Blazing hot Paris and sci-fi dismemberment made for unlikely bedfellows this week as we set off to Focus Home Interactive’s office to talk with the folks from Deck 13 and go hands on with their upcoming The Surge 2. Our hands-on time with the game took us straight into the heart of Jericho City, where the Rogue Process has changed the world. This time out, rather than taking control of lead character Warren – who you just might come across on your grim futuristic travels if you’re the observant type – you can create your own character from scratch, with a range of base templates that give you your own back story.
For Head of Production Johannes Bickle it was a tough choice to step away from controlling a set character. “It was a big decision,” he said. “Many players were asking us to add character creation and we’re always listening to players. If you followed The Surge you’d know we weren’t just adding patches and fixing bugs. We were always working to improve it. We really wanted to bring in this character editor for the sequel, but had to make sure that the new game is not too far away from the first one. So, it’s set two months after the [first game’s] events, some key elements remain, and you’ll meet returning characters again. You should feel comfortable as a player of the first game, but it’s not required.”
As you’d hope from a developer these days, Deck 13 have made sure there’s a good number of visual options available to you so that you can really make them your own creation. It’s not as granular as something from one of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls offerings, for example, but in a short amount of time I was able to make a fair approximation of myself, albeit one that probably ended up looking more like Star Trek Discovery’s Dr. Hugh clutching a gaffer-taped spear in both hands.
No matter which backstory you choose, the long and the short of it is that you’ve headed to Jericho City for a fresh start, but instead of finding yourself tucked up in a cosy new apartment something has gone very wrong along the way. You wake up locked up in the Jericho City Police Department compound for no reason you can remember – perhaps it was one of those stag do’s? – but whatever has happened to take you there, what’s going on now is an absolute nightmare.
You actually find yourself waking up from a coma in a hospital gown with other inmates out for your blood, not to mention the guards, so you soon realise you’re going to have to fight your way out. The Surge 2 throws you straight into the thick of it and it’s here that the game stakes its claim to a corner of the Souls-like genre, with its trademark dismemberment mechanics efficiently setting it apart from FromSoftware’s output.
“This was really essential to us to keep what was working and expand on it,” Johannes explained. “We were sure that we found the formula there with the limb cutting, so it just could not go! To separate us from just being recognised as a clone of Souls games to something else we added this twist, so we were sure we had to keep it.
He continued, “You will feel that with each enemy you have several new options, like that you can cut away attachments, which deactivate functionality on the enemy and can open up weak spots. The same for bosses which was not really there in The Surge. Bosses can survive a cut, but you can remove the shield, you can bring them to their knees and can suddenly reach the head which was not open before and so on. It was like ‘We need a base. That’s our core, we will not touch it!’ But we will use it to give the player freedom of choice and more choices to play with.”
Lopping off limbs in order to grab new equipment and upgrade them returns from the previous game, but there’s new weapon types and tiers within this loop for those hungry for new ways to separate people from their useful bits. Johannes talked us through it, telling us, “We have added four new weapon types resulting in eighty-plus weapons that you can find in the game, based across nine types.
“Ranged combat, apart from being improved gameplay-wise, now allows up to fifteen modules so you can pick between different shooting mechanics and control mechanics. Some you need to keep the button pressed, others you have a single shot or stronger shots that take more ammo. This is a lot to get right! We also have twenty-plus Gears now. We basically realised people are asking for it, and if we give more level space, of course we need more enemies which means more limb cutting and more gear.”
It’s suitably gory – none of these incisions are done in anything like a hygienic manner – though we saw nothing to quite match the squeamish intro to the first game. There’s multiple finisher animations that bring some icky visual drama to every encounter, but they serve another purpose beyond simply appeasing unattached limb enthusiasts.
Like Dark Souls, every single enemy in the game will do you in given half a chance. Even after five hours of continuous play I was still occasionally getting taken apart by the most ordinary of grunts when I wasn’t paying attention. There’s a great rhythm to the combat, with the lock on being the start of a strategic dance between two nasty people and their nasty pointy things.
As in the first game, you use your lock on to focus on a particular part of the body. Aiming for an unarmoured head or body part will deal extra damage, but if you want to collect your opponent’s weaponry or mechanised body attachments you’ll likely have to hack away at a limb that doesn’t want to be removed.
Part of the dance is the choice between straight blocking, parrying and evading, with each offering their own risks and rewards. Blocking offers a good degree of safety, but your stamina won’t last long if you simply hunker down, on the other hand, parrying is an incredibly powerful tool if you can match the angle of the incoming attack, but one which will see you eat a faceful of mush-making metal if you get it wrong. I preferred to evade, but again it’s a stamina-destroying activity that can leave you completely exposed if you get it wrong.
It all seems to be about giving players as many options as possible, and Johannes was keen to point out that you can absolutely play The Surge 2 your own way. “With dodging and blocking, I think it’s still a careful addition; you don’t have to use it, but we can satisfy the different kinds of players.”
He continued, “Many are really happy with the way you can beat the game just by upgrading really well. So why not? Why should we say ‘No, you have to use the actual blocking,’ but maybe you’re way more rewarded by getting this block recoil and say, ‘Oh, wow! now I really have control over this guy and I can kill him’. We don’t want a passive player, we don’t want you behind your shield! The options are all dynamic and they are your choices to beat the game with them. That’s important to us.”
If you’re running low on health Deck 13 have made some changes to the way that restoring it works, and much like Bloodbourne, The Surge 2 promotes aggressive play. Attacking an opponent charges your battery, and you can choose what to do with that energy, with its primary uses being to restore your own health or to allow you to lop off a limb. It feels like there’s a decent level of risk and reward without it becoming a crutch, and it definitely improves the level of accessibility.
That difficulty level is a huge part of the genre though, and Johannes knows that all too well, telling us, “The Surge was already not just defined by over-the-top difficulty but we wanted to open up more for the standard players – I’m not saying casual players! We want a challenging game, we definitely don’t want an easy game. However, we saw several walls in the first game like the first boss for example. We saw many players leaving the game and we wanted to address this. We’re not making an easy game, but we’re also not saying you’ve reached that far, now you will fail.”
To my mind The Surge 2 is sitting right at the sweet spot between difficulty and progression, and while there were undoubtedly some unnecessary deaths during my play time, they were all my own fault. I didn’t once feel phased by them though, and couldn’t wait to immediately dive back in, even if the final boss in our demo, a giant mechanised tripod with a naked man-baby encased in it called Little Johnny, caused me some severe problems.
Jericho City’s interlinking pathways and areas really make a huge difference to the feel of the game over its predecessor, and while what we saw in the centre of the city during this playthrough was staunchly from the school of ‘apocalyptic futuristic city’ there are going to be some wilder, more colourful areas later on. We got to visit one of those earlier this year with our first hands on coming in a verdant bit of overgrown park, but others have so far only appeared in trailers. It’s all being helped along by a deeply cool ambient soundtrack which sets the tone fantastically.
The Surge 2 is shaping up to be a serious contender in the tough Soul-bourne genre this year, and while it’s undoubtedly built upon the foundations that the first game laid, it looks as though it’s truly found its own identity, backed up by some seriously visceral, enjoyable sci-fi combat.