As Warren rides into work on the monorail for the first time, there’s a few hints of Half-Life’s iconic opening. The Surge doesn’t take anywhere near as long for things to go tits up, as the brief introduction to the world and to CREO – showing them to be a classically shady futuristic megacorporation – is irrevocably torn asunder by some cataclysmic event. You don’t pay witness to this, but rather wake up all of a sudden in a world that’s gone to hell.
The biggest, most tangible difference between this game and its peers is the granularity of the combat and how that ties into your progression. Everyone in this game has an exoskeleton, which helps to boost their strength, speed and survivability, though they also seem to have had a major role in turning everyone in the sprawling industrial facility into robotic zombies that want to attack you. It doesn’t take long to discover that they are the least of your worries…
When you lock onto an enemy, a flick of the right analogue stick lets you target different parts of the enemy which, on a robo-zombified human, means four limbs, the head and the torso – the torso is sadly very finicky and annoying to try and target. All of your attacks will be directed at that body part, but the accurate hit detection means each strike will hit whatever it hits.
It’s more than just giving you some gruesome finishing moves that rend enemies limb from limb, though that is obviously a part of it. The way that you upgrade your own exoskeleton is to rip new parts off enemies in such a way that their circuitry isn’t fried when removed from the neural link, pushing you to batter away at a particular limb until you have enough combat energy to pull a finishing move. Combat energy is a third meter to keep track of alongside health and stamina, built up through landing blows and draining away if inactive for too long. It gradually becomes more and more important to the game’s risk-reward combat.
As you explore a new area, you’ll have to do this time and again. You can only harvest one exoskeleton part from each enemy, and even then, you’ll have to collect a number of these limbs to provide enough resources to fabricate a new one back at the Med Bay. Weapons, meanwhile, only need to be picked up the once in order to be used, but again require you to go hunting for materials to upgrade.
Beyond that, you also have both passive and active implants, which can perform a variety of different functions. There’s one that triggers an incessant beeping when you get close to a gear pickup, another might boost combat energy generation, but another might give you three health charges, another lets you convert combat energy into health, and so on. That last one is just one of many elements in the game that push you to be more proactive than reactive in the game’s combat.
The need to target individual limbs and parts holds over to the boss fights. The first boss, rather reminiscent of RoboCop’s bipedal ED-209, but with sword arms instead of a mini-gun, isn’t the best example of this, but the second is a fine example of where the game’s boss fights can go. A robotic donut of legs and jet thrusters, it’s an intimidating sight, and as it leaps towards you or floats while spinning its legs around it like a whirling dervish of sorts, it’s best to steer clear and bide your time. The way forward is to target particular limbs, chipping away at it and forcing it to alter its behaviour over the course of the fight.
There’s no doubt that this is a very challenging game, but it initially lulled me into a false sense of security. I know I’m not the most proficient of players when it comes to this particular sub-genre of action RPG, but I can make good headway with enough time and patience. So as I strolled through the game’s opening area, rending the enemies limb from limb in the game’s brutal and gory combat, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Then it brought me crashing back down to reality with the first boss battle and the step up in difficulty of the second area.
Outside of the first area, which is deliberately designed to ease you into the gameplay and let you learn the ropes, The Surge reverts to type. However, within that, there are also a number of pleasing concessions to making the game just that little bit more accessible to newcomers. Heading back to the med bay will reset the vast majority of the enemies within the area, just as in similar games, but The Surge is the only one where you can bank and store the Tech Scraps that you’ve picked up as you fight enemies, meaning that you don’t risk losing thousands of the scraps that are needed to upgrade your mech suit’s power core, weapons and gear.
While it reduces risk on the one hand, it ups the stakes on another. When you die and respawn, whatever Tech Scraps you had on you at that time are left at the point that you fall, ready to be picked up again or lost forever if you fail to return to that point. However, you only have two and a half minutes to get back to that point, and while killing enemies helps by adding more time to the counter, it’s an effective way of heaping on a little bit more pressure.
The game also fits the genre’s mould with its story, leaving you with a mystery to uncover. On the whole, it does seem a little more open handed, and you’ll find and rescue other survivors, and talk to and be able to actually ask questions of other people who are advising you remotely. However, it tickled me when I could ask characters if they knew what had happened and, without fail, have them respond with some variation of “I’ve no idea.”
With the Dark Souls saga having recently concluded, fans of the niche genre it gave rise to are spoiled for choice between that game’s DLC finale, the Japanese mythology inspired Nioh, and now The Surge. Importantly for Deck13, while some tweaks might sound quite minor, the limb targeting combat and the science fiction setting that really helps to differentiate The Surge from its peers, and it’s clear that Deck13 have put a lot of thought, care and attention into how the rest of the game is constructed and why.