There's nothing like a surprise hit to reaffirm your love of videogames and that's exactly what Marvel's Midnight Suns has accomplished.
Released amongst a bevvy of big-name blockbusters at the end of 2022, it could have been overlooked somewhat. And to be fair, for the first hour or so, we were tempted to move onto something else ourselves. But, having given it the benefit of the doubt and a longer play, we can honestly say it's well worth a touch of patience.
It's a quirky, at times downright odd turn-based strategy game with plenty of role-playing elements and card-based combat. It's also as addictive as Pringles. Once you pop, you surely can't stop.
Who are the Midnight Suns?
Perhaps one of reasons it hasn't appeared on everybody's radar yet is that it's a Marvel game based on a superhero group few may of heard of. The Midnight Suns is a modern take on the Midnight Sons, who have appeared with different line-ups in Marvel comic books since the 90s, but aren't particularly well-known. The latest team roster is hardly A-list either, veering towards the more magical and supernatural end of the Marvel spectrum.
It comprises the current version of Ghost Rider (Robbie Reyes), Nico Minoru (formerly known as Sister Grimm), Magik and Blade. And when you add an all-new hero, your customisable character, The Hunter, you can see why some might utter, "Who?"
However, it's actually a clever move to base the game on a relatively unknown cast - effectively giving you a blank slate with few preconceptions. You get to better know the team members throughout the lengthy story, including your own created lead, and there are still plenty of big names that join the action along the way to sate those who've come fresh from a Disney+ marathon, too.
Doctor Strange, Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Captain Marvel are in it from the beginning, while Spider-Man, Captain America and a few others jump in later down the line - often literally. Basically, it should satisfy dedicated comic book and MCU fans, while also providing more than enough variety for newcomers. Yeah, the plot is mostly hokum, but you soon get into the spirit of the whole shebang and the 60+ hour ride is well worth the trip.
That's in no small part thanks to the card-based tactical combat.
The game is split into two quite distinctly different parts. There's the Abbey, where the Midnight Suns generally hang out, concoct items and plans, with its own secrets, powers and pick-ups. This is all presented as a third-person RPG, whereby, as The Hunter, you can chat with teammates, solve mysteries, unlock new powers and even decorate your bedroom in a basic Sims-style fashion.
It is here that you will level up your main character and their teammates, plus accrue bonuses and weapons to use during missions. You'll also spend a lot of time talking to the numerous other heroes in and around the main buildings.
In some ways, this reminds us more of Japanese RPGs than western ones, with a lot of strange but not unwelcome design decisions along the way. At the beginning, it feels like a grind - with new training facilities and power-ups having to be discovered or researched - but it eventually becomes a fun side-game in itself. There are also plenty of optional missions and tasks to complete, which earn you experience, new combat cards, or just the respect of your team. Everything has a purpose though, generally giving positive consequences when you hit the battlefield itself.
This section of the game is the best bit. Firaxis is a master at turn-based tactical combat - not least with its XCOM game engine - but Marvel's Midnight Suns takes a different approach.
Each mission is set in a relatively small arena, with supervillains and/or Hydra soldiers to vanquish. Some are protecting things you have to acquire, some trying to destroy them, while others just want to deal you maximum harm. You generally have a team of three heroes to control, each of which had a deck of eights defensive or offensive cards. These are then dealt randomly into a rolling on-screen deck and you get to choose which to use and on whom.
Each turn allows for a set number of cards to be used, with a limit on redrawing them, moving a character, and using an item you may have crafted at the Abbey. Then, at the end of the turn, it's the enemy's go.
The trick is using the best cards for the right situation, with each hero having different abilities. Hunter, for example, can heal as well as deal damage, while Ghost Rider and Blade are more aggressive. The real fun though is in watching the result of each action, as the animation and effects are spectacular.
The playing field can be dynamically damaged and there's a thrill each time you throw an enemy across the map - churning up the tarmac as he goes. There are also Hero Combo cards that partner two friendly combatants for an even more powerful move. It looks simply spectacular when pulled off.
There's also great variety in missions, especially main story quests, that give you a decent challenge each time. It's just a shame that you can only do one combat mission a day, before having to run around the Abbey and its grounds a bit more - but that's testament to just how enjoyable the gameplay mechanic Firaxis has devised.
The tightest pants
Our only criticism is that, while combat looks great, we're not entirely sure about the character models in the third-person adventuring bits. Everything looks a little plastic, with smooth textures and a toy-like feel.
The animation of The Hunter as they run around is a little shonky too. In many ways, it looks more like a last-, rather than latest-gen game.
Still, you do get a whole load for your money, including multiple costume choices for the side cast and a whole suite of customisable options for your own hero. And, the in-combat effects are so magnificent and tangible that you can excuse the Sims-like look of everything else.
It's a similar story with the audio. Some of the dialogue delivery by the, for the most part, excellent voice cast can be a little off. But, the score and overall soundtrack is superb - cinematic and bombastic. You'll want a decent 5.1 system to enjoy it at its best, that's for sure.
And, with so many hours of plot and side-missions to talk us through, we can forgive the occasional hammy line or two, anyway.