Republished on Wednesday 27th March 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of April's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
The Surge makes a great first impression. Its opening hour introduces you to a combat system that takes clear inspiration from the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but then developer Deck 13 innovates in a number of key areas to prove it’s more than just a clone. Running alongside that, the primitive area evokes the same sense of mystery and wonderment you’d find in a Half-Life game, and then channels the awe of a discovery in The Witness.
Unfortunately, this sort of praise only qualifies for the game’s initial exterior location because once things head indoors, The Surge squanders all of its promise and turns into a monotonous and confusing slog through corridor after corridor.
You play as Warren, a man on his first day at the megacorporation CREO, an organisation which promises a better future for mankind after all the Earth’s resources have been depleted. However, things quickly go pear-shaped after a sudden blast from the complex knocks Warren out cold, who then eventually wakes up to scenes of destroyed buildings which are infested with robotical creatures. From here, it’s your job to find out what has happened and discover the secrets behind the corporation of CREO.
What starts out as a decent premise quickly falls to the wayside because it’s clear that the story was not one of the main focuses. There’s nothing really new to see here, as it merely serves as a way of getting from point A to point B. The majority of objectives revolve around getting to the next area as you explore the structure with a couple of boss fights to break things up, and this simply is not enough. There is a fun bit of world building as announcements over the complex’s tannoy continue to play from before the blast, but nothing apart from this manages to elevate the plot out of complete mediocrity.
What isn’t so mediocre, however, is the game’s combat, which as previously mentioned is inspired by the Dark Souls franchise and Bloodborne. The Surge feels like a combination of the two as you can get by just fine with blocking attacks, but the dodge mechanic is just as useful. Heavy attack are absent here, though, as the game prefers to augment you with a simple horizontal swipe and a vertical blow, and apart from a drone you acquire later in the game, the variety of attacks you can perform start and finish there. The diversity comes in the form of the ability to target individual parts of your opponent’s body, and exploiting any weaknesses you find. If an enemy is susceptible to an attack on its right arm for example, the area will flash blue and you’ll know that targeting that limb will result in a much faster death. Of course foes will succumb eventually to blows on any area of the body, but mastering this technique is vital to making real progress in the later parts of the game.
While you’re on the offence, you’ll also build up an energy meter which when filled up allows you to unleash a terrifying slow motion attack that tears the enemy to pieces. One or two of these animations can look a little janky if they’re not lined up properly, but they’re always satisfying to pull off as you know you’ve won the duel. Furthermore, targeting specific limbs and then carrying out a charged attack can result in bonus gear and weapons. If you see an enemy carrying a weapon you’d like or a piece of armour you want, focusing on that area can result in that accessory being dropped and thus you can add it to your inventory. This adds a huge incentive to target limbs because not only are you dealing with the enemy faster, you could also get a piece of loot out of it.
While the combat system is the only thing we think The Surge actually does better than what it’s trying to emulate, the comparisons don’t stop there. The game plays a lot like a Souls game, from the control scheme right the way through to enemies respawning each time you use a medbay. The game is also very hard, but sometimes unfairly so. Enemies can completely overwhelm you and you’re pretty much guaranteed to die on your first encounter with each of the few enemy types, but it’s the boss battles where things feel a little too unfair. A couple of fights come equipped with a big difficulty spike and in the case of two feuds, very poorly explained mechanics. At points we were left dumbfounded with what we were actually supposed to be doing to take down the boss because the game gives you so little to go off of. This sense of vagueness of course works wonders in other games in the genre, but here it only confused and frustrated us.
This annoyance also rears its ugly head during general navigation because the game does a terrible job of guiding you and aiding you in the completion of your objective. Interior areas bleed into each other and with each district looking incredibly similar and generic, it can be very easy to get lost. Nothing about The Surge’s locations are memorable, which makes trudging through corridor after corridor a very big chore. This is on the complete opposite end of the scale of a From Software title, where you’ve got memorable locales such as Anor Londo, Dragon Aerie, and Lothric Castle. You won’t remember a single place from The Surge in three months’ time.
Thankfully, the game’s performance fares much better. The PS4 Pro gives you the option of either prioritising 4K visuals with a 30 frames-per-second framerate or 1080p along with a 60 frames-per-second target. We opted for 60 and the game manages to hit that number for pretty much the whole game. We noticed very little in the way of framerate drops, and this helped create a smooth experience in both exploration and combat.
The Surge had potential, but its excellent combat systems are baked into a game that can’t do them justice. The repetitive and drab environments are a huge hindrance, and when combined with a confusing network of corridors, hallways, and ledges, it’s easy to become frustrated, misled, and lost. You may find some fun experimenting with your attack options and the smooth framerate on the PS4 Pro does help to make that a better experience, but expecting anything more than that will only set yourself up for disappointment.