Review | The Surge

The Surge promises a rich sci-fi world, unforgiving enemies, and a flurry of new systems built on the back of proven genre favourite Dark Souls – does it succeed?

CREO has a plan to save the planet, Project Resolve. It’s apparently humanity’s last chance to turn around the generations of social and environmental ruin which have been stacking up in science’s surge to make life easier, rather than making life better. It’s also extremely mysterious, with little more than the space-bound rockets cresting over the walled-cities of the company’s facilities, and the company’s advertising campaigns, to hint at the world as to what they’re doing.

To be fair, if Warren hadn’t have hit the big red button then this would have simply been someone else’s problem.

Immaculate uniforms, glinting exo-suits, and slogans like “Man & Machine“ and “Machines Aren’t Taking Your Job – You Are Taking Theirs“ – which litter posters around those facilities and throughout their adverts,  firstly give off the impressions that it’s some journey to space, importing chemicals that the people of Earth have ruined. Either way, the company’s secrets remain largely hidden as with many good sci-fi dystopias from both film, books, and game; hidden because of a major calamity, the titular surge, hitting the network that runs deep through the company. A nearly deadly pulse that passed through CREO’s systems, with most employees who were connected via the neural network left either dead, demented, or stark-raving mad.

The game starts after this surge, with you controlling Warren, a new employee to the company, who has only recently arrived seeking money and one of the cool rigs that the physical-workforce get bolted into as part of the job. Something isn’t quite right however. You arrive at your new employer’s offices via one of their shuttle-train systems; a short, enforced journey, with CREO PR Director Don Hackett -one of the few sane humans you’ll see in the game-  singing the songs of the company. Once you disembark from your journey, though, armed guards are everywhere, impatiently waving their weapons around as if waiting for orders, directly forcing you down a path to the recruitment office.

If the guards weren’t a warning signal then the exo-suit mounting procedure is. No anaesthetics are applied, despite the surgery machine saying it had been. Then the exo-suit is drilled into the bone, and a neural link drilled directly into the skull. Then darkness. Then light, as you awaken in a dumping ground – surrounded by abandoned machines, rockets, and drones. The surgery was apparently a success, although you were still sent to scrap as the power core you were fitted with was nonfunctional. It’s then straight into the action as drones arrive to pry the machinery from you.

Blues, greens, browns, a diverse palette of colours… oh, and a giant robot launching a barrage of rockets at poor Warren.

The Surge has, since its very first mention, been pitched as a game similar to Dark Souls; much like developer Deck 13’s previous title, Lords of the Fallen. I’ve got to come clean now and confess that I’ve not played LotF, and that I’ve racked up less than 100 hours in the Souls series with most of that in Demon’s Souls — which happens to be the least relevant to Deck 13’s games.

Comparing things to Dark Souls has become somewhat of a joke around the industry, due in part to the series’ canonisation as a hard game. One which refuses to guide the player’s hand, and doesn’t so much reward players as condition and harden them to its tricks. The comparison here, as such, is massively cheapened by this saturation. However, there are other elements of From Software’s Souls series to be found in The Surge, and -not to sound like a child in a playground, but… they said it first.

The reason that I, earlier, said that Demon’s Souls was the least useful comparison of the series is because of features that were added into the series with later instalments; many of which are shared by The Surge. For a start, one of the few implants that you have available from the start of the game is a limited-charge heal ability which requires a brief moment to fire it’s animation; these charges replenish whenever you rest at any of the game’s MedBays – and while there are other ways to recharge them, the short animation, medbay recharge, and lumbering movement of Warren sans exo-suit instantly feels familiar to Souls’ estus flasks. That said, the game’s implant system does add a decent amount of finessing options to your builds; but we’ll get onto that a bit later, as I want to clear through all of the comparative points before we get onto what makes the game unique.

The first MedBay you call home, the first of many.

The MedBays serve as both your starting point within each of the various districts of CREO’s facility, as well as a hub that you’ll likely pass through half-a-dozen times even if you are incredibly adept. The main reason for this is that, as you explore through the ruined halls and smashed sky-ways, you will inevitably end up opening up shortcuts, repairing doors, and triggering enemies that open up new routes for you. All of these new, little paths allow you to quickly get back to where you last faltered in order to collect up the scrap you left behind when you fell, that or just get back to the MedBay to bank your winnings. When you respawn, or whenever you voluntarily return to the MedBays all enemies barring event enemies (guards, one-off machines, mid-bosses) and bosses respawn. Undeniably, for people who have much knowledge of Souls these little safe rooms, which are an area where you can level, communicate with (somewhat) friendlies, and work on your weapons, are not dissimilar to the muse’s bonfires; and the opening of shortcuts, and inherent confidence that forms from them, not wholly dissimilar to its level design either.

What is definitely worth stressing, however, is that the world never feels particularly large; more so a string of corridors with shortcuts simply cutting out chunks of them. There’s still a lot of praise due to the level designers who managed to design the labyrinthine knots of rooms – however, it’s a shame that we rarely get a chance to peek off towards the horizon at areas we’ll visit later in the story.

As a final comparison, the all important combat. While The Surge is certainly more like a traditional action-RPG in how it handles weapons (albeit with an upgrade system) combat is -like its inspiration- heavily focused on timing of attack, timing of evasion, and timing of defence. Whilst the quicker weapons in the game, reminiscent of twin daggers, are effective in rapid-fire attacks against weaker foes, many of the enemies from the middle of the second area -where robotic enemies come into play- have deeply varied armour combinations, as well as vastly more wild attacks; blinding, stunning, setting ablaze, and… just generally, attacking with a greater variety of move patterns.

Flame thrower, laser-blade, and EMP powers all rolled up into one handy, self-repairing troublemaker.

It’s when the game gets to this point that it really starts to open up combat-wise. By that point you’ll have accrued about a dozen different weapons, two armour sets, and unlocked enough implant slots as to tweak your character’s health/injections/energy levels to suit your play style. More than likely you’ll be a master at triggering executions -the killer-feature of the game, which often removes a limb for your benefit- and you’ll have mastered the locking onto body parts. Dodging out of the way will come natural, as will alternating between horizontal/vertical attacks of varying power in order to best weaken the part you want to collect.

To match that horizontal & vertical attacking system then comes a new dodging system; ducking and jumping. All of a sudden combat with the machines becomes a dance – they won’t stumble and falter if you smack them hard about the head, like human foes. Jump and duck under its horizontal swipes, then dodge-dash behind it to smash it with a full, brute-force vertical swipe before it adjusts. It’s hard to learn, but once you’ve got the patterns down the game has to try hard to catch you off guard — although it certainly does a good job of that what-with its blind corners, and habit of placing patrolling units in connecting, corridor-like areas.

That said, the game definitely follows the conventional ARPG structure in its equipment, and upgrade systems. Enemies do not scale with the player’s progress, and each of the levels drip-drop new enemies in as you progress further through the level; by the time you are near the middle of the zone you’ll not only be able to easily best enemies that gave you trouble at the start (unless something silly happens), but you’ll also not have to due to the shortcuts that you’re opening up. This actually serves to make grinding -which in many ways is a core part to the game- vastly more enjoyable than the normal RPG-fare. Shrugging off that guy who three-hours-ago managed to fell you in one hit, or even running past that -now irrelevant- corner lurker, feels great.

Sane humans are out there; some, however, remain dangerous.

Progress in the game comes in many ways; proficiency with weapons, actual progress throughout the game’s map, and in increasing the damage, health, energy, and defence of your character. Proficiency is simply a case of using a weapon type (Staff, One-Handed Light, etc, etc) on a regular basis, rewarding those who persist. The others are all directly tied to your power core level. It’s the nearest thing to a traditional levelling structure that the game has, even though it doesn’t really impact your abilities as you level. Instead it allows you to equip bigger, heavier duty -upgraded- parts, as well as fill more implant slots. There’s also doors, terminals, and various other points, which require you to be of a certain level in order to overload the locks.

Scrap, which is dropped by enemies in both raw (automatically collected) and item (collected manually) form. You use it in combination with parts gained from dismembering enemies in order to craft and upgrade weapons and armour; or you can just use the scrap to level up your power core – each level asking for more and more scrap. Unlike other games of its ilk, your liquid-exp can be transferred into storage in a simple process from any MedBay; regenerating enemies, but securing the scrap for later use.

If you do take a gamble, however, and get felled in the field, then a timer starts ticking down for you to recover your dropped scrap before it disappears. Why would you gamble so, you ask? Outside of the easier navigation and exploration that comes from a cleared level, there’s also a multiplier that generously increases the rate at which you accrue the stuff. Sure, it makes for trouble when you accidentally trigger, and fail at defeating, a boss ahead of time, but many of us have dealt with vastly tougher misfortunes at the hands of roguelikes.

A fine example of a minimalist equip screen done well.

While, at first, the thought of having to juggle prioritising a power core level, upgrading equipment, and craft up the various new schematics all seems a little bit full on -and that’s before you add in the perk-like implants- all of the menus are extremely efficiently laid out, and have their own help prompts that you can re-access as you wish throughout your time playing. Similarly the game’s control tutorials remain projected on the walls where you first pass them, mixed in amid warnings scribbled in blood, and anti-corporation graffiti.

It’s in moments where you pass besieged offices, rushed guard stations, and scribbled messages like I just mentioned, that the game’s setting really comes to life. The graphics are impressive, and certainly hold up to the current generation, but it’s really the setting and its various contrasts that have made my time with it memorable. The first zone has you travelling from sun-bleached sand and cement -which wouldn’t look out of place in a post-apocalyptic game- through a toxic swamp, and dark, winding tunnels. While the game is futuristic, with crackling, roaring electronic weapons, and mechanical blades, it’s largely fought in gritty, melee combat. If you’ve not built the head part of your armour as you walk through those tunnels it’s only the sparks of technology, or the light of the drones, that peel back the darkness; the same technology, and robots, that cast it into that state.

In motion the game is impressive too, and not just in the fact that each of the weapon types features entirely different move sets and executions, but in the lighting effects the team have implemented. I also experienced zero slowdown, or frame-rate issues, and I was under recommended specs in both the RAM & graphics card categories.

Is narrative important when the first person you meet gets their arm cut off and intestines stripped bare?

The elephant in the review, in which case, is the protagonist, Warren, and his story. Sadly it’s rather shallow, and while it’s enough to keep the character moving onward, and features some exceptional voice acting, it’s definitely one of the weakest parts of the game. That said, the game includes stacked New Game Plus modes which bolt on new enemies and items; and if grinding through playthrough after playthrough is your intent then the last thing you’d probably want is to have to sit through masses of dialogue… bully for you then as The Surge has almost zero mandatory conversation. Of course, if you’re the sort who wants to pry then there’s opportunity to dig up bits of story in records, audio-logs, and more.

In conclusion, Deck 13 have done a really great job in creating The Surge – it’s unique setting, baddies, and mechanics come together to make a challenging ARPG experience which is all held together by tried & proven mechanics from titles that have come before.

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