A brave new world for an existing genre
THE SURGE 2017, XBOX ONE X
The Surge is a strange amalgamation that works surprisingly well considering it’s core ingredients. Developed by Deck13 who you might recognize as the people behind Lords of the Fallen, it is clear that they learned a lot from their previous excursion into the “Souls” genre and applied those lessons well to an entirely new and exciting setting. Taking place in the not so distant future where Earth is unsurprisingly struggling, the Creo corporation is here to save the day through it’s vast catalogue of technological innovations. What could possibly go wrong in a world where we’re all connected through a vast neural network and a corporation is left unchecked to fix the planet?
In the Surge you take on the role of Warren, a brand new employee of Creo in the manual labor department, who is about to have a profoundly bad first day on the job. After an operation designed to outfit you with a mechanized exo-skeleton goes sideways in a rather gruesome cutscene, you wake up at the outskirts of the Creo facilities where things have visibly taken a turn for the worse. Robots are aggressive, co-workers have taken a liking to slamming their faces against the nearest surface in a fixed daze, and the factory itself is in serious disarray. Mondays, am I right?
The general gameplay loop is something instantly familiar to any person that has touched this type of game before. You make your way through an area, felling foes and ultimately unlocking shortcuts along the way that let you circumvent large parts of the level until you reach a boss encounter that impedes further progress. Should you die all the enemies reset but all the progress you've made doesn't, like unlocked doors or all the statically placed items you've picked up along. The Surge plays by all these rules right down to old tricks like an item placed in front of some crates will have an enemy burst through right as you pick it up. The formula here doesn't so much diverge as much as it evolves, laying on top of a solid foundation a new layer of systems that all neatly tie into the futuristic aesthetic of the game. You're not just a guy in space armor, swinging a space sword. The reasoning behind the melee focused combat and armor fits right into the motif of being an assembly line worker in a huge factory that utilizes exo-skeletons to maximize production. In fact in real life Ford factories are already equipping some of their employees that work underneath cars with simplistic exo-skeletons that help to alleviate muscle strain from having to hold your arms up all day when working on the undercarriage. Dead Space used a similar idea of presenting weapons simply as future space tools to great effect when they presented their version of a sci-fi twist on an existing formula, evolving the survival horror genre into something more, and The Surge manages to succeed in much the same way.
Your newly acquired “rig” – the exo-skeleton grafted to your body – will serve as the primary tool in figuring out what has happened and is the most interesting differentiator from the classic Souls formula. The conceit for leveling is quite clever in that you are powering up your rigs Core power level. Higher end “gear” for instance will require more energy to operate, and heavier armor will take up more juice per body part then their lightweight equivalent. More physical durability through heavier armor means less power to dedicate to your implants. Certain doors and panels instead of keys will require a higher power level to bypass them. In a refreshing change of pace this all sort of makes logical sense, as opposed to consuming souls in order to swing a bigger sword. Gating feels organic when you open up new areas in tandem as you naturally get stronger yourself, which in turn eliminates the issue of walking into places where you clearly should not be. Your power level also manages a skills and perks system which takes the form of implants that you can swap in and out in Ops – the small safe havens found in each zone which allow you to level up, craft and upgrade new gear. Implants which are found strewn throughout the world can be passive stat boosts like increasing your max health, or active abilities like healing or damage buffs. All implants are governed by a Core power cost and can be readily swapped in and out in an Ops safe room, or even stacked to amplify their effects. This system allows for an amazing degree of flexibility when it comes to how you want to play the game as long as you balance out your Core power with the implant requirements. You can forego an additional healing implant that grants you a set amount of one time heals in favor of slotting in a HP boost that will allow you to take one more hit before dying. You can prioritize stamina regeneration over damage or even stack yourself with a bunch of implants that increase the amount of “Scrap” – the games leveling currency – acquired per kill. Since you’re never locked in to any one setup it becomes a fun game of micromanaging these implants along with your armor and weapons to best fit your playstyle and situation. If a boss is giving you trouble then maybe give yourself a bunch of healing items to maximize your chances of enduring the entire fight.
Similarly the acquisition of new equipment is tied to a clever and satisfying gameplay mechanic – enemy dismemberment.. Combat in the Surge is initially familiar to any veteran of the Souls games. You have a light and heavy attack that is governed by a stamina bar. Attacks have quite a bit of animation priority attached to them so you quickly learn patterns that you can get away with and ones you can’t. Get too greedy and suffer the consequence of not being able to cancel out in time before getting counter attacked. Theres even a wonky backstab that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t as well as a really satisfying running attack where you slide across the ground sending sparks flying everywhere. What differentiates The Surge is the ability to target limbs on every enemy, and subsequently chop them off. The idea is that what you see is what you get. Cutting off someones arm will yield you a schematic for constructing the very same type of armor they were equipped with. If you want the whole set you will have to dismember each part of the enemy and collect all the schematics, arm, leg, torso and head. This comes with a risk-reward system. Every suit of “armor” has it’s own unique bonus for wearing the complete set but mix and matching doesn’t incur any penalties either so you can fashion it up while keeping an eye on the stats that matter the most to you. Unarmored body parts will stagger enemies allowing you to get that extra few hits in, but they don’t drop schematics. On the flipside armored body parts have a higher resistance to your attacks but will yield schematics or in the case of parts you already own, crafting materials. It’s a mechanic that never gets old and even features a cinematic camera for highlighting the gruesome finishing move – some of which are quite spectacular. In case you do get bored there is even a menu option that controls their frequency and duration. Furthermore this ties into a simple but engaging crafting component that allows you to upgrade your weapons and armor using parts from your slain adversaries. It's simple, which is a good thing, and transparent in that you need arm pieces to upgrade your arm gear and you're not left scratching your head what each resource does as it's all laid out pretty plain and simple in the crafting interface. If you want to dig deeper The Surge is absolutely chock-full of system upon system that you might never notice and that quite frankly are never really explained all that well. There are perfect counters that consume less stamina. There are perfect attacks, that if tapped out in a specific rhythm will consume less stamina. There are special combos for every weapon type. There is a scrap multiplier that increases the amount of scrap you earn from enemies the longer you play without visiting a safe room. There are specific ways to defeat bosses in order to gain better versions of their weapons. There is a weapon proficiency system that may level up faster as you kill instead of dismember - I'm still not sure. There is even an absolutely pointless evasive mechanic that lets you jump over incoming attacks or crouch underneath them as you hold down the block button. Thankfully.. you can play the game without ever knowing or engaging with any of these systems, but should you want to they are there.
All in all the Surge is this strange mix of Bloodborne and Dead Space that hits a real sweet spot for a sci-fi enthusiast like myself. Much like Bloodborne the combat favors aggression over turtling. There are no shields and blocking is generally not a wise idea apart from a few specific enemies. Attacking nets you energy which can in turn be used for dismemberment, healing abilities or powering passive buffs that activate when a specific energy threshold is met. When you get low on health you can choose to spend your energy to finish off a foe with a dismemberment, or kill them the classic way and used that stored up energy to heal instead. You are constantly motivated to stay in the face of whatever you’re fighting instead of doing hit and runs. Even the death mechanic rewards aggression as you have a limited amount of time to recover your dropped “Scrap” after dying, but defeating enemies along the way back to your corpse will increase the timer. Despite the game centering around heavy mech suits the combat is surprisingly frenetic and agile thanks in part to a really good dodge move. On the flipside the Dead Space influences are also front and center. Everything you encounter is in some way a part of the Creo corporation. The humanoid enemies are workers whose neural implants have gone haywire. The “monsters” are simply worker robots whose circuits have similarly gotten crossed. Your armor and weapons are tools used for welding or cutting out in the yards. State of the art rig hardware that is meant to make you more than human. There is a very strong future-industrial feel to it all not unlike the Dead Space series. Most importantly it all more or less works - you do actually feel like this is a facility that has malfunctioned on a serious level and you’re just a guy doing your best to make your way through this mess using the tools you find lying around. A boss encounter with a rogue droid for example is preempted by an audiolog where a random employee is imploring his co-workers to stop staging robot fights because the corporate guys from up top are getting on his back about it.
Mechanically I think the Surge is a really compelling and interesting package, it’s the story and level design where the game takes a dip in quality. The narrative starts strong with plenty of questions and a unique setup. As you make your way through the world you encounter TV screens where a Mark Zuckerberg stand in will extol the virtues of Creo in a very corporate fashion. In Creo were all part of a family, he muses after describing how the neuro chip implanted in your head will allow you to communicate faster with your fellow co-workers, trimming the fat from the conversation. Sadly that strong start and intriguing initial hours start to wane in the latter part of the game as the narrative takes a sharp left turn and it feels like a couple of pages from the script were lost along the way. The ending is particularly lacking with a short cinematic that while not as enigmatic as your typical Souls ending, is equally anemic in answers or a resolution. After all that hard work Warren goes through you’d feel there would be a stronger payoff.
Level design is a mixed bag that oscillates between “fine” and a confusing mess. The Surge is divided into several large areas separated by tram loading zones. Sadly every area is a mix of industrial grey walls with plenty of tiles being re-used throughout. The most egregious element are the access tunnels you will frequently find yourself crawling through. These dark passages all look the same and are used to tie areas together in confusing twists and turns. In an effort to create shortcuts that loop around to earlier sections these passages become absolute mazes that will test your internal compass and more often than not left me absolutely confused where I was and how I got there. It doesn’t help that the industrial motif is persistent throughout and since the action is mostly indoors you have a hard time finding landmarks of where you are in relation to where you’re going. Sterile warehouse-like rooms with the occasional mutilated body in a corner begin to all bleed together into one long hallway. For a sci-fi game that can really go crazy with it’s environments it’s a real letdown that most of the design feels so uninspired even towards the end of the game when things should really start getting weird. Even the top secret R&D laboratory is just another hue of the drab grey hallways we’ve seen everywhere else with an occasional "experiment" display case here and there. It certainly doesn't help that the final area is the most confusing mess of corridors and floors to date, with possibly one of the worst new enemies types being introduced that require a fidgety overload mechanic to overcome - regenerating enemies is one cue the Surge didn't need to take away from Dead Space.
It’s not perfect, but it’s different enough that you can overlook some of the shortcomings in favor of the welcome changes to an established formula. There are a sparse few NPC’s and their questlines are a lot more straightforward than what you would typically expect in a game like this. Bosses aren’t intimidating roadblocks to painfully overcome but rather challenging punctuation in an evolving narrative. There are a few secrets and items to go back to when you gain the right equipment which is always satisfying. The New Game + mode is said to contain evolving additions to the gameplay well past the third go-around (I did a quick run through of the first area past the boss and encounter all of two new enemies but maybe this changes the further you go in). But what kept me coming back for more is that The Surge is just fun to play. Your character is fairly nimble and all the customization options help keep the game feeling fresh as you experiment and find new pieces of gear. Combat is flashy and generally responsive and the entire limb targeting system is incredibly creative in this context. If you have played these type of games before and are looking for something fresh and exciting then the Surge most definitely delivers, and if you love sci-fi as opposed to swords and clanky armor as I do then this will hit the sweet spot. It might not be perfect, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.