I’ve never been a Dark Souls fanatic, but I appreciate the vibrant new mini-genre of Souls-likes it’s helped inspire. The Surge is one of those, and from what I saw at E3 2018, The Surge 2 looks like it will be a big improvement with some new ideas of its own.
The Surge‘s developer, Deck 13, never tried to hide the fact that that their game was heavily based off the formula for combat and exploration pioneered in FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series. It had its own distinct sci-fi mood though, seeing as how it was a third-person body horror game set in a near-future dystopia. Its pervasive sense of automated grimness felt austere, unflinching and incredibly German.
In the first game, you were a man-made part-machine whose journey for knowledge and potential freedom required slashing through a factory’s worth of similar abominations and cannibalising them for parts. You’d use those parts to level up, but if you died, you dropped them and had to get back to your body to pick them up.
The Surge was a decent enough Souls-like, elevated by its art direction and mood. Its combat, doing a close approximation of the methodical attack animations that give FromSoftware games their technical precision and tactical depth, was… fine.
But for all the Soulsy similarities, there were also some ideas that made the game different. Deck 13 appears committed to exploring those ideas in more detail in The Surge 2. Chief among them is a targeting system, which let you damage particular parts of enemies’ anatomies in order to try and take them down incrementally.
During a hands-off demo at E3, the studio showed how in The Surge 2, there will also be the possibility to amputate mechanical parts from the cyborgs you encounter, then collect the leftover bloody machinery not just for levelling up, but to deploy yourself.
In one example, the protagonist, now completely customisable by way of an extensive character creator, managed to sever a shoulder-mounted drone cannon from the enemy in front of her, then equip it and quickly use it.
A more varied and specific system of amputation and reattachment is intended to be one of the key ways of building up your character’s arsenal, and also a means of providing more reasons for grinding through the same combat areas over and over again.
Whereas in the first game this technique might yield a limited number of distinct weapon schematics, now it looks much more like picking up new item or weapon upgrade in a game such as Metroid.
The game’s world is also substantially changed. This time you’ll be exploring a sprawling wilderness surrounding a city reserved for its wealthy elite. It’s much more open than in the first game, with a whimsical layout of interweaving mountain paths and groomed gardens as chaotic but inviting as something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Just how much bigger and detailed it will be remains to be seen, but what Deck13 showed was a clear change from the last game’s industrial wasteland. The Surge 2 looks practically verdant in comparison, with mountain paths and grassy glades that might almost be idyllic were it not for the brutal mechanically enhanced enemies they hide.
In addition to making the sequel’s world a more interesting place to explore, the Deck13 designer doing the presentation said the studio wants the threats you encounter there to be more complex and challenging.
Rather than simply internalising the attack patterns and animations of enemies in order to beat them, some, such as the Hunters that we saw in the demo, will travel in packs and try to adapt to your actions, always looking to flank and pin you in rather than just lunging at you in constant, bloodthirsty desperation.
A Deck13 designer described each of these iterative improvements on the first game as taking the building blocks of Dark Souls and extrapolating them along a unique vector to arrive at something with a different identity.
In addition to making flesh cleaving a central part of the game, it also means putting it in the service of exploring a world with not just threats to overcome but a larger story to tell about surviving on the fringes of a deepy unequal and unfair world, and using grizzly violence and technological upgrades to do it.
The first game managed some interesting world building but failed to deliver on the promise of it. By digging deeper into the logic of its limb carving system and setting it lose in a more interesting set of environments, I’m hopeful The Surge 2 will become something more than just another interesting Souls clone.