The Surge 2 Review
An Arm and a Leg
When The Surge released in 2017, it felt in some ways like a jolt of electricity, shocking the system and injecting some fresh ideas into a tried-and-true action RPG formula. Tactical dismemberment, an intriguing sci-fi setting, and a heavy focus on crafting combined with the same hardcore sensibilities and intricate level designs the subgenre is well known for created a memorable experience. With The Surge 2, Deck13 and Focus Home Interactive have incorporated a myriad of tweaks and improvements to the already solid combat system, smoothing out rough edges and adding a level of grace and flow that many will have never even realized were lacking. Though the game’s focus on urban environments sacrifices some of its predecessor’s claustrophobic charm, the polished combat more than makes up for the high difficulty threshold and steep learning curve of mastering the newly-implemented directional block system. The Surge 2 isn’t for the faint of heart, but seasoned RPGamers will find a very worthwhile experience here to cut their teeth on and sporadically get a few of them knocked out.
The focus this time around shifts from CREO’s production facilities to the metropolis of Jericho City, which offers up many new types of areas to explore, but comes at the price of losing some of the sense of claustrophobic dread conveyed by the industrial feel of the first game. Jericho City has been hit by the Defrag nanite virus, courtesy of a launched UTOPIA rocket, slowly taking over the city and infecting its citizens. A plane carrying the game’s protagonist becomes the first casualty of the catastrophe as the UTOPIA rocket collides with it, causing it to crash. The unnamed Warrior is then awoken by a mysterious voice two months later inside Jericho City’s prison’s medical wing, without any memory of the intervening time.
The prison is in a state of chaos, immediately throwing players into the thick of combat, as they must navigate the burning wreckage while battling convicts, guard drones, and the armored officers charged with keeping order. Initially armed with only a pair of handheld defibrillators, but soon able to upgrade to a basic armored exo-rig familiar from the previous game, players get a first taste of the game’s revamped combat system.
Offense is still structured around targeting specific enemy body parts and delivering vertical or horizontal attacks to them, with unarmored targets receiving more damage but armored sections yielding a better chance for loot. Dealing enough damage to an armored body part results in being able to finish the enemy by severing it and receiving a schematic or parts in order to craft the piece of gear in question, just as in the previous game. There are also a variety of different weapon styles to utilize, from staves and spears to single-handed or twin-mounted weapons, each of which come with their own combos, attack speeds, effective ranges, and so on.
It’s the tweaks and subtle changes made to combat, particularly to its defensive capabilities, that force players to adapt to a whole different playstyle than the first game’s. Blocking remains an integral part of combat, though this time players have the ability to move around while doing so, but the added ability to perform directional blocks by holding the block button and pressing a thumbstick left, right, up, or down greatly improves the game’s combat flow. Not only does blocking mitigate damage, but a directional block performed just before impact parries the enemy, throwing them off balance or opening them up for counter damage. This is even implemented in boss fights, though with small tweaks like needing to perform several successive well-timed parries before getting a window to counterattack. It’s impressive how much this inclusion enhances the twitch feel of gameplay, making the already fun combat even more dynamic.
The game encourages an even more aggressive, risky playstyle than its predecessor by tying the ability to heal oneself directly to the amount of damage dealt out. With each hit delivered or incoming attack parried, the Warrior’s energy meter increases; once a full battery segment is filled, it provides a single-use health injection, though it will drain if left unused. The lower one’s health, the more important it gets to jump into the fray and build up the energy meter in order to heal. This leads to a frantic dance, particularly when close to death, that makes skirmishes that much more stressful and engaging. Players can level up their rig’s core power to independently boost health, stamina, or energy bar efficacy, granting access to further implant slots. Implants and gear can be further leveled up, boosting offensive and defensive stats even further. The amount of customization to support each player’s combat style is impressive, and shows careful consideration on the developer’s part.
While The Surge was, in its own right, already a very challenging game, the level of difficulty in its sequel has only intensified. Boss fights are the clearest indicator of this, albeit not across the board, as some bosses can require dozens of attempts to best while others may be cleared on the first attempt. Most bosses are large-scale threats with multiple phases that require learning finicky timing patterns in order to dodge and block effectively. Even normal enemies can be quite punishing, at times ambushing the player or traveling in groups when even a single foe could easily decimate a careless player. Some foes possess the ability to cloak themselves in invisibility, while others will go into states of rage midway through the fight and become much faster and more unpredictable. But of course, the greater the challenge, the more rewarding overcoming it becomes.
Escaping the game’s first area, the prison, requires dispatching the captain of its guards, which also nets the player access to his combat drone, which has been turned into a more viable combat option by making it completely dependent on its cache of ammo. Stepping out onto the prison’s observation deck offers the first glimpse of a post-Defrag Jericho City. In the intervening months since the rocket’s detonation, authorities have erected a large containment wall around the city itself, effectively cutting off all those poor souls still alive and trapped within. Anarchy and lawlessness reign in most areas, while two factions have established themselves as the city’s main forces. The AID represents the military-industrial complex, having set up well-armed screening posts to aid in the now-past evacuation process, while the Children of the Spark, a local cult, has dubbed the nanite plague as a sign that the return of the Spark Incarnate is close at hand. Naturally, the player soon finds themselves between the crosshairs of both factions.
Having a whole city to explore, compared to the factory floors and executive suites of the first game, brings quite a bit more verticality into the game’s level design. In fact, the creative team has really put a lot of effort into delivering twisted and labyrinthine areas to explore that still, somehow, manage to loop back on each other, with a clever unlockable shortcut back to the nearest medbay always available. The combat drone plays a huge role in this, once its Starfish EMP ability has been unlocked, short-circuiting certain sealed doors. Magnetic cable ziplines strung up around the city also gate off unwanted progress until the proper tools to ride them have become available, which make it possible to spread areas out further as one can simply hop on a rail and ride between two distant locations. A newly-implemented feature does make it possible to equip the combat drone with a spray can module and use it to leave graffiti tags visible to other players to alert them of hidden enemies, shortcuts, or caches of items. There are even other ways to interact with the player community, such as slaying Revenge Enemies to avenge another player’s demise at that same enemy’s hands, or obtaining a battery boost by finding another player’s fallen corpse vanquished in a boss arena.
Being in the remains of a large city also brings with it what remains of its citizenry — The Surge 2 isn’t as lonely an experience as its predecessor was. Outside of enemies, most friendly NPCs have gathered together in a number of non-combat areas: a rooftop EDM party, an abandoned shopping mall, and a quarantine camp near the barrier wall. These areas feature some optional side quests for the Warrior to complete which serve to slightly expand upon a few minor details of world-building, but neither their storylines nor their rewards are incredibly intriguing. The story itself has a hard time progressing past the “trail of breadcrumbs” mentality, stringing players from one location to another while not necessarily providing much of interest in the developing narrative. Audio logs provide the odd bit of flavor, but it takes quite a while before the story graduates from “follow the vision” to something more involved, and even then it’s relatively straightforward. There are a few interesting bits, particularly dealing with the Children of the Spark storyline, but other times may leave players completely at a loss as to where to head next or what the current objective is, leading to some bouts of aimless exploration.
With the shift of setting and atmosphere comes a different aesthetic for The Surge 2, offering more colorful and varied areas to explore than before. A harbor district, a city park, the Cathedral of the Spark, and a medical facility repurposed for the experiments of AID’s scientists are among some of the new themed areas, not to mention ruined buildings, city rooftops and fire escapes aplenty. There is a strange, cold look to everything, a kind of overexposed brightness that, while more colorful, keeps the game from ever looking vibrant. Being able to see the sky and off into the distance is a first for the series, and particularly the park at Gideon’s Rock, with its trees and flowers, shows a new side of the Surge universe previously unseen.
There are plenty of reused animations — including the slow-motion, cinematic execution moves for returning weapon types — and other reused art assets and some enemy designs, though none of these serve as a detractor since the game is meant to be set in the same world and takes place immediately following the first. Animation is quite fluid, with over-the-top battle animations and combos, and the myriad of different armor and weapon designs is fantastically entertaining. Voice work is acceptable and present throughout, though, like the music that only serves to convey mood and atmosphere, it doesn’t particularly stand out. There is a highly impactful musical moment just before the final boss fight where a sorrowful dirge begins playing as some last-stand scenes unfold before the Warrior, leading into the final boss fight with an emotional, tragic air of finality. Overall, the game generally ran very smoothly, outside of three or four crashes that saw me having to return to the last save point.
The first game in the Surge franchise established the rock-solid groundwork for a brutal, challenging series of sci-fi action RPGs; The Surge 2 really takes that formula and improves upon it in several key ways, particularly in tweaking many aspects of the combat system that quickly feel second nature and make going back to the original more difficult than you might realize. The change in scenery and protagonist may not appeal to those who adored the first game’s bleak, industrial trappings, but this is made up for with the newly-added verticality and dense level design. The Surge 2 is like a juicy, metal-plated bone that gamers looking for a well-crafted yet brutal combat experience can really sink their teeth into: it will push them to their limits, hurt and punish in all the right ways, but offers that sweet, sweet payoff when you finally emerge victorious.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Labyrinthine yet well thought-out level design
Superbly tweaked combat system
Jericho City's vertical and horizontal sprawl offers lots to explore
Smooth and entertaining combat animations
Lots of satisfaction to be had after a hard-won victory
Side quests don't add much to an already average narrative
Music and voice work don't offer much to write home about
Some aimless wandering due to a few vague objectives