German developers Deck13 have been around the traps for a while, but their most recent work involved co-development of Lords of the Fallen, a hardcore hack and slash that was dubbed by many as Dark Souls Lite. Whether or not this was fair criticism, the bones of a solid game were there but the experience was let down by a litany of issues that saw it passed over by many. Working in the same genre, The Surge represents a shot at redemption for Deck13, who have taken the reins as sole developers on this project and brought the hardcore hack and slash genre to a dystopian sci-fi setting. Working in the shadow of the mighty Soulsborne games is no mean feat, but The Surge manages to elevate itself amongst the crowd with a bunch of fresh ideas for the genre that are unique and innovative, making Deck13’s latest a violent and gory good time.
No one puts Warren in the corner
The Surge puts you in the shoes of Warren, an everyman sort of fella looking to get a fresh start and a set of new legs by signing up to work with mega corporation Creo. In the world of The Surge, Earth has been ravaged by numerous environmental and social catastrophes brought about by rising populations, escalating violence and the wholesale poisoning of the biosphere. Creo are at the forefront of an attempt to ensure a future for humanity by rejuvenating the atmosphere and restoring natural order, bringing massive financial and technological weight to bear on the global issue. Creo is that odd blend of magnanimous saviour and insane megalomaniac, and as a corporate entity it reminded me a lot of Samuel L. Jackson’s character Valentine from Kingsman.
Warren’s first day turns out to be worse than finding yourself in a first interview on a black leather couch, as he soon finds himself undergoing a surgery without sedative, only to wake up some time later with a robot dragging him towards the trash bin. Turns out while Warren was recovering from his waking medical procedure, the entire Creo tech compound has gone bananas, with everything from fellow workers to lowly vacuum cleaners seemingly turned into mindless killing machines. It’s up to you to navigate the treacherous compound and uncover Creo’s dark secrets, and maybe solve the greatest mystery of all: why someone would call their son Warren.
The world of The Surge is well conceived, but the narrative within it can get a little muddled. There’s also a complete tonal disconnect with Warren’s character, who has the personality of a disgruntled can-opener. He goes from waking up dazed and confused in a strange place to brutally dismembering his colleagues with makeshift weapons in the blink of an eye. The extent of his personal development is asking different NPCs “What the hell happened here?” multiple times, and most of the time he’s led around by his nose like someone has excised his sense of free will or ability to properly question his predicament. But while you’re unlikely to feel much for Warren’s plight, the setting and tone is undeniably cool, and there are some intriguing mysteries throughout. While themes of technology escaping the hands of its creators and the arrogance of humanity in playing God create a nice backdrop, it’s not something I’d describe overall as being cohesive, and the ending also seemed a little vague to me. The sci-fi horror vibe is strong though, and carries the action nicely.
I’m glad we’re finally talking about the action, because in this department The Surge truly excels. While it wears its love for Dark Souls on its sleeve, Deck13 have crafted multiple new mechanics around the tried-and-true hardcore hack and slash formula that keep things interesting… and incredibly violent. At the heart of the hack and slash gameplay is a limb-targeting mechanic, which far from being a gimmick is integral to how you play the game. Basically you can target separate body parts, and once you’ve done enough damage you can hold a button to perform some impromptu DIY surgery. This not only awards you with a gruesome animation, but also lops off weapons and
Deus ex machina
Progress, but at what cost?
armour you can then build back at your base of operations. It’s incredibly satisfying, and if you see something an enemy is wearing or beating your face in with that you might like, you simply smack them around a bit and take it with brutal force. In fact, the vast majority of the coolest weapons and armour you find are carried by enemies, so if you’re not chopping guys’ melons off because you like the look of their head gear, you’re doing it wrong. Aside from hand-to-hand combat there is also a personal companion drone that can be modified to provide assault and defence measures, but outside of kiting enemies from a distance I didn’t find it particularly useful. It’s fine that they’re there, but the focus is more on visceral melee combat and the drones seem a little out of place.
…if you see something an enemy is wearing or beating your face in with that you might like, you simply smack them around a bit and take it with brutal force. In fact, the vast majority of the coolest weapons and armour you find are carried by enemies, so if you’re not chopping guys’ melons off because you like the look of their head gear, you’re doing it wrong
Another neat mechanic is the use of implants to build your character, which are slotted into your exo rig and provide boons such as increased health and stamina, or the ability to regenerate health and gain health from executions (like you needed more incentive). It may sound simple, but implants are the sole way of increasing your stats and regaining health while out in the field, and you’ll be scouring every nook and cranny to find bigger and better ones. Many implants also provide greater increases based on your level, and if you have multiple copies of the same implant their effects can be stacked. You only have limited slots for implants however, and they consume a resource called core power (effectively equal to your level), a resource that is also shared with armour. You’ll constantly be looking to balance your gear between what armour you can wear and the best implants you can equip, and I went through many iterations of character builds before settling on the formidably sexy beast you see in these screenshots.
A special mention needs to be made here about The Surge’s visual design, which as in Lords of the Fallen is absolutely superb. The weapons and armour in particular look incredibly vicious, reflecting the fact that for the most part they began their lives as humble work tools and are now used to bludgeon people to death. There is awesome weapon variety too; quick dual-wielded claws, gargantuan hammers and powerful single-handed blades make up a formidable and visually diverse arsenal. There are even high-tech looking staffs that will help you channel your sci-fi Donatello if that’s your jam. These weapons belong to six broad classes in which you can increase your proficiency, and all differ in attack speed and available combos (not to mention the finishing executions, have I mentioned those yet?). They also differ by a stat called impact, which determines how good a weapon is at disrupting an enemy’s combo or causing them to stagger. Experimentation is key, and you’re bound to find a repurposed work tool that suits your needs.
True to the genre, The Surge is not an easy game. While enemies tend to telegraph their attacks harder than ET phoning home, they also hit like trucks and will take a fair chunk of you if you get caught off guard. Some enemy combos have weird timings, such that even if you know it’s coming, a dodge at the wrong moment can set you up for a swift death. The Surge has a very fast pace to it in fact, with Big Wazza being a fairly nimble fellow, provided he’s got the stamina. I found dodging to be by far the most effective means of fighting, and my build ended up favouring a ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ style that made me a sort of exo suit-clad Mohammed Ali. There is a block button, but you are rooted to the spot when performing a block and it also drains stamina at an alarming rate. There’s also an awkward duck/jump manoeuvre you can do while blocking but it’s incredibly maladroit and not really worth the potential for a counterattack if you manage to pull it off.
Another aspect where The Surge nails the brief is in the level design, which takes heavy inspiration from Dark Souls but executes it with aplomb. Your journey takes you
You mirin’ bro?
through several self-contained but interconnected areas that are filled to the brim with shortcuts and secrets. Each area tends to centre around an Ops centre, a safe space (2017 approves) where you can level up, assemble gear and replenish health supplies before going back out into the wild.
The weapons and armour in particular look incredibly vicious, reflecting the fact that for the most part they began their lives as humble work tools and are now used to bludgeon people to death.
A mechanic from Lords of the Fallen returns in that you can bank Tech Scrap (basically experience points used to level up your rig, weapons and armour) at an Ops centre, but taking a risk and holding out will reward you with a sizeable multiplier depending on how many enemies you’ve killed. It works well here, as Tech Scrap is integral to upgrading your entire kit, and thus is quite sought after. When you die, any Tech Scrap you have on you is left at the scene of your death, and must be picked up in two minutes or lost forever (a mechanic many will be familiar with). This makes for some tense moments, and when you hear the trademark twang of the country tune that inexplicably plays at all the Ops centres the sense of relief can be palpable. I do wish some sort of fast travel system had been implemented between Ops Centres, as backtracking can be a fairly painful experience.
No threat of apocalypse is that bad that you can’t stop and pose for a screenshot
I spent around 30 hours on my first playthrough, and as soon as the credits rolled I jumped straight back in to a New Game+. Rather than being another carbon-copy playthrough with enemies with greater heath, New Game+ contains a sprinkling of tougher enemies with new move sets to keep you on your toes. It also allows you to upgrade your weapons and armour beyond what is possible in the first run, feeding into that sense of fresh progression. I’m hoping that my second playthrough might give some insight into the murkier aspects of the narrative, and there’s also an alternate ending to strive for (although the one I got was perplexing enough anyway).
The Surge is the product of a team who have found their stride and confidence within a genre they obviously have a lot of love for. It is a welcome expansion of the hardcore hack and slash genre that brings a great sense of identity and its own style to the table. While over time I’ll probably forget about Warren, I won’t forget the great times I had tearing enemies limb from limb and wearing their clothes. At the end of the day this is a solid action game in its own right, and much more than just sci-fi Dark Souls.
Reviewed on PS4