Everyone’s got that one friend. You know the guy. He lacks discretion, or maybe he just doesn’t care. Either way, he says what’s on his mind. Sometimes, it hurts, and you kind of hate him, but you can’t deny that he’s got charisma. He makes you laugh, so you can let slide a few silly indiscretions here and there. Let’s call this friend Dark Souls.
But Dark Souls has this younger cousin that’s constantly hanging around him. This cousin looks up to Dark Souls. He wants to be exactly like Dark Souls. So he takes a few cues from Dark Souls and runs his mouth. The problem is, he doesn’t possess his older cousin’s charms. He says the wrong things in the wrong way. That guy’s name is The Surge.
Deck13’s latest Souls-like action RPG, The Surge, means well. Its heart is in the right place, and it’s competent in a lot of ways. But when you’re going to make a game that’s punishing and unforgiving in its difficulty, charisma goes a long way towards propelling the player forward. It’s an issue of charm, and in that Deck13 still has a lot to learn from the series that inspired it most.
Unlike the studio’s previous efforts, 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, The Surge distances itself from the tried-and-true dark fantasy formula and leaps full-force into bringing its tough-as-nails melee-based combat into a sci-fi setting. You play as the painfully generic Warren, who’s starting a new job at mega corporation Creo. The twist is that Warren is in a wheelchair, and part of the reason he wants to work at Creo is that the tech giant has developed exo-suits that will allow him to walk again.
But as soon as he gets set up with his new metal legs, the neural link in his exo-suit malfunctions. Warren passes out for an undisclosed amount of time, and when he wakes up, killer robots and brainwashed cyborg employees have taken over the ruins of what once was Creo. As Warren, you must make your way to the tippy-top floor and set free the Creo executives that are trapped at the top, in the hopes that someone can put an end to the robo-rampage, all the while battling for survival against deadly enemies in your makeshift mechsuit.
If the story doesn’t sound particularly engaging, that’s because it’s not. It starts off strong enough, taking a page out of Half-Life’s book with a fateful tram commute into a huge scientific complex. A neat camera trick saves the reveal that Warren is in fact in a wheelchair, lending some decent motivations to his decision to get himself drilled full of holes (which is portrayed in a beautifully rendered and grotesque cut-scene) and have a metal skeleton grafted to his body.
Beyond this intriguing opening, however, Warren’’s story is basically nonexistent. He has to go from one medbay safe-zone to the next because a mysterious Creo “board member” named Sally is telling him to and he doesn’t have any better ideas. Sprinkled throughout the game are collectible audio logs that serve to fill in Creo’s backstory and how exactly killer robots came into power. In that way, you’re experiencing the drama of the past by fighting through its future. Hey, if it worked for Bioshock, it can work in The Surge, right?
Well, yes and no. The audio logs themselves are, taken as a whole, fairly engaging, and as you collect more and more, the drama and tension in Creo’s downfall ramps up nicely. However, unlike in Bioshock, the main character’s trial isn’t nearly as interesting as the backstory it reveals. I didn’t care about Warren whatsoever, and it doesn’t help that customization beyond outfitting gear and choosing a weapon to focus on is totally lacking. If I’m going to play as a character that has less personality than the ‘roided-out toaster he physically resembles, can’t I at least decide what he or she looks like and feel a connection to him or her in that way? How am I supposed to feel invested in a characterless character if I can’t even give him a funny haircut or a goofy chin?
It would surely make having my skull repeatedly crushed by robotic rivals less monotonous if I at least cared about my character enough to keep him alive. Sure, Dark Souls is often dumped on for its lack of character development, but at least in the Souls series I can make my character look like John Cleese made love to a frog and then painted his offspring as blue as Violet Beauregarde and feel a weirdly intense, very specific emotional connection to him because I made him. He is my completely unique creation, and I want to keep him alive as long as possible. I want him to be the hero. As far as I’m concerned, The Surge’s Warren could have died, his tale ending prematurely and violently, deep in the bowels of Creo’s carcass, and I would’ve been fine with that. Just fine.
The only real customization that The Surge offers is in its gear loadout, and this is where the game shines. Taking a piecemeal approach to how you outfit your particular Warren, you can either have a character suited up like an oversized Tonka truck in heavy Rhino armor, you can be hopping around without having to worry about stamina in a full suit of Lynx armor, or you can mix and match the generously diverse types of armor to specify exactly what buffs you want and create a loadout that truly suits your play-style and needs.
That’s because each piece of gear you equip will come with a tradeoff, and each type of gear—whether it’s a helmet, an arm piece, a leg piece, or a body piece—will affect a particular stat. For instance, your Lynx leg piece might drain less of your stamina, while it’s weak defense and low stability make you more vulnerable to attacks. However, you can balance that by, say, equipping a Proteus arm module, which gives you higher defense, higher stability, and increases your attack speed. Then again, if you decide to don a full set of a particular class of armor, you will be treated to unique, specific passive buffs that can completely change the way you play the game. The only option you don’t have when it comes to gear is that you will inevitably look like a jacked-up Optimus Prime no matter what armor you equip.
The Surge is obsessed with gear, to the point where it’s fully integrated into how you approach combat situations. Like most souls-like games, including Lords of the Fallen, combat is based on intense third-person melee combat against humanoid (brain-washed, armored humans) and beastlike (robot) enemies with the aid of a lock-on mechanic. However, this is where The Surge strays from the formula by allowing you to target specific body parts.
This limb-specific system introduces a fascinating risk/reward mechanic. You can dispatch enemies fairly quickly if you target their weak, unarmored body parts. But if you want new gear, you’ll have to attack armored body parts, which prolongs the battle and, given how quickly enemies can take you down, increases the likelihood that you will die.
While in combat, the more times you hit an armored limb, the better chance you have of executing a gruesome finishing move that will rend said limb from your enemy’s body. This will result in enemies dropping the materials necessary to build and upgrade your armor for that specific body part. So if you cut off an arm, you get material to craft or upgrade your arm pieces. If you cut off a leg, you get material for your leg pieces, and so on. Higher level enemies will drop higher level loot, meaning that this method of gear procurement stays relevant even in late-game situations.
Combat itself is fun enough. You have two attack types, vertical and horizontal, that you can string into deadly combos. Each attack type will do more damage to specific body parts, so if you’re targeting an enemy’s leg, you’d want to use a vertical attack, while horizontal attacks are generally better for lopping off an enemy’s arm. Defensively, you can dodge attacks or you can block. However, holding down the block button will cause your stamina to quickly drain, so it’s best to time your blocks carefully and then follow up with a swift, punishing counterattack. Different weapon types have different attack patterns, so depending on your preferred play-style, you can cater the combat to work in your favor.
As much as it adds to the game, this limb-specific targeting system also leads to some of my biggest problems with The Surge. The obsession with chopping off specific limbs for specific gear types means you’ll be fighting the same type of enemy over and over again. Besides a smattering of three or four different robot enemies, every enemy in the game is a human wearing bulky, mechanical armor. The only thing that changes about them is what specific armor they’re wearing and what kind of weapon they’re using. This is definitely an area where The Surge could have used some of that Dark Souls charm, where every new area is packed with new monstrosities, whose grotesque designs and unique attack patterns create a giddiness upon discovery.
The lock-on targeting presents its own issues as well. Too many times I found myself the victim of a lock-on system that would refuse to target an enemy that was charging me or a camera that simply could not deal with the game’s claustrophobic, monotonous level design, and I’d end up trapping myself in a corner to be mercilessly wailed on by enemies.
The lock-on targeting was especially problematic during boss fights. Bosses with spider-like limbs made targeting an absolute nightmare and led to way more deaths than I actually deserved (which, counted on their own, were already a lot). That’s not even counting one particular boss fight, which was so frustrating that would have caused me to stop playing the game outright if it wasn’t my job to finish and review it. Not only would the lock-on refuse to target parts of the boss closest to me, leading to an ungodly amount of deaths, but one particular part of the boss kept glitching into the ground, making it impossible to progress in the fight.
Speaking of bosses, while they’re definitely a nice change of pace from the normal, routine enemy types, there’s only five of them, which compared to the number of bosses in Dark Souls games, seems more like an amount you’d see in a DLC, not a full retail release. However, given that most of the bosses are defeated less by skillful dodging and blocking and more by discovering an incredibly obscure trick to beating them or by simply cheesing them by spamming the same running attack over and over, only having to do that five times might be the biggest act of mercy the developers show you throughout the game. And, just like with the normal enemies, while the bosses in Dark Souls games are poetically monstrous abominations, the bosses in The Surge are rejected Eggman inventions that would blend in with the scenery if they weren’t trying to kill you.
I don’t mean to keep comparing it to Dark Souls, but it so clearly wants to be that. You still get souls (or, in this case, “tech scrap”) for killing enemies, which you can spend on leveling up and building or upgrading armor. If you die, you drop your pile of scraps, which you have one chance to retrieve. You still have to make your way from medbay to medbay (this game’s version of a bonfire), unlocking new short-cuts along the way. All the broad strokes are there.
But there’s a level of polish and imagination in Dark Souls that, frankly, I’m not sure Deck13 is capable of. Whereas Dark Souls’ environments look like they were taken straight out of a romantic painting, The Surge looks most like a video game. The duplicated assets that are present in every game seem to disappear in Dark Souls because the design is stunning and inspired. In The Surge, with its repeated textures and boxes and overall boring visual design, that copy-and-paste work is on full display.
That’s not to say The Surge is a bad game. I enjoyed it a decent amount and felt accomplished when I beat it. But what I felt most when the game ended (abruptly with what can barely be called a cut-scene) was relief. I was so glad I didn’t have to play it anymore. It’s a game that asks a lot and gives little in return. It’s a game that has no business being as grueling as it is. It’s a game that lacks, well, soul.
|Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • Developer: Deck13 • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.16.17|
The Surge’s engaging risk/reward combat system and obsession with gear will compel you to want to fight your way through a cataclysmic sci-fi hell. But the repetitive enemy types, uninspired visual design, and unfortunate lack of polish leaves the game feeling soulless.
|The Good||A unique risk/reward combat system makes obtaining new gear and upgrades an active, addictive pursuit.|
|The Bad||An unimaginative story, along with a lack of variety in enemies and environments, make a 20-hour game feel twice as long.|
|The Ugly||Random glitches and an unpredictable targeting system can lead to extended boss fights with seemingly no end in sight.|
|The Surge is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|