There aren't many more reliable development teams than Firaxis when it comes to serving up top-notch turn-based tactical action, and with Marvel's Midnight Suns, the Baltimore-based studio continues to deliver the good stuff. Here they've avoided a simple superhero reskin of their superlative XCOM series in favour of strategic hijinks that work card game dynamics into the mix, making for a unique and highly enjoyable comic book adventure.
Yes, the easy road to take - and a road we would have quite happily travelled - would have been to copy and paste a bunch of Marvel heroes and lore onto the bones of XCOM 2 and be done with it, but instead Firaxis has seamlessly woven slick card battling into proceedings and the result is a game that's an absolute repulsor blast from start to finish. There's a ton of cool card powers to tool around with here and they combine perfectly with deep turn-based strategy that remains very much in the XCOM style, with players required to carefully consider their attacks and positioning, always thinking a few moves ahead in order to successfully take down some impressively intelligent foes.
The story in Marvel's Midnight Suns sees you assume control of The Hunter, a newly resurrected superhero and estranged child of the game's main villain, Lilith, Mother of Demons. Lilith has been brought back to life by Dr Faustus and is now busy wreaking havoc with an army of Hydra goons. After a quick whip around a fairly generic character creation suite, you're whisked off to the game's main hub area, The Abbey, where various characters from The Avengers, Midnight Sons, X-Men and Marvel's Runaways are ready and waiting to team up and go defeat Lilith, Hydra and a bunch of other surprise baddies who we're not gonna spoil for you here.
Fans of XCOM will feel right at home with this one, there's just as many upgradeable bits and bobs as we've come to expect from Firaxis games, with a ton of upgradeable powers at your disposal, thirteen superheroes in total and lots of new tech and expansions to research and develop at your base in time-honoured XCOM tradition. In between missions you're given free rein to roam around The Abbey exploring the grounds and surrounding areas, finding secrets and collectibles, digging into the lore of the various franchises that make up the game's roster of heroes and, most importantly, building relationships with your team through conversations and hangouts. It's in these conversations that you get to make some simple dialogue choices that affect how others view you, as well as which path - dark or light - your version of the hunter takes through the narrative.
All of this stuff could so easily have been an albatross around the neck of the strategic action at the core of Midnight Suns - this is a game that's not afraid to take lengthy timeouts from its battles in favour of conversations - were it not for the fact it's all so well written and likeable. Yep, as much as we sometimes wished we were being flung into missions a little quicker now and then, especially in the early hours when the game's just finding its feet, you can't help but be utterly charmed and impressed by how much thought and care has very obviously gone into the characterisations and storyline here. It's cracking stuff, full of jokes and quips and references to all sorts of Marvel history that fans will get a great big kick out of.
Of course, helping the likes of Blade out with his love life isn't all just about making pals because you want to look cool hanging out with a badass vampire slayer - although we really do just want to hang out with him - and all of this stuff feeds directly into the combat, with positive relationships leading to card-based boosts for the heroes in question when it comes time to dust off against a bunch of baddies. It pays to consider your choices in conversations, then, to listen to your colleagues and spend time watching movies, paddling in the pool and painting landscapes with them, even if the dialogue does go on a bit from time to time.
So, in terms of exploration, characterisation and the narrative at hand, Marvel's Midnight Suns is onto a winner, but what about that combat? Well, although we fully recognise that the inherently random nature of the card battling system may be kryptonite to some hardcore strategy fans who want everything 100% under their control, we absolutely adore what Firaxis has served us up here, and once you get into its groove, you'll find a deeply satisfying tactical effort awaits.
At its heart, and in terms of the general ebb and flow of battles, it's all very much in the same vein as XCOM, you'll need to carefully consider enemy positions and your surroundings whilst thinking ahead in order to defeat foes who will punish you severely for slip-ups. You get to play three cards from your deck per-turn by default, but by choosing carefully you can easily bump this number up significantly, gaining free turns for knocking out foes and thinking tactically to ensure you squeeze every opportunity to inflict damage that you can out of the cards you're dealt. You can also redraw a certain number of cards per turn, so there's always a chance to pull something better out of the bag if you don't like what you've currently got to work with. It pays to survey the playing field carefully too, looking out for interactive objects you can use without taking up an attack turn to smash your enemies, hurling barrels and crates or kicking an opponent into a position where you can, for example, dump the contents of a huge crane on top of their heads.
It can be tough stuff at times - just as in XCOM, the enemies here are no pushover on the default difficulty - but there's also a refreshing levity injected into the battles by the non-stop banter from your squad-mates, as well as the OTT superhero powers you wield through your cards, that makes for a strategy effort that delivers the goods in terms of a challenge whilst also feeling refreshingly fast-paced, flashy and fun to boot. It also manages to do away with some of our long-held frustrations with XCOM, with much less in the way of unfair defeats or those annoying whiffed shots that give you a 99% chance of hitting a target before missing completely and landing you in a whole heap of bother. Yes, we said it, in some ways Marvel's Midnight Suns is even better than our beloved XCOM 2.
We absolutely love the cast of characters that's been pulled together here too, with the likes of Wolverine, Iron Man, Spidey, Dr Strange, Ghost Rider, Captain Marvel and Blade all arriving with a ton of cool powers to burn through in battles. We weren't 100% sure how the Marvel universe was going to fit into this type of strategy game but, as it turn out, in the hands of Firaxis at least, it's a match made in heaven and blasting through confrontations with a bunch of your favourite superheroes in tow just never grows old. We're already dreaming about the possibilities for lots of future DLC.
Everything looks suitably spectacular when battles kick off here as well, and although the character models aren't exactly gonna give The Callisto Protocol any sleepless nights, the choreography and animation in the moves that your roster of superheroes can pull off is satisfyingly flashy stuff. Spiderman whips around battlefields binding up foes, unleashing web attacks and acrobatic kicks, Iron Man hovers above the action raining down swarms of homing missiles and laser blasts, while Hulk...well...Hulk Smash. There's plenty of great big explosions and action-packed cutscenes to bookend missions and the whole thing is as colourful and bombastic as a game about comic book characters ought to be.
In terms of performance, there are a few stutters here and there from time to time as you explore the abbey, and you'll occasionally have to sit through a longish pause between turns in battle as the AI calculates its next move - although we didn't come across any as egregious as those found in XCOM 2 when it first released - but apart from this it's all plain sailing and we didn't encounter any bugs, crashes or other issues during our playthrough.
With a campaign that'll run you close to 50 hours, a new game plus mode that's unlocked when you're done with your first run and a ton of collectibles, lore and customisation options to hoover up between missions, Marvel's Midnight Suns is a great big meaty delight of a game, a fantastic twist on the XCOM formula and another absolute banger from a dev team that just doesn't seem to be able to put a foot wrong. This one comes highly recommended.
Marvel's Midnight Suns takes the delightfully deep turn-based tactics of Firaxis' sublime XCOM franchise and adds a slick card battling system to fantastic effect. This is a highly satisfying slice of strategy action, a love letter to all things Marvel that's absolutely dripping in personality, and an adventure that we can see ourselves blasting through multiple times in the months ahead. With a generous main campaign, unlockable NG+ mode and tons of collectibles and customisation to boot, this one's arrived right at the tail end of 2022 and jumped straight to the upper echelons of our list of the very best games of the year.