“It's sci-fi Dark Souls”, said everyone who had anything to say about The Surge [official site]. I was at a preview event for the publisher Focus and, as happens at these things, journalists would gather in groups and discuss what they'd seen. I wasn't playing The Surge until the end of the first day and lots of people had already seen it. “It's sci-fi Dark Souls”, they'd nod to each other. “You know, like Dark Souls. But sci-fi.”
Fine. But is it a good sci-fi Dark Souls?
Short answer: it's impossible to say. Slightly longer answer: the early section I played, for half an hour, is great, but without seeing how the game deals with level structure and enemy variety, it's tough to make a call one way or the other. The first enemies are broken people, slow to attack and telegraphing their more powerful attacks with distinctive wind-ups. They work well and show a good understanding of the importance of animations to make combat legible.
A good Souls-like should make you shout, “OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE” when you die for the umpteenth time. It might even make you swear never to play again, and to curse the person who designed the bastard monster that keeps killing you. It might make you throw a controller or smash it into pieces as if you were filming yourself for broadcast and needed to give the audience what they craved. It might make you punch a wall (Dirt Colossus 2010; I was younger and angrier then).
Importantly, a good Souls-like will make you regret doing all of those things. In the heat of the moment, while YOU DIED bleeds across the screen like an insult and an injury rolled into one, you might hate the game with the burning passion of a thousand unpraiseworthy suns, but take a step back and you realise that you're the one to blame. You fucked up. It's fine. You can improve.
The Souls games aren't arbitrarily tricky, not on the whole, they're harsh but fair learning experiences. You learn through repetition, through observation and through experimentation, and you become amazing.
It's fantastic to see that The Surge has been built by people who understand that.
Deck 13 have previous in the Souls arena, having previously created Lords of the Fallen, a fantasy RPG that had more than a little of the bonfire knights in its DNA. The Surge feels tighter, punchier and more confident in its own twists on the formula though.
The most important of those twists involves ripping off arms, legs and heads. When you lock on to an enemy, you can target specific body parts with a nudge of the left stick, and rather than being a gimmick for brutal finishing animations, the limb-lopping feeds into the crafting and loot systems. For plot reasons, you're trapped inside an industrial rig that's gone a bit haywire and the best way to upgrade it is to nick the body parts of similarly rigged-up folks so that you can slap their bits on top of your bits.
Essentially, that means if you see a chap with a chainsword attached to his left arm, you're probably going to want to cut that arm off so you can have a chainsword attached to your own arm. Anyone in a sci-fi world gone mad who doesn't make a beeline for the nearest chainsword is a wrong 'un, I say.
By the end of my half hour I wanted more. My character was like a patchwork quilt of chunky great sci-fi weaponry and armour, which is to say not very much like a quilt at all. He looked – and maybe it's the Games Workshop influence elsewhere in the building leaking in to my thoughts here – like a hastily glued together conversion of an Imperial Guard figure, with bits taken from boxes containing various Space Marine factions stuck onto his face, chest, arms and legs. I was chasing a chest upgrade, which involved harvesting lots of pieces of enemies to get enough scrap (the currency/experience of the world, lost, like souls, on dying) and specific parts.
The repetition loop that is a fundamental part of a Souls-like is a way of harvesting the gear needed for upgrades. You need a blueprint, enough scrap and a set number of the part you want to replicate. It's a satisfying loop, at least in the early stages, and that's not just down to the strength of the combat.
Visually, The Surge isn't sci-fi Dark Souls at all. It's bright, colourful and a little bit cheeky. All the plot stuff was discarded for the preview session, so I could get to grips with the game, but recorded voices blare out of loudspeakers warning about safety protocols, while every employee tears holes in his colleagues and reduces them to scrap. It's a bit Aperture Science and even though there's extreme violence, it feels more like 2000AD than Miyazaki's dark fantasy with a splash of chrome and petrol.
Is The Surge good sci-fi Dark Souls?
It's the foundation for that, certainly. Environmental design, including pathways and traps and secrets, and boss fights are vital. If they work, and there's enough variety in character builds and enemies to keep things interesting, I'll be more than happy. It's taking the systems of its obvious inspiration and using them as building blocks for a genre rather than elements to replicate as closely as possible. Yes, the scrap works exactly like souls, but it's tangled up in the crafting and the limb-theft and a combo system that feeds back into that limb-theft.
The Surge has hacked off a couple of limbs from Dark Souls, but it's using them to build something a little different rather than leaning its entire weight on them. We'll hopefully see how well the rest holds up soon.
The Surge is out in May.