I stalk the seemingly endless corridors and exhibits of CREO’s research and development complex for just over three hours, mastering its enemies, opening up crucial shortcuts, and making piecemeal progress with each new attempt. This is my best run yet though, bringing me within a hundred metres of the area’s primary antagonist. Buoyed by a full stock of healing injectables I venture into what looks like a boss arena. While I’m busy scanning the room for clues as to what type of boss lurks below, a new enemy marches in the opposite direction up the staircase. I haven’t encountered this cyborg-like creature before, but it has me well and truly on the backfoot. It knocks me off my feet, taking two thirds of my health away before I even step foot on the stairwell. I get back up, but before I can think about backpedaling it bludgeons me again, killing me. There is no boss fight awaiting me down the stairwell, just more enemies like that one, and some more vicious versions of it to boot.
Read more: check out our PC performance analysis of The Surge.
The Surge is firm but fair. Everything it throws at you can be overcome, whether that’s by learning the attack patterns of enemies, earning and upgrading gear to give you an edge, or overhauling your loadout for an altogether different tactic. That’s not to say it isn’t brutal. The majority of enemies can kill you with a single attack or a quick flurry, and later in the game they can move as spryly as you can too. After hours spent in the same area, getting your posterior handed to you by the same enemy and its knee slide uppercut attack, you’d think the appeal would wear thin. It doesn’t. A few more deaths later you spot the telltale sign the attack is coming: a slight drop of the shoulder and an almost imperceptible pause. you die again, too busy watching to counter it, but you feel ready for the next run. Never mind that it’s three in the morning.
Breakthroughs, however minor, are rewarded with further explanation of what’s happening across CREO’s sprawling facility. The Surge opens with protagonist Warren on an inbound train to the megacorporation, eager to enlist with the company and get his exosuit. Something goes wrong while the suit is being fitted, no anesthesthetic is administered, and Warren passes out as the neural implant bores into the back of his skull. When Warren finally comes to, he’s in the middle of what appears to be a gigantic scrapyard and being harangued by an inquisitive drone. It quickly becomes apparent that Warren isn’t in a scrapyard, he’s among the wreckage of a cataclysmic event. We never find out what actually happened, but gradually we do learn about the apocalyptic world Warren finds himself in, as well as the ailing one that preceded the mysterious event.
These stories are told simultaneously and from multiple perspectives. The primary sources of information are audio logs, which provide harrowing insights into the lives of CREO employees as they become embroiled in a factory-wide catastrophe. There are admissions of guilt, lonely epitaphs, final breaths, philosophical rants and warnings. There are also logs from before the event: workers recording the increasingly bizarre behaviour of their colleagues, rumours of clashes between board members, and unexplained dismissals.
Enormous TV screens tell a different story, one of CREO’s virtuosity in wanting to solve the world’s problems, and of its unending commitment to ensuring its workers’ happiness. Presented by Don Hackett, a Silicon Valley type with an effortless quiff and charisma to spare, these CG vignettes are plastered all over the world, hammering in the countless benefits CREO offers its workforce, not to mention the world-changing projects they’re embarking upon like Project Resolve, an attempt at reversing climate change by firing rockets packed with chemicals into the atmosphere. You can guess how well that went for yourself.
A special mention should go to the art team for managing to make each area of CREO look different while drawing from the same palette of near-future, corporate-industrial influences. CREO feels like it was torn straight out of the same universe as Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. While The Surge won’t win any awards for its graphics, it is a remarkably good-looking and visually evocative game. Subterranean tunnels lit only by the lights on your exosuit are downright terrifying to pace through, while wide-open areas invoke panic as you fear what monstrosity may soon be unleashed upon you. The final area, replete with smoke and shimmering blocks of jet black matter is something to behold, even if shortcomings in the texture department let the game down on the whole.
But narrative isn’t what drives you forward in The Surge, death is. Everything you do in The Surge revolves around making granular progress in each area: besting one more enemy than before, acquiring a crucial bit of gear, or gathering a large enough pile of Tech Scraps (read: Souls) to increase your rig’s core power. Even a single kill nets some semblance of progress, boosting your proficiency with the weapon class you’re using. Even if you’re unable to land a single hit on your foe, you’ll have at least learned a little bit more about how they move, attack and defend. Next time you might be able to whittle them down to half health before dying again, then you might die on your way back to the fight and lose all of your Tech Scraps, then you might kill them. Next up: two of the same enemy type at once, with a healing drone supporting one of them for good measure.
Combat is where Deck13 Interactive have shown the most growth since the rather mediocre Lords of the Fallen. Warren might be strapped into a hulking metal rig, but he’s incredibly nimble, able to dart forward, deliver an attack, and retreat in just over a second. Attacking options are plentiful too: you can perform a rising attack from a knee slide, an overhead plunge from a jump, and a lunging strike from a dash. You can also pick between vertical and horizontal attacks, charged and chained strikes - there are even weapon arts and backstabs à la Dark Souls.
Defensively, your options are more limited, but by no means shallow. There are no shields in The Surge, so often your best bet is to dodge incoming attacks. A well-timed block can parry an enemy, but when moving about is so easy it’s not a risk worth taking. Built into the blocking system are more advanced moves like ducking and jumping, which add yet more depth for players looking to perfect the game’s gruelling combat. String all of these tools together and you’ve got one of the most accomplished fighting systems in gaming.
Combat isn’t an isolated part of The Surge either - how you choose to fight feeds directly back into how you progress through the game. In every encounter, The Surge forces you to make an important decision: where do you attack? Enemies carry weapons and armour, and anything you see, you can earn for yourself. To do so, you’ll have to target the protected limb, deal lots of damage to it, and build up enough power to perform a cinematic, dismembering finishing move to remove it. That’ll get you the schematic for the armour piece, allowing you to craft it for yourself if you’ve got the raw materials to do so, which also come from dismembering. As you’re specifically dealing damage to armour though, you’ll deal much less damage per hit than you would from targeting an unprotected limb. If you want to improve your rig, you’ll have to take the tough route in combat.
Injectables spice up your loadout options further, providing either passive or active boosts and effects to your character at the price of sacrificing some of your rig’s core power. At first, the obvious choices are health-based injectables that function similarly to Dark Souls’ Estus Flasks. Then variations come into play, injectables that heal over time, ones that exchange power for health, or that ensure boost how much power you build up through attacks. Soon it becomes a constant series of trade-offs - do you want to channel all of your core power into health, or use some of it for more situational abilities like temporary attack boosts or injectables that only kick in when your health is low? Later into the game, power becomes a valuable commodity, vital for delivering limb-harvesting finishers and a fleeting resource you can swap for various boosts in a pinch. For explorers, there’s even an injectable that omits a horrendous ring the nearer you get to secrets, shortcuts and items.
For the most part, The Surge leaves what gear to pursue up and when to the player, and the decision isn’t solely down to what offers the best defence either. Some areas in The Surge feature environmental hazards like rooms full of lethal gasses or pathways blocked by pools of industrial waste. You can charge through the area, taking damage, reducing your chances of finding hidden loot or audio logs, and risking death at the hands of a craftily placed enemy. Alternatively, you can limb-farm some hazmat-clad CREO security forces, build your own protective suit, and venture into the hazardous zone with caution on your side.
Being able to tread carefully and take your time pays dividends, and more often than not you’ll stumble across a shortcut that makes the mammoth slog through each area that bit more manageable. Shortcuts break up the maze-like areas of The Surge into chunks, connecting new areas back to your Medbay (read: Bonfire) so you rarely have to trek back through an area you’ve already conquered.
Naturally, these sadistic slogs reach their zenith with a climactic boss fight. It’s here that The Surge gets off to a poor start, with a first boss that’s drab, repetitive, and predictable. It should never take a single try to defeat a boss, especially when most new enemies take many more attempts than that.
Fortunately, the bosses do get better. The second boss fight, against a fire-spewing drone with eight legs, shows the first up for what it really is: a red herring. Firebug, to give it its proper name, is a suitably cinematic encounter. There are stages and shock attacks that can kill in an instant - it’s a genuine challenge. The next boss is another curve ball, a static maze of mechanical limbs spread over three stages. Here, only quick reactions and a high DPS build will do as you attempt to simultaneously destroy and evade its seemingly infinite supply of appendages.
The format, structure, and style of each boss is different from fight to fight; they come in all shapes and sizes, and each one requires a distinct approach to overcome. Sadly, there aren’t nearly enough of them in the game - just five in total, and of those only four are any good. Depending on your perspective that isn’t an inherent negative, although some areas did lack a climactic fight to cap off every minor victory. The sparsity of bosses does make The Surge a much more approachable prospect than a Dark Souls game, but anyone expecting a boss crawler will be sorely disappointed.
In fact, content may be the one area where The Surge is left wanting. I completed the game in roughly 30 hours, but couldn’t escape the feeling that it came to an end just as its systems, environments, narrative and challenge were reaching their respective boiling point. No doubt there’s plenty more to be unearthed, but a necessary lack of a fast travel system makes exploring past areas a daunting prospect, especially as they’re made more dangerous in a broadly successful effort to kill off any sense of tedious backtracking. New Game + takes the challenge up a few notches, forcing the player to employ and master every combat move at their disposal to get past even the very first enemy they face. No, really. The Surge offers a neat twist to the New Game + formula, not only buffing the health and damage output of all of its enemies, but adding a glut of aggressive new enemies into previously tame areas to really bolster its tough-as-nails credentials.
Subverting expectations is something The Surge is very good at - it’s not just a Souls clone with a lick of science fiction paint. It’s subtly different, an evolution on the hardcore action-RPG genre. It might not be better, it might not even be as good as that beloved franchise it bears such a striking resemblance to mechanically, but that’s not the point. The Surge is a superb game on its own terms, compelling in every nook and cranny, lopped-off limb, and newfound shortcut. Underpinning it all is a surprisingly engaging, multifaceted narrative, and a set of combat mechanics that offer a little something for every type of player, but that punish all comers with equal aplomb.