The Surge Review – More than Lords of the Fallen?
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release: 16th May 2017
Price: 49.99 (PC) / 59.99 (Consoles)
Disclaimer: Review Copy provided by Focus Home Interactive
Since its reveal, I wanted to love The Surge, for offering the german developer Deck13 the chance to improve on Lords of the Fallen´s mistakes. The first gameplay I saw seemed promising and the concept of a Sci-fi Souls-like intrigued me, so I got hyped. Of course I had to play it on Gamescom 2016, to experience the gameplay, one of Lords of the Fallen´s biggest weak points, by myself … and was disappointed once again. What I played on Gamescom felt like an unresponsive, slow and clunky mess of a combat system, but I still had hopes for The Surge, maybe because I´m german as well and want Deck13 to suceed. So, after more than half a year after Gamescom it´s finally out and yes, I can say that much, it has improved.
A dystopian future, where humanity is slowly replaced by machines and artificial intelligence, cities begin to resemble sheep stables and humans are forced to compete with their own creations to survive, that´s the world of The Surge. Everything begins with the dream of a disabled men, who just wants to be able to walk again, little did he know, how this simple decision will change his life. Shortly after, we awake on a facility, where nothing is as it was. Drones, robots and even humans gone berserk, attacking everything they see. To unravel the reason for this outbreak, we set out to fight, die and retry, in a dark interpretation of the future. On our journey, we´ll quickly cross paths with other survivors, while we slowly uncover the truth behind the events.
Like pretty much every Souls-like The Surge tells its story over audio logs, character conversations, some item descriptions and the world itself. Especially the various NPCs you´ll meet during the game give a neat insight of the daily life and initial outbreak, combined with some pretty versatile personalities. The fact, you can accept side quests for them, to strengthen your bond and learn more from the world, as well as recieving some cool items, offers a more straight-forward way of building a relationship, than Dark Souls does. Since they mostly gather at operations, The Surge´s bonfires, instead of “accompanying” you through the areas, shows how The Surge simplifies established systems of this “genre”, a theme we´ll encounter more often from here on.
The audio logs and item descriptions enhance our knowledge with well written background information of an interesting world and future problems, we´ll may face. Everything then concludes in a very promising sounding story, set in a dark but possible future, that really caught my interest in the first 3 of 5 areas. Unfortunately The Surge decides to abandon the moral question, if it´s safe to rely on machines and exoskeletons and what would happen if these go crazy, at some point in favor of a surprisingly unrealistic conclusion. Particularly the later levels heavily rely on environmental story telling, in order to justify said turn of events.
Speaking of levels, another big part of Souls-like games is their level design and believe me, The Surge nails it. The different areas themselves may be seperated and only accessible through a train, toring them apart instead of creating one big world. However, the individual levels themselves are absolutely fantastic. On the one hand everything is somehow connected, through smartly placed tunnels or shortcuts, you will slowly unlock and discover, while piecing the area and different locations together.
On the other hand it also understood how to properly reward exploration, always giving you items for your efforts and sometimes even shortcuts or mini bosses. Moments, when you destroy some suspicious boxes and discover a hidden shortcut, are just undescribable, The Surge offers plenty of those. The variety of shortcuts or connections used in the levels, is also worth noting, since it creates an unique path finding for each one. Overall, I can´t think of anything bad about the design, really, it´s that good. Due to the “little” amount of areas, Deck13 could fully focus on designing them as perfect as possible.
Combined with the dystopian Sci-fi theme and artstyle The Surge´s levels could´ve been some of the most memorable of the past years. Sadly, one of its most promising features, the setting, turned out to be rather repetitive and uninspired. During my playthrough I never had the impression of visiting an unique sci-fi setting. Most of the time you will walk through abandoned factory interiors or factory ruins, they certainly have a sci-fi touch but just not enough to carry a whole game. Way too often the environments will repeat and use the same textures and objects, the third area already had some big similarities to the first one. On first glance the artstyle may seem new and fresh but the more time you spend, the more you´ll notice how little it actually has to offer.
The only things I really like about it, are the enemy designs, especially the exoskeleton ones, that successfully convey their craziness and some great animated robot enemies. I should also point out, how great it performes on PC, considering its great graphics, with a GTX1070 it´s possible to achieve rock solid 60fps on 1440p and 40fps on 4k, pretty good! Sadly, The Surge isn´t nearly as polished as optimised, offering some great bugs like enemies, attacking you in default pose before the game crashes or some classic random crashes as well, every 1-2 hours, it´s quite annoying.
Said cool designed enemies and robots are probably the highlight of The Surge´s artistic presentation, although they have their problems. The exoskeletons specifically suffer from the same repetition as the rest of the used assets. While Deck13 certainly tried to alter their basic enemy design throughout the levels, it always stays the basic enemy you fought in the beginning and you fought the last 7 hours. No matter, what weapon they may carry or how they´re coloured, they will always move the same way, attack the same way and react the same way, depending on their carried weapon. Compared to a game like Dark Souls, The Surge lacks the creativity to challenge you the whole time through new enemies. On the other hand the few robotic enemies per level resemble the complete opposite: They will change from level to level, they will get new moves and they will constantly require new approaches. Overall, the exoskeleton enemies are definetly not bad, both animation and design wise, yet they fail to impress or challenge you after you killed them often enough, leaving only the handful robotic enemies.
To fight and survive in The Surge´s brutal and difficult world, you´ll have to make use of the diverse and complex combat system. Unlike other games in the Souls-like genre The Surge completly abandons the light and heavy attack system, replacing it with vertical and horizontal attacks, in order to support the limb cutting feature. You´ve heard right, you´re able to target one of the enemy´s 6 limbs and cut them off, to acquire their weapons and crafting materials. By dealing enough damage to the targeted limb, using the right directional attacks, you´re able to trigger a killing animation, in order to seperate the desired limb. Killing an enemy and using their weapon afterwards just feels satisfying. The killing animations, a feature I was really sceptical towards, shouldn´t actually be a huge concern, due to their executed speed and option to disable the camera zoom.
Not only does The Surge offer an unique combat system but also some new possibilities to block and avoid attacks. Besides the classical dodging move, which won´t be an option for tankier builds, you´re also able to block and duck under enemy attacks, as well as countering them, if you´re good enough. A lot those systems is already known and established in other Souls-likes but the ducking feature in particular caught my eye, since it doesn´t just look great but feels fantastic too, due to the timing based nature of the whole system.
Unfortunately the combo based attack system, is one of my biggest complains about the gameplay. I love to play my games fast and aggressive, requiring absolute control over my character and precise execution of my input, The Surge fails at providing those to a certain degree. Instead of featuring input priority throughout every attack, Deck13 decided to implement an animation priority after the 2nd attack of each combo, making it nearly impossible to react fast enough. The created slower and more tactical combat will surely appeal to heavier builds but for people like me, the only way to avoid said problem, is to switch to the fast but awfully weak double handed weapons. For a game, that implemented so many cool new things, improved so many things from Lords of the Fallen and works so harmonically, the focus on great looking but slow reacting movesets is a big throwback. Especially considering how unforgiving and hard The Surge can be sometimes and the pressuring timer we all know and hate/love from Lords of the Fallen, to indicate when our lost souls will vanish, because that´s a great idea for a slower game.
If you manage to kill your first enemies, you´ll quickly notice, how you collect more and more Tech Scrap, defect body parts of the enemies and find more implants. These various obtainable things serve different customization purposes, accessible in The Surge´s bonfire clone. While Tech Scrap serves as your souls, to level up and buy new stuff, the collected body parts can be used to craft new armor and build your warrior into the style you want to play. The implants on the other hand serve as little power ups, providing more health and healing items.
Honestly, these system work really well and are some unique ways to customize your character, particularly the fact you can craft the enemy armor, giving you bonuses on stamina consumption or attack speed, is great. However, don´t be fooled The Surge oversimplifies nearly every system we know from previous Souls-likes, stats and weapon upgrades were completly removed, taking away a big chunk of control, without offering new things like the skills in Lords of the Fallen. The only way to actually customize yourself is the armor, which only allows 2 play styles, fast or slow, along with the rather unspectacular implants.
All in all, The Surge is still a good game with great level and enemy designs. Sure, it tends to be repetitive and unspectacular for its setting but it doesn´t change, how well it´s executed. I´m still amazed by the different areas I encountered during my playtime and how amazing they were designed. The Surge might have problems when it comes to combat and gameplay, especially if you like to play your Souls-likes fast and aggressive but I enjoyed other features, like the limb cutting, way too much to hate The Surge for that.
Compared to Lords of the Fallen, Deck13 improved in nearly every aspect here and showed, what they´re able to achieve. I might not love The Surge because of its flaws but I´m sure as hell really like and enjoy it.