Insomniac turned a lot of heads when it first revealed Overstrike -- a colorful, cartoony, over-the-top cooperative shooter that looked promisingly hilarious. Even more heads turned, but for entirely the wrong reasons, when Overstrike mutated into Fuse -- a new and toned down version that took itself more seriously and, to be quite fair, looked considerably less interesting.
While the cynical among us saw Overstrike as yet another victim of the heavily focus-tested, leader following, perpetually terrified mainstream game industry, Insomniac worked hard to assure gamers Fuse would be as exciting and amusing as the original incarnation promised.
I wish I could say we were wrong and Insomniac was right. I can't. Fuse is everything we expected ... and less.
Fuse (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed]) Developer: Insomniac Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Released: May 28, 2013 (NA) / May 31, 2013 (EU) MSRP: $59.99
Fuse has a story, I think. Something about a group of mercenaries (maybe) called Overstrike, on the trail of some terrorists, or maybe a rogue military company. The villains -- all helmeted future soldier types -- have access to some space age technology they're using for weaponry, maybe. The trouble with summarizing Fuse's plot is that it's very easy to start describing one of the thousands of similar near-future sci-fi stories from which this game is utterly indistinguishable.
In any case, nothing really matters in a world where the heroes and villains alike are bland enough to be one and the same, dialog is embarrassingly cliched, and the world feels too shallow and artificial to be worth saving. Fuse's story is as by-the-numbers as videogame plots can get -- a trait unfortunately shared by the rest of the game.
A four-person co-op shooter as dry as a dead tree, Fuse walks the same path as other fabled "me too" middle-ground games like Inversion and Quantum Theory -- a repetitive, flavorless, excruciating slog from cover-based firefight to cover-base firefight. It's ostensibly Gears of War on autopilot -- a slow-paced retread through ground so familiar you could set a watch by it, remorselessly lacking in surprise, while any originality is quickly wasted through overuse and shameless self-exploitation.
Fuse's one single "hook" is its use of Xenotech weaponry. Each of the four playable characters has a single unique weapon that runs off "fuse" ammunition -- Dalton is able to deploy a shield for the rest of the team, Jacob has a bow-like weapon that fires burning bolts, Naya can create black holes by concentrating her fire, and Isabelle can freeze enemies into crystals before shattering them.
These weapons are upgraded on rudimentary skill trees, but they offer very little in the way of game-altering experiences. Once you've tried each character out, you can see what they bring to the table in a matter of minutes, and you better hope you like it because that's the best you're getting for the next six or seven hours.
The single biggest problem with this game is its sluggish repetition. Every enemy, even the most basic mook, has a considerable amount of health that sees them surviving multiple headshots with all but the cumbersome sniper rifle, and the limited pool of accessible weaponry makes taking each opponent out a tiresome saga in its own right. Even worse, almost every encounter in almost every level is exactly the same. By the end of the game, I was able to predict the basic structure of almost all battles, laid forth as thus:
Step one: Enemies don't notice the players. The players take a handful of them out with stealth kills until they're spotted for arbitrary reasons.
Step two: The enemies' HP bars are whittled away wearily until everybody's dead (expect to duck behind cover after every few shots fired, as apparently you're more fragile than any single opponent).
Step three: A larger armored enemy will appear that needs to be shot in the back and takes ages to kill. Upon death, it drops a heavy weapon of some variety.
Step four: The heavy weapon is used to kill a second wave of mooks that conveniently show up for the single purpose of being killed by the heavy weapon.
Occasionally some new soldier variants will appear, but their job seems only to make an already mentally exhausting game all the more draining. From cloaked enemies that grapple you and drag you around the map, to shielded elites that heal all enemies standing in a wide radius, to snipers that can down you in one shot, every trite enemy exists simply to drag out the procedures, and the procedures just aren't fun.
With weapons that feel weak, pop-and-shoot combat that feels simplistic and barren, and boss battles that repeat themselves (even the final boss is merely an enhanced version of something fought twice before), Fuse is a game lacking any of the excitement and thrill of those faster paced, dynamic, more varied games it desperately tries to ape. Everything functions exactly as it needs to in order to deliver the basic structure of a serviceable shooter, but that's all we get. A mere skeleton of a game, one that drags its feet and does all it can to waste the player's time.
As if that wasn't enough, moments of lazy enforced co-op hammer home how homologous the whole thing is. You know what I'm talking about -- endless doors that need two or more people to open, two switches on either end of a room that need operating at once. The same prostrated busywork that plagues dozens of "co-op" games for no other reason than to convince you the co-op has a purpose other than looking good on some marketing department's checklist.
Between these sequences of narcoleptic banality, Fuse will require you to perform simple Uncharted-style wall climbing and short walks through laughably massive air vents. None of this adds anything to the actual game. These quiet moments aren't used to impart any interesting exposition, nor are they flowing and scenic enough to provide any of the charm Nathan Drake's acrobatics give us. They're just there to be there, as seems to be the modus operandi of everything in this circus of stereotypes.
When you get bored of the campaign, which is likely to happen often, there's Echelon mode, a wave-based survival game in which up to four players can earn extra cash and XP. Upgrades and level progress are shared between modes, so Echelon is a good way to rack up extra loot. It's also a good way to experience everything the campaign has to offer without the dire writing and bromide rock-climbing getting in the way. It's still the same old shooting against the same old stock enemies, but at least it cuts to the chase and gets the whole thing over with more efficiently.
Graphically, Fuse has nothing going for it. It's not very impressive looking, and the boiler plate art style doesn't help. Characters and environments, like everything else in this game, look like things I could see in any random handful of mediocre science fiction adventures. Voice acting and music, meanwhile, are all kind of just there, and barely worth even this sentence dedicated to their existence.
The most troubling thing about this review is that I am possessed of self awareness enough to know it's going to look like a punishment. It's going to look like I'm one of the many disappointed gamers who saw the changes from Overstrike to Fuse and was prepared, from the outset, to hate it. I cannot disprove such a perception, if that is the perception you wish to have. All I can say is that I, a fan of Insomniac, had faith when I was assured Fuse would be just as good as Overstrike promised to be, and I was looking forward to playing it. To have my residual doubts about the game brought miserably to light was not pleasant, and certainly not desired.
Whether it's true or not, Fuse does feel every bit like another victim of the heavily focus-tested, leader following, perpetually terrified mainstream game industry. It's every cloying and desperate element of the retail console market, brought together -- fused, if you will -- to create a factory standard example of a game that tries to be everything the hypothetical mainstream consumer drools over, and ends up as nothing remarkable.
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