Fuse - previously called Overstrike - is back with a new name and grittier vibe. VG247's Dave Cook goes hands-on and interviews Insomniac about its squad shooter.
You have to hand it to anyone daring enough to launch new IP on home consoles these days. It's a tricky market and typically, only the most unique and polished of experiences will rise above the tried and tested names out there.
So what does Fuse propose exactly? Back when the game's debut trailer was revealed at E3 2011 - under the 'Overstrike' moniker - the animated art style riffed on Team Fortress 2 a little, and the humour gave the clip a refreshing bite.
It looked like this:
The game fell silent after that initial reveal, and came back recently as Fuse, a much darker game that pares down the cartoon vibe in favour of a more realistic edge. Opinions were split over the new aesthetics, and after playing Fuse for myself, I'm also a tad sceptical.
The title 'Fuse' pertains to an alien substance that has been discovered by the U.S. Government. It weaponises anything it touches, and that kind of power naturally comes with a great deal of risk. After all, what should happen if it were to fall into the wrong hands?
“This is a game about a foreign alien substance, and what happens when it gets into the hands of humans. It’s like playing with fire, so we thought we’d just focus on that and have fun with it.”
Overstrike 9 is then hired to neutralise Fuse. They're a group of bickering mercenaries who get paid to cover up Government accidents and secrets. But once they arrive at the Nevada desert base that has been stockpiling the stuff, another group of mercs called Raven crashes the party.
The premise is sound enough, but the visuals are still a tad jarring and generic. If you've ever looked at before-and-after shots of the original Borderlands, you'll now that it didn't start life with colourful comic book visuals. In fact, it initially looked plain dull.
Fuse feels like it has pulled into the opposite direction from Borderlands, and I felt as if I was missing a vital link, so I asked creative director on Fuse Brian Allgeier why the game disappeared after the Overstrike reveal, and why it has taken so long for Fuse to surface?
"Fuse was the alien substance that was in the Overstrike game," Alleier explained, "and it was more of a story MacGuffin. It was a device that the whole story revolved around, and when we started to think about it and develop how unique it was, we thought, 'you know what? We need to tie this into the gameplay.'"
"This is a game about a foreign alien substance, and what happens when it gets into the hands of humans. It's like playing with fire, so we thought we'd just focus on that and have fun with it."
“One thing we kept in mind while developing our cover shooter controls, is to make our agents feel very agile,” Allgeier replied, “and that’s not something you typically see in games that use tank based controls.”
I ask Allgeier if the comedic slant remains intact from that original trailer, and if the name change has also resulted in a change of tone, "Certainly there was a name change – that was a big change – but what's core to the game and Insomniac's values are imaginative weapons, exotic locations, deep story lines."
"So focusing on that the game naturally evolved, we changed the name, and I think as people see it and play more of it they're going to realise that it's still an Insomniac game."
We get down to some four-player co-op during one of Fuse's first missions, located in a mysterious Government complex. Each of the four characters fit into class paradigms and come with their own unique Fuse weapons, as well as their own murky back story.
The first thing I notice is that the third-person tank controls and cover mechanic feel surprisingly slick. I'm a little relieved, because it's something many studios get dead wrong. I ask Allgeier what Insomniac's approach to control has involved.
"One thing we kept in mind while developing our cover shooter controls, is to make our agents feel very agile," Allgeier replied, "and that's not something you typically see in games that use tank based controls. We wanted to be able to slide into cover, vault over fences, climb up scenery and to make it feel really nimble."
"That's despite these guys being encumbered, and we have Dalton as the tank character, but he's lighter than many tank-based characters that you see in games."
Ah yes, Dalton Brooks, the leader of Overstrike 9. He's a walking slab of dry wit, gunfire, and wields a Fuse weapon that is capable of dropping impenetrable 'Mag Shields' down as ad hoc cover. He's ace at front line support.
Insomniac's Ted Price then explained that each character's Fuse weapon can be chained together to earn each player a wedge of bonus XP. For example, anyone firing at and killing enemies through Dalton's shield gets a multiplier, and Dalton himself gets some extra rewards for his trouble.
“It certainly didn’t scream ‘unique IP’ at me, and in my mind, I found myself comparing it to just about every other third-person shooter out there today. It needs more of a hook than just optional combo chaining.”
Every character can do this. You have crossbow wielder Jacob, who can unleash DPS bolts that burn enemies, and can be fired into scenery to create proximity traps. Izzy is the healer of the group. She can hurl Med-Beacons and use her Fuse gun to crystallise enemies.
The crystal spreads so she can chain the effect over clusters of enemies. Finally, Naya uses the Warp Rifle, which can create singularities that suck in then eviscerate enemies with brutal force.
So here's a scenario for you: Izzy crystallises a pack of enemies so that the effect spreads and hardens around the group. Jacob fires his incendiary bolts into them, Dalton ups a Mag Shield in front of the pack, while Naya hurls a singularity through the shield at the enemies, shattering them. Bonus XP for the win.
The combo mechanic works in practice and it's geared towards completing each character's skill tree quicker, but because players have standard firearms - typical assault rifles, shotguns and pistols - as well, the Fuse weapons don't feel encouraged enough.
Indeed, Fuse weapons are the most powerful guns in the game, but their ammo is finite and are best reserved for big packs of generic footsoldiers or bosses. To that end, Fuse's combat has potential but at this stage felt uninspired.
It certainly didn't scream 'unique IP' at me, and in my mind, I found myself comparing it to just about every other third-person shooter out there today. It needs more of a hook than just optional combo chaining to really grab the public's attention.
All work and no gunplay
I return to Allgeier to throw some more questions his way, and I simply have to ask about the depth of Fuse's combo chaining and gun play mechanics.
"Essentially we've developed Fuse from the ground up as being a co-op action shooter," Allgeier explained, "As we developed it, this was a bit of a puzzle – trying to ensure everybody complimented each other. But it never felt that the characters were stuck in roles we didn't like, as we offer a lot of player opportunity and choice to help them find out what kind of player they are."
”If Fuse weapons aren’t encouraged more often, then the game’s killer hook may become understated. There also needs to be greater variety at hand, especially with enemy types and locations. The metallic corridors of secret facilities have been done to death.”
"Certainly you can progress your character through various perks, buffs and upgrades. You've got your Fuse weapons and basic skills, but you can also pick up other weapons in the field, so if you want to be a long-range guy, you can work with Dalton and buff up your burst rifle – which is his more natural, preferred weapon."
"I think people just like to choose and change up their strategy. Each Fuse weapon is very powerful – they have alt. Fires, and there's a lot of depth to them – but when people run out of Fuse ammo they can switch to their side arm or a rifle."
Personally I found Dalton's Fuse weapon to be inaccurate but deadly, so there's a balancing trade-off there. However, I managed to help clear rooms of enemies with my standard assault rifle with precision and speed.
My point, again, is that if Fuse weapons aren't encouraged more often, then the game's killer hook may become understated. There also needs to be greater variety at hand, especially with enemy types and locations. The metallic corridors of secret facilities have been done to death.
One neat ability that can be used across all Fuse weapons is Fusion Mode. Each character has their own Fusion bar that fills as they earn XP. Whenever one player activates the mode, all players enter an invincible state that gives them unlimited ammo. It also stacks.
Fusion also revives downed squad mates instantly, so it's a great lifesaver when someone is near death. Irritatingly however, as soon as one team mate dies, it's game over for the whole squad - an annoyance I pose to Allgeier.
"That was always a tough decision," Allgeier stated, "but to have it work you have to make really critical moments where the stakes are high. That makes the gameplay feel much more rewarding, and to have one character who could die and kill the whole team – that forces the whole team to work together."
"There are a few options for how players want to help each other survive, "Allgeier continued, "If you activate Fusion Mode for example, that's going to heal anyone who is down. Izzy's got a healing Med-Beacon she can fire out that can heal other people, so there's a lot of creative ways players can use Fuse to keep people alive."
The name's Price...Ted Price
Fuse's overarching plot sees Overstrike 9 travelling the globe in pursuit of Raven and the alien substance before it is put to improper use. This is where things get a little 'James Bond', causing my interest to pique once more.
Allgeier explained, "You chase the Fuse substance across many exotic locales – starting with the Nevada desert, deep underground where the Hyperion Base is. Then you travel to places like Shan Island, which has a missile base hidden inside a volcano. There's an underwater base, you're travelling to India, you're going to Pakistan, so there's a lot of cool places."
"Fuse has solid gameplay and the makings of a solid story so far, but it lacks spark, that killer hook or feature that sets it apart from the pack. It feels generic.”
Missile silos inside a volcano? I ask Allgeier if the Bond connection rings true, "that's where things started off with the sort-of 'James Bond' feel," he replied, "but then we started to focus on the Fuse substance, and that drive what the game ended up like. But certainly a lot of this was inspired by James Bond."
While Fuse's gameplay may not have bowled me over, some plot context might help. I ask Allgeier if players will see the dark pasts of the game's mercenaries explored further as the game progresses. "To some degree we explore...You know, these guys have to make decisions that go outside their job," he explained.
"These guys are hired and they work for money to essentially cover up Government messes," Allgeier continued, "Hyperion Base is a big Government facility where they've been developing this Fuse substance. There comes a point where they have to ask themselves if they want to continue on with this mission."
After all of the hands-on gameplay and talk about deep character levelling - the perk tree looks tiny - there's hope that Fuse can at least deliver a solid story worth caring about, and that could be something Insomniac has broader plans for.
It's clear that no studio makes new IP without ambitions for a sequel, so I threw Allgeier the 'sequel' question, to which he replied, "we always develop every game as if it's going to have long legs, and we're developing a very deep mythology around the game's factions, so who knows where things can go?"
Fuse has solid core gameplay and the makings of an enjoyable story so far, but it lacks spark, that killer hook or feature that sets it apart from the pack. It feels generic, and lacking in identity. Shooter fans may enjoy it, but in such a crowded market, I feel it needs more than just decent controls to stand out.
We'll get a better view of Fuse's potential closer to its March 2013 launch. Stay tuned.