Memories of Death
Nintendo Hard. That is what we called it back when video games were played by coaxing some entertainment out of a cartridge with a gentle breeze, in order to appease our ancient electronic gods. I know I have a tendency to go on about accessibility, difficulty levels, and making a game good for everyone to play. But when I wasn’t fighting off sabre-toothed tigers while riding my penny-farthing about town, I was playing Battletoads, so I know difficult games. And this was all before your fancy Gamestops and Steam Refunds. When our parents bought us a game, we were stuck with the damn thing, and we bloody well had to like it.
I’ve tried my hand at the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne and while I never really got far in them, I did not regret purchasing them. I knew I was buying a meat grinder. So when I saw The Surge being heralded as a sci-fi Dark Souls, I was a bit skeptical if it was even something I should review. Still, I kept hearing accolades of an engaging story buried beneath a another “Git Good” style of game, so I figured I’d give it a go.
Dark Souls never grabbed me because while the setting and lore was fantastic, I never was engaged by the story. It made the grind seem unrewarding. So what I was expecting, to be honest, was a halfhearted attempt at slapping a more engaging story on a Dark Souls clone. What I got was a sci-fi horror/thriller with unforgiving combat and a story of technology gone awry, with hints of my favourite dystopian RPG of all time – Paranoia. (Tabletop RPG that is – you know, the kind with quills and parchment?)
The Surge is an action based sci-fi that follows the story of Warren, a protagonist who dreams of being able to walk again by signing up to work for the suspiciously altruistic company CREO. After a rather upsetting process, Warren awakens being hauled to an uncertain fate by a robot that really thinks he is garbage. Fortunately, his newly acquired exoskeleton rig has given him the ability to walk again, and as he stumbles through his first steps, we too join him in stumbling through the game. Currently available on Windows, PS4 and Xbox One at the cost of $59.99 USD, The Surge frustrated me in all the right ways.
Well, almost all the right ways.
Your Own Personal Meat Grinder
With this game there is an understanding: You are buying a game that is hard. This is not meant to be a game for everyone, this is a game for people who want to be abused by their entertainment. They want to climb over difficulty after difficulty, using their own pile of corpses as ladder. So, no, there is no difficulty slider. I mean, I knew that going in, but – oh boy – my heart sank a bit as I saw my first of many death screens during my second fight. I panicked at the sudden onslaught of the easiest baddie in the game, dying like a wailing coward. I am sorry to have let you all down.
But I was determined. The intro of the game grabbed my attention. The protagonist had a clear motive, there was technological mystery lingering in the air, and I was being politely instructed to go here or there by the heavily armed guards. I knew something was up when the soft computer voice asked me to find a line to wait in, and there was no line to be seen. I won’t spoil Warren’s transition from wheelchair to rig, but fair warning, I squirmed a great deal.
Then we get to the thick of things, and Warren is relearning to walk just as we are learning the controls. Don’t be fooled – Warren can walk fine, any awkwardness you feel off the bat is your own.
The game is combat driven. You may sometimes do sneaky things, but ultimately progress in this game is measured by how much killing you do. I can happily say that as this meat grinder of a game continued I did actually get better at it.
Now, don’t be like your pal Old Man Mordaith, kids. I had just come off a stint playing some MMO’s where you can leap into battle with great abandon, take out half a dozen guys, and feel mighty grand about the whole thing. Not here. I got the basics of combat down, having taken on a few more human foes with a low-to-average success rate. There I was, slowly moving along, no healing left, but I saw my goal. I just needed to get by this one last bad guy. So, I used the game’s targeting system before it could spot me. Once locked, I used my controller to select its unarmoured noggin, in the hopes that I could take it out with little fuss. Moving closer to get in range of being noticed, I attracted its attention and lured it back to a larger space to take advantage of my leaping and dodging. It barrelled towards me, doing a now familiar leaping animation, I jumped to the side, moved in to take advantage of it being disoriented – and was promptly butchered by another bad guy who was literally hiding behind a curtain (okay, it was more of a ratty tarp than a curtain.)
So once again I woke up at my little base of operations. Here I could run back anytime, technically, and restock my supplies, heal my wounds, and upgrade my gear. Oh – I can also store my scrap here. Scrap is the games upgrade currency, and if you die, like I had just done, you get a little message informing you that your scrap is going to disappear soon if you don’t recollect it. So, hoofing it back to your base to store spare scrap is good, kind of, as every visit to the base repopulates all the bad guys. Sure, you unlock passages and shortcuts as time progresses, but you never know when you are going to just up and die in some place you can’t easily get back to. So I ran the meat grinder gauntlet. It was during one of my many back and forth exchanges of exploration, murder, and death that I realized something.
Aside from the clear instructions on how to play, The Surge had already defied one of my expectations: The game sneakily wanted you to have your own play style. I should have suspected right off the bat, with the choice between gear load out. Make no mistake, your character is fundamentally the same whether you choose Field Technician or Heavy Operator, but the gear makes a difference. Between gear, implants and the upgrading system, I really started to feel a bit of pride in my development and the customization of my rig.
Naturally, I favoured the Rhino gear, as it was well armoured and while slow, packed a more powerful punch.
In this game, if you are a weaker player like myself, you have a very viable option: You can stop focusing on progression. My dedication to wanting to learn what was going on here was so great that I decided to focus on building and upgrading my character. This meant lots of deaths, over and over again. But something started happening. I died less and less, and with no map, quest arrows, or fast travel, I had started memorizing the levels like a series of dance moves that I was making up as I went along. Eventually, I was clearing my comfort zone of enemies without using much of my healing, and my gear was now much stronger. Oh my! Had I, as the kids say, “gitted gud?” (They… don’t say that, do they?)
The answer was “No,” followed by mechanical, mocking laughter, as I tried the next area. I felt like I was back to square one, bumping into things that just crushed me in a hit or two. I gritted my teeth and started the process all over again. And I enjoyed myself. Frustration is not normally my thing, and I may not have played this game if I hadn’t been reviewing it, but I was honestly finding it fun.
However, there were a few issues with the controls. Some minor quality of life issues, but some others were dipping their toes in the realm of poor design. In any game that is so unforgiving and draws a player base that will cheer on the concept of mastering your skill, the controls need to be spot on. These will be the second most important part of the game, outside of the initial buy in itself.
What minor issues arise in The Surge are focused around object interaction. This is often a problem in a game where the camera angle is less of a fixed point in space and more of a rolling river. You don’t want to be fiddling around trying to get the camera in just the right spot so you can pick up that item, listen to that audio log, or gods help you – climb that ladder as you flee enemies with armloads of scrap begging to be deposited somewhere safe. But here we are, and in The Surge I died more than once due to camera angle related issues. Honestly even once is one time too many in this kind of game, where frustration should be entirely self-inflicted. When the tools you’re told to master don’t work, the frustration stops being fun. I will strongly disagree with anyone who says that bad game design is just another hurdle when a player tries to achieve mastery of a game. A bad game mechanic that’s mastered is still a bad game mechanic.
With that in mind, lets talk targeting issues. Targeting is vitally important yet pretty simple. Hit the button, use the proper toggle to highlight a body part if you want. Multiple enemies? Just hit that handy button that will let you cycle through targets. Go on, hit it. Why aren’t you hitting it? Why are you being torn apart by angry robots? Why are you lighting your computer on fire? -ahem- So, the switch target button doesn’t work so great. I died many times because I couldn’t target the enemy closing in on me while still focused on a further away threat. It worked sometimes but there was something preventing me from using it with a level of consistent proficiency. Normally I can tell if it is a sensitivity issue, or if my character is staggered, but because I was unable to determine a mechanical reason, I have no choice but to chalk it up to poor design.
Like I said, the combat is good. You can start feeling like a real hardcore badass with some practice. But, that satisfaction is all torn away when ever you are killed by an enemy because you couldn’t lock on him in time. This part of the game needs major work and is easily the biggest downfall of the title.
Recycling at its Finest
There are some who might try to brand this as a survival game. It isn’t. Just because you have a crafting system and the enemies drop loot doesn’t mean you can call it a survival game. I can see the argument, though. In order to survive, you need to selectively kill your enemies. Well, selective on what parts you choose to take. I mentioned earlier that when you locked on an enemy you could highlight different parts of their body. When you select an armoured part, a orange shield appears, unarmoured a blue icon.
You have a choice to make. If you go after an unarmoured body part, you are going to do more damage, thus killing the enemy quicker – and even a few seconds shaved off a fight can mean all the difference in this game. However, if you go after an armoured enemy part, hit it enough times with your attacks, then you can execute a finisher. If the gods are kind, you viciously have torn off the piece of gear you were looking at, and can now add to your inventory. If not, better luck next time. Once you have the gear you can start crafting the items at your base.
You can also find a variety of implants in your travels, from increased health to being able to detect hidden objects. Safe to say I tinkered a fair amount trying to figure out the best implant-gear combos for my punchy-smashy version of Warren. There are a finite amount of these items that you can equip – many of them taking up energy – so upgrading your power core is also an important use of resources.
The game’s equipment system is robust enough that I felt the weight of options on my mind. That isn’t a bad thing, I just wasn’t expecting it in this game. It is all carefully regulated by how much time in the grinder you spend, and you can only improve by mechanically cannibalizing your former co-workers. By this point my editor must be getting nervous again.
Optical Implant Upgraded
This is a beautiful game. In games where you have quest icons or literal lines to follow to get you to the next important point, sometimes the devs will skimp on the details. Games with no map, no pointers, no chipper reminders of “Hey – Go left!” have the luxury that a lack of scrutiny grants.
This game, you are running in each corner, carefully looking up, down, around, making note of every detail – just in case it is a clue that will make your journey just a bit safer. The game is great at making you ask questions like “How long was I out for?” and “Did it always look like this?” You see spraypainted messages that remind me of the vandalism in Portal – grim, and speaking of a more insidious hand at play.
More chilling are the audio logs you find around. Concerns and fears, meshed in with some general misguided blue collar worker talk. It likes to remind that the enemies you’re killing were very likely once just normal people. So between the strange musical choices, which include a twangy sounding country loop, the often creepy messages you find around the facility, and the occasional talking NPC, the game does an excellent job of portraying a pristine facility that has had lots of paint chipped away.
All these things work in tandem to help craft the CREO mystery. I wanted to know more about Warren, his predicament, how things went bad, and so on. The game piles on questions and questions and you get a healthy dose of paranoia and self doubt. And when you’re my age, it’s nice to experience those questions, cause it really reminds you of your early 20’s. It’s fair to say that this game will keep story-keen players motivated to jump into the gnashing claws of death over and over again.
Merits of Masochism
In then end, while I enjoyed my time with the game, I found I needed to take extended breaks while reviewing it. I had learned to stew in the frustration of my well earned deaths, but the issues with the camera locking in combat caused me to die more than a few times and do the Canadian version of rage quitting: I got up, drank a beer, and gave the stink eye to a wandering moose.
While I see the criticism that Warren is kind of hollow, he has just enough character to make me want to know more about him. I actually felt for Warren in that way when you see someone get a Monkey-Paw wish. The sights and sounds of the game made me in to a nervous sightseer, never knowing if death awaited me while I took the time to read this scrawled note on the wall. There was a tension to it that I normally don’t get while playing games, as typically I don’t like punishing myself. But even if it took me out of my comfort zone, this was a fun break from the normal for sure.
People who found the Dark Souls games to have a story that was simply not engaging or just hard to get into and understand may like the clear motivations and setup of The Surge. While its combat suffers because of some disappointing targeting, this game is fun enough that it extends beyond the niche market of other games.
Review by Joshua Smith aka Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This game was received free as a review copy.