Lords of the Fallen studio Deck 13 is attempting to take the Dark Souls formula into the future.
"This high-tech future setting should work to attract some of those that kept their distance from Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Lords of the Fallen due to their disinterest in gothic castles and shield-bearing skeletons."
What if the modern trends ruling the world as we know it continued on their most negative possible path? That's the question posed by The Surge, and it's the answers that developer Deck 13 has come up with that inform its narrative and environment.
Mega corporations have pillaged the world of its resources, putting Earth on the brink of environmental disaster and possible implosion. Artificial intelligence systems have replaced the need for businesses to employ humans in any significant numbers, causing severe social unrest and disillusionment. These themes have been explored before, in any number of other games as well as novels, comics and movies, but they've not been wrapped around the gameplay systems that underpin The Surge's core interactions.
Given that this near-apocalyptic vision of the future is from the same creative talent that gave us Lords of the Fallen, it should come as no surprise that the direction here is centred around an intelligent approach to combat, precise levelling up and continual exploration. Lords of the Fallen might not have embraced quite such a challenging design philosophy as Dark Souls, but it wasn't far off.
The Surge's sci-fi setting offers new twists on what is, at its core, a familiar format. Most obviously, the uniformly gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere that most games of this sort adhere to is replaced with something altogether more colourful and, in an unusual way, charming. Given that you're playing a lone individual tasked with quelling an AI disaster that has resulted in robots setting off on a crazed murder spree against all humans the tone remains sinister, but the aesthetic is appealing in the juxtaposition it sets up against the majority of games aiming to deliver this degree of challenge.
For all the qualities exuded by Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Lords of the Fallen, the dark-fantasy trimmings were not to everyone's taste and, undoubtedly, alienated some of its potential audience. This high-tech future setting should work to attract some of those that previously kept their distance due to their disinterest in gothic castles and shield-bearing skeletons.
Combat retains the need to play sensibly and enter every fray, no matter how straightforward it might seem, under the proviso that it might be your last. Strafing enemies to understand their attack patterns before lunging in, always being ready to dodge and block, not engaging a lone enemy until you know for certain that it really is alone - all of these tactics make up key elements in your arsenal. Certainly, how you think about combat is more important than which weapons you're carrying.
Those weapons are made of industrial items that can be used to carry out melee attacks, rather than bespoke equipment designed primarily as a tool to inflict damage upon robots. The two I've seen so far are a plasma cutter that sees a laser anchored by two metal rods, and a basic chainsaw.
"You can direct the right stick to determine where your strikes will land, allowing you to specifically aim for the chest, or an arm or leg. As far as combat is concerned this is The Surge's 'big' feature that Deck 13 hopes will set it apart from the competition."
One of the most efficient ways to employ such tools is to target certain parts of an enemy's body using a 'limb targeting' system. By locking the camera onto an enemy you can direct the right stick to determine where your strikes will land, allowing you to specifically aim for the chest, or an arm or leg. As far as combat is concerned this is The Surge's 'big' feature that Deck 13 hopes will set it apart from the competition and entertain an extra layer of strategy that its genre peers don't provide.
Cutting off an arm, for example, can remove your opponent's ability to strike with the weapon that it once had the ability to wield. Lopping off a leg, unsurprisingly, reduces its range of movement. These targeting decisions must be weighed against the positioning of any armour it's wearing. While it might be tempting to cut off the arms holding weapons at every opportunity, it might not be the best idea if you come face-to-face with a robot whose entire compliment of armour is draped across its shoulders.
As involving as the sci-fi aesthetic is, it's ideas like 'limb targeting' that are potentially going to set The Surge apart. Therefore, if ideas such as this fail to provide the promised level of complexity and intrigue throughout the entire length of the game then it's going to be difficult to classify this outing as anything other than a clone wearing a different dress. The most difficult part of any design enterprise is the conception stage, and in this regard Deck 13 seems to be on the right track. But conception means nothing without execution.
An attempt at further combat personalisation is being made in the form of an implant system that allows you to assign perks to your character as and when you unlock them. These buff your native stats, such as your health, as well as allow you a better glimpse into the world and its dangers - such as providing a readout of an enemy's remaining energy once you begin a fight.
Again, like the limb targeting system, implants must be sufficiently developed and (seemingly) limitlessly diverse in order to convince players that the careful management of them is worth the time and effort it's sure to take to uncover them. The Surge's setting is one that radiates a lust for experimentation and progression free from the prison of ethics and human compassion and, hopefully, that will result in the provision of implants that are more than simple health, strength and status effect modifiers.
No matter what, though, this is a genre in need of a different aesthetic gimmick and The Surge seems to be on course to provide that. Whilst that might be enough to cause people to take notice of what Deck 13 is trying to do, any long term success is going to rest in those elements that have the potential to differentiate this game from a crowd that is dominated by the superlative work of From Software.
By embracing the sci-fi route Deck 13 has already taken significant steps towards distancing itself from the Dark Souls comparisons that undermined much of what it tried to do with Lords of the Fallen. Now it is up to the studio to convince us that it has the ability to change the rules of the genre without removing and/or tampering with what has made it so popular up to this point.
The Surge will be released sometime in 2017.