The Surge is an action-RPG developed by Deck 13 Interactive and published by Focus Home Interactive on PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2017. In the face of environmental degradation, the tech company CREO sets out to reverse the damage using rocket-dispersed chemicals through its reSOLVE project. Warren, a new employee at the company arrives to be outfitted with his exoskeleton rig, but is tragically not sedated for the operation and passes out from the pain. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a ruined facility full of bloodthirsty workers and hostile robots.
The setup of the game is decent enough, especially with the subtext of a wheelchair-bound man going to work for an obviously evil corporation just so he can walk again. Sadly, that's about the only interesting part of the whole narrative, as the rest is a terrible and boring mess.
Warren himself is this bad mix of a silent protagonist and a voiced protagonist, as he has voiced lines during dialogue trees with NPCs, but showcases no actual character during said dialogue and is silent for the rest of the experience. I'd be fine with either extreme, but you have to pick one!
The NPCs you can find scattered about the environments aren't any better, as they are incredibly forgettable and add nothing to the narrative. As such, there really isn't much in it to talk about. No good twists, no good theming, nothing worth comitting brain space to. Just endless metal corridors and grinding noises.
And it didn't have to be this way! Upon reflection, the basic framework of the story isn't that far removed from System Shock. But that game managed to be interesting by making each level have its own little narrative puzzle to figure out as you progress, which ties into the main narrative and builds up the final confrontation. Having a decent antagonist would help too. If the Surge just had better direction and some actual character in its characters, it'd be an acceptable narrative experience at the very least.
The intricate design of the game's (few) levels are commendable to a point, but I'm still not a fan. Each area is structured around a single checkpoint and loops back to it constantly, which is impressive. What's less impressive is how it works in practice.
With each area being a cramped industrial facility (with small exceptions), it is very difficult to draw effective mental maps, as there really aren't many landmarks to go on. Furthering the issue is the placement of the various shortcuts. They are all put close to the area checkpoint for easy access, but if you step away from the game and forget which one is the newest one unlocked, then you have to just bet on one and hope you aren't retreading old ground.
What's missing in the level design is something to gently guide you forwards. You aren't given an obvious goal to work towards, nor does the level design feature main paths that clearly move you forwards. It's all winding corridors and sidepaths that will eventually take you where you need to go, but it's such a pain in the ass to try and explore an area fully.
The combat in the Surge is very much the euro-jank interpretation of Dark Souls. It has its own interesting ideas, but fails at both implementing those and the mechanics it borrowed. Let's start with the basics.
You control Warren from a third-person perspective and you can attack, dodge and run, actions that all consume stamina that replenishes quickly. What's unique to attacking is that instead of using light and heavy attacks, you instead have horizontal and vertical attacks, which feeds into the limb system. Every enemy has a randomly assigned limb that acts as a weakpoint. You can either target it manually, or make use of your two attack buttons to try to hit where you want. But with the manual limb-aiming being the optimal choice in every situation, I really question the addition of vertical and horizontal attacks.
They come at the cost of the removal of light and heavy attacks, which really messed me up. The attack animations are really slow and annoying to chain together, so I spent the whole game trying to figure out how the combos worked and what was actually worth using. I think I settled on the run attack most of the time, since it's relatively fast, but I would much prefer dedicated buttons for fast and slow attacks combined with the limb-aiming.
If you manage to stay aggressive enough, you'll build up energy to be used for special abilities, the most basic of which is cutting, which lets you kill a weakened enemy by hacking off a selected limb and hopefully get their equipment. That works well enough, but energy is also supposed to be used for other things as well, like your support drone. The issue there is that energy dissipates incredibly quickly, so you're only really making use of it when you have an enemy in melée range down to about half or a quarter health. At that point, you'd be a fool not to cut off their limb for items instead of wasting it on the incredibly lackluster attacks of the support drone. I really think you should be able to save up more energy between fights naturally (there are mods that let you save up energy, but we'll get to that), or make cutting take its own resource. As is, the energy bar feels very undercooked.
Now, all of that is bad, but what really sours the experience are the enemies. Most of them can chunk you in two hits and the game is terrible at conveying that you've taken a hit. So what happened to me countless times was that an enemy hits me using a fast attack which Warren barely reacts to, I take two seconds to realize that half my health is missing, at which point I eat a second hit and die. It really sucks when something telegraphed as an insignificant attack deals so much damage!
As a result of this, I developed a fighting style where I focused on dealing as much damage possible in as little time as possible just to minimize combat with enemies and survive. That sounds like what you'd do in any game, but not doing it in the Surge will make you suffer greatly. Simply risking an enemy being free of stunlock three fourths of a second just isn't a viable approach.
And don't think the 5 (!) bosses are any better. 2 of them are decent (though not much fun thanks to previously mentioned control issues), but the other 3 are just assholishness incarnate. Just as an example, the first one has two ways of making it vulnerable, both of which make sense in retrospect, but neither of which are intuitive or reliable. As you beat on its legs, you'll fill its "danger meter" and it'll start shooting rockets at you. So naturally, I kept beating on the legs, watched all the promising damage numbers and after an eternity, it fell down and I could actually damage it.
So, boss 101 stuff right? Slash the legs until you can hurt it for real? Yes, but also no! All those damage numbers do fuck all after the danger meter is full. This was in fact a puzzle boss! In a game where there are no puzzle enemies and there is one environmental puzzle! I hope I don't have to explain why having the first boss of a direct action game be a puzzle boss is a terrible idea.
So to beat it, you have to stay under it when it fires rockets so it shoots itself, an act which isn't assured, since a stray rocket is bound to hit you as well. You can also do what I accidentally did and hit its grounded leg when it raises its other one, but the timing is so damn tight it takes forever to get it right. Not to mention that dancing around this thing is very dangerous.
And then they have the gall to make you fight it three more times during another boss unless you figure out that you need to use its rockets on two unassuming tanks in the background of the arena! Simpler is sometimes better, you assholes!
Now, as far as loot systems go, the one in the Surge isn't that bad. Hell, it's downright fair, provided you understand it in spite of the lackluster explanations provided by the game.
You'd think that dealing damage to a limb would heighten the chance of getting that particular set of equipment and cutting off the limb would guarantee it. You'd be wrong. What actually matters is how many times you hit said limb and the act of cutting just makes the game do the dice roll, with damage seemingly being a non-factor. And you know what that means? Abusing the weakness of an enemy lowers the chances of a drop, since you kill them in fewer hits! To actually get the loot you want, you have to actively avoid weak limbs, just so you can hit limbs more times to heighten the chance of drops. Doesn't this sound just a bit counter-intuitive?
But once you figure that out (took me about three fourths of my playthrough), then getting what you want isn't difficult, which is a major plus. You simply cut a limb successfully to get its schematic, do it a few more times to get the specific material needed and then go craft it. But getting new equipment is only worthwhile if said equipment is better than what you have. I can believe that the armor gets technically beefier as the game goes (not that even the tankiest of armor sets stops you from dying quickly), but the weapon balance is totally out of whack.
Simply put, the two-handed hammer dropped by the first boss is better than ANYTHING ELSE I found in the whole game, by a wide margin! The lighter weapons are certainly faster, but their lackluster damage and stun potential makes them terrible against literally everything. As I mentioned before, lenghty engagement with an enemy is a death sentence and should be avoided at all costs. Not to mention that by using a weapon type, you master it and increase damage dealt by that type, thereby incentivizing you not to experiment with different weapons, which is just dumb.
Besides what you strap on yourself, there are also the mod chips to consider. As you defeat enemies, you collect scrap, which can be used to level up Warren's Core level. The main thing this does is increase the amount and strength of mods you can equip. And while there are some interesting mods to play with, I never really did so.
And that's because the combat is so absurdly lethal (on your end, enemy health goes from resonable to stupidly tanky), so picking anything but HP-increasing mods and more med-packs just doesn't work. You need to at least attempt to balance the appeal of equippable upgrades like this, otherwise the player is just gonna gravitate towards the best ones and not even give the others a second glance.