In a 2017 that’s been overflowing with excellent games, The Surge may be the single biggest surprise so far.
A follow-up to developer Deck13's 2014 game Lords of the Fallen, The Surge builds on that game’s fairly successful cloning of the Dark Souls formula. Like FromSoftware’s popular series, The Surge is an extremely challenging third-person melee-focused action role-playing game.
Lords of the Fallen was happy aping both the general gameplay style and aesthetic of the Souls games, but The Surge devotes more energy toward establishing an identity of its own. Deck13 sets its new game apart by embracing a sci-fi setting and a horror-style tone — and some inspired design experiments make up for a few rough edges.
The Surge takes place in a future built on the anxieties of the present. The world has been wrecked by climate change, and a company called CREO has stepped up to fix things, working on projects to improve the atmosphere and meld humans with machines. The game’s protagonist, a wheelchair-using man named Warren, is recruited into the company, eager for the chance to walk once more.
In true video game fashion, Warren arrives just in time for things to go to hell. Following a painful operation that equips him with a "rig" — a mechanical device that gives him the ability to walk, and also boosts his speed and power — Warren wakes up in a facility under attack from the inside. Something has driven most of the other employees to murder and violence, and it’s up to Warren to figure out what happened — or at least survive long enough to escape CREO.
I met a handful of friendly characters and picked up dozens of audio logs expanding on the plot as I progressed through The Surge, but the story is more interesting in theory than in execution. For as much as it tries to wrestle with the ethical and moral quandaries of technology and humanity’s impact on nature, most of its revelations are predictable for anyone who’s read any dystopian sci-fi.
It doesn’t nail the details of the plot, but The Surge builds a masterfully creepy atmosphere. CREO’s headquarters feels like the perfect video game setting. It’s a huge, labyrinthine space, but I still felt like I understood my place in it thanks to a liberal number of recognizable landmarks. Exploring each new area — from fancy boardrooms to rundown factories — elicited a growing sense of dread, an unease at the certainty of death hiding around every corner.
In The Surge, death is a certainty. The game delights in finding new ways to surprise and kill you. Enemies are often hidden around corners out of view, and when you step through a doorway, they’ll immediately swing. Or they’re placed behind boxes that they’ll smash through. Or directly in your path, in the middle of a patch of poison gas that you need to somehow get through.
I spent plenty of time cursing Deck13 for these traps, but there’s no denying the satisfaction I felt with each inch of progress won. Much of that progress came down to mastering The Surge’s third-person combat, which demands a high level of concentration. Warren’s bulky, semi-mechanical frame means he moves somewhat slowly, but fights still unfold at a lightning pace; winning meant learning the perfect opportunities to jump in and out of melee range and carefully managing my limited stamina bar.
Despite the speed and intensity of combat, some involved resource management lends a sense of strategy to The Surge's fights. In addition to stamina, which drains for each attack or dodge Warren performs, he has an energy bar that fills up as you attack. Depending on what you have equipped, you can spend energy on different things. You can use it to summon a drone that can attack or slow down the enemy; you can exchange it for healing, stamina gains or other temporary buffs; or you can use it to perform a finishing move, targeting and cutting off a specific limb on an enemy. It’s a smart system that provides options and allows you to take each combat encounter in a different direction depending on the situation.
Those gory finishing moves deserve a special note as well. They're laughably over-the-top visual showcases — the game goes into slow-motion to show off the massive spurts of blood as you dismember your opponent — but performing a finishing move also gives you a much higher chance of an enemy dropping a piece of loot from whatever part of the body you lopped off. This loot can't be equipped immediately. Rather, you have to return it to an Ops Center — the same location where you spend scraps to level up your rig — where the loot gets broken down into parts that you can use to craft new gear or upgrade your existing setup.
Crafting in RPGs is difficult to get right; it's often so complex that it’s easier to ignore it. The Surge avoids that problem. Crafting here is relatively simple and approachable, which is good, because it's 100 percent necessary. It’s important to your continued survival to use finishing moves often, collect crafting materials and continue upgrading your gear. Piecing together full gear sets from enemies provides further bonuses, such as increased stamina regeneration or the ability to regain health with each kill, and these can completely change your approach to combat.
The Surge’s gear and crafting system smartly wraps into and builds directly on exploration and combat, and those elements also tie together with implants. Unlike in most RPGs, leveling up your rig doesn’t give you much in the way of stat boosts; instead, it opens up more implant slots and gives you more energy to install said implants. There are dozens of different types of upgrades in the game, from the obvious — health boosts, healing items and so on — to more complicated varieties, such as an implant that allows you to spend health in order to slow down the world around you.
You need to be in an Ops Center to switch around implants, but beyond that you can swap them at will. This brilliant system let me completely alter my character build in minutes depending on the encounter or area ahead. In some spots, I needed to replace my ability to see enemy health bars with one that allowed me to breathe toxic gas. In others, especially near the endgame, I devoted as many implant spots as possible to health boosts, turning my initially frail character into a monster that could tank half a dozen hits from even the most powerful enemies. I felt in complete control of my character’s abilities and direction, despite the chaos brewing around him.
In fact, The Surge’s only truly bad moments come when it plucks away that sense of control, demanding obscure strategies without any signposting. This is a particular problem in the game’s handful of boss battles. There are only five or six in total, a number I would call disappointing for this kind of game if those fights weren’t far and away the worst thing about it.
Rather than just swinging away at a big enemy, the boss fights often have a trick to them, some unique gimmick you need to figure out how to overcome. These enemies aren't overly difficult; only one fight took me more than three or four tries to succeed. But they changed up the rules of combat in ways that weren’t terribly fun and more or less required dying a few times as I attempted to discern what it was I needed to do.
Still, the frustrating boss fights and the mediocre plot are blemishes on what is, by and large, a much better game than I ever would have expected. When I reviewed Lords of the Fallen in 2014, I said it was "a surprising show of skill and hopefully a sign of much brighter things to come." By building on its more obvious inspirations with a more unique vision, Deck13 has fulfilled even more of that initial promise with The Surge.
The Surge was reviewed using a final pre-release Steam code provided by Focus Home Interactive. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.