Game: The Surge
Developer: Deck 13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Reviewed on: Playstation 4 (Review code provided)
I was hoping to get through this whole review without mentioning the elephant in the room, but as I’ve worked through different drafts I’ve found it impossible. Yes, you can’t talk about The Surge without mentioning Dark Souls. As with so many new Action RPGs, The Surge falls squarely into the category of “Souls-Like”. Brutally hard gameplay? Check. Drop your experience on death? Check. Laybrinthian level design? Check. But it would be wrong to simply label The Surge as “Dark Souls but you punch robots”. As with this year’s Nioh, the latest effort from Deck 13 Interactive takes the tried and tested formula and reshapes it into a compelling, if slightly unpolished, package.
Let’s start at the beginning. Back in 2014, Ubisoft published Deck 13’s last game, one of the earlier attempts to ape the Souls formula, Lords of the Fallen. I really wanted to like Lords of the Fallen. The aesthetic and general flow worked well for me, but there were far too many obstructive bugs and genuinely unfair difficulty spikes to make the game any real fun to play. Fast forward to 2016 and Deck 13 show their latest effort to the world, The Surge – another Souls-Like RPG but this time with a dark sci-fi flavour and some intriguing, Dead Space-like limb chopping. Still, given their track record, The Surge was approached with some trepidation. How glad I am, then, to find that the final product surpasses most of the issues I had with Lords of the Fallen and delivers something that feels genuinely fresh.
At its core, The Surge is pretty much Dark Souls with robots, but there is so much more to it that sets it apart from From Software’s classic series. Taking place in the far future, you are cast as Warren, a wheelchair bound man who starts the game taking a job at the enigmatic CREO Corporation, a Google-like tech firm who have dedicated themselves to fixing the problems plaguing an ailing earth. After choosing his vocation at CREO, he is fitted into an Exo Rig in a remarkably graphic and invasive operation. The Rig is screwed into his limbs without anaesthetic causing excruciating pain and making Warren black out. He comes to in a junkyard and realises that something very bad has happened during his lack of consciousness; fellow workers and robots have gone mad. Working with a mysterious woman who has barricaded herself in the executive offices of the facility, Warren must brave the dangers to find out what’s going on.
Right off the bat, The Surge both stumbles and rights itself. It’s a real shame that there’s not even a basic character creator. Warren is a remarkably generic “white male lead” and there’s really nothing in the story that couldn’t have been handled by a user generated character. But then, the game wastes no time in getting you into the action. Choosing your vocation is effectively a way of starting you with either heavy or light armour, focussing more on tanking or strategic dodging for movement and combat. The Rig itself is an intriguing plot device, not only allowing Warren to walk again but also allowing him the ability to attach armour, weaponry and upgrade modules to himself. Its this upgrade system that proves to be the most compelling aspect of The Surge.
The Rig has a Core Power rating which starts at level 10 and serves two key purposes. The first is that it allows you to add gear to your rig up to your current power level. Gear falls into two categories; armour pieces, one for each arm, each leg, your body and your head, and upgrade modules. Each piece of gear has a power consumption rating – the better the gear, the more power it’ll consume so you’re always limited with what you can arm at any one time. Armour will give you benefits like reducing the amount of stamina you spend or improving your attack with certain weapons. Modules provide more meaningful upgrades like the ability to regenerate health, extend your stamina, add elemental perks to your weapons and many others. As you progress through the game, killing enemies and looting glowing pyramids on the floor will net you Tech Scrap, the games XP system, which you can use to increase the Core Power on your rig, unlocking more module slots and enabling you to install better armour and gear. It’s a novel approach that effectively allows you to respec your character on the fly. Need more health for a certain area? No problem! Just re-equip your modules at an Ops Center (The Surge’s bonfire surrogate) and you’re good to go. The other purpose of Core Power is to overload circuits allowing you to progress through the game. There are low level circuits dotted around and tied directly into main story progress, but you’ll also find some high level circuits which you’ll want to come back to and unlock new areas with better gear to find.
The looting mechanic is also given a clever overhaul for The Surge. Rather than enemies simply dropping items when they’re offed, you’re able to target specific limbs in an attempt to sever them during combat. Sever a new piece of armour and you’ll get a schematic to let you build your own. Hack off a weapon and you’ll be able to use it. Slice off anything you already own or have a schematic for and you’ll break the piece down into components to use in crafting and upgrading. It’s smart and makes the combat into a much more tactical experience. Combat in itself provides another upgrade mechanic; the more you use a specific class of weapon, the more your proficiency in that type of weaponry increases giving you, over time, a buff on the base damage. In the long run you’ll probably find yourself sticking with one or two specific types of weapon, but it allows you to play the game more organically and find what works for you than having to plan ahead and decide what kind of game you’re going to play from the outset. And this gives you more time to soak up the environment and the story…
Taking cues from the likes of Half Life and Bioshock, The Surge presents itself as an industrial nightmare. The environments of the CREO facility that you’ll be exploring range from open-air junk yards to machine-filled production lines and clean, corporate office buildings. While perhaps not as creative as some of its more fantasy tinged brethren, The Surge presents a well realised world with wonderfully vast inter-connecting areas to explore. Learning to read the signs on the walls will certainly help in navigating and, once you realise how to do that, it becomes a second nature to read the environments. The story emerges through interaction with NPCs as well as found audio diaries and corporate promotional videos. There’s a wonderfully sinister undercurrent as the truth starts to eke out making the discovery of these elements compelling.
So far, so glowing, but I have come up against some frustrating elements during my playthrough of The Surge. The main issue I have with the game is its lack of polish in certain areas. Take, for example, moves that will occasionally clip your character through railings and into an insta-death fall; not something that has happened frequently but something that has lost me progress, hard-earned Tech Scrap and, in one case, a unique drop from a mini-boss. Another major frustration is obnoxious difficulty spikes; certainly not as bad as Lords of the Fallen, there are moments where you will suddenly find yourself up against a room full of cheap opponents and it can become a slog to drag yourself through. Traditionally these types of games are hard but they should never be unfair. Indeed, The Surge has some excellent boss battles which rely a great deal on learning boss patterns and figuring out which weapons to deploy – they are rewarding and challenging. But when the game is cheap, it’s very cheap and that fun factor drops through the floor. Fortunately, though, these moments are fleeting and haven’t removed my overall enjoyment of the experiences. The bugs I’ve encountered have certainly impacted on the final score but there’s nothing there that couldn’t be patched out.
Despite some frustrating bugs and a couple of illogical roadblocks, The Surge is a compelling experience. A Souls-Like that changes up the formula in some smart ways with an intriguing story and some clever mechanics, The Surge is well worth a look.