Insomniac's upcoming third-person shooter Fuse is a game built around switching: in its history, its design, and its execution. During a preview event that EA held in New York this week to show off the game, I got a closer look at all three elements.
A game that's already weathered a massive creative shift, and accompanying delay, Fuse started its public life at 2011's E3, where the cooperative shooter was known as Overstrike. Featuring somewhat cartoonish visuals that bridged the gap between Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank and Resistance series, Overstrike was also the first title that the studio was developing for both PS3 and Xbox 360. But soon after that, Insomniac decided something just wasn't right. So they made a switch.
When you look at the game we now know as Fuse, the biggest difference you'll see from Overstrike is the grittier, bloodier, more "realistic" execution. Gone are the grinning agents, replaced with serious looking soldier-types who — while spanning sexes and races — wear familiar combat-geared armour and expressions. It's tempting to think it's this "mature" look which was the reason for the change in the first place, but Insomniac CEO Ted Price says it isn't so.
The real impetus for the switch was that the original weapons didn't "feel right." Fans of Ratchet and Resistance laud those games for their creative weaponry, and apparently the arsenal of Overstrike just wasn't making the grade. Things like a gun that encased enemies in a giant bubble had to go. Price and his team found that with a shift to the bloody and brutal, ideas they'd started to implement suddenly clicked into place. To accompany the new weapons came the new visuals, and a general shift in tone. That's how Fuse was born.
When I started to play the game, jumping into the middle of the campaign for a mission that ran about 30 minutes, the people guiding the demo were very adamant about explaining the "character switching" mechanic. In their eyes, it was the game's biggest selling point. Before I could even take in the surroundings — an amber-soiled area draped in plants and peppered with structures both new and old — they beseeched me to press the 'Back' button on the 360 controller.
In Fuse, you're part of a team of four agents out to contain a newly unearthed and dangerous substance called... fuse. At any time — except, I quickly learned, when incapacitated on the ground — you can hit 'Back' to bring up a radial menu that lets you switch immediately to any available character. If you're playing alone that means all of them, but there are no dupes allowed. If your friend is playing as the shield-wielding Dalton, tough luck. At least until your partner feels like leaving him too.
Walking towards the first firefight, I swapped between my brothers and sisters in very modern arms. Each member of your squad has a different signature gun (called their Fuse Weapon), and an ability which is activated by the right bumper. For Naya — the character I played the most with — my Warp Rifle would "paint" the target with anti-matter. If I landed enough shots in a row (around 8-10), a miniature black hole would form, warping them and those around them off to somewhere unpleasant. It was rather enjoyable, reminding me of the fun gizmos from Ratchet & Clank. For a short time I could also become invisible, sneaking up behind enemies for acrobatic martial-arts takedowns.
When we encountered the first group of baddies — who in this level were humans in yellow and grey armour suits that obscured their faces and allowed some of them to hover around — I saw what the rest of the squad had in their arsenal. The aforementioned Dalton had the Magshield. I was playing with Jason Schreier, and he stuck to that character for most of the mission. Spawning a wide, liquid-looking shield in front of himself, Dalton could absorb lots of enemy fire, and also provide cover for the team. From behind the shield you're free to shoot through it into the fray. You can also place the shield on the ground, or fire it forward like a wall of fluid death, turning the enemies it passes into so much red goop.
The game, by the way, is plenty violent, and all the special abilities let some manner of viscera fly. Even archer Jacob's power, which was the plainest to me, dealt carnage. His weapon is an automatic crossbow, which is pretty badass, but the power to make the bolts explode didn't seem as innovative as the others. The final character, Izzy, I spent the least time with. But with a gun that turns enemies into breakable crystal, and the ability to throw out an Area-of-Effect healing beacon, she was a welcome presence on the battle field.
So much so, in fact, that I sort of forgot about switching to her, a feeling which lingered throughout my experience with Fuse. Whether it's because of years of conditioning or the fact that the game never forces you to switch (a developer told us that the game could theoretically be played through as one character), I found myself sticking with the person I started with. We only got about five seconds of cut-scene, and their shouts weren't very revealing, so I can't speak to any of the characters' personalities. But it seems feasible you could become attached to any one of them.
Another reason for my brain-hopping reticence was the fact that you actually switch across the battle area. Maybe this should have been obvious to me, but it was still jarring the first time I switched mid-firefight only to find myself across the stage, facing the opposite direction, and getting shot at by a totally different pack of baddies. You could hunt down your partner before switching, but battle is fast paced and the enemies are strong, so the few times I did switch it happened in the heat of the moment.
Having the other character teleport to where you were standing would alter the game dramatically, but the way it is now took some definite getting used to. Instead of switching, it felt more natural to just collaborate with the other characters. This is good for everyone. Much like the heavily-criticized and frequently-emulated Bulletstorm, Fuse has a system that rewards you for creative kills, especially with the Fuse Weapons. Though the game lacks a checklist and goofy names like Bulletstorm, using your special powers — and especially using them in conjunction with your squadmates — will net you experience points and fill your Fusion Meter.
While some combinations would require more forethought and coordination, several times I ended up naturally firing through Dalton's shield with my Warp Gun as he walked forward, painting enemies with aplomb until they all imploded, and not an ounce of damage done to myself. The extra XP was icing on the cake. Though I didn't get to see the results of this, you can spend XP on a skill tree. Each character has four branches with three steps. It offers some customisation, though I was told you could eventually unlock the whole thing. I saw perks like "Increase Radius of Warp," "Increase Range of Shotgun," and "Increase Health."
Creative kills also fire up your Fuse Meter, a super-mode that could have felt more super. While your character is suddenly splashed with psychedelic orange swirls, and the entirety of your party gets healed, the only part of expending my meter that felt super was the unlimited ammo with my Fuse Weapon. Am I being greedy? Maybe so.
But being able to stick to your Fuse Weapon really is a boon, because the other weapons feel plain in comparison. You get to carry two other firearms, and as far as I saw they were a standard collection of rifles, pistols, and shotguns. No alternate fire, and no weird twists. Not underpowered or unusable, but not exciting. Switching to these weapons felt like switching the game to a much more standard, albeit futuristic, military shooter. Snapping into the generous cover and popping up to try a headshot with a rifle felt mighty familiar. I much preferred being able to play with the Fuse Weapons, and wished ammo for them had been more plentiful.
Another play style switch that I encountered briefly, but features throughout the game, are Uncharted-flavored adventure sections. On the way to the Power-Loader-esque mini-boss that would end the level, I passed through a subterranean area devoid of enemies. With the obvious route blocked off by a laser wall, I had to jump up onto a ledge, shimmy over to a pipe, scooch up that, and finally drop down to turn off a switch. It was implemented just fine, but felt out of place. I'm curious to see how meaty some of those sections get. Mine couldn't have taken more than a minute or two.
Soon after, we fought the mini-boss (he could be taken down by firing at a weak point on his back: standard stuff) and just like that the campaign portion of the demo ended. And it was... good. At the very least it tried new and different things, and with more time I think the unique elements would have come into sharper focus. It's hard to tell how much the average player is going to use the character switch. Though it would have been "restrictive," I almost wish there had been sections that you had to take on as one of the four.
Where novelty was immediately apparent and accessible was in Fuse's Echelon Mode, which I tried out after. What Insomniac called their take on a Horde Mode, Echelon does share that industry favorite's wave-based DNA, and is the game's only non-campaign multiplayer mode. But from there it goes in new and exciting directions. Using the same four character group dynamic, you (and friends) are dropped into a large map with multiple distinct areas to take on a dozen small missions.
The only constants are that missions six and twelve are boss fights, but the others randomly generate so no two Echelon experiences are the same. You might simply have to eliminate a wave of enemies one round, while the next you'll have to race to pick up a weapon cache, or defend a point on the map, protect something called a "Fusion Canister" (not sure what it was, but it glowed!), or take down a "high-value target" — a super-powered enemy who gives you more XP the faster you take them down.
I played through a snow level that had a very different look than the campaign mission, and belied aesthetic range I hadn't expected. Echelon had a real arcade feel, from the fast pace down to the coins and money bags that drop from dead enemies (holdovers from the game's previous incarnation?). Horde modes have begun to wear on me, but Fuse's was fun and new.
I also found myself switching characters more in Echelon based on the type of mission. The small downtime in between rounds was a natural transition period that was lacking in the part of the campaign I played. Best of all, any experience you earn in Echelon is carried over to the campaign. You could max out your character if you wanted before you even played one story mission. But then you probably wouldn't want to switch.
There's a lot of Fuse that I wasn't shown yesterday. I got nary a taste of the story, and even in an high-octane shooter like this the narrative matters somewhat. I played one level with four firefights max, and a very promising multiplayer map. But even in that relatively small sample I saw some good ideas. I wasn't completely sold on the switching, but I can imagine warming up to it. The Fuse Weapons were exciting, and guided me into novel battle strategies. If gamers are willing to make the switch and embrace the mechanics Fuse has to offer, I think it has the potential to be a strong newcomer.
Fuse is out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in coming months.