The Surge is a Souls clone, and unashamedly so. For the uninitiated, this means it adheres closely to the FROM Software RPG schematics — attacks bound to shoulder buttons, lock-on targeting for combat, and a punishing system of risk and reward where combatants face hefty punishments if (when) they die.
At the heart of all Souls clones is a horror game - probably the most sincere a horror game can be. Most horror games have you acting against your own self-interests, like how after finding your wife's Purse and ID on a fire outside a swamp-addled hillbilly house you are forced to then investigate said house instead of calling the police as any sane person might. In a Souls clone, however, you are compelled through the challenge of the game itself to continue — yet that same presented challenge creates a large deal of the tension which is requisite for (good) horror to exist.
I'm very close to getting way off topic. The point, and it's an important one, is that a Souls clone needs to be in some way a horror game to work properly. It's what Nioh understood, pitting us against Japanese demons and undead samurai — and it's what Lords of the Fallen got wrong, instead going for medieval gothica.
The Surge gets it right, aiming for cybernetic body horror and malevolent robots in its quest to differentiate itself from the grand daddy of the genre. Let's take a look at what The Surge is doing well — and what it needs to change up.
Good - Shortcuts The looping level design of Souls games is part of its genius, a reminder that in a game without jumping the world design is still 3D. It's too easy to look at the world before you as a 2D plane, especially when you're bound to that plane — in The Surge though, there's a few moments of respite when you glance upwards at a platform that will soon be your shortcut to victory.
Bad - Jumping Bound to a Thumbstick Of all the things to steal from the Souls games, pressing the sprint button again to jump is the worst of them. I can't even pretend to understand the perversion persistent to those who believe this is good, but I *have* worked out why I hate it. In this game at least sprint is a toggle — you press the left thumbstick in to sprint and you will sprint until your stamina bleeds out. The problem with jump being bound to the sprint toggle is that you can't stop sprinting by toggling off — you jump instead. Also having jump on a thumbstick is dumb and I hate it.
Good - Dark Lighting is Properly Dark There's a portion of The Surge preview which takes place underground in an area too dark to see things. It reminds me of something teased at for the Dark Souls games, especially because your only option for navigating it was to equip a torch (and thereby find yourself weapon or shield-less. Here, I was told to press the down button on my dpad, but without a Body Rig I didn't have any mounted lights. My only option was to equip a weapon which created ambient light — and that's pretty bloody cool.
Bad - Farming (Maybe) I'm not sure about this yet. The fact of the matter is every 'clone' needs its own hook, and every good developer tries to evolve whatever it is they're working on. The Surge is trying a few different things to differentiate itself from its progenitor — a sci-fi setting, heavy duty story-telling, targeted limb dismemberment, slow-mo shit — but Farming seems to be pretty critical to the concept. And I don't have a problem with it necessarily — it worked alright for Nioh, after all, and the game was balanced in such a way that made it technically unnecessary. But I'm putting this in the Bad column because it is the toughest thing to balance, and it has the biggest potential to ruin the game if it isn't perfect. I think already you earn too much for each kill — but at the same time there aren't as many economy sinks to bleed me out, so a few farming runs find me far richer than I would expect.
Good - Targeted Limb Dismemberment This is another one that I hesitate to define as good or bad. The Bad of it is that it doesn't do good things to the lock-on mechanic in the game. By having you lock onto an enemy and then use the right thumbstick to select different parts of their body to attack, you're not able to switch targets with a flick — instead you are supposed to press the Left Trigger. I found trigger switching to be pretty inconsistent against more than 2 opponents, so I wound up just locking on again. On the other hand, the idea and execution of specifically targeting unarmoured body parts is a fantastic one and in one vs one situations the system works superbly. And as a method for acquiring new gear, it's quite clever — find the part you want on an enemy, and then cut it off them.
Bad - Slow-mo Shit One of the things the limb dismemberment leads to pretty commonly is a slow-mo killcam. In a game where you are supposed to feel vulnerable at the hands of fucked up cybernetic monster things, this is a bad thing. I know it can be turned off, but it shouldn't be in the game full stop. You're not super robot killer man, you're a guy who woke up to his whole world gone bad.
Good — Stamina Management The Surge takes a surprisingly rough view of stamina management. You're docked stamina for holding block, for actually blocking an attack, enemies drain stamina with special moves, you can't stop sprinting without jumping (and using more stamina in the process). I am a fan of this. It doesn't have a stamina regain mechanic ala Nioh, so you spend more time without stamina than with it. I like Nioh's system, but I also like this. Good stuff.
Bad - Space Western Heavy Handedness Look, I get it. Firefly and Flash Gordon shaped the way many *many* people view space. Frontier spirit, hard-fought, hard won lifestyles, cowboy hats… I understand why people are drawn to it and why it persists conceptually, but The Surge is laying it on a bit thick. I don't need to hear the same stupid song every time I respawn, even as a form of punishment.
Good - Options The Surge has a lot of settings you can adjust. Many, many settings. And even at this early point it's very upfront about what they all do. It works flawlessly with my xbox controller out of the gate, it looks pretty bloody good and runs well, maintaining a solid 60 fps (which is all my monitor can handle).
Bad - The Boss Fight There's a boss fight in the preview code, and it's underwhelming. The animations and collisions between it and you are pretty inconsistent, but it's also woefully simplistic — two moves to remember in its first phase and basically just the one to remember in its second. They need to do something about this ASAP, because if there's one thing you have to get right in a Souls game, it's bosses. I'm not saying it should be ultra lethal — there's a world mob excavator that one shots you, but it has just two moves and is ultra-slow moving which means you can beat it very simply — I'm saying I need some complexity. Speed and complexity. Also it's a horror game, don't end your preview build on a battle against what is technically a broken robot.
Good - Not Necessarily What It Seems This pains me to admit, but many games journalists aren't really about that souls life. And so a lot of the time developers will demo neutered builds of games to make sure the journalists get through all the content. They'll have us on some easy ass pansy bullshit mode designed more as a showcase of things to come rather than a genuine representation of the default difficulty. It happens way more than you might think. I fucking hate it. Anyway, there's a bloody good chance that's what's happening here. Too much of what I didn't like about The Surge felt like balancing issues, like the game was skewed to be too forgiving. I acquired too many souls, beat enemies in single combos, had too many space estus flasks available. There's a good chance that the full game will be much more punishing of the lazy bullshit I was pulling out, and I hope it is. Horror might be at the core of a good Souls clone, but some cybernetic body horror and scary surprise monsters in dark alleys aren't enough to keep people playing that horror. The pursuit is what keeps people going — Souls players want to triumph over adversity. And then they want to accomplish that triumph inside of 2 hours while level 1 and wearing nothing but a loincloth.
The Surge is due out May 16ish on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.