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Wot I Think: The Surge

"Dark Souls Shortcuts: The Game"

Oh, I see. Just as I’ve written an article complaining that no game has learned from Dark Souls’ level design, The Surge [official site] comes out, a Soulsy sci-fi action game which is, on the face of it, about a cataclysmic accident in a robot factory, but which is actually about opening that door over there and finding out you’re back in your favourite corridor. It’s from the same developers as Lords of the Fallen but while Rich found that earlier foray into the land of Dark Clones to be uninspired and shonky, The Surge turns out to be a decent homage to its predecessor, even if it is lacking in several vital areas. Some of that shonkiness, for example, is still hanging in there.

Story time! You’re Warren, a bloke who wants to get himself one of these new exo-skeletons he’s been hearing so much about. Off you go to the Creo headquarters, a corporate factory with a sinister Silicon Valley vibe and peppered with videos of its PR man and CEO becoming steadily more villainous with each new company-wide address.

After a somewhat invasive procedure and a mysterious accident you emerge into the game proper, equipped with either chunky legs and heavy-hitting mechanical arm-helpers, or some lighter but stamina-thrifty mecha-bits. From this point much is familiar. Humanish enemies and irritating floating drones take sizeable chunks of your health off if they land a hit, while you circle around them taking swipes and watching your own stamina bar.

Later, an energy bar also comes into play, filling up with each blow you land on a baddie. You can use this energy with implants or a drone of your own to do things like recharge your health, stun enemies, release a frosty fog, summon a shield, buff your attacks, and so on. If you die to the angry leap of a mechazombie, or the stompy legs of the first boss, then you drop all your “scrap” and it’s back to the last Operations room. This is essentially a bonfire for the discerning roboman. It’s where you level up, upgrade bits, swap out implants, and craft new arms or legs for your exo-suit. But to get the blueprints and components for these you have to indulge in a bit of Dead Spaceian limb slashing.

You can target each individual body part of an enemy, you see, then lop it off with a finishing move. Often the parts you want will be covered in armour, which will take more hits than if you go for the fleshy exposed parts. But the reward is usually an extra bit of useable loot, so it’s normally worth the extra jabs, especially early in the game when you’re collecting bits of armour from your new angry friends.

In many ways it’s tougher than its Souls cousins. No phantoms will come to your aid, there are no ranged weapons for cheesing your way through, and even the simplest of enemies can often kill you in two blows if you’re not careful. Dropping your scrap also sees you racing against a timer to recover it before it vanishes (killing enemies along the way will grant you some extra time, however, and it was rare that I couldn’t slink past and make it back to to my old pile of trash with a minute to spare).

But all that isn’t the reason it feels tougher than its Japanese progenitors. It’s tougher because it’s often a bit, well, wonky. The enemy animations and attacks are not particularly well telegraphed, for example. The large clunky swings and steps of humanoids covered in blocky armour feel harder to make out than your average Hollow, especially in close quarters. In Dark Souls you build up a sense of foresight based on visual cues - the curling back of a spine or the extension of a sword-bearing arm - these come to feel like openly visible signs of intent. You learn and you dodge. That same conditioning of reflexes does happen here, I should say, it just takes longer for you to get to a point of competence (or it did for me, anyway) because of how indistinct those signs-of-attack can be, and because the hitbox of both you and your enemy can sometimes feel inconsistent and "floaty".

The combat itself is OK, but takes serious getting-used-to. Swings with your various weapons (one-handed saws, giant slow blades, nippy knife gloves, twirling electro staves) don’t necessarily act the way you might expect. Lunging forward and tapping the attack key just twice will often lock you into a long combo you never really wanted to do. And you can’t “interrupt” this ongoing attack by dashing away at any moment. Warren is in there for the long haul, twisting and swinging even as the enemy goes to hit back, even as you spam the dodge button in desperation. “Get away from him, Wozza!” you scream, as you witness his impending demise in a kind of focused slow-motion. But Wozza is only on strike two of his four-hit combo. He will finish this move, god dammit, or he will die trying. (He will die trying).

This makes the combat feel, to a Souls vet, much more “sticky” and unresponsive. You expect each tap of the attack button to be responsible for a separate swing or blow, but that's not the case here. I was able to get used to this and begin to hold back on the attack button, diving in and out for single hits and then dashing back to safety. Only indulging the combo on the exposed heads or bodies of unarmoured and easily staggered robonerds. But deprogramming the instinctive sword-slashing and circle-strafing that Miyazaki taught me over three dark misadventures was like unlearning how to click my fingers with the middle finger so that I could do it with the forefinger. Everything about it felt topsy-turvy.

On top of this, blocking is useless. When you block, you freeze on the spot. You can dodge high or low horizontal strikes by pressing up or down on the analog stick as the attack comes in. In theory, this is a good manoeuvre, since it leaves the enemy open for a counter-attack, similar to a good kite shield parry. But the timing is picky and most enemies are more easily felled just by fighting straight-up, so why risk taking a hit due to a badly-timed reaction? Plus, when you already have a ultra-speedy Bloodborne-style dodging dash, standing still in the middle of a fight or trying to time a perfect block feels like an obsolete tactic.

The drone, likewise, is nigh useless. I spent the first half of my game only using it to aggro single enemies away from a group with its peashooter “1 damage” lasers. In fact, I also avoided many of the upgrades that involve injecting yourself mid-fight because combat is too hectic, and your health/energy/stamina bars are too small and difficult to track during a brawl for me to risk fiddling with the D-pad during a boss battle or some multi-foe fisticuffs. That said, all these are things I can imagine other players creating whole builds around. Which is more than I can say for the practice of blocking. I have no idea what that’s doing here.

The camera tracking and the locking system are also a bit crap. One particularly irritating boss fight sees control of the camera being wrested from you and cemented in place, as if you are playing God of War or Nier: Automata. But wander too far from a designated zone and it will try to pan away again prematurely. It’s extremely unhelpful and results in far more deaths and badly-timed strikes than you would otherwise suffer. At the same time, the targeting system also screws you in that fight, hopping from target to target (the boss is a sort of multi-limbed robot whose arms you must first hack off) at the slightest provocation.

That’s the opposite of a problem that continues outside of this boss battle. Switching between target baddies can be lethally unreliable. Even if you can clearly see an enemy, from around a corner or through a glass box or panel, the reticule will often not snap onto it, or it’ll refuse to swap to that target from another. Frequently you will click down the analog stick to free yourself from the targeting camera’s firm grasp, in some attempt to scramble away and reorient yourself in one of its many narrow corridors or boxy rooms, but uh-oh, the targeting system won’t register, keeping you locked-on and feverishly clicking as you run backwards blindly into some obstacle.

Those are basic problems, and even Souls has its moments like this. The Surge just has them more often. It also seems to take pleasure in doing things Dark Souls has learned not to. For example, filling the world with narrow vent systems with soldiers and robots inside. Unlike facing against a rat or two, this makes for an interesting challenge, except that the challenge isn’t the vicious android ahead of you, but the model of your own body getting in the way of your view as the camera swings inside the cramped vent with you. “Hi mate,” says the camera, “what’s happening in here? I can’t see anything lol” And now: you are dead.

Despite all these problems – the camera, the locking-on, the sticky combat and the general shonkiness – I found myself enjoying this plod through a prideful corporation gone wrong. That’s down to one thing: its loyalty to labyrinthine level design. There are shortcuts galore in this facility. You rarely go 15 minutes without discovering some new way back to the local Opsfire, and that excellent moment of thinking “aha!” as you emerge from a dark tunnel into a room you recognise occurs over and over and over again. Later, as the gaps between shortcuts become more sparse, and your health injections get used up, you find yourself actively looking out for them, hoping that there will be a door beyond the next flamethrowing jerk that will lead you back home. In these tense moments, The Surge is at its best, recreating the mental dilemma that always made Souls so good: do I continue on and risk losing all my pocket money? Or do I double back and bank this stuff, and be forced to face the whole gauntlet over again?

It’s a pity then, given the maze-like design philosophy, that much of the facility is made up of uninteresting metal rooms, space station-like tunnels and samey white-walled labs. It retains that wonderful practice of looping around on yourself, yet lacks the imagination when it comes to the artistry of the environment, or the diversity when transitioning between larger areas. You can’t help but think that if From Software ever made a sci-fi Souls, then all of Creo’s labs and junkyards would probably comprise only the first area of the game. There would be no loading screens between areas, either, as there are here.

For all its connectivity, this robofactory still needs to be broken up by very deliberate train stations that feel counter to the shortcut-heavy mental mapping that is otherwise so enjoyable. But, to its credit, the wretched crutch of fast travel is nowhere to be seen. If you want to go back to an earlier area (something that is encouraged by special gates dotted around, which only open once you have levelled up your exo-suit) then you have to hoof it back, the way it should be.

Still, I have to praise it for getting that one element – the shortcuts – absolutely note perfect, because finding the next way back home is still enough of a hook to keep me exploring (it's also got a very strong opening two minutes, for reasons you'd probably need to go in as blind as I did to appreciate). All the other things it borrows – the combat, the difficulty, etc – still feel “off” to me as a Lordran loyalist, however. Even newer concepts, such as the time limit to collect your lost scrapsouls, or the scrapsouls multiplier you receive if you don’t check into an Operations room for a while, only feel like minor tweaks, like tasting a vaguely interesting new flavour of Coca-Cola. It’s not worse this way, but it’s not better either. It’s just different.

For the sake of fairness, I have to admit that I only made it as far as the fourth boss, 18 hours deep. At which point I was murdered enough times to gently accept my fate as a Surge drop-out. The most telling sentiment of how “just OK” I found the game is that I don’t feel the urge to tenaciously keep fighting on, but I also don’t regret the time I spent with it. As an action game, it’s serviceable, and thanks to its strengths, surprisingly engaging, if a little expensive for what it’s offering. In other words, I likely won’t be enthusing others into a purchasing frenzy. But if, sometime in the future, you’re suffering from Soul withdrawal and you spot this half-price in a sale, I will be the first to nod and say: “You know what? Yeah. Yeah!” in a surprised-with-my-own opinion tone of voice. The Surge is shonky, inferior and more than a little derivative. But if you fancy a shortcut-filled robotic challenge, it’s not all bad. Just be ready to get deprogrammed.

The Surge is available now for Windows, via Steam for £39.99.

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