The sequel to the 2017 RPG third-person action-adventure, The Surge, which was in itself the spiritual successor to 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, The Surge 2 continues developer Deck 13’s sci-fi romance with the Soulsborne games. While I’ve flirted with Bloodborne and Sekiro, I’ve never committed to completing one of From Software’s game catalogue. However, the fierce fan investment, rich lore and lack of hand-holding have always seemed appealing from afar, so I was excited to play an interpretation of that style of game that carried less historical baggage for me to be mindful of.
Set soon after the titular surge that occurs at the end of the first game, The Surge 2 takes place in the ruins of a society decimated by a world-wide electronic attack. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of governmental oversight, instead powerful corporations and violent gang factions are the law of the day. And, if the ruin of civilisation wasn’t enough, the survivors are also being ravaged by a mysterious electronic virus called ‘defrag’ that is decried as life-threatening by the corporations and refuted as a corp weapon by conspiracy theorists.
Throwing the player into the action quickly after their character is retrieved from the wreckage of an airplane downed by the surge, the backbone of the story is the tired but effective quest for identity. And because it’s a video game, answers are doled out between bouts of extreme violence. That’s not a complaint, incidentally. Just an observation.
FROM SOFTWARE WITH LOVE…?
After creating a character from a reasonably robust generator based on a series of archetypes that don’t seem to offer any particular benefits other than cosmetic appeal and back story, the player is unleashed on their quest of transforming everything in their path into hairy jam. Save for quest-givers and background NPCs of course.
Although your character is initially declared to be the only survivor of the crash, very early on it becomes apparent that another passenger, a mysterious little girl, is deeply involved in whatever happened on the doomed flight. The girl has already escaped from the police detention centre the amnesiac player-character wakes up in at the start of the game, her escape – as well as subsequent journey through Jericho City – forming the route of progression through the game. As you periodically hit story beats on your quest further exposition is imparted through Division-style holographic ‘memories’ and collectable audio logs.
If I’m painting the story in an anaemic light, it’s because there really isn’t much to it other than being funnelled along from one waypoint to the next: it’s a reason to get to the next area of the game but there’s no real emotional investment. While that certainly sounds like a negative statement, I would offer up The Division 2 as defence exhibit A: I love that game but the story is just forgettable background noise that gives me license to murder things, loot their corpses and make the numbers go up.
Food for thought.
Being an RPG, there are of course side-quests aplenty to occupy the player in each district. Like the main story though, these are mainly shallow fetch or kill quests that do not require any real engagement but there are some more intriguing arcs teased out over a few missions and it’s interesting to note that most objectives are morally grey. Oftentimes an aggrieved party will enlist your aid to right a wrong against them only for the player to discover that things aren’t quite so cut and dry as initially portrayed, giving the player the opportunity of deciding the outcome.
While affording the player the option of choosing how a side-quest plays out is certainly not revelatory in post-Witcher 3, it alludes to a complexity of storytelling that would be welcome in the main quest line. That being said, most encounters with NPCs offer different responses, up to and including scaring off quest-givers and vendors, all of which feed into multiple endings for replayability.
The result is a competent narrative that ticks all of the related gameplay boxes but is largely forgettable. The meat and potatoes of The Surge, however, was the combat and the sequel continues this tradition with bloody zeal.
BREATHTAKING ANGER MANAGEMENT ISSUES
At its core The Surge 2 is an action-adventure looter with RPG aspects, but where Deck 13 innovate in both games is how that loot is dispensed. While there are some chests and drops to be had throughout the campaign, the vast majority of loot dropped by simply fighting enemies is ammo and other consumables. However, if you want weapons, armour or upgrades for both in the world of The Surge, you have to take them from your enemies very specifically, very forcibly and in glorious slow-motion.
Up until this point in my gaming career, whenever the option to lock on to enemies is offered up in a third-person action game, I’ve found it either to be a distraction, a hindrance or both. In The Surge games locking onto an enemy is a necessity, allowing you to target specific body parts for removal like a latter-day nod to the Dead Space series. The liberated body parts of defeated enemies then yield blueprints, weapons or components that can be used to augment your character.
This leads to a wonderfully grim yet satisfying loop where you will find yourself stalking the various locations of the game, seeking out appropriately-levelled enemies to liberate their various removable parts and appropriate them for your character build. These material hunts effectively become side-quests of their own, with the player not only having to work out the best route through the pleasingly convoluted districts but also balancing the risk/reward of prolonged combat encounters versus banking currency for stat upgrades and gear in case of premature death.
Like the games it draws from, The Surge 2 wants your gameplay choices to be meaningful. Every enemy conquered rewards you with scrap, the currency of the post-apocalypse that facilitates the buying of goods as well as upgrading weapons, armour and character stats. The longer the player spends out in the world fighting, the greater the rewards garnered. Defeat will not end the game but it does restart the player at the last checkpoint (which could be some distance away depending on how brave/foolhardy you feel), minus their scrap. That scrap can be reacquired as loot if you can make it back to the site of your death before a timer runs out. ‘Luckily’, the respawned enemies in your path will add extra time to that clock on their defeat.
If sustained combat sounds too cavalier for your tastes, by all means stop in at your nearest upgrade station to spend or bank your scrap where it will be stored for later use but, again, all of the enemies will respawn upon exiting the station so even the cautious approach can have its disadvantages.
The mechanics of combat favour the patient and strategic over those of a button mashing disposition. Like From Software’s titles, this may cause some frustration as you learn the attack patterns and rhythms of enemies, and then learn them all over again in each new area. Melee combat is the order of the day, using Scrapheap Challenge-style bodged weapons for up close and personal encounters, supplemented by a limited use but multi-purpose personal drone for ranged attacks.
A stamina bar is depleted when you attack, dodge or block, so combat continues that risk/reward trend of weighing turtling up against frenzied enemy attacks but not being able to respond or sneaking in a light attack when you see the smallest of openings to stagger your opponent and start a breathtakingly violent combo.
This seems like an opportune segue moment to talk about the game’s AI and, like the story, it’s functional but not great.
To add visual variety the game uses different skins for enemies that brandish similar weapons, which is a welcome mix-up. However, there’s been a few occasions when I’ve faced off against two ‘different’ enemies that move and attack in unison with exactly the same move set and that not only looks wonky but also makes the game feel really dated.
Regularly, I’ve encountered the well-documented Assassin’s Creed issue where sometimes I can murder an enemy in line of sight of his buddy and they don’t even flinch unless I attack them. Other times, I can be minding my own beeswax on the floor above an enemy and they’ll come charging up the stairs with less than good intentions on their mind. There are still other times when I’ve been fighting two enemies at once but focusing on one in particular and the other has casually shuffled back to their spawn point because I’m not interested in them.
Of course, you can absolutely take advantage of these situations and cheese encounters – in some respects these issues can help you get over the difficulty curve in your early hours – but it feels as cheap and reductive as it sounds, especially in a game where the combat loop is why you’re there.
The RPG elements of The Surge 2 are handled well and favour the flexibility of different builds for your character. Within any given build loadout, favourited weapons can be switched out on the fly, so you can change from swift one-handed weapons to heavier two-handed ones for crowd control, and then to a molotov cocktail launcher to deal with ranged mobs with ease.
Three different builds are available for your character (and can be changed from the inventory screen) where specific armour sets, weapons and implants can be assigned for use in different situations. Implants are electronic components that can be inserted into the sockets in the player rig (think Matt Damon’s exoskeleton from Elysium) that offer passive and active benefits such as reduced environmental damage or health injections.
Over and above this, the player-character has three core stats that can be modified through spending scrap at an upgrade station: health, stamina and battery. While health and stamina are obvious attributes, battery relates to energy built up through successful attacks in combat. This energy can be actively used, banked for future use or sacrificed to execute an enemy and yield loot. The satisfying combat puzzle of blocking, disposition, weapon choice and battery energy cost/benefit analysis is where The Surge 2 hits its stride with gusto. While I was initially appalled that a 2019 game would respawn enemies so readily, their value for replenishing energy, farming upgrades, testing weapons and practice simply cannot be ignored.
A LITTLE OFF THE TOP, SIR?
The world of The Surge 2 is predictably post-apocalyptic, with the action taking place in several districts of the ruined metropolis of Jericho City. Like the games it pays homage to, the areas aren’t enormous but they are extremely tightly designed with combat arenas often neighbouring each other and riddled with more routes than your average Swiss-produced food product made from pressed curds of milk. The game constantly tantalises with locked doors and and views of currently inaccessible areas. One of the most fun aspects of the game is exploring each district, finding hidden audio logs and the numerous shortcuts to and from the upgrade stations hubs. Metroidvania gear is dispensed throughout the campaign and regularly rewards revisiting districts to find previously unobtainable collectables and loot, while a deathslide traversal system allows players to avoid grinding through low level mobs in the latter stages of the game.
It’s a shame then, that the art style of Surge 2 betrays that level design somewhat. The game’s depiction of futuristic dystopia shares a lot in common with 80’s and 90’s low-budget sci-fi films. Sheets of corrugated metal, concrete and chain-link fencing appear to be the most abundant building materials, while scaffolding, shipping containers and burning barrels abound. At times it feels like the ad hoc construction is a distraction from pedestrian architecture rather than the result of economic and social decline. Latter areas do offer up jungle environments which are a welcome change and can look quite striking by comparison but most of your play time is spent in ruined cityscapes.
Brightening up the lacklustre surroundings are The Surge 2’s only online functionality: player-generated graffiti tags and holographic banners. Other players can leave surprisingly precise neon-coloured hieroglyphs as warnings, guides or loot markers using a mod for the drone. But, if you’re feeling more competitive, banners will generate scrap for your bank balance provided they remain undiscovered for long enough by rival players.
The enemies have received a bit more aesthetic love and you’ll encounter scary Mad Max cyberpunks, Aliens power loader tributes and Robocop wannabes (amongst others), all queuing up for you to dissect. Each of the factions has a fun assortment of weapons and armour to relieve them of, not to mention unique drops from several large boss encounters. Speaking of which, some of the boss design is really impressive – the spider one from the CG trailer and publicity in particular – but unfortunately Deck 13 hamstring themselves a little by overusing some models and undercooking other encounters with re-skinned regular enemies.
I played through The Surge 2 on a base PS4 and experienced some performance issues of note.
There’s a fair amount of screen-tearing if you’re moving the camera at speed and the game is rife with texture-popping that isn’t exclusive to assets being loaded in for the first time but often occurs when returning to play from the inventory or upgrade station as well. There was also a bizarre issue where the game would drop frames when trophies popped that I haven’t experienced in any other title.
In all honesty, none of these problems were game-breaking for me. There’s a good chance that they can be optimised over time and I suspect that they’re mitigated on the Pro or an Xbox One X, and non-existent on a decent PC. Even if they persist on more powerful hardware, I’d still take all of them over the sometimes infuriating camera hitching on scenery – not too often but worth mentioning.
Overall, The Surge 2 is a solidly put together and a highly entertaining package. Deck 13 have not reinvented the wheel with their game design, instead taking ideas from several sources and marrying them together successfully more often than not. While there are definitely areas where polish and better execution would have paid off, the core gameplay is good enough that these flaws don’t grate too harshly.
The Surge 2 is a good entry level Souls-a-like for those who’ve been curious but not yet pulled the trigger on this genre of game. It appears as if the developers have taken player feedback from the first game to heart and I’d like to see them get a third entry in the franchise because they could really make it shine given enough time and money.