21 July 2017
It’s a common enough problem: the enemies you’re facing in a video game have cooler stuff than you. It’s a common frustration, when slaying one of these enemies that for some damn reason you can’t pick up their sword/shield/gun despite it being a helluva lot better than yours is. The Surge is the cure to this particular ailment, allowing you to upgrade your rig by tearing and slicing the items you want off your enemies and then attaching them to yourself. It’s a brilliant piece of combat engineering, that gives fights an ‘ooooh, I want that’ element that will doubtless delight gear and loot hungry players. Unfortunately, the game ends up being a bit cut-and-dried beyond that, with even that system losing its lustre after you’ve collected a full set from the enemies faced. Ultimately, The Surge is an enjoyable rogue-like in the Dark Souls vein, that brings a unique combat and upgrade system, interesting concept, and some great boss battles to the genre, but is a bit too linear and repetitive for its own good.
The Surge is a rogue-like, meaning that it’s based around a high level of difficulty, dying a lot, and repeating (think the film Edge of Tomorrow). As you die, you (hopefully) learn the patterns of your enemies and how to counter them and gradually come to defeat greater and greater challenges as your skills grow with each death. The most famous rogue-like series is the Dark Souls franchise (and it’s off-shoot, Bloodborne), which are famous for their ability to kill you. In a lot of ways, these games feel like old Nintendo or Sega games, that kick your ass and ask you to thank them for the privilege. Like Souls before it, Surge’s greatest reward is finally using a finishing move to kill a boss that has been giving you grief for hours (Black Cerberus, the second-last boss took me two hours. I invented many new ways to swear during this time); you feel a sense of satisfaction when you finally learn a boss or enemy pattern that you rarely get in gaming anymore and it makes the fight and the pain worth it. Surge also rewards the bold, by having you drop all the scrap metal you’ve been carrying from defeated enemies (that you use to upgrade your gear) when you die and challenging you to run back to your corpse to retrieve it before a timer runs out. The longer you go without banking this, the greater multiplier you get but also the greater your heartbreak if you fail. You can bank your tech and upgrade your gear at a variety of MedBays throughout the game (like the campfires of Dark Souls) and a good deal of your time will be spent figuring out how to open up pathways back to these safe spaces. If you enjoy Dark Souls, you’ll feel right at home in The Surge, and it brings a welcome change of scenery and concept, but you’ll also likely find that it feels less precise and less scary than its inspiration. While this makes it considerably more approachable, it also means it feels less deep. I’d recommend it to Souls fans who are in withdrawal (also check out Nioh) and to casual players who’d like to try their hand at a rogue-like without taking the plunge and beating that comes with the Souls franchise; you’ll still encounter controller-throwingly-frustrating deaths, but at a lower rate and it comes with none of the baggage that makes Souls both impenetrable and deep. It’ll scratch the itch, but remember to take it for what it is.
What sets The Surge apart from other rogue-likes, is its setting: The Surge is, to the best of my knowledge, the first rogue-like to take place in the future. This leads to some interesting touches (like a summonable drone that replaces magic casting) as well as some unique boss fight opportunities against giant robots and the like. However, I was surprised to find that despite the futuristic setting, all weapons were still melee; variations on swords, staffs, axes, etc (all very much from the Warhammer 40,000 school of weapon design). While this functionally makes sense, it quickly reveals that the futuristic conceit can’t entirely leave its inspiration behind. Where the future setting really shines is in the upgrade system, which – as mentioned above- revolves around upgrading your rig with the parts you’ve cut off of your enemies. Your character is wearing a construction rig (we’ll get to that in a minute) not unlike a smaller version of Ripley’s iconic mech from Aliens (I wish there was a female skin for the main character, I would have said ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ SO MUCH), which you can attach new pieces to. Visually, you get a fantastic sense of both the patchwork nature of your character’s armour (appropriate, given the desperation of the situation) in a way that makes sense technologically. It’s also awesome to be wearing pieces of all the hardest enemies you’ve fought, making yourself into a walking trophy of sorts. The upgrade system and how it ties into combat is absolutely brilliant and well worth the price of admission.
Story-wise, The Surge follows Warren, a wheel-chair bound worker’s first day at the CREO Corporation (think Tesla meets Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corporation). CREO is currently engaged in launching satellites to fix Earth’s atmosphere through Project Resolve and Warren has signed up both to help the cause and to receive his implanted worker’s rig that will allow him to walk again. Things go south during the operation, however, and Warren finds himself awake and conscious during the operation, only to be dumped into a scrap pile, surrounded by brain-fried workers whose nano tech overloaded during a surge and turned them into rig-equipped murder zombies. Without much hesitation, Warren gets to killin’ and guided by a survivor on the executive floor, tries to make his way there to figure out what happened and how to reverse it. The story unfolds in a mostly non-linear fashion as you piece together what’s been happening at the CREO facility through audio logs and settings (not unlike the early phase of the Resident Evil games, before a villain shows up to explain everything in absurd detail). While the setting and conceit are compelling, the story itself is often unclear as more and more dystopian future tropes are layered on top of one another. I was actually taken aback when I realized that despite the murder zombies everywhere, there was still somehow security staff just hanging out and trying to kill me (and when I killed one of them I was surprised to find that Warren didn’t really care or comment on the shift from killing mindless monsters to people); the game seems to want to have its cake and eat it to, when it comes to an apocalypse scenario. Unlike Half-Life (which the game evokes in it’s opening sequence, starting with a tram ride into the facility), Surge doesn’t ever really justify the muted reaction to the disaster or why security is intent on continuing to do their job (the first guys you encounter tell you to “Move along, this is a restricted area” in the most bored, ‘Just another day’ tone, not giving one single fuck about the fact that the entire facility is overrun with murder zombies and you’re miraculously still alive). While the story ultimately isn’t that important in a game such as this, I wish it had clicked together a bit better, as moments like this (and dialogue options that don’t actually affect anything) kept pulling me out. There are some bits that work very well, most notably the story of Don Hackett the host of CREO’s ever-present community channel, however I didn’t really find much reason to care about anyone in the game. I would, however, like to draw attention to some of the smaller design choices that really shine here: the MedBays all have the same mournful country song playing, which at first was a huge disappointment, since I thought it’d be great to have more songs, but by the end of the game, that song was like a warm hug. If you’ve played the original Resident Evil games, you’ll remember how comforting that Save Room song was, letting you know that you’d made it, that you were safe, and that you could finally save and leave the house again; this song serves the same purpose and became one of my favourite touches in the game. The other deals with everything from your save file on down, as the computer systems continue to regard you as an employee on shift: it’s a super fun touch during an apocalypse scenario that keeps you firmly grounded in the CREO mythology as well as creating a stark contrast to the horror around you (the computer gets a bit mad when, bleeding and desperate to bank your tech points, you stumble into a MedBay during a non-scheduled break time). Again, the story is fine (though a bit over-stuffed), but the general conceit creates a compelling sandbox to play in and in a rogue-like, that’s what really matters.
There were moments in The Surge when I was bored and moments when I was frustrated, but now I find myself missing the world and gameplay; combat becomes almost meditative once you know the patterns and even once I’d gained the full set of gear, I’d still slice off parts of enemies for the satisfying kill animations. If you’ve ever wanted to try a rogue-like, it’s a good place to start, being more linear than the Souls games and also a bit more colourful (it’s a minor thing, but makes Surge a bit more welcoming and bit less oppressive) but I will warn you, you will be frustrated. Similarly, if you’re hungry for a rogue-like but have burned through the Souls series and Nioh, The Surge will feel familiar and fun and is worth your time. It comes with frustrations, but there’s no other rogue-like with a setting or upgrade system quite like this one and that alone makes The Surge worth your time.
And maybe, if you’re like me, you’ll still have that song stuck in your head long after you finish the game.