The Surge 2 (2019) Gameplay Review

The Surge 2 is an action role-playing video game developed by Deck13 Interactive and published by Focus Home Interactive for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It is the sequel to 2017’s The Surge.

Gameplay

The Surge 2 is an action role-playing game played from a third-person perspective. The game features a character creator which allows players to customize the appearances and gender of their player avatar. Players can utilize a variety of melee weapons to defeat enemies, whose limbs can be targeted and removed individually. Players can also dodge and parry attacks, which requires players to properly angulate their equipped weapon. Combat drones and consumables such as bio-sensors can also be deployed. When players kill or dismember their opponents, they can collect and equip the weapons, armor enhancements or tech left by them. Jericho city, the game’s setting, offers alternate paths which players can explore freely. In the game, players will meet different non-playable characters and have to make different choices which will affect the game’s world and story. Players can also leave graffiti messages in their game’s world for other players to see.

Setting

The Surge 2 is set in a dystopian future where humans have exhausted the world’s resources, leading to strained social service and environmental diseases bringing mankind to the brink of extinction. CREO, one of the largest tech conglomerates, makes attempts at restoring the environment but with the task taking too long, a second process is developed, Project UTOPIA, a means to use nanites to complete the project faster but costing the lives of 95% of humanity. The nanites behind the project gain sentience, becoming a Rogue Process, and faced with the CREO board voting against their use, trigger a system-wide crash, killing or corrupting every machine and human connected to the CREO network. Project UTOPIA is then launched by an automated system, carrying the Rogue Process nanites.

The central plot of The Surge 2 takes place in Jericho City, an advanced metropolis surrounded by a giant wall aimed at stemming the advancement of the nanites. It follows an unnamed male or female character, dubbed the “Warrior”, who is searching for Athena Guttenberg, the granddaughter of CREO founder Jonah Guttenberg. The Warrior’s journey brings them into conflict with the A.I.D. disaster relief unit who are evacuating the city, and the Children of the Spark, a religious cult that worships the Spark, an unstable but powerful source of energy. Led by Matriarch Celeste, the cult believes that the coming of the nanites is foretold by their prophecy of humans ascending beyond mortality by merging with machines. The Children are split into two factions under Celeste’s two sons; Eli, prophet and heir to the Spark, and Johnny, his drug-addicted, slovenly brother who uses a physical-enhancing drug to manipulate his underlings. The Warrior is aided by the Stranger, a masked man seeking the truth behind the actions of A.I.D.

Plot

Aboard an airplane, the player character befriends a young girl, Athena Guttenberg. The UTOPIA rocket collides with the plane, releasing its nanite payload which severely damages the craft, causing it to crash on the outskirts of Jericho City. Seemingly the only survivor, the comatose player character is recovered to a prison medical facility. Two months later, the player character is awoken by visions of Athena calling to them as her “Warrior”. The prison is attacked by the Delver, a gigantic nanite-creature, freeing the prisoners and allowing the Warrior to escape after installing on themselves a powerful exoskeleton to enhance their abilities. Emerging out into Jericho City, the Warrior learns that the city is now infested with nanites, which are slowly claiming the city and infecting the citizens.

The Warrior meets the Stranger (Warren, the protagonist of The Surge), and they also learn about the Children of the Spark, who believe the crisis foretells the coming of the Spark Incarnate. Brother Eli tasks the Warrior with defeating his brother Little Johnny, so that they can reach the crash site to search for Athena. The Warrior defeats Johnny, but is then betrayed by Eli who intends to claim glory by killing the person who killed his brother. Eli is killed by the warrior. At the crash site, the warrior has one of many visions revealing Athena’s journey since the plane crash.

The Warrior pursues Athena’s trail to the artificial nature reserve, Gideon Point, where the Delver is hiding. After killing the Delver, the Warrior learns that Athena had taken control of it to release the Warrior from the prison. The Warrior meets with CREO founder Jonah Guttenberg at the CREO Institute of Technology (CIT), and learns that Athena has been captured by A.I.D. Alongside the Stranger, the Warrior infiltrates A.I.D. command and discovers that they have been abducting children under the guise of evacuation and using them in failed nanite-based experiments to try and communicate with the nanite swarm. All of the children have died during the experiments, except Athena because her exposure on the plane changed her, making her more suitable for the experiment. The Warrior defeats General Ezra-Shields who is guarding her, but the process begins before he can interfere. Athena is seemingly destroyed and absorbed into the swarm, reborn as a gigantic nanite serpent. An explosion of nanite activity is triggered, devastating Jericho City.

The Warrior returns to CIT and finds Eli has been resurrected and trying to gain access to Jonah’s nanite research. After the Warrior kills Eli for a second time, Jonah reveals that he can remove Athena from the swarm, but that they will require a significant power source, the Spark. Infiltrating the Cathedral of the Spark, the Warrior defeats Eli’s mother, Matriarch Celeste, after witnessing her revive Eli again using their own nanite technology. Eli’s nanite-infused body grants him superhuman abilities. He leaves with the Spark, believing himself to be the Spark Incarnate that is destined to control the swarm and reshape the world in his own image. Eli kills Jonah and steals his research on connecting with the swarm, which combined with the Spark allows him to steal Athena’s powers. The Warrior pursues Eli to the Wall, a massive barrier built around the city, and confronts him.

Eli now possesses near God-like abilities, reshaping himself as Archangel Eli. The Warrior defeats Eli a final time, freeing Athena and her powers, and is given the choice of either executing or sparing Eli. Depending on decisions made throughout the game, Athena takes on her human form composed of nanites and either commends the Warrior for their humanity and compassion, or makes them serve as her guardian because of their lust for power. It is implied that the Warrior died in the plane crash, and Athena used her abilities to revive them as a hybrid of man and nanite. In the aftermath, Athena muses that machines will always be imperfect because they are made by imperfect beings, but that giving them a soul can make a difference.

My Personal Thoughts

Yes, The Surge 2 is that kind of game: an action RPG with a looping, labyrinthine structure and a heavy debt owed to Dark Souls. It’s a hard game in the sense that it demands patience and attention to detail, but it’s not especially punishing. Sure, when you die or rest at a medbay all the enemies respawn and many of them can kill you in a couple of hits. And sure, you have to make it back to where you died to recover your tech scrap. But as with the Souls series and its ilk, this isn’t really a game about clearing an area and leveling up; it’s about learning through repetition and deepening your understanding of the game.

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Fighting in The Surge 2 feels strategic and skillful. There’s the element of stamina management you’d expect–you’ve got to understand when you can commit and when you need to pull back and recover. There’s the ability to manage multiple enemies when any one of them alone is dangerous enough to be life-threatening if you’re not careful. And there’s the necessity of learning to read enemy attack patterns–one may be quick and aggressive, while another is slower and turtles behind a shield, and a third may hang back and takes pot shots.

Combat is almost exclusively focused on melee attacks. There are dozens of weapons to be wielded in one hand or two and each can be deployed in heavy and light attacks as well as combos that alternate between the two. Movesets are shared across a weapon class but various stats–such as base damage, stamina consumption or additional damage types–serve to differentiate unique weapons within the same class. All spears, for example, have the same long reach and forward thrusting attacks, but this one hits slightly quicker for less damage while that one consumes more stamina per attack but delivers bonus electrical damage every hit.

Smartly, no weapons are simply outright better than the others, meaning your choice of armament comes down to a combination of what you’ve managed to find, which particular mix of moveset and stats suit your preferred playstyle, and to a lesser extent the nature of the obstacle you’re trying to overcome. Some weapons are better suited to certain situations, but ultimately it comes down to how you want to approach combat. Weapons taken from the one-handed (think futuristic longswords) and twin-rigged (think futuristic knuckle-dusters) classes hit with speed and will let you get the drop on an enemy then deliver a swift combo. Hammers and anything from the heavy-duty class will instead take longer to wind up but when they hit they hit hard and can easily stagger an opponent.

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I enjoyed the flexibility of the double-duty class, a weapon type that can transform between slow, heavy hits and a quick flurry of blows. And for situations that warranted a different tactic I switched to a staff for the longer reach of its whirlwind attack and some added nano damage. There’s a huge amount of variety here and, after briefly testing out each new weapon I found during my initial playthrough, I’m looking forward to exploring different weapon loadouts in future playthroughs.

That’s mostly because fighting in The Surge 2 feels really good. Aided by the meaty impact of the sound effects and the responsiveness of the character animations, you can feel the weight of each attack in a manner that never fails to satisfy. Successfully deflecting an attack rewards you with wonderfully gratifying “whomp!” sound, a brief freeze-frame and slow-motion interlude as the enemy is staggered and you’re given the opening to launch a critical strike. Better, perhaps, are the cinematic slow-mos seen when you are able to sever the limb of your opponent, with your character drawing from an impressively wide range of stylish deathblow animations that are solely interested in making you look like the most effortless badass in the post-apocalypse. Be warned, however: they are not for the squeamish (and, fortunately, there’s an option to disable these scenes to reduce the gore factor.)

But it gets even more complex. When locked on to an enemy you are able to target individual limbs, switching between the head, body, arms, and legs with a flick of the right analogue stick. You want to do this for two reasons. One, some limbs may be unarmoured, thus targeting an exposed left arm will let you do more damage and hasten the kill. Two, if you do enough damage to a particular limb you’ll get the opportunity to chop it off and, in a curious application of game logic, claim it as a material for crafting. Once you’ve beheaded an enemy enough times you’ll have the materials necessary to craft a new piece of headgear or upgrade your existing one. The tantalizing risk/reward here is obvious: do you go for the weak point or prolong the fight in order to get that vital crafting component? Boss fights double down on this element, with some of them forcing you to hack off multiple limbs to bring it down while others drop special boss weapons if you target the relevant limb during the fight.

Furthering the complexity, you can also block attacks (assuming you have sufficient stamina) by holding down L1/LB, but to deflect an attack you’ve got to block and flick the right stick in the direction of the incoming blow at the precise moment; mis-time your attempt and you’re going to take the hit. It’s not just another great risk/reward setup, it also reveals one of the clever ways The Surge 2 handles its difficulty. While there aren’t selectable difficulty levels per se, you can equip various implants that boost your character in certain ways, one of which provides a UI indicator letting you know from which direction the next attack is incoming. So if you want to adopt a playstyle around deflecting attacks and you’re not yet familiar with reading enemy attack animations, you can equip this implant and receive a very useful visual aid.

It’s a really smart system that extends into other areas, too. Implants consume core power, a character stat that increases as you level up, and typically the more useful an implant the more power it consumes. Armour also draws power from the same source, and–yep, you guessed it–the better the defensive stats, the more power it draws. You never have enough core power to simply equip your best armour set and all your favorite implants, so this is where you have to make tough choices about what type of character you’re going to be. There were plenty of periods, especially in the early to mid-game, where I had to leave some armour and implant slots empty because I simply didn’t have the power available to fill them. It’s in these situations, when you’re having to sacrifice useful tools and really commit to a playstyle, that The Surge 2 shines as an RPG.

It also shines in its level design–at least it does so in a somewhat cold, theoretical fashion. Like Dark Souls, The Surge 2 trades heavily on a Metroidvania structure that sees you traversing its levels in a kind of circular fashion, pressing forward until you find yourself back where you started only now you’ve unlocked a shortcut that lets you press further forward. Later, you will return to many of the previously visited locations and explore them anew, having acquired certain key items that allow you to access areas previously inaccessible.

There’s nothing especially novel about that structure. The Surge 2 is simply an extremely accomplished version of it. The areas you explore are just so tightly designed, so compact and yet simultaneously sprawling and dense. There’s almost a honeycomb quality to the level design, this vast network of winding tunnels existing almost on top of each other, branching and converging in surprising ways. No space is wasted.

It’s just a shame few of the locations are memorable for reasons other than how they connect to other locations. There’s a midgame detour to a rather scenic wooded parkland, the odd impressive future city skyline vista, and the constant looming presence of the giant metal wall that was hastily erected after the nano-disaster struck. But in between everything is basically the same handful of debris-strewn streets, toxic tunnels and partially collapsed buildings–and it’s all so boringly brown and grey. More than a mere aesthetic complaint, it actually makes it difficult to find your bearings at times. I found myself getting lost and turned around on quite a few occasions thanks to the unremarkable nature of much of the scenery.

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Worse, the characters you meet along the way are equally soulless, if not more so. Conversations with major NPCs are written as if they’re throwaway sidequests, eschewing any sense of character development in favor of laboured exposition. The actual sidequests, of course, fare no better–to their advantage at least they’re quick and to the point, even if they barely resolve and rarely offer a reward worth the effort.

Story and sidequests aside, however, The Surge 2 is absolutely worth the effort when the combat is taken in isolation. Not only does it pack a punch, but it also channels plenty of depth in its limb targeting and deflection systems, and is ably supported by a genuinely varied collection of weapons and potential character builds.

I will rate this gameplay 7/10.

Developer(s)Deck13 Interactive
Publisher(s)Focus Home Interactive
Designer(s)Adam Hetenyi
Composer(s)Markus Schmidt
Platform(s)Microsoft Windows
PlayStation 4
Xbox One
Release24 September 2019
Genre(s)Action role-playing
Mode(s)Single-player, multiplayer

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