It’s a big week for video games as E3 happens, and there have already been a ridiculous amount of awesome new developments. Keanu Reeves is starring in Cyberpunk 2077, Breath of the Wild is getting a sequel, George R.R. Martin is teaming with FromSoftware for a game called Elden Ring, there’s a Dark Crystal tactics game coming to Switch, the Square Enix Avengers game seems incredible, the gorgeous-looking Final Fantasy VII remake got a release date, and so on.
But for me, the big moment was seeing the trailer for The Surge 2, a game I am ridiculously excited about. You can check it out below.
Now, that footage might not speak for itself, so I thought we’d look back at the first game, which has a dedicated fanbase as well as a lot of detractors.
The Surge is a Deck 13 action RPG that came out in 2017. I got into it after playing Deck 13’s Lords of the Fallen. The selling point for that game was that it was only $5 and it was billed as a Souls game for people who are bad at Souls games. I’ve been trying for a long time to get into stuff like Bloodborne. I have watched endless videos of play, but the actual game itself was always too hard for me. Something easier seemed like the perfect fit.
Lords of the Fallen is… not good. It’s not bad, but it’s a mediocre rip-off that broke no new ground. For me, though, it was the game that finally taught me to play a genre renowned for being insanely hard and very rewarding. Just as I finally finished it, the sci-fi spiritual sequel, The Surge, was free on PlayStation Plus.
At first, I hated it. I had enough Souls-style chops to hack my way through the first level inch by painful inch, but the first boss frustrated me to the point I actually deleted the game from my hard drive in anger. After calming down for a few days, I watched some videos online and managed to beat the PAX robot. After that, the game never really got easier, but it became understandable. It was also very addictive. Even though I have about six unplayed titles sitting on my PS4 and Switch, I immediately started playing The Surge again after completing it.
First of all, the level design of The Surge is amazing. Background: Our hero, Warren, wakes up in a factory owned by the CREO Corporation, where he has gone to get employment. Employees are augmented with exo-rigs that enhance strength and allow full mobility to disabled people, but the surgery goes awry with him. After having the rig attached without anesthesia, he blacks out and comes to in an abandoned junk part of the factory where other people in rigs have been dumped and gone insane.
The stages are actually quite small, but they are populated with enemies who can kill you with one shot even on very high levels. They are centered around a medbay where you can recuperate and augment your rig. In many cases, the “end” of the stage is only steps away from the beginning, but access is blocked by locked doors and elevators. However, as you progress you unlock shortcuts back to the medbay. Did I mention that using the medbay resets all of the enemies except mini-bosses?
The result is these tightly designed levels where all progress is a gamble. Do you forge ahead and try to make it through three more enemies so you can unlock the shortcut, or do you retrace your steps to heal and try again with better knowledge of what’s ahead? You’re rewarded for knowing the space intimately, and that makes for a much more enjoyable second playthrough. Plus, the factory actually feels like a workplace. Once all the doors are opened, you can see how a worker would go through the area to accomplish jobs. Compare it to something like Columbia from BioShock Infinite, which felt more like a theme park than a place people actually lived and worked.
It’s also a pretty neat game from a narrative perspective, which is weird because I don’t think I have ever played a game that clearly gave less of a crap if you understood it. It’s full of amazing touches of lore — everything from audio logs to graffiti to hidden rooms with the aftermath of tragedies — and yet, to make any sense of it requires you to sit down and piece it all together. The AI who guides you is unreliable, and the NPCs you meet are all as clueless about what happened at CREO as you are. There are answers to be found, but the game is much closer to what it would be like if one of us woke up in a world gone mad. Warren is not special; he’s just a dude looking for a job. Even the ending is largely incomprehensible, if the multitudes of Reddit threads trying to understand it are any indication. The Surge is, in one respect, video game storytelling at its finest because it rarely tells you what’s happening. It makes you fight for it.
Oh, and it is an amazing anti-capitalist rant of a game. Without giving too much of the story away, CREO is trying to avert a global ecological crisis with rocket launches full of untested and probably very disastrous technology. You can probably guess how bad it is from the post-apocalyptic feel of sequel trailer. In the meantime, CREO is revealed through audiologs to be recruiting disabled people (Warren starts the game in a wheelchair) of few means to work in their rigs precisely because they’ll ask fewer questions and will be considered expendable.
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The game tackles Silicon Valley “bro” culture, the poisonous algebra of cost versus risk, the video game industry’s own horrific “crunch” practices, and the just overall how badly treated the average worker is within a machine run by “geniuses” who have only the barest regard for the humanity of their employees. If Tacoma had been a melee combat game instead of a walking sim, this is how it would have played. It even has some middle manager cautioning against unions in one of the first logs. So many games waffle around a political point out of fear of offending gamers, but The Surge makes its point without equivocation. Like I said: it doesn’t care if you get what it’s saying.
It has its flaws. The boss fights are a nightmare because the game camera is just bad with enemies bigger than a human, and to this day it is glitchy as hell. Mine crashed twice this week. A zoom function would be nice for appreciating those little background touches, and whoever decided that you could accidentally kill NPCs is a right bastard. The writing is serviceable at best and Warren desperately could use some character development. Like Harkyn from Lords of the Fallen, he’s too present to be a mute player cipher and not present enough to be a driver of action himself. I know I just lauded the game for not holding your hand plotwise, but some of the reasons for progressing through the game are tenuous at best.
Hopefully the sequel will address those faults while still keeping what makes the first game stand out. We need more mid-tier games of note. Stuff like Dontnod’s Remember Me or the 2014 Thief. Not every title needs to be a big event that changes the world. Sometimes you make a neat little game that only a few thousand nerds will enjoy. The Surge was one of those, and so far The Surge 2 looks like it could be as well.
The Surge 2 is available in September. The Surge is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.