The Surge Review

By William Shelton
Release Date
Systems: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Rating: M
Obtained By: Review Code was Provided

If nothing else, The Surge provides the single best case study as to why gaming needs a stronger AA market. The game does a lot that a like and there’s a lot I want to applaud it for. But in the end there’s an overall lack of polish that makes actually recommending the game challenging. In a year that saw the similar but superior Nioh, I can’t recommend The Surge at it’s $60 price point. But I do think it’s worth a look.
If you couldn’t tell by the Nioh comparison, The Surge is a Soulslike action-RPG, which tells you about three quarters of what you need to know. Slow, weighty, animation driven combat; Metroidvainia style levels that incentives exploration and finding short cuts, you lose EXP/currency upon death, exc, exc. What you probably won’t be expecting is that this game has probably the best opening out of all the Soulslike games to have been released. And why would you: Deck 13’s last game, Lords of the Fallen, opened with a boring cinematic with no real bearing on the plot. The Surge’s opening, however, actually takes it’s cues from Half-Life. You sit patiently on a train as a video gives you an exposition dump. I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but I felt the moment was close to perfection. The scene makes a pretty authentic case for the company the player character is about to work for, and there is an air of optimism that you know is going to soon be lost, and it’s all the more saddening because of this.

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I have to say, I wasn’t expecting The Surge to come out advocating for Communism

Once you get control of the character, you find they are wheelchair bound. While I’m sure the game will receive some criticism for how it ignores this after the games intro, I feel the reveal itself was expertly crafted. From there you go to getting the Elysium style exo-suit that will allow you to progress through the game and…here I’m kind of conflicted. The character is told an anesthetic will be provided for the surgery, but there isn’t, and you watch as all the pieces are bolted on, blood spraying every were while the character screams in torment. One one hand, this tonal whiplash serves the game well, establishing the right mood for the rest of the game. On the other, I really hate it when science fiction plays on this kind of technophobia. The dev team thought up a technology that can give a man the ability to walk again, then frames it as this horrifying thing that shouldn’t be touched. I’m sure most of this was to get players ready for the game to come, but with how much effort went into the rest of this scene, it sucks they stumbled here.
I’ll also admit this section could have been stretched out for a bit longer too. What’s here does manage to be really effective, but not having the players interact with any other living people before everything goes to shit wasn’t the best call. If the game had taken the time to establish some relationships with the NPC’s players found along the way, I think it would have been much more effective as a whole. If the game wants to have the story so front and center (even going so far as to have dialogue choices), then giving us some info about who these people are and why we should care about them is kind of important.
While everything interesting about the games story might have petered out after the opening moments, the gameplay managed to mostly hold my attention throughout. The games biggest success is it’s dismemberment mechanic. Unlike in other Soulslike games, you can’t just wait for armor or weapons to drop. Instead, you have to fight an enemy with the armor piece you’re looking to obtain, then weaken that body part in combat before being allowed to dismember the opponent in order to grab the schematics. Once you have those, you can build new armor pieces in the Medbay, the games safe zones. This took some getting use too, as you have to lock on to an enemy, then manually target which part of the body you want to attack, but I soon found my self really enjoying how it all worked. It added a tactical edge to combat, as you could only get one new peace of armor from an enemy at a time, and there’s no knowing if the next time they will have the same load out. On top of that, you can attack unarmored body parts for extra damage. While I think there is something to be said about the depth Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Nioh get out of a relatively simple combat system, I can’t say I disliked the added complexity The Surge added to it’s one on one fights.

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If you don’t say “Just a Flesh Wound” after dismembering an adversary, we can;t be friends.

But once the game adds in another combatant that things start to go down hill, and The Surge loves ambushing the player. Because of all the extra work involved in locking on to an enemy, there is no easy way to simply switch between two or more. So in order to switch targets, to have to unlock from one, manually move the camera onto the other, then lock on again. And that’s just the beginning of the game’s issues.
All of the games enemies have little cool down for their attack, and the animations for them rarely convey enough information to begin with. So getting hit in The Surge is almost an inevitability. Non-human enemies are even worse, as they tend to be designed in a way that makes reading their movements almost impossible. Only adding to this frustration is a number of glitches and some really bad design choices. More often than I can count the AI for enemies just seemed to turn off altogether and they just let me whale on them until they died. One enemy, when using a back flip attack that is meant to knock the player into the air, simply launched out of the game world entirely. And the second level is filled with robots you can only meaningfully harm from the back, but placed in tight corridors, making getting behind them a pain as I’d get stuck between them and the walls. This could have easily been fixed by widening the environments or making these enemies either smaller or slower so the player can more easily get around them.
Up grades are also handled pretty poorly. As you make your way through the game you collect “tech scrap” which can be used to increase your suits power and upgrade your weapons and armor. Increasing your suits core power allows you to use more armor and implants (swapable bonuses like health injections, increased stamina and more) as well as give you the ability to access more areas of each level. However, as you aren’t leveling up the character himself, the only way to increase attack or defense is to upgrade your armaments. And this gets annoying fast. For each piece you need scrap and an extra component. For armor this just means continuing to dismember enemies where you’re looking to upgrade. You want to boost your helmet? Chop off some heads! However, as you upgrade you need higher level materials, and I have no idea where to find them. To be fair, I’ve only made it to the third boss, but I’ve yet to find a single enemy that dropped level 3 materials for anything; weapons or armor. And speaking of upgrading your arsenal, I have literally no idea where I got the right pieces for that. You can’t target the enemies weapons, so where you’re supposed to find the upgrade materials for them is lost to me. Yet every so often I’ll find I have the means to upgrade something as if it’s just been added to my inventory out of the blue.

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i have no idea where i got that three Level 3 Tungsten, nor where i can get the six more needed to upgrade my main weapon.

All of those issues aside, I do think the moment to moment gameplay manages to be pretty solid. That’s good to know, because finding out where you’re supposed to go in this train wreck is even more complicated than in any of the other Soulslike game I’ve played, so you’ll spend a lot of time in that gameplay loop. Unlike Dark Souls, each level only has one Medbay, and all the short cuts you find lead back to it. While this seems like it should make finding your way around easier, what it really ends up doing is creating confusion as you have to remember which of the interconnecting short cuts lead to where. So many of these shortcuts criss-cross through each other that at any given moment I couldn’t remember where I was trying to take a short cut too. It’s hard not to find fault with the games overall aesthetics here too. While Deck 13 did pretty much everything they could do with “post apocalyptic industrial area”, there really wasn’t much there to begin with. So areas lack any real identity of their own, which only makes getting lost that much easier. This has the unfortunate consequence of it never feeling like the player is making much progress. No matter where I go I’m always right back where I was.
And then there are the boss fights. My god, does this game have awful boss fights. First off, simply finding the boss is often a chore in and of itself. Not just because of the issues I mentioned earlier, either. When I first stumbled upon the arena for the first boss I said to myself “yup, this looks like a boss arena”….but it wasn’t. I moved through without even an enemy encounter. “Okay”, I thought, “maybe this was just to give me some breathing room”. It wasn’t until hours later, when I went back there by accident (I had no reason to be in the area anymore, or so I thought) that the boss appeared. Then the bosses themselves are a combination of the games worst traits. They do large amounts of damage with almost no cool downs for their attacks, the robotic nature means it’s hard to tell if they are moving or attacking, and they tend to move in such a way that the camera can’t keep up, forcing me to take a moment to readjust, a moment the bosses tended to use to wreck my shit. And the second boss has a number of one hit kills it can just keep using due to that lack of cool down I talked I about, and I’m told only gets worse later on in the game.
Thankfully everything else is at least on par. It’s visually bland, but it doesn’t look bad. The game could use a bit more light, as dark areas are nearly impenetrable even with a flash light on. More diverse environments could have helped a lot too. The dev team clearly tried, with a major part of the third level taking place in a greenery, but it never manages to be enough in my opinion. Sound is also pretty generic, with human enemies making basic zombie-like noises while mechanical ones have no real personality to their audio design. That’s not necessarily bad, just unremarkable.
I wanted to like The Surge more than I did. And to the games credit, it is a marked improvement over Lords of the Fallen. For all of it’s faults I do think it’s enjoyable enough to warrant a look….when you can find it half off or used. If Deck 13 keeps up the rampant improvement, it’s not hard to imagine their next game being something truly special. As for The Surge, I can only recommend it if you’re like me and you really enjoy Soulslike games and want to at least try all of them that come out. It’s far from perfect, but I don’t quite hate it. I’m disappointed it wasn’t better, but had it not been shackled to the AAA market, I think it could have been a much easier sale.

The Surge Review scores

Battleborn goes Free to Play (Kinda). In Other News: Battleborn is Still a Thing

I’ve never played Battleborn. Like with pretty much everyone, i went with Overwatch as my multiplayer shooter of choice when the two games were coming out. While i don’t regret that decision, i am some what saddened by the bum wrap Battleborn has gotten. Other than the fact the two are both hero shooters, the two don’t seem to have much else in common, with Battleborn taking much more inspiration from the MOBA genre than Overwatch ever did. I think, had the public been kinder, there was more than enough space for both games. Sadly that just wasn’t in the cards, and Battleborn swiftly faded into obscurity.

But you know what, bless Gearboxes little hearts, becuase they are doing everything they can to fight that. While part of that was a cringy attempt to jump on the Overwatch porn train, their newest idea isn’t so bad: go free to play. The problem is everything they don’t tell you in the trailer. They make it clear that only the multiplayer is free (as if anyone cares about the games story or lore), but you can play as much as you want. However, unless you spend money you are limited to a roster of 6 of the games 30 heros a week. From what i understand, this is something a lot of MOBA’s do, but what bothers me is the fact they didn’t state this in the trailer. I might not have had to do a whole lot of digging to find this information out, but it was still more than necessary.

Once more, i’ve never played Battleborn so this is pure speculation on my part but here’s my issue. If you get good enough at Overwatch (which i very much am not) you soon learn that there are checks and balances for each character. I really enjoy playing at Junkrat, but he’s more or less useless against Pharah as she’s often out of my reach. A (good) Widowmaker player can easily deal with Pharah however. And so on, and so on. If that’s true for Battleborn, by restricting the player roster for free players, you’re putting them at a disadvantage as they can’t take full advantage of those checks and balances. And if this is true for Battleborn, this attempt at going free to play will soon become an exorcises in the worst kinds of psychological bullying these kinds of games are known for. I’m not against Devs making money off their work, but this looks to me like a half measure with too much potential to go the wrong way. While it may piss off the….three?…people that actually bought Battleborne, maybe a better way forward would have been to simply go fully free to play. To be fair, i have no idea if the game has the kind of infrastructure to support that kind of change (i.e., is their anything worth spending money on? loot boxes, cosmetics, that kind of thing?). But for right now i’m interested to see where this goes, if it goes any where.

 

 

Unformed Trailer and Impressions

“…set in a fantasy world inspired by Chinese folklore and Lovecraft’s stories.” If nothing else, that alone makes me want to see how this game comes out. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror is something i’ve been fascinated with for a while now. And to that my near total lack of knowledge of non-western mythology, and you have a combination that captures my interest. Personally, i’m really enjoying the look of the game. The art directions, creature design and color palette gives the game a really interesting look, and i’m totally into it.

 

Unfortunately there isn’t a lot here to talk about. But there is a playable demo on the games homepage, and if you like what you see there, the game also has a kickstarter, which at the time of this writing is only about a 10th of the way to it goal. Sadly i’ve got way too much to do and cant justify spending time on a demo to give you my thoughts on it, but if any of you give it a spin, feel free to leave your thoughts on it in the comments, i’d love to hear what you have to say.

Mario/Rabbisds RPG is real…for some reason

h1-noscale

There’s this “really funny” joke people like to make regarding Nintendo, maybe you’ve heard it before: “Nintendo just does the same thing over and over”. You see, it’s funny becuase we’re going to ignore the aesthetic and game play shack-ups and focus on the fact that each game uses an established formula in order to make those shake-ups more palpable.  Well, here you go you finest of comedians, Nintendo is doing something new. And stupid.

Okay, okay. Before any one jumps down my throat, yes i wish Nintendo would do more in the “originality” department too. Maybe develop some more new IP’s, maybe do something with some of their old ones (cough cough Metroid cough cough). But over all i really do think the idea that Nintendo is simply resting on their laurels is a bit over blown. I also think that public perception is starting to get to Nintendo, which has lead them down a dark and very stupid path.

I mean….just look at this. LOOK AT IT. Mario with a gun? A Cosplaying “Rabbisd” dressed as Peach taking a selfie? This is just, so….so dumb. This is what you get when you force Nintendo to be too creative.

Okay, okay. I’m being a little hyperbolic. Just a bit. Dumb idea’s often make for good games, so it’s kind of unfair to judge too prematurely.

Spartan Fist Trailer and Impressions

Every now and again, a game comes along and reminds you of one really important fact: video games are dumb sometimes, and that’s okay. Honestly, when was the last time a game let you punch someone into pieces? When was the last time a game juxtaposed extreme gore with an endearing art style….that wasn’t trying to traumatize  players with a gut punch of an ending (looking at you Hotline Miami)? I do kind of wish the trailer showed us a bit more of what too actually expect from the game, but as an introduction it works well enough.

The Challenge of Difficulty

Recently I had a “lovely” conversation with a “gentleman” regarding one of my reviews. This “gentleman” had an issue with the fact that I didn’t complete the game due to finding it needlessly frustrating. To them, the game’s difficulty was a feature and my criticism with it showed a misunderstanding of the game. Obviously I disagree, but the conversation did make me think about difficulty in games and what separates an enjoyable challenge as opposed to rage inducing frustration. In the end it all boiled down to good design, much like everything else when it comes to good games.

I’ve made it pretty clear on my cite that I am a “SoulsSlut”. I love From Software’s Souls series, and the easiest way to get me interested in a game is to tell me “it’s like Dark Souls but….”. Salt and Sanctuary was like Dark Souls meets Castlevania and I loved it, Nioh was like Dark Souls with Samurai and it’s a forerunner for my game of the year. The Serge is like Dark Souls but Sci-fi and it’s the last game for this year I’m truly excited for, even though it’s made by the same people behind Lords of the Fallen, which was like Dark Souls but Crap. And in each and every case, the thing that drew me in to each game, the reason “it’s like Dark Souls” works for me, was the expectation of overcoming the games challenges. Even back in the PS2 era I was a big Devil May Cry fan, which were known for their difficulty back in the day. The funny thing about all of this is: the original Dark Souls, my personal favorite of the bunch, proves my point for both good and ill.

I’m one of those people who hate the idea of Dark Souls having an “easy mode”. Not because I don’t want more people to enjoy the game, but because I don’t think it’s possible. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, but their wind up and cool-downs compensate for it. If you change the amount of damage enemies do, the time it takes them to prep and unleash an attack is too unbalanced. If you change the animation times to compensate, then the enemies are doing proportionately the same amount of damage, they’re just faster. The same goes for the player character. If you boost the damage or attack speed you end up breaking the games balance. None of that was to say that there aren’t accessibility issues that From could work on, but for 90% of Dark Souls, the games difficulty proves my point: good design leads to good difficulty. The games systems are connected and balanced in such a way that the easiest way to overcome the game is to have a thorough understanding of these mechanics and systems.

And then there’s Blight Town.

Most fans of the game will tell you this is the worst part, and I am in that camp. (However, Hamish Black from Writing on Games did an excellent video countering this point. But this isn’t about him, fuck off Hamish.) So, why does Blight Town not work: it lags. By this point in the game you should more or less have a firm understanding of the combat. Attack animations are long, and you can’t back out of them, so you have to time your hits. Due to the lag in Blight Town, getting that timing right is much harder than it should be. In fact, I’d even wager that without that lag Blight Town wouldn’t be an issue. The enemies aren’t hard to beat and there’s enough land to avoid getting poisoned. Even the boss is one of the easier ones in the game. The hardest part is navigation, but so long as you keep moving down you’ll be okay. So, here’s the million dollar question: why is Blight Town so lagy? Because some stupid fuck thought it would be a good idea to render the entire area all at once. From the very top, if you look down you can see a clear outline of the poisonous mire down beneath. Rendering all of that takes a toll, and that toll was playing havoc with the games frame rate. As one of the Dan’s from Extra Cridits mentioned in his Lets Play of the game, a Silent Hill like layer of fog to hide some of Blight Town from the player so that not everything had to be rendered at once could have easily fixed this. The one part of the game that was poorly designed lead to the one part of a game that was no longer challenging, but frustrating.

For another example, lets look at the game I’m most in love with right now: Persona 5. I have very few issues with Persona 5 overall, and for the most part the difficulty isn’t one of them. Sure a boss or two have given me a few issues, but in the end I think the game is a little too easy. However, there is one exception to this. In the latter game safe rooms become more and more rare while enemies increasingly have attacks that can instantly kill members of your party. And if that happens to the player character, it’s game over. Where I am now the game even through me into a scenario where I had to fight three mini-bosses back to back with no ability to save between them. The second of which had two separate one hit kill attacks. If I had not been slightly under leveled to create a new persona and not been forced to stick with my main (who could block both attacks) this battle could have lasted hours. Speaking just for myself, out of the 70 hours I put into the game, I think there has been at least one hour per dungeon extra just for the amount of times I got instakilled in the level and had to redo long stretches of it. Thankfully in bigger fights the game gives you the ability to start over from the beginning of that fight, but this doesn’t ease the frustration of losing large amounts of progress when you did nothing wrong.

And yet again, almost all of that was also true for Darkest Dungeon, a game I loved and in which these same things didn’t bother me. Why? Because everything in Darkest Dungeon, from story to tone to game play mechanics, reinforced the idea that the world is a cruel place that does not care about you or your goals.

Good difficulty stems from good design. Good difficulty requires work and dedication by the player in order to overcome, but it does not get in the players way. Good difficulty does not ask a player to brute force their way past the games challenges, but to make smarter use of the games systems. Good difficulty does not laugh at a players failures, but revels in their successes. Good difficulty may ask for a players dedication, but it does not waste the players time.

To No Ones Surprise, The Joker will be in Injustice 2

I know it sounds like a bad joke, but get this: one of the most popular comic book villains of all time is going to be in an upcoming superhero game. Shocking!

Okay, sarcasm over. While i haven’t played much of the original Injustice, but i heard that the games version of the Joker jumped into another dimension (becuase DC just will not let the multiverse die) and thus it wasn’t a sure thing the character would be in this game. Except when you think about how this is the Joker and it’s a DC game. I’m sorry, i just can’t treat this like it’s really “news”. But for the one person here who just started reading comics and didn’t know if DC would bring the character back, here you go.