Gamers that are outside of Sony's influence probably don't know much about Insomniac Games, the California-based studio that's made some of Sony's biggest and most fun-oriented intellectual properties. Creators of, most notably, the Ratchet & Clank series of cartoony action/platformers and Resistance, the three-part post-apocalyptic first person shooter series on PS3, Insomniac has been making great games for Sony for many years now. They first branched away from Sony exclusivity with their Facebook game Outernauts, and after a few false starts with different names and concepts, they've now got a new IP going for a big, new action game. It's called Fuse and the playful title is used to name the powerful fuel at the core of the plot in a futuristic sci-fi story, but it also describes the relationship of the four partners who just came together for this mission and must use their unique powers together in order to take on soldiers and big, bad robots in the fully coop-capable campaign.
We got to play through a small slice of Fuse without much in the way of knowledge of the story or the characters' backgrounds - details on that will be coming in anticipation of the game's expected March-ish 2013 launch - but everyone knows the story of how to shoot some paramilitary that's standing in your way right in the face, yeah? Each of the four characters - Naya, Izzy, Jacob, and Dalton - have their own impressive, Fuse-powered weapons, but they also each have their own special power, unleashed with the RB or R1 buttons, that often changes how the fight goes. Naya can cloak herself and do some brutal melee takedowns, but her Warp gun fires bullets that can spawn little black holes for sucking up enemies and making them disappear. Izzy was my favorite of the demo; she's got a healing beacon that's thrown like a grenade and it can remotely heal people or even help bring up a downed buddy from a distance, and her Crystal gun fires these crystalline shards that spread and impact among enemies - along with creating a wonderful modern art masterpiece, the crystal solidifies in place, holding enemies trapped in it. I didn't get to see too much of what Jacob does, but he's got a crossbow for silent kills at a distance. Finally, Dalton's big thing is his large, wide shield he projects in front of him. Not only does it block enemy fire, but he can "punch" enemies with it, and even press a button to drop it down in place.
What makes all of this interesting together is that the game has an experience and level-up system (yes, in the online/offline campaign mode) so that you get points for kills like you would in Call of Duty's online play - but here, that XP fuels something like talent points from an RPG. Here's the fun part, though: every kill you get that involves making use of your cooperative partners' abilities nets you your usual points, and they get a little bit on the side, too. So you can fire through Dalton's shield and power up your bullets in the process, and if you kill an enemy through the shield, you get your usual kill XP and Dalton gets about half that amount on top of that. Izzy crystallizes and immobilizes three guys, then Jacob fires an explosive arrow from his crossbow to kill all three at once, Izzy gets some points - things like that.
The game is structured in such a way that all four of the characters are present in every mission, and anything from one to four players are controlling them. If you're in a game with three or fewer players, you can instantly swap between characters. There's no system for giving orders or commanding the battlefield - this is intended to be a full-on action game after all - but there are sometimes multiple routes that can be taken simultaneously to create a really nasty crossfire. The example we saw was breaching a secure facility, where two characters could go through a sewer grate to come up in a back area on the ground floor of the building, while two others put explosive charges on the wall to create a big boom and get inside while taking the stationed soldiers by surprise. While the enemies are staring at the big hole that was created in the wall, two players can get in behind them and easily take them out. We used cover only in certain situations here, as it's often better to stand out in the open with these new Fuse powers or just keep moving and flanking the enemy. What's important here is that while this can be played like a cover shooter, there are other viable options, too. After nearly a whole console generation full of rigid cover shooter mechanics, it's nice to see developers embrace them without relying on them so heavily. (Oh, and in case you're wondering, if you've got a full four-player game going, there's no instantaneous switching between characters, but Insomniac does plan on putting checkpoints throughout levels that allow players to swap characters for the next section of the game.)
What Insomniac is generally known for is inventive weapon design, and that's exactly what you will get with Fuse. The signature weapons that each character has are of course important with their crazy abilities, but I also got to play around with a very fast-firing SMG and a few other doodads, and everything was very exciting to use and had that punch that many developers fail to recreate in their action games. In a first person shooter, the gun is the real star of the story, but when you go to a third person perspective like Insomniac is doing with Fuse, then the devs have to create a balance that properly shows both the character you're controlling and the actual gun you're carrying, making sure that both are visible enough and have enough feedback that you really feel like you're in control. It's not just texturing or modeling or animation, it also has a lot to do with basic game design and the kinds of action that the characters are involved in, and getting all of that right isn't nearly as easy as it might seem at first. From my small time spent playing Fuse, it seems like Insomniac has nailed that.
Our experience with the game ended in a boss battle and this was the perfect time to enable Fusion. This ability powers up all four characters' weapons, giving them infinite ammo temporarily and making shooting all of their guns look a little more badass, too. Any player that has enough power built up (like a Super meter in a fighting game) to enable Fusion does it for all four characters, too, so it's often a good idea to talk over when to hit that button so that it's done at the right time. The boss of this section was a large robot that could jump on a nearby, inaccessible roof to fire rockets, unleashed a powerful melee attack, and would commonly fire a rather nasty machine gun that could pin you down easily. Of course, he can only point the machine gun at one person at a time, so the rest of the time, the other three are just plugging away at it. We found this battle rather easy overall, but other groups at the event at Insomniac's Burbank-based studio didn't have such an easy time; it was really all about activating Fusion when no one was downed and everyone had a bead on the robot.
I'd say the only possible issues I see with this game right now would be that the AI in a less-than-four-player-game is going to need to be good, since you actually do interact with your buddies a lot. If the CPU-controlled Izzy isn't throwing healing beacons or the bot version of Dalton isn't putting his shield up in the right places, it's going to drag down the whole thing. Additionally, I felt like the game needs to be just a little more difficult, because if you're good at aiming, you really don't even need to bother with any of the cooperative abilities. It's going to be important for the developers to stress the need for teamwork, and one way to do that is to start getting players killed for not using it.
Our demo for Fuse was on PCs that had Xbox 360 controllers attached, but curiously, the officially announced platforms so far for this game's early 2013 release are only Xbox 360 and PS3. I can see this coming to PC, though, since they clearly already have a build running on it, and the publisher, Electronic Arts, has been using their Origin digital download service to release plenty of PC games recently. The game is set for a release early next year, and in the meantime we'll see more about the villain, how Fuse has changed the world, and the backstories of each of the four playable mercenaries. Insomniac is coming out swinging hard as they leave Sony's walled garden of gaming, and this looks like it'll be a great first effort as they emerge out into the gaming world at large.