Horde mode. There, I said it.
Thinking back to 2008's Gears of War 2, I remember what a revelation Horde mode was. In those days, my online multiplayer rotation consisted of Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3. And while I was never terrible, my just-above-average skill made me yearn for some sort of competitive/cooperative mode in a multiplayer setting. Fast forward to today, and by God has everyone jumped on this bandwagon.
The latest iteration of this multiplayer mode comes in Echelon, Fuse's interpretation of what Insomniac President Ted Price dubs a "co-petitive mode." Fancy monikers aside, Echelon is essentially another take on the tried-and-true formula.
Fuse (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed])
Call it Horde, call it Firefight -- whatever name it chooses to go by, I find myself burnt out on wave-based combat modes. That being said, Echelon carries some fundamental differences that help separate it from similar modes.
First, there's the waves themselves, which are specifically structured and cap at 22 per map. One wave may have you defending a generator, while another will have you capturing an ammo crate. This leads up to the sixth wave which is always a sub-boss, then the cycle restarts until you hit the sub-boss on wave 12. I hope you're still following me, chief.
After that, waves are a crapshoot as to what you get for the remaining 13-22. The benefit of this is that objective waves give Echelon a decidedly more offensive feel. Whereas Horde with its fifty waves, and Firefight with its unlimited waves, are more an exercise in endurance, Echelon feels closer to what we've seen with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer. It tasks players to come out of their fortified holes in order to advance.
Then there's the wave cap. 22 waves may sound like a cake walk, but trust me, these will break you. The group that played ahead of me made it the furthest out of everyone that day, and they were stopped cold by the sixth wave's sub-boss. My team made it to wave two on our first attempt, just scraping our way into wave five the second go around. And when we were told that it was set to easy, you can only imagine the frustration.
While we were told that the difficulty has yet to be balanced, what also makes Echelon such a challenge are the powers -- or rather, my team's ignoring them. If you play this game like a straight third-person shooter, you will get wrecked. Fuse demands that you learn when, how, and where best to use your powers.
My time was spent playing with Izzy, the group healer. While anyone can revive a downed teammate, Izzy can heal teammates from a distance. It's a skill I never did quite get the hang of, and the team's performance suffered for it. When I did get into the rhythm of it, there was a real sense of accomplishment to be had from hiding behind a teammate's shield and quickly healing a downed ally, who then turns and crystallizes a riot shield squad, who are then taken out by a well-placed grenade. There's also Fuse itself. The game's namesake acts as a sort of rage mode that, when activated, both increases damage output and regenerates ammo. While you can do relatively well without Fuse in the early rounds, sub-bosses and boss enemies are near impossible to take down without it.
There are definitely some interesting ideas at work here. All told though, I found myself unable to shake this burnt-out feeling towards these types of modes. While it can be good fun and provide a brutal challenge, Echelon is hardly a reinvention or meaningful iteration on the formula. Provided that the difficulty is balanced out in time for full release, I could see this one doing well for itself, but perhaps not remain a permanent part of anyone's multiplayer rotation.