Help build a better future with CREO!
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Format: Xbox One, PS4, PC (Reviewed)
Released: May 16, 2017
The Surge could have been an excellent game. The mere concept of a brutal journey through the labyrinthian innards of a monolithic mega-corporation was bound to pique my interest, especially when you get to wield chunky industrial equipment as weapons and armour. As the credits rolled however I was left frustrated by how much the game had stumbled in its final hours. And yet, despite leaving me with a distinctly Mass Effect 3 taste in my mouth, I’m glad to say that the majority of the game still has me wanting to return for another round of industrial death and dismemberment.
Developed by Deck13 Interactive, The Surge isn’t the first game to try and ride the coattails of Dark Souls, and it certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, they’d already taken a stab at the high difficulty action-RPG genre with 2014’s fairly average Lords of the Fallen. Clearly, they’ve learnt from that previous attempt, as The Surge is willing to try and make its own name in the genre without leaning on the assumption that high difficulty and remorseless challenge were the only things that made the original Dark Souls such a masterpiece. Though the pieces don’t fit together as perfectly as they could have, Deck13 have still shown significant skill in building a game that encourages exploration into the darkest corners of its world, and rewards you for patience and thorough exploration as much as it does for quick reflexes. I’m a little surprised it’s taken this long for a sci-fi “Soulslike” to be released, as a dystopian future where there’s pretty much no hope of pulling the world from the brink of death seems a perfect fit for the bleak themes that feature so often in this genre of game.
You take the role of Warren on his first day as a CREO employee. In a surprisingly thoughtful opening act, we can come to understand why our protagonist would volunteer to have a mechanical frame drilled into his body. The promise of a way to walk again can be a powerful incentive, and making you start the game reliant on a wheelchair for mobility is a surprisingly thoughtful decision. The game doesn’t have many more moments like this, but it’s an excellent start for sure. Naturally the situation rather rapidly escalates into a total collapse of society in the CREO complex, with Warren forced into a desperate fight for survival while trying to navigate the enormous industrial complexes of his brand-new workplace. You can’t help but wonder why the few remaining sane people have no idea what caused the catastrophe, and what the executives up in their glittering office tower are doing about the situation.
Waking up in a junkyard with nothing but your newly minted exosuit and trusty pipe to protect you, you’re steadily introduced to the basic gameplay mechanics you’ll need to survive. Combat will be immediately familiar to those who’ve played similar games, while your sci-fi Bonfire equivalent is the “Ops Centre”. Ops Centres contain stations for upgrading your equipment and equipping implants. Upgrading armour and weapons is useful if nothing special, but your implant accessories can make an enormous difference.
Early on your implants will be providing you simple abilities like limited-use healing items, health bars for foes, or boosts to your stamina and health. As you progress you’ll end up with items that provide immunity to poisons, enable powerful temporary boosts to your damage, or let you track hidden loot items. Some of these implants can be swapped at any time, while many more powerful ones can only be connected while in the Medbay of the Ops Centre. Some of these implants require energy to be useable, which of course is only built up by smacking an enemy with your weapon of choice.
Everyone knows that half the fun of these games is finding the sweetest armour and coolest weapons for your adventures, and the bewildering array of sharp and heavy objects you can wield in this game offers plenty of choice for your preferred method of dealing damage. Many of the weapons you can use are absurdly unsafe industrial equipment, easily repurposed for more violent activities. Defeating security forces and certain bosses is the only way of getting equipment that is actually designed to be lethal, though they don’t hold major advantages over your standard weapons. Your trusty hunk of pipe from the start of the game will quickly be replaced by a handheld vibro-cutter, and then a huge arm-mounted plasma saw.
From here, your loadout only escalates further, including huge rivet guns being repurposed into hammers, and exosuit-assisted forklift arms becoming deadly claws. My personal favourite was a secret variant of the arm-mounted plasma cutter, sporting a sickly red glow instead of a pleasant blue due to its containment fields being damaged. Not to be outdone by the excessiveness of your weapons, the armour you can equip is just as ostentatious and fun to collect.
Armour, or “Gear” as it’s referred to in The Surge, is divided into each individual limb, along with your head and torso. As each piece of Gear is attached directly to your exosuit, you can mix and match to your hearts content. To encourage completing each armour set, wearing all 5 pieces at once provide special and unique buffs. The bright orange LYNX Gear provides a boost to your attack speed when you’re at high health, while the slick looking experimental SCARAB Gear buffs the effect of your Vitality implants. Your humanoid foes also wear the same armour as you, giving you an indication of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the loot you can retrieve if you dismember them.
Dismemberment and limb-targeting is one of the game’s biggest selling points, and I will happily admit to feeling childish glee with each over the top execution. While fighting foes, you can select individual parts of their body as your primary target, rather than simply swinging at their centre of mass. This lets you clearly see what parts of their body have armour, allowing you to choose between attacking the weak points to end a fight quickly, or spending time striking an armoured area to prepare it for a gruesome dismembering kill.
If you have sufficient energy built up and your opponent is badly wounded, you can trigger a lethal cutscene to quickly finish the job. And if you’ve hurt a part of their body sufficiently, Warren will brutally tear off the part of the body you critically damaged. From a swift decapitation to pinning the foe to the ground while you tear off their arm, each weapon and each targetable point has a stylish method of execution. Most importantly, the body part that you separate grants an extremely high chance to drop whatever equipment it had attached. Bisecting them at the waist will usually net you their torso Gear, while their right arm can net you both their weapon and their arm Gear if they happen to have both.
Once you’ve collected a Gear schematic and constructed it at an Ops Centre, looting that same piece of armour provides you the items used to upgrade that particular type of equipment. This pick-and-choose mutilation makes even repeat encounters far less tedious, as you’ll at least be rewarded with some nice loot and tremendous gouts of blood and crackling electricity when you finish off your hapless victim. Taking your spoils back to the Ops Centre was always immensely satisfying, especially when you got to step back into the action decked out in your snazzy new suit and a crackling blade of energy at your fingertips.
Much like Dark Souls, one of the biggest factors for difficulty in The Surge is how the area itself is often designed to keep you at a disadvantage. For almost the entire game I was incredibly pleased with how well thought out the areas were, never becoming hard enough to feel unfair while still finding inventive ways to challenge me. Perhaps most importantly, both Dark Souls and The Surge have a world that not only feels great to explore, but more often than not loops back in on itself in subtle ways, unlocking shortcuts and alternate routes as you progress.
The Surge doesn’t have one interconnecting map to explore, but instead has multiple smaller areas separated by loading screens that you travel between. But this small concession does very little to affect the flow of the game, and at least seems to have helped the map designers pour a great deal of effort into making each individual space both believably designed and genuinely fun to explore. Over the entirety of the game, I was consistently surprised with how often a route would loop back without me even realizing, opening pathways that I had simply not noticed on my first pass through.
There’s a point in most games like this where you’ve been introduced to all the tricks they can throw at you, so it can comfortably pit you against all the different hazards you’ve encountered before without feeling unfair. Generally speaking this tends to be right at the end of the game, and I assumed no different in The Surge. I’d enjoyed wandering the blood-spattered industrial hallways. I’d loved fighting my way through the progressively harder areas, bouncing back after each death wielding foresight and swanky new equipment to counter my foes. I never did figure out how best to deal with the flamethrower-wielding enemies though. Whoever designed them should take a moment to consider why they hate people so much. I’d even grown fond of the silly barely-there story, probably due to the surprising quality of the voice acting and its reliance on delicious titbits rather than excessive exposition.
I made my way through what I thought was the final area, as the stories of the few people I’d met reached their conclusions. Some of the revelations were unsurprising but still well written, while others were genuinely a shock. The cause of all the madness around me was revealed, as well as the difficult choice ahead of me. Realizing I still had one last step ahead of me I descended into the most secure part of the CREO complex, ready to escape this nightmare.
This final level felt almost like it had been placed there as an afterthought, or was rushed out without being given the same care and attention as the rest of the game. Unlike so much of the world I’d previously explored it was hard to navigate and harder to backtrack, drastically increasing how much time I spent pointlessly wandering the same few corridors. There were a few new foes revealed which briefly caught me off guard, but I felt their designs and combat styles had been thought through far less thoroughly than most other opponents.
The last boss had a direct relation to the new enemies I’d encountered, but a part of me had still hoped that they’d at least try to put an inventive spin on the final challenge of the game. They’d hinted at so many possibilities surrounding the last encounter, ranging from musings on its very nature, to how little chance humanity had against something so powerful. With all this foreshadowing, it suffered from the same bland design as its brethren, and a disappointingly straightforward fight for something that managed to bring down an entire megacorporation from the inside. I couldn’t help but wonder what had forced Deck13 to rush this game out without giving the final chapter of this game the polish it clearly lacked, as that could well have made all the difference.
It’s hard ending such an excellent journey with such a bitter aftertaste. I very much wish I could say that this game was a full 5 out 5, but I had to push myself to actually finish it. If you love the challenge that a “Souslike” game offers and don’t mind retraining your habits, then The Surge is certainly worth playing. Hell, I’d even say that it’s worth picking up just to see a colourful post-apocalyptic world, and factory levels that are actually both fun and satisfying to explore. Just be ready for everything I’ve praised to be thrown out the window in the last two or three hours.
Come for the chunky robot dismemberment, don’t stay for the finale