Deck13 Interactive ended up with a surprise hit on their hands with the futuristic action RPG The Surge only 2 years ago, a game inspired by Rise of the Robots and the more recent works of From Software. It was almost inevitable that a sequel would carve its way out of the studio and its now here. The Focus Home Interactive published The Surge 2 isn’t a direct continuation of the first game though, it’s been developed with a view to expanding the exploration and scale. Taking the fighting from corporate headquarters to city streets is an interesting move, but does it overcharge the action, or cause it to power down?
Set a few months after the first game, your character has been in a coma since a plane crash that left them without a memory of who they are and what happened. Waking up in prison in Jericho City, it’s clear something is going down that’s causing mayhem and chaos on the streets… that something being an infection of nanobots that were intended to help with an ecological crisis, but have ended up corrupting machines and augmented humans. With only a vague recollection of a girl called Athena who was travelling with you, you set out to escape from the prison and track her down to find out what’s really going on. Here starts a journey of battles, hardship and searching for meaning that’s not just a metaphor for life, it stands for the game itself.
For those not familiar with the style of game, The Surge 2 is a third person action game with a focus on hard as nails combat and fighting for survival. It’s not for the faint hearted. The enemies are brutal, quick and precise; no matter what character build you go for it will never be enough to waltz through the infested areas; death comes quickly and frequently; and you lose all the currency you’ve collected when you’re done in. Summarising it like that doesn’t make it sound that appealing does it? Unless you’re a masochist. However, the gameplay loop that’s created allows for steady, if slow, progress and an immense feeling of satisfaction when you do finally overcome a major obstacle… or a feeling of relief when you find a way around it.
To make things slightly less unbearable there are medbays scattered around that act as spawn points and upgrade centres. When you get overpowered by an enemy and your life gauge depletes you’ll materialise back at a medbay ready to head out and get revenge. Or at least try. There’s a timer in play from the respawn that counts down how long you have to reach the point of your death and snag back your tech scrap (the in-game currency) if you’ve not banked it. Extra time is awarded for taking down bad guys on route, and when the tech scrap is picked up the life bar is filled back to 100%, so it can be used tactically if it’s a boss fight that’s causing the pain. The downside of the medbays is that a single visit repopulates the world with enemies, so anyone that’s been defeated previously will be back in their old haunts. There’s a definite Groundhog Day vibe with each recovering of the same ground.
It’s finding shortcuts that become a key focus in the early stages, because there’s no way you’re skilled enough to continually take on the same enemies over and over again. Scrap levels are increased with each successive kill, so there’s a risk/reward system in play, but finding a way to bypass the repeated combat encounters is sometimes preferable just to take the grind out of it. Most of the city is linked with locked doors and alternate paths that take a little exploring to find, yet are essential to feel like you’re making progress. The Surge 2’s fighting system is very technical and takes some effort to get to grips with, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by something as simple as two enemies attacking at once. This is obviously a deliberate part of the gameplay to force you to learn and adapt, and it will alienate those who aren’t comfortable with this style.
Essentially there are two attack buttons and block. One attack is horizontal, one is vertical and mashing them up pulls off combos. The speed and power is dependent on the weapon type and which body part is being targeted on the opponent. Locking on allows a flick of the right stick to switch between chest, head, arms and legs to either go for unarmoured sections, or chop them off. Getting to that type of finishing move though needs management of three gauges – health, stamina and power. They are all interlinked so you can use the power gauge to replenish injectors that give health, and you keep stamina as high as possible so that you can get more hits in and charge the batteries in the power meter. It all works pretty well when you’re used to it, though the only way to get there is with practice and multiple failures, and figuring out which tactics work best for each enemy.
Because this is an RPG where limbs are lopped off and armour is ubiquitous, there’s a lot of crafting and item management, as well as implants that act as boosters to abilities. Upgrading scavenged armour and using the best implants all come at a price as equipping them costs energy, and the exo-rig can only support so much power. This is increased with each level upgrade that comes with sacrificing tech scrap, and ends up being a little bit of a logic puzzle with swapping elements in and out to keep it all within the power limit. Knowing what you want to improve next is worth planning because materials are acquired during combat and are linked specifically to the body parts that you remove. There are new schematics for gear that can be learned this way too. With a decent help system and quick access loadouts it doesn’t take much to get embroiled in beefing your character up.
It’s quite easy to upgrade in The Surge 2 if you stick to loops in the map around the medbays. Once the enemy patterns are figured out it’s possible to keep running circuits to bank currency, jump up a level, and repeat. It’ll mean having some reasonable stats before encountering some of the tougher foes, but won’t make you invulnerable to the lower level thugs. The block system is pretty tricky to use because whilst it does work, if you don’t time a parry correctly (by pushing the right stick in the direction of the attack whilst blocking) you’ll lose most of your stamina. Equally, if the weapon swings aren’t timed for the type it is the stamina gauge will drop rapidly. Oh, and getting hit knocks it down as well. Without stamina you’re a sitting duck and two hits can wipe out even the longest health bar. Dodging tended to be a much better tactic for staying alive than messing with the fiddly parry mechanics, though it can’t be underestimated that if you can master it then even the boss fights get an order of magnitude easier.
Character building and story coherence aren’t necessarily The Surge 2’s strongest points, the focus on hitting things and moving on puts them in the background. It’s perfunctory if not particularly engaging. That said, the city and world building is pretty good, and with a level of verticality to the map there’s enjoyment in seeing what’s hidden around. It’s hard to say that this is a great looking game, it’s not got a big install footprint on console (less than 10 GB), and even with the options to switch between performance and resolution on the pro versions, there’s not a significant change. Resolution introduces some screentear, though weirdly I found the combat more manageable at 30 fps. Performance mode has everything rock solid and clipping along at 60 fps pretty solidly. Either way, the slow-mo camera work on limb removal does remain satisfying regardless of mode.
Even though The Surge 2 is a single player only game, other players do come into it as you have access to graffiti tagging that leaves clues to others about what’s ahead and around. With a few simple clicks and judicious use of three symbols there are messages that can be left and found virtually everywhere. If you fancy trying to vex other gamers you can create a banner and place it somewhere hard to reach – the less people that find it and touch it, the more tech scrap you earn, and as it’s a cool 5,000 for no one finding it, it pays to make some effort. Whilst there’s no invading other players games there are still opportunities to help others out by taking down “revenge” enemies that have sliced and diced a fellow explorer. These pop up occasionally and defeating them nets you some loot and battery charges, as well as letting the injured party know they’ve been avenged. It’s simple yet satisfying to know that you’re not alone in this. The vast majority of time the AI encountered wants to kill you, and the epic boss fights are lessons in frustration, so to have a touchpoint to those experiencing the same pain helps the mood a little.
With no hesitation I can say that The Surge 2 is a hard game, and not one that I can describe as relaxing and stress free. It falls in a genre that wears its difficulty on its sleeve and doesn’t even pretend to take it easy on the player. It’s either git gud or git out. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something playable hiding at its impenetrable heart though. Perseverance pays off and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finally getting past that boss that’s been hampering progress. Even if you forget the story it tries to tell, you won’t forget the unforgiving nature and punishment it doles out. Embrace it and weirdly it manages to pull you deeper in to the gameplay loop. It’s definitely a genre game for the hardcore, and needs some polish, but it does have some spark.
A PS4 review copy of The Surge 2 was provided by Focus Home Interactive’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45.