfolds in a series of days, each consisting of three segments. These are organised from the Abbey, a dimensionally-sealed pocket area of Massachusetts that serves as your headquarters (the equivalent of XCOM Headquarters in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within or, er, the carrier Avenger in XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen). In the morning, you can engage in research, build new facilities, organise intelligence, and train your troops. Amusingly, these are handled by familiar Marvel faces. Dr. Strange and Iron Man handle your magical and technological research, respectively, whilst Captain Marvel takes command of the strategic centre. Blade runs the barracks and helps your troops train between battles. These activities cost resources (but sometimes generate more), which you also gain from finding treasure chests around the Abbey grounds or as rewards from missions.

In both the morning and evening segments, you can also explore the Abbey grounds, which I was really not expecting. The Abbey itself is not massive, but the grounds are impressively sprawling and, like any Ubisoft game-of-your-choice, are packed with collectibles, crafting ingredients and secrets. Exploring the grounds pushes forward the storyline, grants the Hunter new powers and abilities, and gives you more resources to use in battles. It should be noted that constantly exploring the grounds is not really necessary, and you only really need to spend maybe 5 days or so out of the 50+ it'll likely take to complete the game on doing so. 

This section of the game is also where the game's team-building section kicks in. The Hunter has a relationship meter with every other character in the game and their opinion of you can rise and fall based on your actions and your words. The characters are also different in their approaches and attitudes: a gung-ho, fist-pumping, inspiring-speech approach usually impresses the Avengers but alienates the Midnight Suns, for whom a much more cynical, downbeat attitude with a dark sense of humour is more appropriate. Borrowing much from how Mass Effect's character relationships work, and more than a few JRPGs (Persona is probably the most obvious influence), this is probably the most divisive part of the game, since it sucks up quite a lot of the time you spend at the Abbey.

To build up relationships, you have a lot of options. You can visit hang-outs around the Abbey grounds and engage in activities like bird-watching, painting, star-gazing, fishing, playing video games, watching movies and having a picnic. I can tell you right now there is nothing weirder you've ever experienced in a video game than taking Blade fishing or practicing meditation in a forest glade with Wolverine. However, this then goes a lot further, through the use of a Microsoft Teams-like app for coordinating work and meetings with the team (!) and the group also forming social clubs (!) to chill out with. A regular motor workshop class with Ghost Rider, Iron Man and Spider-Man tinkering with the Hell Ride kind of makes sense, but the regular book club with Blade, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wolverine doesn't really (although some of the dialogue indicates that the characters are also aware of the non-sequitur nature of it all but are rolling with it). There's also a "magic club" with Dr. Strange, Magick, Nico and Scarlet Witch which is hugely important to unlocking your backstory, but the club has the unfortunate name of "Emo Kids," which definitely feels like a 40-year-old guy named it in a vain effort to be cool and down with the youngsters.

The cumulative mass of this is a game where the world is in imminent danger of mass destruction, but your team is also spending a lot of time bird-watching or arguing over thematic interpretations of Kree literature. Anyone who's played a JRPG or an RPG at all (or a modern open-world game), where this kind of thing happens a lot, will probably just roll with it, but it can dissipate the tension and is not helped by the writing, which is mostly functional and effective (and occasionally awful) rather than sparkling. Mostly solid voice acting does help sell the experience.

In the middle of the day, you get to go to the cool holographic table and select your next mission. You usually have multiple missions available, consisting of the next story mission (which usually requires certain characters to be available) and a ton of side-missions. These mostly randomly-generated side-missions vary in difficulty and may or may not require certain heroes to be present. They are mostly useful in grinding experience, boosting relationships and providing resources.

And then, finally, you get to fight! The battles are where the game simultaneously recalls XCOM the most and also where it rejects it the most. Like XCOM, the battles take place on 3D battlefields strewn with obstacles and scenery, with a certain number of enemy forces to fight. Also like XCOM you have varying objectives, from rescuing civilians to eliminating every enemy to stealing enemy tech to defending an asset. Unlike XCOM, the battlefields are usually relatively small, occupy only one level, are completely lacking in any kind of usable cover and also lacking any movement grid. Battles unfold in turns, with all your heroes going first and then the enemy (the interleaved turn experiment of XCOM: Chimera Squad seems to have been rejected here).

On each turn you can use 3 abilities from any of your characters. So one character can attack three times, or one character can attack twice and another once, and so on. These abilities are represented by cards, falling into different categories: regular attacks which do not have any prerequisites and generate Heroism points; special attacks which burn up Heroism points but usually hit faster; and support/defending abilities which can either generate or use Heroism. However, building up Heroism also opens up additional environmental attacks. If you have points left over after playing your cards, you can use these to yank a streetlamp down onto an enemy's head, detonate an explosive barrel or throw a box at an enemy's head. You can also use your one solitary movement point (!) to either position a hero to use an environmental attack in a more advantageous way or carry out a limited melee attack. The game also makes critical use of "knockbacks," hitting an enemy and sending them flying, possibly into other enemies or explosives for increased damage.

This system initially appears limited but rapidly becomes far more interesting. Your cards have additional classes, such as being "Quick," which means if you knock out an enemy with that attack, the card use is refunded, so you start with 3 card draws, knock out an enemy, and still have 3 card uses afterwards. The card draw for each turn is random, but abilities allow you to swap cards in your hand for ones elsewhere or draw more cards into your hand. This can theoretically cause problems if you have 0 Heroism points for the turn but all the available cards require points to activate, rendering you unable to attack. In practice you almost always have options for swapping cards around or using special abilities to compensate, like Nico's formidable Empower ability which drops the Heroism cost for all abilities to 0 for the turn (even mega-powerful ones normally requiring 6 or more points to activate).

If you're a boardgamer this might sound familiar, which is because the card system is very similar to the Command & Colours system used in games like Memoir '44, BattleLore, Battles of Westeros, Napoleonics and Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare. The cards simply govern your abilities and you decide which to use on a given turn, but you also have ways of overcoming the limitations of a poor hand.

Where the game becomes powerfully flexible is the ability upgrade system. If you have card duplicates, you can merge them into more powerful versions of the ability, perhaps lowering the Heroism cost, increasing the Heroism gain or inflicting debilitating status effects on the enemy. Later on you can add additional abilities to cards, dramatically increasing their versatility. You characters also have stats of their own, like Offence, which govern how much damage the abilities unleash. If you get too many of the same kind of card, you can burn them up for resources, and research new abilities and bonuses in the Forge with Dr. Strange and Iron Man. The card system, which I thought initially was going to be awful, ends up being an engrossing part of the game as you build your character's array of abilities and defences to your liking and try to game the odds of what cards will appear when. And on top of that there's also consumables and items you can deploy mid-battle for free, for bonus effects or healing.

The result is a game where there's a lot going on that you have to think about, arguably even more than XCOM. There's also stuff you don't have to worry about. Permadeath isn't a thing (obviously; Captain Marvel is not going to be killed by a random Hydra goon) and thus a total failure state seems almost unachievable, you can just make life a lot more difficult for yourself. You can end up with several severely wounded heroes who will be out of commission for several days, or you will have to go into battle with massive debuffs for example.

There's a few other interesting ideas, like the game locking all but the standard difficulty level at the start of the game and gradually unlocking them as you go along, offering you the chance to switch up difficulty levels dynamically as well as starting a new from-scratch campaign at the higher level. The game also has the almost-now-requisite animal companions, with Charlie the hellhound joining you on some missions. Amusingly, if you track down and pet the two animals every day you gain cool bonuses for combat as well.

Midnight Suns is an odd game, a mishmash of different genres and influences blended together, sometimes very well, sometimes in a weirdly jarring manner. It feels very much like a western studio's take on a normally Japanese style of game, which works much better than expected but still feels a bit off compared to how a Japanese team would have handled the same ideas. The writing is a bit mediocre, which is a problem for a game with as much writing in it as this, and the graphics are decent but not outstanding. The music is very good, though, and the combat is surprisingly excellent, despite some early frustrations as you transition from your expectations from other games, and the research/development/training system is fairly compelling, even if the game has maybe one or two resource types too many and not always straightforward ways of gaining new resources.

After all that, Midnight Suns (****) emerges as a sometimes janky and occasionally downright deranged game (the world needs saving, why am I taking art classes with Captain America?!) but one that is never not interesting, and once its dull opening is over and the core game loop is cooking it emerges as a pretty compelling title. The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. Versions for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch will follow at a later date.

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