Review – The Surge
The action-RPG (roleplaying game) genre got a kick in the pants with the surprising popularity of Demon’s Souls (2009) and Dark Souls, hardcore-oriented games that feature permanent death as well as RPG elements like weapon/armor collection and upgrading core player attributes. The titles were even popular enough to spawn their own subgenre: ‘Souls-like’ games, which is largely just an excuse for people to argue about whether new games ‘belong’ in the subgenre or not.
German developer Deck13 dipped their toes in the waters with 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, releasing to mixed reaction as a game that I personally felt stuck a little too closely to the Souls formula. Deck13 has come out swinging for the fences with their second shot at the genre, eschewing the gothic fantasy trappings for a dystopian future full of robotic enemies in The Surge.
The game puts the player smack dab in that dystopian future – encased in your choice of two power armor rigs, designed for industrial work and favouring either speed or strength. I thought I was going to be treated to the standard tutorial level after that selection, only to have everything go sideways and leave me figuring things out for myself.
Combat proved simple at first, tasking me with taking out some flying robots with a few swings and introducing the system of vertical and horizontal attacks, then ramped up by introducing lock-on and the ability to target specific parts of the body. This serves two purposes in The Surge – not only do enemies sometimes take more damage if you target an unarmoured section of their body, it’s also the primary way to improve your own armor through lopping needed parts off your foe. If that’s not enough complexity, there’s also attacking high/low, holding the button for heavy swings, dash attacks, blocking, dodging, and counter attacks, executions….oh, and a drone who you can use in a variety of ways depending on how you configure it.
As enemies fall, tech scrap is earned – and the longer a player farms for scrap without visiting the base to use or bank it, the more they’ll earn. It’s a nice risk/reward function that Deck13 experimented with in Lords of the Fallen as well. Scrap is used, along with resources gathered from enemies, for the crafting/upgrade system, and for increasing the suit’s ability to use implants – add-ons that add skills or increase attributes.
Fighting also earns experience directly to the style of weapon being used, increasing their effectiveness and damage. This is a great touch that I loved because it took away the fear of needing to slog through pointless battles to level a new weapon up into effectiveness – at least when it was a weapon type I’d found and used already.
The upgrade and crafting system allows gamers to continue gaining power even into the NG+ (new game plus) mode – all the way up to NG+++ according to developers, though I’ve yet to see that for myself. These upgrades felt capped a bit, several times I hit a limit on what I could upgrade without beating a boss and moving into a new area, forcing me to finally confront the boss and figure out how to beat it.
For me the real star of the show is the level design, which continually surprised me with a new shortcut back to the base that I hadn’t expected. Elevators, hidden passageways, and destructible terrain combine to keep players guessing as to exactly how big the map is going to get and where they’ll be able to access next. Old areas need to be revisited from time to time, as they contain doors that can only be opened once your suit has hit a set power threshold – level 55 for one of the early ones, for example.
I found very few negatives came to mind for The Surge, with my main concern being that the story falls into the background as you fight enemies and forget the motivation for why you’re doing it. Characters you run into are decently written and unique, but it’s hard to care what they think or why they’re choosing to hide in the base when I have a 25 foot tall robot to go fight.
Visuals could use some cleaning up as there are a few lower-resolution textures on the armour and weapons, especially when the game’s camera is forced into an inadvertent closeup, but the game runs well and that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day of the week. The overall package is impressive, with visuals and audio combining to really up the tension when venturing into dark underground areas.