So back in May this year I started paying attention to a pretty intriguing new title that was commonly billed as a Cyberpunk Dark Souls. I looked at web sites, I watched trailers and kept an eye on forums and soon beyond a shadow of a doubt I knew that The Surge was for me.
I love the formula of trial and error progression that games like this place at our feet. The Souls series, whether you like it or not, is a masterpiece in game play design. Players are thrown head first into the fray with little explanation and given just enough leeway to forge a path through a cryptic world packed to the gills with danger and awe. There's no right or wrong way to play, we just play. When we fall the game dusts us off and stands us back up with a nod of confidence and we're back on your way to prove to ourselves that we have what it takes to continue.
What I found in The Surge is very similar to the Souls titles in it's core mechanic of defeat enemies to collect a currency that is used to make the character stronger and progress. It's a welcome format that has been tried and trued over lots of time and is in fact a pretty big draw for lots of us fans of the genre. But - It's not the exact same thing as a Souls title and that's also wonderful. Stick with me and let me begin my explanation here.
A Different World
The Surge begins with a corporate propaganda video that sets things up nicely for the player. It's established that this a not-so-distant future (less than 100 years) where we as a species have finally come to realization that our world is failing to support us. The atmosphere is ravaged and thinning, cities are overpopulated, work is scarce, people are falling sick and debilitated and nothing we do seems to help.
The Corporation tasked with a solution to the problem is called CREO and they have formulated a plan to rebuild the Earth's atmosphere and tackle indeed all of humanity's shortcomings via a rocket distribution program and loads of scientific data. And it's working. Warren, our main character, has signed on to work for CREO and delivered to the main facility via a company rail transport and the presentation does a great job of setting up the big shiny industrial hero that is CREO. While on the train a guy called Don Hackett comes on a screen and gives us players a warm welcome while the tutorial tells us which buttons to push to move and interact with the environment and then we're dropped off at the intake station. It's a nice opening and talking to some helpful security officers points us toward our job assignment area where we have two choices to choose from.
Once a decision is made Warren is given an exoskeleton called an "Exo Rig" with which to use during his experience at CREO. Tools and gear can be attached thus allowing him to perform his duties. He finds out quickly and unceremoniously that something is very wrong and the company he just decided to work for isn't all it claims to be. Moral and ethical questions rise and are answered throughout game play. I won't go into major details here because I don't want to spoil things. If you're interested in seeing the first bit of game play for yourselves you can check out my first impression video here.
So the big difference right away that folks will notice is that the scale of The Surge is much smaller than the perceived scale of the Souls games. Souls' fantasy world of Lordran is a seemingly large open world with distant views of things to come. On the other hand, CREO, while an enormous facility, is a relatively small and localized platform. The next major difference you'll be likely to notice is that unlike the almost desolate story line in the Souls titles The Surge gives us a narrative and a clear goal along with choices to be made that will have some effect on the play though. The third and maybe biggest difference you're sure to notice is that The Surge isn't played online. That means no helpful messages, no invasions and no help from allies.
Obviously this isn't the only Souls Like title out there. With games like Let it Die, Salt and Sanctuary, and Deck13's own Lords of the Fallen to look at, The Surge has to make it's own mark or be deemed forgettable. Thus has Deck13 made innovations to an already successful formula. With that in mind let's look at some of the systems at our fingertips.
As I said above, the core mechanics here are the same format: Defeat enemies, gain your reward, become stronger. In this case defeated foes reward the player with scrap that can be used at an OPS station to increase the power level of Warren's Exo Suit as well as to build and upgrade gear and weapons from broken parts and schematics that are found through play. It's very similar and that's great because it's familiar for those of us who have seen it before and it's easy to understand for newcomers.
Divergence starts to make itself evident in the form of combat and the loot system particularly. Warren finds himself facing automated drones, insane workers, and malfunctioning equipment pretty constantly. All of which provide scrap and materials for building, but the human counterparts be they dead and reanimated by their exosuits or just plain meanieheads who want to attack Warren, will grant access to schematics.
What you see is what you get in this case. Let's say you're needing some leg armor. That guy ambling his way toward you has leg armor. A chin scratch later and you may have come to the conclusion that you just might be able to relieve him of said leg armor and use it for yourself. However it's not as easy as just murdering this poor fool and hoping a piece of gear drops. Oh no, first you'll need to target the guy. Next you'll want to cycle through the attack positions to highlight where you'd like Warren to do damage. In this case it's a leg that has armor on it. Then you attack away and when enough damage has been done and enough energy is accrued a sort of QTE prompt will pop up allowing Warren to perform a finishing move that will sever the leg and gain the schematic needed to assemble the armor you'd like to use.
It's not complicated at all to do but it does add a risk / reward choice to be made with each incoming baddie. Do you attack blindly and go for the easy take-down? Or do you concentrate damage in a particular place and hopefully acquire some new gear or weapons? It can be a tougher choice than it seems like at times when you're risking high numbers of scrap. The longer you play without visiting OPS, the higher numbers of scrap you'll attain via a simple score multiplier. Not to mention that too much damage or inaccurate attacks will defeat an enemy outright and you won't get the reward you were hoping for anyway.
If you haven't guessed by now, scrap is the equivalent of souls. Should Warren be defeated all the scrap he carries is dropped on the floor in that location. Warren is re-spawned back at OPS and a timer begins counting down indicating how long the dropped scrap will remain before being lost forever. Each enemy brought low on the way back to the dropped scrap will add some time to the deadline, but should Warren be defeated again that scrap is lost and a new pile will form in the latest location and so on.
Now let's look at the OPS station a bit. This thing a safe house of sorts and provides the same function as the Dark Souls bonfire. Warren can level up here, install new implants, bank his scrap so it can't be dropped as well as heal up and make or upgrade gear and weapons. Visiting an OPS station will re-spawn all enemies that have been defeated and reset your scrap multiplier. You can also talk to quest NPC's and a game save will take place here. Each area has a single OPS and the level is built around it. As you play you'll unlock shortcuts returning here that will make life easier and it basically serves as a hub for each area of the CREO complex you'll visit. For clarification, gear and weapons can be changed anywhere at any time through the gear menu. Implants on the other hand must be installed at the OPS med bay.
Gear and Weapons
If you find yourself stuck in a tough spot you can farm scrap and level and make upgrades or even entire new sets of gear to help change your strategy and get you moving along again. And since The Surge isn't played online you'll never have to worry about out-leveling a boss. Leveling also doesn't work to specifically make Warren stronger. What it does is give a very small increase to health and increase his power level. This in turn gets you closer to being able to use gear that has a power requirement greater than your exo suit rig can currently support and that will make him stronger. So everything really gels together in terms of leveling and upgrading gear and weapons as well as installed implants.
Speaking of Implants, these are your advantages in a situation and come in many forms. Each Exo Rig can support them as long as they have enough power to do so and the higher the level the more implant slots that will become available. Healing injections, automated energy storage, stamina increases, adrenaline inducers, pain killers, power capacitors etc etc will help keep Warren in the fight longer.
Weapons also come in many forms and each form has it's own proficiency which when used will level in it's own time and allow Warren to use said weapon with more efficiency. This is good and bad in a way. I like that it adds another level to combat. Being better with a certain weapon type will increase its damage output pretty dramatically especially if that weapon scales high in proficiency. The downside is that there are lots of weapon types and unless you want to go through a pretty grindy period of raising proficiency for each type you'll have to more or less pick a favorite type and stick with it. This can of course lead to a feeling of slight regret should you decide that you made the wrong choice. Enemies of higher and higher levels will resist damage from lower proficiencies so it's important to pay attention to.
I decided fairly early on that I like the "Twin Rigged" weapon type. That's dual wielding for those wondering. But I also really like "Staff" weapons and "One handed". It's not too hard to keep up on two types. But more than that and the game really slows down because aside from a couple of implants that slightly raise proficiency levels, the only way to get better is to use it in combat. Hence the potential grind. And considering the weapon types: One handed, Single rigged, Twin rigged, Staff and Heavy Duty, it can be a tough choice to decide which ones you want to use.
- Twin Rigged - Fast dual wielding weapons. Typically a bit lower damage and less impact force but higher proficiency scaling.
- One Handed - The average weapon. Medium impact, attack speed, damage and proficiency scaling.
- Single Rigged - Large one handed weapon type. Hits hard, slower attack speed, and higher impact. Proficiency scaling is typically on the lower end.
- Heavy Duty - Enormous two handed weapons. Very slow attack speed. Typically high damage, impact and proficiency scaling.
- Staff - Fast attack speed, medium impact and damage. Typically mid range scaling but has a very wide attack range.
The weapon design is also pretty great in itself because virtually everything Warren uses is improvised. For instance, he'll start with a broken hydraulic ram that he uses like a club or axe. The Twin rigged "Yosuke Butterfly" is nothing more than the adjustable forklift forks that the heavy "Rhino Gear" using workers would use to move crates. You know... back before they went crazy and decided to kill each other. The "bloodhound" heavy duty weapon is nothing more than a broken security robot's front leg. There are also weapons that are specifically designed as weapons and not tools or broken parts but they don't become available until quite a way into the game.
Let's Talk Upgrades
Alright so you've been playing long enough to get some gear now. You're learning how to dodge and block and finding a preference in weapon types. But you're noticing that Warren is taking lots of damage when he's getting hit and in some cases he's just being one-shot. Time to go back to OPS and spend some scrap on upgrades.
In the Souls games I usually played a defensive character with a big slow weapon that did lots of damage. A knight with a big tower shield, and I always really liked the Black Knight Great Axe except for in the second game where it just wasn't very good. I used the Dragon Great Sword there. But I digress.
In The Surge I found myself struggling with slower weapons. This is partially because attacks can't be cancelled once started so once you start swinging you're committed. The heavy weapons are absolutely powerful and once learned can be incredibly well wielded. So I'm not saying don't try. I'm just no good at it here. Also there are no shields in this game so your weapon will act as one when you block. A perfect block will stagger and enemy and Warren will have a quick opportunity to counter the attack if he has any stamina left after taking the shot. Warren's gear acts as armor and complete sets have bonuses to incentivize their use as well as each piece having it's own stats, strengths and weaknesses.
This stuff is all taken into consideration when choosing which upgrades to go with but it doesn't need to be a complicated issue in the least. I've found that there's no drawback at all to upgrading armor as high as you can get it every time. After all more protection means better surviveability so long as you've got the materials I suggest just to do it. Weapons on the other hand need to be thought of as a balance. On the face of it it makes sense to max them out every time. Hit harder, progress easier. But remember if you hit too hard you'll be knocking down baddies before they can drop schematics and upgrade materials for you to use. Hit too softly and every fight becomes more risky because enemies aren't looking to upgrade. They just want to eliminate the threat in front of them. And there's no stepping backward on upgrades of any kind. Nor can you salvage your own gear if you decide you don't particularly like it.
Luckily scrap and materials are always at your fingertips. You'll find them all over. From defeated enemies including the potential for extra drops and the fact the all duplicate items are automatically salvaged for their corresponding parts to be used when needed. Meaning that eventually you'll find the freedom to upgrade as much as you like with little consequence. Now each difficulty has limits to upgrading so you can't be too overpowered for wherever you are, but the overall balance is pretty great so it's not too much of a worry.
General Combat and Bosses
Alright I know I've talked about combat a bit already but let's check out the art of the fight a little more here. Right away most people are going to notice that simple button mashing might get them by for a while and is indeed a possible way to make it through the game. The problem is that every enemy is a tough fight that sort of demands a plan to avoid Warren using all his health injectables on one or two foes. Fortunately each weapon type has it's own attack style and combos so if you're paying attention you'll find that using those move sets will work differently on different enemies. In turn this allows for the forming of a plan.
I play as I like to with most games using a mouse and keyboard, but with the PC port being so good it's possible to switch back and forth from that setup to a controller on the fly and both feel great. Anyway, attacks work on the simple principle of horizontal and vertical swings and blocking. Left mouse for horizontal, right mouse for vertical and 'Q' for block. All basic attacks can be charged for greater damage and different combos. Space bar during combat is a dodge and while sprinting it will perform a jump and both can also be timed properly for an attack.
Of course all of this takes stamina to do so watch your bar closely or you'll find yourself stopping short of greatness. Heavy duty weapons will have a constant drain on stamina while blocking so that's something to watch for as well. Aside from stamina draining with attacks and blocks etc you'll also gain energy from attacking and causing damage. Once enough is gained Warren can use the finishing moves mentioned earlier on, but he can also use extra skills provided by implants that may add extra elemental damages or extra staggering power and the like for a short time. Gear sets have a direct effect on energy and stamina use in most cases and of course weapons will use stamina in a fairly self explanatory way based on their heft and attack speed etc. Common sense mostly. Stamina recovery itself is very fast, presumably because of the exo suit doing most of the work.
As mentioned earlier on positional targeting and attacking limbs for specific reasons, there's also and option to turn off the "sticky limb targeting" and this does in fact make combat a little more interesting and challenging should you find yourself becoming complacent while playing. Every aspect of combat provides a pretty damn dynamic and action packed feel to playing this title. The problem I have comes from a narrative standpoint. Warren is just a normal guy who is looking for work. There's never any background indication that suggests he has a violent history or special training, military service etc. So why is he able to just pick up these improvised tools and perform extremely skilled, targeted actions like someone who's trained all their life with them? It makes little sense but it's easy to look past because it feels so good.
On a personal note: I've read comments out there on the ol' interwebs from people saying that the problem with this title is in fact almost entirely it's combat. Stating that enemies have too much stability and because of that it's too hard to stagger them or knock them down. That they do far too much damage and are too hard to defeat. I have to say that I never felt that way. Even with my relatively low impact Twin rigged weapon sets I was knocking enemies over and interrupting their attacks pretty regularly. As to doing too much damage, I did notice that it's pretty easy to get Warren killed from a simple misstep. But, upgrades take care of that and give enough leeway to learn how to deal with that stuff. This is not a "Git Gud!" jab at folks out there having trouble. I hate that mentality, it's toxic, frustrating and pointless. Instead, I say change your strategy if you're dying a lot. Upgrade weapons and gear. Go back to a previous area and farm scrap to level up your core power and try new weapon types. It's totally possible that your current gear set isn't working for you. Try different combos and dodge. There are many ways to overcome The Surge's challenges.
Of course you can't have a Souls Like game without some epic and challenging boss fights. Sadly there are only five in total but for the most part they're fun to go through. You'll come across bosses in arenas that are all but neon sign posted saying "Boss Fights Done Here. Tickets $30". Each has it's own characteristics and patterns to learn but I only really had a tough time with two of them. The Firebug boss took me nearly thirty attempts in my first play through for crying out loud. But that same boss fight is also really fun and even though it was slightly frustrating to lose over and over again I never found myself put off by that fact or hoping for a balance patch. It was just a matter of calculating my moves, biding my time and paying attention to the signs given.
That's not to say every boss is great. My least favorite was the Big Sister 1 of 3. The fight happens in three phases and the first one feels pretty good. Evident patterns and strategy are involved and the same can be said for the third phase. But the second phase is almost purely luck based. That's not to say there aren't tells, but you're being attacked from all directions and the problem is it's not always possible to see where an attack is coming from. So it falls more to luck to get through there. The other side of the coin shows us my favorite fight and that would be the Black Cerberus boss, hands down. This one is put together so well and has such great mechanics that I just wanted to do it again and again. I lost several times to Black Cerberus but I learned from every attempt and that, dear reader is how it should be every time.
Each boss will reward the player with a special weapon and lots of scrap once defeated. This in itself is pretty awesome, but there's yet another level of greatness to boss fights and that's beating them the hard way. By performing a certain actions or in some cases avoiding certain actions before defeating the boss you'll be given an extra special weapon and sometimes even more than that. I've been making videos of the fights as they come to me and soon I should be uploading the special Black Cerberus fight because I'm almost there now in my second play though.
The... drawback? To these fights is that once they're beaten they're beaten. No going back to fight them again. Now the reason I question whether this is a drawback is simply because this is a single player title. So is there even a real reason to go back and fight a boss again? Maybe -- If you decide you wanted to try and get the special weapon in the hard mode fight, or you wanted to try and farm them for scrap. I suppose that would be valid, but there's a load of replay value in The Surge so you could just do what I'm doing and try the hard mode stuff in new game plus. As far as farming scrap it's never given in huge numbers, so it behooves you to just farm normal enemies and doing that will also provide you with extra materials anyway, so there's no huge reason to wish for returning boss fights. The biggest reason I'd want them back is because they're pretty fun. Maybe even just an option to pay scrap to the OPS station to re-spawn an area boss would suffice.
Menus, Options and Optimization
Okay, let me finally talk some about the technicals and then I'll close this review out because I'm sure some of you have already skimmed to the bottom or bailed because I have a tendency to be pretty long winded with these things.
So the UI is pretty well designed and self explanatory. Health, stamina and energy at the top, no minimap or any map for that matter that isn't posted on a wall somewhere and your current scrap is shown in the bottom right corner with your weapon proficiency on the left. The dropped scrap timer will pop up when it's necessary but there's no flashing and direction with the game telling you how it thinks you should play it. No arrows funneling you to a specific location. No quest log telling where you need to go next. It's all on you as the player. And before you groan and complain about that fact because you're used to playing something like Assassin's Creed, take into consideration that Warren has been at CREO for less than a day. He has no idea what's going on and that's evident -always. He just wants to get the hell out of Dodge and maybe get some information along the way.
What it comes down to is excellent level design. Everything ties together somehow and that's how this game make you feel smart as the player. Exploration and progression will lead you where you need to go and provide you opportunities to make choices that could lead to shortcuts or a quick death. Sometimes it involves dealing environmental hazards or pitch dark hallways where you'll rely on your rig lights to get around but you will find your way.
Menu navigation is handled pretty well with separate tabs describing what's behind each section and once in those sections it's easy to find out details about items and those items themselves are clearly marked. The "Specs" tab will open a window where you'll see every detail about Warren's defenses and capabilities from power level to damage done to what gear and weapon he has equipped to the proficiency progress for every type. And it's easy to read and understand.
As far as optimization goes, The Surge runs extremely well. I mentioned this in my first impression article and I maintain that it remains true now. My system specs are on the outside edge of performance for the recommended hardware specs and I rarely see frame drops on the highest settings. Not to mention it doesn't seem to over stress the CPU or the GPU as both ran with pretty cool temps. The CPU in fact never got above 50 degrees C while the GPU would occasionally get around 80 but not much higher. So all praise to Deck13 for the design and optimization of this game.
So, The Surge: What we get is a really well designed Souls Like title with the added benefit of a pretty intriguing story and a pretty awesome main character. The setting is also fairly fresh feeling. This is a large corporate facility with varying class views from the junkyard to the executive suites. It's set in a dystopian future with a dying Earth which on it's face looks like the same old rehashed telling of the hero saving the world. But underneath is a conflict that deals with morality and ethics regarding the survival of humanity and it's cool to watch that unfold.
Is it perfect? Nope. Nothing is. I will say though that I've been enthralled with The Surge now going on 70 hours and I'm not bored with it. Not only that but I'm still learning small eccentricities and finding things I missed from my first play through. So it's safe to say that this is a solid title and I would wholly recommend picking it up and diving in head first. It's $49.99 on Steam and worth every penny. I've also seen it go on sale a couple of times now if you feel you need to wait it out a bit. But I certainly feel that if you're a fan of the Souls series that you'll find a new friend in The Surge and if you're new to this punishing genre, this a great place to start because of the player friendly options and design. Thanks for sticking with me guys.
System requirements for The Surge are as follows:
- OS: Windows 7/8/10 (64-bit)
- Processor: AMD FX-8320 (3,5 GHz) / Intel i5-4690K (3,5 GHz)
- Memory: 8 GB RAM
- Graphics: 1 GB, AMD Radeon R7 360 / NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti
- DirectX: Version 11
- Network: Broadband Internet connection
- Storage: 15 GB available space
- Additional Notes: INTERNET CONNECTION REQUIRED FOR GAME ACTIVATION
- OS: Windows 7/8/10 (64-bit)
- Processor: AMD FX-8370 (4,0 GHz) / Intel Core i7-3820 (3,6 GHz)
- Memory: 16 GB RAM
- Graphics: 4 GB, AMD Radeon RX 480 / NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970
- DirectX: Version 11
- Network: Broadband Internet connection
- Storage: 15 GB available space
- Additional Notes: INTERNET CONNECTION REQUIRED FOR GAME ACTIVATION