The Surge Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
At the outset The Surge feels like a cross between Deus Ex and The Crystal Maze, a 90s UK TV show recently brought back to life as an experience for anyone to enjoy. The opening sequence sees you as Warren, who is in a wheelchair, on his way to join an organisation called Creo. As you move through the opening area you’re presented with a choice of character class - Lynx, or Rhino. After you make your choice you’ll witness a cutscene whereby Warren has some kind of a rig grafted to his body in the most painful and horrific way. Nice. Thereafter you’ll awaken in an environment modelled on the industrial zone in the aforementioned TV show with a significant problem surrounding your core power source, and the world itself looks like something has gone horribly wrong.
The class you pick at the start doesn’t really matter, which is good as there’s little understanding of the choice you’re making when you have to make it. Throughout your playthrough you’ll defeat a lot of enemies and this will garner you tech scrap, or XP in generic language. Tech scrap as well as various other resources can be found lying around and is also dropped by defeated enemies - loot! Other items you’ll gather will be all kinds of resources, from schematics to equipment to body parts. Tech scrap is used to level up your rig when you’re in an operations room (think Dark Souls’ bonfires) and that in turn opens up more implant slots and provides more power to run your loadout of implants. The cool thing about this levelling is that you don’t have to choose what build type you want to be in any given playthrough, as you would in other third-person action RPGs, such as Bloodborne. Here you can vary your build by swapping out implants. This means you can rock a tank-like build if you feel that’s the way through a particularly damaging area or boss fight, or you can skimp on the health and armour and play with various toys instead, like drones. Obviously to change your way of playing you need to have gathered the various items required to do so, but as you near endgame it makes for wonderful variety and ensures your progress through the game will continuously involve checking what you can be as well as actually being what you can be.
You learn about the world and what’s happened - as well as more information about the organisation which you joined (Creo) - via audio logs scattered throughout the game world. The story itself is nothing overly unique but it would be remiss to delve into too many details here as learning for yourself is the best way to experience things, even if you are liable to miss pieces out this way. In the case of The Surge it’s secondary to the central tenet of the game which is to explore, fight and grow your character in this third-person action adventure RPG. By doing this you will learn more about Creo, its desire to save humanity and what happened resulting in this post-apocalyptic world in which Warren can now walk, but is fought by anything and everything.
Deck13 gave us Lords of the Fallen in 2014 which was a direct result of the success of From Software’s Dark Souls series. In many ways it replicated the game but failed to light the fire in quite the same way. With The Surge Deck13 has taken what it learnt from the previous game and chosen a completely different world to set things in, brought in some interesting new concepts and taken ideas from other games. All told, it results in a mixed bag. For instance when you die - which is inevitably multiple times - everything is reset and you are returned to the most recently visited operations room. Enemies are back in place but all opened doors, gathered items and so on are still open or in your inventory. So far, so familiar. Of course death led to you losing any tech scrap you had on your person, and it can be collected by returning to where you died. That’s fine, except for the time limit in place forcing you to rush to gather your lost experience points or otherwise forgetting about them entirely. In a game where you learn and improve, hopefully making some level of progress each time, it can be a little galling to have to rush an area to maintain your progress. Especially if you then have no idea where you are and end up dying again before you can bank it all. This is a particular problem given the whole game plays out in effectively the same setting. There’s little to no environmental variety which means the game’s lacking in great visual cues to remind you where you are, or where to go. Spending multiple hours in the industrial zone isn’t the best, to be honest.
Combat is a core focus in the game. For whatever reason pretty much everyone in the world is out to get you once they see you coming and whilst you can run past them and they will give up any chase, you’ll find in practice this is only sensible once you’ve garnered all the resources you need from that area, or when you know where you’re going and you’re just trying to make it back quickly. When you fight, it’s third-person action melee central. You can lock-on to any given baddie (and in theory switch between any number on screen at once but this can be a little hit-and-miss) and you have horizontal and vertical strikes. The actual power or type of attack will be dependent on the weapon loadout you have configured but this immediately brings into play an element of complexity over random button-bashing. Brilliantly you can also dodge attacks by pressing a button and moving the left stick in the appropriate direction. I say brilliant because it’s going to be your go-to defensive tactic. It’s quick and although it uses up some of your stamina bar (as does any attack) it allows you to avoid anything if you’re on the ball, and can be used to position yourself for a better attack, or backstab, if you get right behind your foe. You could block if you wanted to, but it’s entirely nerfed in this game. You can’t move when blocking. So why would you bother unless caught totally unawares? Dodging is overpowered by far in comparison.
So far so usual for anyone who’s played similar games in the past. Where Deck13 changes things up is in the potential to pick specific parts of your opponent’s body to attack (a la Dead Space). This is useful for two reasons - one, they’ll have weaknesses and it makes sense to leverage that, but you might also want to lop someone's head off because you want to upgrade your own headgear. Once you have worn someone down, you have the option to execute a finishing move on them. It’s a nice little animation to watch but it’s not interactive and over time might get a little tedious. Combat gets harder as you move through the game, and different enemies attack in varied ways meaning you need to step it up to carry on, but I didn’t get that feeling of continuous learning or continuous improvement. At times I didn’t know why I’d failed or why I’d won. I wasn’t necessarily able to move on and apply what I’d learnt to the boss fights either which isn’t really the way it should be.
In-game you have three meters to manage eventually. Health - can be fixed by vials available at the start, or other methods in time if you have the right implants and upgrade. Stamina will refill at a pace befitting your specific loadout and is essential if you want to attack anyone. Finally, there is an energy bar which can be used to power certain implants. Implants are genius in that it makes it super easy to change your character’s build. This ensures you can revamp the combat and keep things entertaining for longer, or alternative playthroughs. Given a long enough time in this game, though, the combat does start to feel a little samey, a little less than pixel-perfect in its feel and response. It’s a shame as fighting is the crux of the game and while it’s never bad, it feels more flashy than effective in the end.
If you get turned on by the metagame of collecting schematics and resources, crafting implants, weapons and armour and therefore continually changing the way you play, you’re in for a good time for somewhere between twenty and thirty hours on one playthrough. The world is different enough to any of the games which have influenced The Surge and the world, although very samey, is well mapped-out with lots of clever shortcuts to be found which make you go “aha!”, nearly like the first one in the Undead Burg (a location in Dark Souls’ Lordran) did all those years ago - which is awesome. In fact, there are few feelings as warm and fuzzy in the whole of gaming than opening a door or gate or whatever to find you’re back where you began, or where you were sometime ago. This is a rare moment of brilliance though in a game where everything else is merely good. The Surge challenges all who play it and it’s not always fair, nor do you get the sense of steady growth common to similar games in the genre, but it’s well within the realms of any experienced gamer to complete should they choose to. And frankly most would want to. It’s not in any way a perfect game and it has problems but alongside that there are a number of things to enjoy, some new and some old, and the overall experience is well timed to ensure it doesn’t overstay its welcome.