You might've heard the rumours of a "Marvel XCOM", coming from tactics specialist Firaxis, and turns out: they're mostly true. During Gamescom's Opening Night Live stream, the studio revealed Marvel's Midnight Suns, described as a "tactical RPG" - although from talking to creative director Jake Solomon, it's quite a bit less XCOM-y than some of those tweets and reddit threads may have led you to believe.
So, what's it all about? Midnight Suns is set in the "darker side of the Marvel Universe", based on a '90s comic book series called Rise of the Midnight Sons - although apparently it's deliberately not an exact retelling of those events. The setup for the game is this: perpetual baddies Hydra have revived someone called Lilith, who does a bit of dead-raising that threatens to overrun the Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange, and Wolverine can be spotted in the trailer). The Avengers call up a few extra supernatural mates to help out, called the Midnight Suns, which includes Nico Minoru, Blade, Magik, and Ghost Rider, and a few more (12 Marvel heroes in total), and together they then resurrect some help of their own: one more hero, newly created for the game, called the Hunter, who's also Lilith's child and apparently the only one able to kill her.
The Hunter, who's customisable (in "appearance" and also in terms of a choice of about 40 different abilities), is who you'll be playing as, which is where things immediately depart from the XCOM formula. You'll be controlling both the Hunter and the other heroes in combat, with battles featuring three heroes total at a time, but then the time between battles is spent in one of two ways: managing your base, a mystical safehouse called the Abbey - so far so XCOM - or actually walking around the Abbey in third-person, over-the-shoulder view, exploring its "extensive" grounds and interacting with the other heroes.
Crucially, Midnight Suns seems to feature much more of a role-playing element than past Firaxis games. Who you choose to spend your time with, and how you spend that time, affects how heroes will fight alongside you in the battles themselves.
As Solomon put it to us, "you really have to choose: I'm gonna invest in this hero, or I'm gonna invest in that hero, relationship wise, because for any of these heroes to reach their maximum potential in combat, you have to invest in them from a relationship standpoint."
"You develop friendships with heroes of your choice, you do that by hanging out with them, and you have to choose, 'OK, specifically I'm going to hang out with Tony Stark tonight, or I'm gonna hang out with Blade tonight'. But based on who you're hanging out with, you then have to choose, well, what are we doing? And it's like: 'well, Blade may wanna lift weights, Ghost Rider may wanna play video games, Dr. Strange may want to read a book by a fire'."
The Abbey itself is upgradeable, like your typical XCOM base - including the usual choosing of research and upgrades, which Dr. Strange and Tony Stark handle - but the place exists in real time. You can even "join different clubs around the Abbey," Solomon explained, or give different heroes gifts.
"The game has very serious themes, but we really wanted to focus on these fun elements of: 'well what if I did live with these heroes, how would I interact with them, how would I form friendships?'
"We feel like that, plus the idea of being a supernatural game, plus being a customisable hunter, there are a lot of things that we're excited about doing that we feel are different, to other games that have come before."
What about romance? "The official line is no," Solomon said, which sounds about right for Marvel. "There's no romance because the characters are fixed. But, you can form very, very, very, very deep friendships with the heroes of your choice. So it's not romance, but it is friendship."
As for the combat itself, we'll likely get a much better idea from the gameplay reveal in a few days' time, but Solomon was keen to stress how much it varies from what they've done before. ("Some might even think that there were leaks that painted this as a 'Marvel XCOM'", he joked).
"The thing is, it ticks the same - it is turn-based tactical combat - but I can't explain how different the combat is, in terms of, I mean, if you just start from the thematic side of things... [in early development] we very quickly saw the things we did before don't match up with what this game's about. You talk about the fantasy, if you're a soldier and you're terrified of these aliens, that's one fantasy, like: 'OK, I'm holding on for dear life'. It's not the fantasy of 'I am a godlike superhero and I'm fighting Hydra or whatever' - it's a different fantasy. Then the fantasy's like: 'I'm definitely the coolest guy in this room', right? And I think that's the one we wanted to get across. A lot of the time, the combat in this game is not like: 'will I survive?', and more like: 'how many of these guys can I take out with one ability?'"
One element Solomon did want to highlight specifically was the pacing. "We didn't sacrifice - truly, truly - we didn't sacrifice any depth or complexity, we're not interested in doing that. Complex choices and depth are what make tactics games fun, we're not worried about that, so much as: we wanted this game to play fast. It's like, alright, how do we make you feel like the coolest person in the room? And that means, 'OK, well these bad guys should be afraid of me, so it's me pulling down a light pole, and leaping off of a car to punch this guy, and then taking two guys out with one punch which knocks them back,' and you're choosing how all these abilities interact in a really complex way.
"So, it's three heroes in combat, all of them have these different abilities that are probably more situational than other abilities [in previous games], where you've got to think about, 'well how am I gonna pull this off?' And 'how am I gonna position myself to pull this ability off?' But, at the same time, the combat's meant to move very fast."
Likewise, he added, "the idea of positioning, and you having an ability, and a right way to use it, I think that that's probably - it's very different in this game, the abilities, they're not very general, they're very specific where it's like 'OK, there's a right way to use this ability and I should probably think about that and the ordering of when I do that with these others', but at the same time, there's a lot of ways to - I hate the phrase 'skin a cat' - let's say to achieve your goals.
"The game doesn't have things like permadeath or anything like that, which was again just a very different fantasy, this is much more of an RPG where it's: 'I'm gonna go and do these missions', you know? There's still a lot of difficulty levels where you can rise to the level of whatever challenge you want, but I think that this is a game that's meant to play a little faster, it's meant to progress this story, as opposed to an XCOM, which is a little bit different."
For his part, Solomon, an avid Marvel Comics fan, sounds extremely excited. "This is a dream project for me, it's very personal for me. I have loved Marvel for decades, I grew up reading the comics, I never pictured myself making a Marvel game." Marvel actually approached Firaxis first, to suggest the initial collaboration. "Sometimes you hear [nice things] from people and you don't know if it's true," Solomon said, "but on my very first call with the Marvel games team they had very specific feedback on the finale mission from XCOM, so it was like: they definitely knew XCOM."
That inquiry from Marvel then led Solomon to pitch the idea of using the "very Guns 'n' Roses, hair metal" Midnight Sons comics - his "favourite ever" - as a setting. "We really wanted to retell this story, because, one: it had never been [re]told, and it's been, you know, 30 years now. The story's awesome, it had a lot of characters that players would not be familiar with. And it also allowed us to introduce popular characters, but pull them into a side of the Marvel Universe where they're never seen, which is the supernatural, dark supernatural stuff. And so, it was really important for us to tell a story that people weren't familiar with, have heroes that people weren't familiar with, have a villain that people weren't familiar with, and then, [regarding] the heroes that we all love, make sure that they go to a part of the Marvel universe where they're typically not seen."
Still, there are some challenges: "it's a 'match made in heaven', but, it's a challenge working in the Marvel Universe. They make movies; they're the most popular movies, they make TV shows; they're now the most popular TV shows. Toys, theme park attractions, cans of fucking... soup." And it would be nice if just once a couple Marvel characters might kiss.
The release window is currently set for March 2022, on just about every platform (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC on both Steam and Epic) and you can expect a first look at actual gameplay on 1st September, at 7:30pm UK time.