ALTER EGO
Edge|November 2021
How tackling the Marvel universe revealed an unexpected new side of the XCOM team
Alex Spencer

Rumours of a Firaxis Games Marvel title have been circulating since June. Long enough, no doubt, for us all to build up a mental picture of what the XCOM team would do with this licence. Whatever version has been living in your head these past few months, though, know this: Marvel’s Midnight Suns is not that game.

Rather than the XCOM reskin we might have anticipated, Firaxis has created a game that has as much in common with Slay The Spire and Persona as it does with the studio’s previous releases, one that borrows equally from fighting and dating games, and periodically ditches its trademark turn-based approach for realtime adventuring. But the surprises begin before any of that – right from the first time we see the game’s title.

By this point, Marvel might well be the single most profitable word in the English language. The two that follow it, though? They represent one hell of a deep cut. The game is a loose adaptation of Rise Of The Midnight Sons, a 1992 crossover event which launched such titles as Nightstalkers, Spirits Of Vengeance and Darkhold: Pages From The Book Of Sins. A part of comics history, it’s fair to say, that is not especially well-remembered. Except in the two cases that matter here: self-described “Marvel superfans” Jake Solomon and Chad Rocco, now creative director and director of narrative on Midnight Suns.

The pair grew up on the publisher’s monthly output. “We were reading comics at the same time, so our golden memories of comics come from the same era – the late ’80s, early ’90s,” Solomon tells us. “It was all antiheroes and supernatural stuff and, you know, giant hair.” All of which are very much present in the original Rise Of The Midnight Sons, a story about Ghost Rider battling demons and necromancers alongside Blade and Doctor Strange. “For Rocco and me, this was a formative comic-book event.”

This youthful obsession would provide the solution to a problem Solomon and team never expected to have. “We had never considered the idea of making a Marvel game,” he says. “As much as I personally love Marvel, it just doesn’t even cross your mind.” It was actually Marvel that approached Firaxis, just as the team were wrapping up XCOM 2’s War Of The Chosen expansion. (And that fandom, it seems, runs in both directions. “Honestly, you often hear from execs, ‘Oh yeah, I loved that game’, and maybe they do, and maybe they don’t,” Solomon says. “But the very first call I had, there was an executive vice president of Marvel on the line, and he had very specific feedback about the finale mission of XCOM.”) Without a pitch at the ready, Solomon and Rocco were sent “flipping through decades of Marvel stories in our heads”, searching for the right approach.

Of course, Marvel’s standing today is very different to where it was in the early ’90s – and while its recent successes make this project more viable, Solomon says there is a downside. “The problem being that Marvel is everywhere now. Their movies are the biggest movies in the world, and they have been for over a decade. Now they’re making TV shows, and guess what, they’re the biggest TV shows in the world. There are decades of comics, there are theme park attractions, there are cartoons. They’re just everywhere. As a creative team, that’s actually a challenge, because you really have to find a corner of this universe that you can call your own.”

That’s certainly the case with Midnight Suns, which alongside the familiar faces of Tony Stark and Wolverine features heroes such as Nico Minoru and Illyana ‘Magik’ Rasputin. The threat they are being pitted against is Lilith, an adaptation of an obscure Marvel supervillain (and a sort of twice-removed version of the Biblical figure) rarely sighted since her ’90s heyday. When Solomon tells us this is an “untapped” part of Marvel’s back catalogue, he’s not joking. After all, who else would even think to tap it?

The game also seems determined to find its own corner within the tactics genre, a space that Firaxis itself helped to popularise. 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, with its reimagining and streamlining of Julian Gollop’s classic design, opened the floodgates for turn-based tactics games. Into The Breach, Invisible Inc, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle – some of the finest games of the past decade have been made in the mould of XCOM. Which is perhaps why, for Midnight Suns, Firaxis has chosen to sidestep the competition and create a fresh template.

The game did start life as something much closer to its forebears – as Solomon says, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But it quickly became obvious that he needed to root around in his toolbox some more. “Within the first couple of days, when I really started looking at the problem from a design standpoint, I realised, oh, man, this is like nothing we’ve done before. A lot of the tools we’ve used before don’t even make sense here. We’ve got to do something completely new.”

He’s not exaggerating. Gone are the tiled maps; the chance-to-hit dice rolls; even the slightest consideration of taking cover. The camera has left its old position up in the rafters and is instead pulled in so close to the characters the game could, at times, pass for a third-person action game. Maps are a fraction of the size, with heroes able to get from one side to the other in a single bound – internally, they’re referred to as ‘arenas’.

The overall feel, too, couldn’t be much more different. Where XCOM is a game about being constantly on the back foot, facing alien enemies that can steamroller your entire unit in a single turn if you aren’t careful, in Midnight Suns the roles are more or less reversed. Many of the more minor opponents you face don’t even have health bars – after all, Captain America rarely needs a second punch to dispatch some rank-and-file henchman. “It’s not about ‘Can I beat this guy?’” Solomon says. “It’s about ‘How many guys can I beat with this one ability? How can I take out three guys at once?’”

Even with the low-level characters on show in our demo, this is immediately evident. It begins on a rooftop, where seven Hydra goons swarm our three heroes. It’s not nearly enough to present a threat. Blade darts across the battlefield and unloads a pair of submachine guns into them, taking down the first enemy so quickly it doesn’t even register as an action, then chains sword strikes between two more, before turning his guns on an explosive barrel. This sets up Captain Marvel to send out a photon beam that bisects the entire map, knocking out another couple of minions and leaving their armoured leader with a tiny shred of health.

The game is constantly throwing reinforcements into battle, because, as Solomon puts it, “we cannot keep the player fed with bad guys”. Hydra’s numbers immediately swell once more, but it doesn’t matter. By the end of a second turn, they’re all eliminated. “Play fast” is a mantra we hear a lot during our conversation, and for good reason. Midnight Suns’ more complicated narrative missions can take a little longer, but your standard encounter should last ten minutes or less – a fraction of the time spent on a single XCOM battle.

This new approach to turn-based tactics took a long time to come together, Solomon admits. “I don’t want to be dishonest and say, like, ‘Oh, it was so exciting.’ Because actually it was terrifying for the first couple of years.” After being offered the Marvel licence, Firaxis had to do what many of us have done since the rumours first emerged: try to imagine how it might overlap with the kind of strategy games in which the studio specialises.

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