Review: The Surge 2

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Review copy provided by publisher

As someone who never played the first The Surge, being dropped into a city of cyber-hobos wielding nanite-poisoned vibroblades was a bit of a shock. I’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of the grim kingdoms of Dark Souls, and even the techno-shamanistic desolation of Immortal: Unchained. But this was a shock to the system, in both look and feel, at least until I adjusted to the brutal pace of this brave new trash world. For raw action and spectacle, The Surge 2 is pretty hard to beat, even by the big names. It’s just in the details where this one shows its weak points.

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Months after the disaster at CREO, a mysterious storm has ravaged the sprawling, high-tech burg of Jericho City. A nanite infection is devouring the city, held back only by massive walls cordoning off the survivors from unknown chaos. Those who remain have scavenged makeshift armor and weapons with which to war over territory, led by militant groups and cultists. It is into this cyber-hell that you arrive, by way of crashing airliner, along with a strange girl somehow related to this whole mess. Without much more to go on than a need to escape, you begin following her trail through the many, many crazies and robots in your way, and eventually find your way into the very heart of the storm.

That last bit speaks to a problem that’s been nagging at me with every additional hour I put into The Surge 2. Unlike the distinct character you play as in the first game, here you are free to make any man or woman you want, who is more or less tangentially related to the current cataclysm. There’s a fantastic level of character customization for making your unlikely hero, but once you get into the game, they pretty much become a faceless murder machine following a breadcrumb trail of echoes. Your path will take you into conflict with techno-cultists, mercenaries, police forces, and the nanite plague itself, but not for any compelling story reasons. The majority of the game is spent chasing that mysterious girl, with you killing whoever gets in the way, which is a much weaker motivation than any of the Dark Souls games mustered.

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It does help that the setting itself is pretty compelling. Once you break free of the tutorial prison (both figuratively and literally) you are treated to a grand vista of a dying city, lit with crackling neon and crossed by crumbling overpasses, all in the shadow of the massive wall holding back… something. Armored psychopaths lurk in the shadows of collapsing buildings, and nanite beasts pick off those on the fringes of society. It’s a fascinating mess that you have to navigate, dealing with shopping malls full of survivors and ruined ports lousy with cultists. And it looks every bit the part, with exposed wiring, torn meshes, and rusty servos holding everything together. One of my friends coined the term “second-hand cyberpunk” for the look, and I can think of no better descriptor.

A good look only gets you so far in a game, though. Starting out, The Surge 2 definitely felt like a Souls game, with smooth movements, attacks, rolls, and parries. The tutorial has the tough job of teaching you the game’s million systems and for the most part does a fine job of it, though more complex techniques like parrying incoming attacks with the directional stick will doubtless require plenty of practice. One of The Surge’s signature systems is locational targeting, allowing you to aim attacks at limbs or heads and get special finishers that sever the selected part. This is crucial to gearing your character but also affords interesting tactical options, like avoiding armored portions of the body or specially bashing down shields. Assuming you’re playing with a gamepad, targeting is handled almost exclusively on the right stick and your key combat moves are all on the bumpers and triggers, making tactical targeting plays during fights becomes a natural and gratifying experience.

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I’m a big story guy with games but make no mistake, the combat is what’s kept me hooked here. The tactical targeting and defensive options like parrying are a big part of that, but the basic act of smashing an enemy apart and severing their arm like a trophy is made incredibly fun by the tight controls and weight of impacts. There are several weapon classes in the game, including exotic types like wrist blades and two-handers that separate into two one-handers, and attack chains for all of them have tons of flourish and style. Almost too much at times, but fortunately you can dodge or block right out of most combos. You also get a drone that can be equipped with different firearms or status attacks to support you (it can also scan for loot or paint graffiti for other players to see!), and injectables that heal or provide buffs. Injectables work off the battery system which charges as you attack, which works wonders for encouraging a more aggressive (and in my case, sloppy) playstyle where you go sickhouse on foes and spend your ever-building battery on healing to push you through.

There’s tons of gear and character customization to support your murder sprees, starting with weapons and armor severed from your foes. You have to use targeted finishers to pop things off of enemies, and then use resources scavenged from corpses or exploration to build new armor sets. Armor has innate traits that can differ greatly, as well as full and partial set bonuses for you to customize your build with. It requires core power to equip though, which is granted by leveling up and is shared with your implants, which also provide game-changing effects like getting parry indicators or starting battles with a battery cell charged. Weapons and armor can also be upgraded, so you’ll have to weigh your options between boosting what you’ve got and assembling new stuff.

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I’m a big fan of the world that all this happens in, but I have to admit it can be a pretty confusing crush at times. You start out right in the heart of the city, with like half a dozen different ways to go, and only open more paths around as you unlock shortcuts. All these routes tend to narrow into paths to the key areas but if you don’t have a good sense of 3D space, you are going to get very lost very fast. Hell, I rarely have trouble figuring out maps in games but the sheer number of twists, turns, tunnels, catwalks, and ramps in this game leaves me baffled at times. Adding to this is the fact that it’s a bit metroidvania-ish, giving you new tools to open additional routes and locked doors as you progress. It’s all still manageable and great for players who love to explore, but can be hell if you’re not 100% sure where you’re going or where a quest-giver was located.

There are other elements here that aren’t quite up to the standards set by the giants of the genre. Overall the graphics are pretty sharp and detailed, but the lighting has this strange starkness to it that tends to make things look plasticky or cheap. There’s occasional weirdness with collisions and edges that can make some of the tricky jumps while exploring needlessly tense. And game balance is a bit all over the place, with some gear and particularly elemental effects far and away better than others. Compared to other Soulslikes this is a pretty easy game when played with due caution, and none of the bosses I’ve encountered required more than 10 or 15 minutes to figure out.

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Still, none of these quibbles stop The Surge 2 from being a fantastically visceral romp. The combat and setting do all the work here, making each new area and encounter something to look forward to, rather than dread. A more compelling story and clearer level design would have done a lot to make this a classic in its own right, but it’s still solid enough to be worth plowing through at least once. Honestly my time here has made me very curious to go back and check out the first game, partly to see how some of the setting and story bits tie in, but mainly to get more of the awesome action I’ve gotten here.

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