The Surge arrives this week, very much a science fiction-based spin on the classic Dark Souls gameplay formula, but look below the surface and you'll find that this title has one huge advantage over From Software's masterpiece - its technology. After the disappointments of its last title, Lords of the Fallen, developer Deck 13 has returned with a radical revamp of its Fledge Engine, providing solid, consistent performance on PC, PS4 and Xbox One - and one of the best PS4 Pro implementations we've seen to date.
But before we jump into that, it's worth taking some time to appreciate the technological revamp Deck 13 has accomplished here - there's a new clustered deferred renderer to replace the straight deferred solution found in Lords of the Fallen (which featured two g-buffers - a remarkable state of affairs with big performance and memory implications), along with a strong emphasis on async compute. Clustered deferred rendering breaks up calculations into a three-dimensional grid - essentially a fully 3D take on tile-deferred rendering. The artists can include hundreds of lights in a scene which are then clustered into the grid where they can be queried in a more conventional forward shader.
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Compared to the dual g-buffer setup of Lords, The Surge's approach enables more lights in a scene and faster overall performance. Physically based rendering has also been implemented allowing the artists to create more realistic materials. In a game with loads of shiny metal materials and diffuse cement, it works well.
Then we have the particle system which has been transitioned over to the GPU. Lords of the Fallen featured Nvidia Apex GPU particles in the PC version but on consoles, the particles were still handled entirely by the CPU. By moving to a new GPU particle solution, it's possible to push more particles than before with clusters of particles both emitting and receiving lights.
Shadow quality is also excellent here, though somewhat typical - cascaded shadow maps are used outdoors with 1k by 1k maps for each split on consoles and up to 2k by 2k on PC, but indoors, up to eight lights can cast full environment shadows leading to some very dynamic scenes. Typical PCF filtering is used here but the implementation is solid. Some tricks used to speed-up rendering include not updating shadows at a great distance or updating them at half-rate to save on performance.
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Impressive isotropic lens flares are also included along with a remarkably high quality per-object motion blur that helps accentuate the animation work especially on fast moving enemies. Ultimately, while the art direction may not appeal to everyone, there's no denying that the engine here is extremely capable and it looks really nice in motion.
Another key feature comes down to loading times and data optimisation. Loading times have always been a problem for the Souls games - at least on consoles - and The Surge manages to overcome this completely. Whether you're loading a save game or respawning after death, loading times are extremely fast making it easy to try and try again. We're talking loading times in the five seconds area - great stuff.
In addition, the install size of the game is miniscule, coming it at less than 6GB on consoles and around 12GB on PC (in order to facilitate 4K textures). In an age where games can range from 20GB to 100GB on a console, this is a breath of fresh air and makes for quick installation. Speaking of which, the "ready to play" option here is great. In a lot of games, you can launch early when a game is partially installed, but that doesn't mean you can play just yet. In The Surge, the entire first area is available with a partial install and considering that it will likely take the better part of an hour to play through, the game should be finished installing by the time it needs the next area.