I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, so in accordance to Critical Hit procedures, please ensure that you’re safely tucked away in whatever cosy space you’d like to fall asleep in as I take you upon a journey of self-conscious pretentiousness and rambling about video games.
I’ve been pondering the nature of sequels, specifically sequels to games that didn’t really leave a mark on anyone but weren’t exactly bad. The Surge, released back in 2017, is one such game, the purgatorial 7/10 that didn’t blow anyone’s skirt up but it was still a pretty decent experience. It was a game with a unique combat system, great level design and compelling RPG mechanics but unfortunately shrugged its shoulders and gave you a sheepish grin when you asked it, “And the writing? You’re good for that too?”. Not to mention the severe control issues that plagued the whole game which gave both the action and exploration a “sluggish clunk” that might not be the most accurate way to describe it, but it certainly paints a vivid word picture.
So my question was when making a sequel to something like The Surge would it pay off to just fix those issues? If the whole thing was just a little tighter, would that result in a great game or would it show that the things the original got right were only good in comparison to the things it got wrong? Perhaps it’s a larger question of whether or not the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, which is something The Surge 2 feels almost designed to tackle.
The Surge 2 picks right up where the first game ended. Oh, you don’t remember that? Don’t worry, I don’t think many people did as narrative was certainly not The Surge’s throwing arm. The SparkNotes summary is that a big, faceless corporation known as CREO let loose a plague of nanites in the hopes of stopping global warming but actually went on to infest human bodies and turn them into purely synthetic beings. The surrounding metropolis of Jericho City goes to ruin as inhabitants start to become infected with the “Defrag” virus, forcing lots of burly people and their security drones to quarantine the city and take out anyone who could possibly spread the plague further. The Surge 2 picks up where the first game ended; the city in chaos, gangs fighting for control of the streets and innocent civilians holed-up in shopping malls for safety.
What’s apparent from the onset is that the story of The Surge 2 is something happening to you rather than something you’re involved in. Weird comparison, I know, but stick with me. While The Surge 2 does go to a greater effort to establish characters that are at least interesting to interact with, it’s very clear that the game wants you to merely be a pawn in the machinations of the others. The unnamed protagonist is always chasing after someone else, ordered to do the jobs of others and complete tasks for everyone else; it’s not your story, you’re just an active participant of the events happening around you.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing either because there are a few genuinely cool story beats you can come across, helped along by a cast of characters that actually have something to say about the world rather than being one-note commentators on the actions of CREO. A cult-leader going to war with his drug lord brother is instantly a more interesting sub-plot than anything The Surge even attempted to tackle. This is what I mean about the game maybe not being greater than the sum of its parts because the smaller micro-stories The Surge 2 tells are so much more engaging than the main plot which unfortunately devolves into a mundane save the world story with the game’s least interesting characters. Your character is only at the heart of it all because they’ve been told to fix it, a problem that often comes when protagonists lack any kind of motivation outside of “I must find out what happened to me”. While it’s not exactly a high standard, the writing in The Surge 2 is certainly better than its elder sibling and delivers some interesting side-plots along the way.
In terms of how the actual game plays… this is where the review gets kind of complicated. The Surge was never a mechanically bad game, it was functional, albeit very messy and poorly implemented. It wasn’t a game you could point at and identify the one thing that ruined it all, it just felt wrong. Which is a stupid thing to say, I know. It’s silly journalist talk for “I don’t know”. If I had to try, I’d say the combat was too slow, the movement was unresponsive and the enemy targeting was painfully inaccurate. It was the worst part of the first game and the thing I was worried about most when it came to the sequel. And for the most part, I’m very pleased to say that Deck 13 have at the very least listened to those comments about the first game.
The Surge had the fantastic combat hook of being able to target specific body parts and slice them off to acquire whatever piece of equipment your enemy was wearing. It’s a system that’s still present in The Surge 2 and feels better than ever with the refinements made to the combat. Movement feels so much more responsive and snappy, your character actually swinging their weapon when you press the button rather than sipping their tea, mulling the procedure over and then moving their impossibly sharp staff two minutes later. Where the original was sluggish, the sequel is choppy (Comedy!) and lithe, making combat something that’s certainly challenging but only for the right reasons. Aside from a few tricky hitbox situations, I can confess that most of my deaths were the result of me overestimating myself and not paying attention. Fighting groups of enemies feel much better than it did in the first Surge even though the auto-lock on camera can become meddlesome, especially in tighter environments.
Yet what struck me as interesting was how similar it all felt, to the point of where I actually went back and looked up some of the enemies and animations in the first game. Many enemy types, armour sets and animations have, to the naked eye, been taken straight from the original. I get that a sequel should have elements of what came before but a lot of The Surge 2’s equipment and enemy designs almost feel copy and pasted. Maybe it’s a way of conserving the budget to save for better things and it’s definitely not a game-breaking element, but I did feel that maybe a little more originality in the enemy designs would have gone a long way.
The best thing The Surge 2 does though is actually giving the player some room to breathe. Opening up the game to feature the entirety of Jericho City rather than just an isolated factory, the level design in The Surge 2 is exquisite. Divided up into a series of locations joined by loading screens, the actual density of these areas is astonishing. Paths branch and join up again in the most unexpected ways, shortcuts lead back to areas you forgot you’d run through and navigation always feels fun. I think it’s a testament to great level design that you can be totally lost in an environment, open up a single door and then suddenly have everything click into place as you recognise a landmark. Every stage feels like a massive 3D puzzle that slowly pieces together the more time you spend within it and I adored exploring every corner and discovering all the hidden paths.
This review is getting to be a bit long now, but I thought it was necessary in the case of The Surge 2. Deck 13 as a development team have shown that they’re responsive to feedback from their players and I think no game shows off this commitment to improvement like The Surge 2. While it’s not fundamentally different to the original and arguably recycles a touch too many enemy types and equipment from the first game, it’s the little refinements that make it a joy to play. After feeling fairly lukewarm on The Surge, it’s refreshing to see the sequel double down on what worked about the original and tweak the things that didn’t. While the game does still have issues with player pathing and writing that’s enjoyable at best and painfully boring at worst, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Surge 2 for it’s commitment to level design, viscerally satisfying combat and overall commitment to just being better.
Last Updated: September 24, 2019