Way back in October 2014, Deck13 Interactive released a third person action game called Lords of the Fallen. It is largely remembered for “not being quite as good as Dark Souls” but was a surprisingly solid entry into the genre, and scored a respectable 71% on Metacritic. Deck13 Interactive and Focus Home Interactive have now taken the formula and transported it to a futuristic, dystopian setting where monsters are replaced by exosuit wearing humans and robots. Can this possibly work, given the Lords of the Fallen (and Dark Souls) roots in the sword and sorcery mould? I strapped on my exosuit and went to find out.
First up, and the story is as follows. Mankind has finally succeeded in stripping the world of all its natural resources, and as such has brought about changes to the environment, and the way that people try to live their lives. One of the changes has been a rise of exosuits to help people complete their everyday jobs, or even to help those who were paralysed to walk again. In the very beginning of the game our hero, Warren, is revealed to be in a wheelchair, and has signed up to join CREO, a tech firm specialising in exosuits, in order to walk again. CREO has also recently moved into launching rockets into the atmosphere to mend the ozone layer, so on the surface at least appears to be a company with the best interests of everyone at heart.
As the game opens, Warren is on a train to CREO headquarters, where he plans to join the firm and get an exosuit in order to continue with his life. As you arrive at CREO HQ, you are funneled into an area where you have to choose the type of operative that you want to be, based on your choice of basic exosuit. You have the choice of the Rhino, a massive, heavy duty exosuit that is built for demolition, or the lighter, faster Lynx model, which is more suited for light duties. So, in a futuristic kind of way, are you going to be a warrior or a rogue? Deciding to trust in power and armour to see me through the trials ahead, instead of speed and stealth, the Rhino was my first port of call. Plus it comes in a super cool yellow that reminded me of the end of Aliens, allowing me to yell “Get away from her you bitch!”, as I was fighting.
Anyway, classic movie flashbacks aside, Warren then has the exosuit fitted. Now, this is quite a traumatic experience, as the suit is screwed into his bones, and the neural link fitted to his head, all without the benefit of anesthesia. Not surprisingly, Warren loses consciousness, and wakes up on the scrapheap, literally. As you awaken, a robot is already trying to strip you down for parts, so once it’s been dissuaded by application of a blunt object, you’re left alone in an abandoned production facility with not much of a clue, and a faulty power unit that needs replacing.
As you wander around and explore, you’ll meet various other robots and exosuited workers, but something appears to have gone horribly wrong, as everything is immediately hostile and will attack you on sight. Eventually you’ll find Operations, which acts as this game’s bonfire, allowing you to restart if you die, also allowing you to upgrade your rig (as the exosuit is known) and craft and upgrade weapons and rig parts.
Another cool piece of augmentation that becomes available as you upgrade your rig are implants, and as you reach milestones in core power, another implant slot becomes available. There are implants that can trigger a healing injection (ala the Estus Flask from that other game), one that triggers gradual healing over a period of time, others that can upgrade your health, enable you to deal deeper damage, and many more. In a very well thought out piece of design, you can stack multiple copies of the same implant (assuming you find them) to give even more health, or more doses of the healing medicine. This is a fantastic idea in action, allowing you to build a healthy tank with great healing, or a heavy hitting brawler with strength upgrades to do even more damage. Add to this a choice of single handed, heavy hitting weapons or dual wielding, faster but less damaging weapons, and the customisation that is possible appears almost endless.
In addition to crafting weapons, you can also craft and upgrade parts for your rig. Arms, legs, bodies, and heads can all be amended and made better, assuming you have the schematics for them – something else which is another stroke of genius.
As you fight the enemies, flicking the right stick enables you to target specific parts of their body. This can be used twofold: the enemy may have an unamoured part, like a left arm or a head, which when targeted will allow you to do extra damage. The other usage is a bit grimmer, but ever so more useful. As you attack, the rig builds up energy in a blue bar under your health bar. Once the bar is full, you can action a finishing move to cut a duel you’re having with an enemy short. If you do this while targeting a body part, the finishing move will sever the appendage, and allow you to pick up a wrecked arm, say.
Mostly the wrecked arms and legs will be recycled when you visit the medbay, but every now and again you will receive a schematic, allowing you to build the part you’ve just “salvaged”. So if you need a body part for your rig, for instance, target the body every time you fight and you’ll soon have enough schematics to start your own rig upgrade shop! Having the schematics allows you to mix and match the rig components as well. As I write this, my rig is a hybrid of Lynx body and headgear, Rhino arms and right leg, and nothing on the left leg as I can’t find the necessary bits I need to make one. In addition to the Souls (sorry, I mean Tech Scrap) required to craft things, there are other components needed, such as Tungsten alloy, force multipliers and so on. These can be found lying around the place, dropped from enemies, or occasionally given to you by NPCs who just want to help you out.
So, having got my rig just so, I stepped out into the world. “Near Future Dystopian” appears to be the motif here, and the world that met my eyes added another flavour into the mix – that of industrial.
The first area is known as “Abandoned Assembly”, and the vibe is absolutely bang on, everything having a rusty, dilapidated feel, right down to the enemies. Quite often, the exosuited enemies will be lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, and only begin to move as you approach. As they stand up, it’s the perfect time to click the right stick, locking the camera to them, before starting to lay into them with the attacks available.
These come in two types, and not the light and heavy attacks you might be expecting. The right bumper unleashes a horizontal strike, and the right trigger unleashes a vertical attack. Mixing these up gives rise to some very interesting combos, as your targeting of body parts needs to be taken into account; some parts are easier to target with a horizontal attack, such as arms, while heads and bodies seem easier to hit with vertical attacks. Blocking is performed with the left bumper, and apparently flicking the stick up or down while blocking allows Warren to jump over or duck under attacks, leaving foes open to counter attack. I say apparently as I have yet been able to perform this feat, and in general found dodging using the A button and a direction a better way to avoid damage, as the impact of blocking on your stamina bar is substantial. Obviously, dodging and attacking also takes lumps out of your stamina bar, and managing this becomes almost as essential as managing your health bar as you get deeper into the complex.
In another nod to the Souls series, losing your health makes you respawn back in the operations room, without any of your Tech Scrap that you’d picked up. If you can make it back to where you died, you can pick the lost scrap back up, but in a move that makes it even harder than Souls, there’s a timer counting down from the moment that you leave Operations to get back to the scene of your demise. Fighting and defeating enemies on the way adds time to the countdown, but obviously if you’d been wandering for 20 minutes before dying, the chances of making it back are somewhat on the slim side.
If you pass away before making it back, the scrap is gone forever, which is somewhat gutting if you’ve been collecting stuff for a while. The more you’re carrying, the more each subsequent enemy drops, so there is a real risk and reward mechanic in action here. If you are somewhat risk averse, like I am, the scrap can be banked in Operations, stopping you losing thousands if you zig when you should have zagged.
The other issue with dying, or even going back to Operations to bank what you have, is that all the non-boss enemies that you had defeated will be resurrected and ready to fight again. This is obviously something of a curse, as it makes progress very painstaking and careful, but once you have an area down, it’s fairly easy to set up a farming route – run it, kill everything, bank the scrap and and run it again – accumulating a lot of scrap and potentially schematics in the process.
The feel of the combat, and the noises that the characters make as you disassemble them are absolutely spot on. When you hit an enemy with a futuristic war hammer, it really feels like you are swinging a huge lump of metal about, smashing tiny units in front of you into their component parts. You can knock enemies off walkways to their death below (and can be lifted off your feet in return!), so fighting in tiny areas is something that you have to be confident about. If you manage to sneak up behind an enemy (not easy when you are wearing two tons of yellow metal on your back, and have metal feet to boot) a sneaky horizontal attack will knock an enemy to his knees, allowing you to follow up with a much more damaging attack, the equivalent of Dark Souls’ back stab. Weirdly, you can’t block and move in this game, so if you are going to block it will freeze you in place, which is something to be aware of if you are facing multiple bad guys.
The first area that you’ll find in The Surge is almost a tutorial, with helpful hints graffiti’d onto the walls, but please don’t think this is going to mean that it’s easy. Death can come from any direction, at any time, and it’s all too easy to have your attention focused on an enemy 15 feet away, and then be blindsided by an enemy who steps out of an alcove, or a doorway.
Some enemies will lurch toward you, almost working like zombies, while others will sprint towards you, launching into a jump attack from further away than you’d think possible. Fighting more than two enemies is also a good way to die, as I found it easy to take out two of the exosuited enemies, but by the time the third was squaring up to me, I’d about run out of stamina and couldn’t back away fast enough to let it recharge. So my advice is to pick your battles, and try to bait the enemies into fighting you one at a time.
In fact, treat The Surge like you’d do with the previously mentioned Dark Souls, and you’ll be alright, a point that is brought home when you have to fight the first boss – a giant robot, P.A.X.
Having tracked back and forward through the first level, opening different ways and routes back to the Operations room, the time had come to try and leave the area. Obviously, it was never going to be that easy, and it took me a good 20 attempts before I managed to put the P.A.X. down for good. Learning attack patterns, timings and trying to get back to the boss fight area without losing too much health (they are segregated from the rest of the complex by a digitised version of the “Fog Gate”), are all factors that gave rise to a massive rush of exultation when he went down for good. Being able to graft a bit of its “corpse” onto my rig made it all worthwhile, as the single handed weapon I took from him as a trophy was a significant improvement on the one I was using.
The Surge is divided into discrete levels, with multiple paths through each to find, explore and utilise. These are linked using a railway system, and traveling back to earlier areas is recommended, as there are sections that you cannot access until your core level is high enough. For example, in the second area, there is a security checkpoint to overload that requires a core level of 75, and as I was only level 28 after many hours of playing, I could see a lot of grinding ahead.
Problems-wise and the camera can, in certain areas, be a real issue. In tight, enclosed spaces, like a factory walkway for instance, or in the boss rooms if you allow yourself to be cornered, the camera occasionally seems to have some kind of spasm and can end up embedded in a wall, showing you nothing but a black screen until you can break target lock and move the camera manually. Sadly, by the time you’ve done this you are normally a twitching pile of scrap, certainly in the boss encounters at least, and this can leave a very sour taste in the mouth. Eventually you can learn to work through it, but it could certainly do with some attention in a patch. Even weirder things happened too, like a camera that was embedded inside the P.A.X. boss and made it almost impossible to aim and hit him, but thankfully that is fairly uncommon.
Other than this I haven’t at any point felt like The Surge has been unfair, with any deaths being directly attributable to mistakes I made, failing to manage my stamina, getting too cocky or over extending myself. Playing cautiously will make your life and experience last a lot longer, whilst rushing in blindly to see what happens will leave you in a dead end walkway, with six dog-type robots all running full pelt at you.
In conclusion then and The Surge is a game that can be mentioned in the same breath as Dark Souls, something which is high praise indeed. There are various configurations of rigs to learn, a bunch of imaginative enemies to battle and bosses which are breathtaking in both senses of the word, with great design and seemingly overwhelming power the first time you meet them. Add to this a genuinely engaging story about man and machine and how they can co-exist, and The Surge is certainly worthy of your time.