I’d still consider myself something of a newcomer to Souls-like games, having played a grand total of 2 of them so far. It’s a style of game that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really quite enjoy but there’s a lot of mental inertia to get over before I’ll have the courage to spin them up. So when I saw The Surge pop up (both on Completionist and through Steam directly) I kept a wary eye on it for a couple weeks before I bought it. Then, the second I spin it up, I get a message from one of my friends informing me that it was far more punishing than any of the recent souls games had been. Overall I don’t think he’s wrong in that assessment although the reasons for that aren’t so much to do with the challenge itself, more from the rough edges which could do with a little more polish.
It’s the far off future and the world is in a state of ecological peril. Because of this the world economy is shattered and numerous nation states have fallen. There is one company, CREO, who is working to right his wrong by launching numerous satellites to begin rebuilding the atmosphere. You’re just an average Joe who’s been fortunate enough to land a job with them and, as part of it, you’ll be granted an exo-rig that will grant you the ability to walk again. During the installation process however something goes horribly wrong and you aren’t sedated while it’s attached to your body. Passing out from the pain you awake in what looks like a scrap yard, surrounded by people who look just like you but without their exo-rigs. What follows is your journey to discover what happened and what it means for the world.
The Surge uses Deck13’s custom, in-house engine called FLEDGE. Details are somewhat scant on what its capabilities are but this isn’t the first game that Deck13 has released using it. From the screenshots you can see that it’s definitely in-line with what we’ve come to expect from current gen games with things like dynamic lighting and realistic shadows. Some areas don’t seem as polished however with physics based objects having severe limitations in computation, often only reacting once to input before freezing in place (this is most noticeable when you break crates, for example). Additionally whilst the game has a decent amount of detail, especially when you’re in larger environments, that disappears quickly when you get up close. Overall The Surge does well visually but there’s definitely room from improvement on the in-house engine.
Mechanically The Surge is very much a souls inspired game, taking much of the core mechanics and translating them for its sci-fi setting. Combat is the same kind of punishing, reaction based affair that we’ve all come to hate/love, pitting you against the hardest opponent possible (yourself). The levels are laid out in much the same way as well, being relatively small in the grand scheme of things but feeling much larger due to their labyrinth like layouts. The currency of choice is “tech scrap” which is the same as souls/blood echoes, dropping from defeated enemies and found in clumps lying around. The Surge’s claim to fame is its unique upgrade system which is centred on crafting and upgrading various parts of rig using the same parts gathered from enemies. This has an interesting impact on combat, making you choose between dispatching enemies quickly vs getting the materials you’ll need for an upgrade. The mod system, which is somewhat akin to talent points (although they’re infinitely swappable), allows you to further customise your character by giving you various choices such as healing items, damage boosts and other improvements which can help refine your character. Honestly I was expecting this to be a kind of cheap Dark Souls clone (partly due to Focus Home Interactive publishing it) but it’s a fully fledged game in its own right.
Combat is punishing, frustrating and rewarding; all those things that you’ve come to expect from titles in this genre. If you’ve developed habits from other souls games they won’t help you here as the movesets are nothing like them at all, although you will be more aware of when an enemy might not be finished attacking. The extra layer that The Surge brings is in the form of being able to target various body parts, allowing you to go for more vulnerable areas that are highlighted in blue. As you attack you’ll build up energy which can be used for various abilities of which there are 2 innate ones (execution and drone) and a myriad of others. Choosing to execute will, if you selected a body part, have a chance to lop that bit off so you can pick it up and use it in crafting. However, and this is a key point that the game does not make clear, if you are after crafting materials the part you’re targeting must be armoured. Whilst you can retarget mid-fight to get damage in first and then change to your chop target your chances are far higher to successfully harvest a part if you wail on it first. For the most part it’s worth just going for the unarmoured part and using your energy for healing or other abilities, only going for armoured bits when you know what you need to farm.
Which brings me to The Surge’s progression mechanisms which, at a base level, are similar to the souls games. You gather tech scrap and can use that to level your core power. Whilst there are no stats to level up each time you will need a certain amount of core power to be able to use upgraded armour and mods (some of which scale with core power). In order to get those upgrades you’ll have to lop parts off enemies (1 time each of head, leg, weapon arm, other arm and chest) which will unlock the blueprint for you to craft it back at your safe house. You’ll also level up your weapon proficiency as you battle enemies, meaning that whilst you can use any weapon you pick up it will take some investment to make them worth while. The weapons also have a bunch of stats on them but they’re much more straightforward in terms of which one will be best for your particular play style or combat situation. So whilst the system might not be as deep or esoteric as the souls system it still offers an immense amount of customisation, something which you’ll need to make good use of unless you enjoy butting your head against a brick wall constantly.
One non-technical issue that The Surge struggles with is smooth changes in difficulty from section to section. Quite often I’d go from being comfortable in battling enemies in one section to being one shot by anything in another. Unlike other souls games, where the delineation between areas can be somewhat vague and so it’s hard to judge challenge between sections, The Surge has definitive sections marked by you using a train to travel between them. Thus it’s easy to see when the difficulty level has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Most of the time this meant struggling through the first section to unlock a shortcut before spending a bit of time farming up to get the next round of upgrades before continuing on, something which the game makes rather easy to do. Thinking about it more this could be a design decision, forcing you to upgrade before you can progress, but it could definitely have been done in a smoother fashion.
From a technical standpoint The Surge is fairly well polished, running both smoothly and at a consistent rate on my (admittedly overkill) rig. However the camera system needs some hefty work as it has a tendency to get confused, especially during high action. There were numerous times when the camera would pan to a view where my character simply wasn’t visible, often leading to a swift death as I try to right it and run away. This is not to mention that it’s quite clear that the AI is using my inputs to change it’s actions a couple frames ahead of me, like when enemies can turn around and attack you before they see you when you sneak up behind them. Once you know this you can adjust for it, baiting the enemies into actions that you’re not going to follow through on, but it can be a real pain in the ass when it uses that advanced information against you to say, interrupt a combo or prevent an execution. There’s also some pathing issues that can occur both with your character and with the NPCs, although they’re relatively small in the grand scheme of things. These are issues that I believe are solvable and would hope that Deck13 tackles them in a future patch.
Thankfully unlike other souls games The Surge doesn’t hide the best bits of its story in vague passages hidden away in the hardest to find secrets. Most of the story progression comes through interaction with other characters, listening to audio logs and reading small tid bits of information on a few consoles. The story builds up well, feeding you small bits of information which start to come together about halfway through the game. After then the various parts of the world start getting explained more explicitly and you uncover just what is happening and what your part to play in it is. The ultimate conclusion is a little unsatisfying, mostly because it leaves things wide open for interpretation. Even the choice of endings doesn’t appear to change much although there’s the possibility that it might have some impact on a sequel. Overall I’d say the story was above average and was definitely one of the aspects of The Surge that I enjoyed.
On first look The Surge might seem like a pale imitation of the games that inspired it but it becomes much more than that upon actually playing it. Sure the combat system is fundamentally a carbon copy but the additions make it different enough that I still found it enjoyable. Progression again is largely the same with the deviants being interesting and providing a solid mechanic to build up your character from nothing to someone who takes all comers. The overall experience could do with some polish such as upgrading various parts of the engine, reworking the camera code and changing some of the AI’s behaviour to be a little more fair (but still as punishing). The story is solid and well executed even if the ultimate conclusion could have been done better. For what its worth The Surge surprised me and whilst I might not yet be a souls veteran I definitely think fans of this genre could find a lot to like in it.
The Surge is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 49% of the achievements unlocked.