Last September, I got the chance to go hands-on with Fuse, an upcoming third-person shooter from Insomniac Games, creators of Ratchet & Clank, Spyro, and Resistance franchises. While I had plenty of fun, I also came away with concerns for a basic generic feel that I wasn't sure would really set these games apart from the glut of action games we see today, and the system of having all four playable characters in any game at all times (being played by anywhere from one to four people) highlighted potential AI issues that, if not handled properly, could really drag down the experience. At a trip to visit publisher EA last week, I got a surprise chance to try out a newer build of the game, and I'm happy to report that Fuse has improved in key ways that show Insomniac has a keen eye on what will make or break their game.
This time around, we paired up for a cooperative story mission, rather than having four players in a game at once. This allowed us to do two key things: one was to observe the friendly AI that's controlling the two characters we weren't playing, and the other was to get a crack at switching characters on the fly. That last feature is a really interesting part of Fuse, because it not only lets you switch characters on the fly or stay away from one you don't like (say, if you don't like their weapons or powers), but it also lets you take manual control if you need a particular thing done. Since Fuse has no complicated order system like the more cerebral tactical first person shooters of yesteryear - this game is only announced for PS3 and 360 so far, after all - this is a very helpful feature when one character gets into a good flanking position or if you need an angle on a particularly tough enemy. Still, if your plan is to set up all four characters in specific fixed positions behind cover before triggering some big event, you'll find that the AI seems to like to wander around, mucking up your precise planning. Basically, use this character-switching feature when in the middle of the action to augment the AI, and you'll get the most out of it; try to use it like you're planning routes and paths in Rainbow Six, and I think you'll probably be sorely disappointed.
This demo was running directly on the Xbox 360, unlike last summer's showing of the game which Insomniac quietly ran on PCs (and would answer zero questions about this fact - probably because even to this day they seem unsure they want to make a PC version at all). This gave me a good chance to see how the game's running on the 360, a console that Insomniac, previously being a Sony-exclusive developer, hasn't previously worked on in earnest for a big game. I'm happy to report that the game runs great, and the four playable characters, larger number of enemies than you usually get in action games, and the bigger combat areas designed to fit all of that stuff without being cramped all comes together nicely and runs at a pretty solid 30-ish FPS so far. There are a lot of cool visual effects, too, as Naya's warp gun creates space-warping black holes, Dalton's shield shimmers and distorts things when looking through it, Jacob's fire-starting crossbow sets things ablaze, and Izzy's crystallization gun encases enemies in satisfying faction - and sometimes, all of these things happen on the screen at once, and everything seems to run just swimmingly.
When you get down to the moment-to-moment enjoyment in nearly any action game, the way you're taking out enemies and causing havoc is a key element of fun. This is why good weapon design is so important; Insomniac is one of the stars in this arena, and they're showing those fantastic design skills again in Fuse. Not only do the weapons feel satisfying here, but they've also got interesting and unique properties that give players useful tactical options, too. They also help players deal with overwhelming numbers that often come storming through most scenes of battle, as players who insist on sitting back and casually plinking away from behind cover will get overrun and flanked pretty consistently. I really like how late in this console generation, where we've seen the dramatic rise and eventual reckoning for cover-based shooters, that developers like Insomniac are finding ways to draw people out from cover by using both the carrot and the stick.
But Fuse isn't just all about curbstomping regular soldiers with crazy-good science fiction powers and guns. The game's got big bosses and eventually, even rank-and-file enemies can also use the same powers that your four-man crew gets to wield. We saw that most clearly in the Horde-style mode that we got to try out, where instead of just killing all enemies, the game tasked us with a randomly-decided objective each round. In one, we're defending, one we're attacking, another we're moving across the map to take out enemies on a timer, and in still another, we're being overrun immediately. We tried this same scenario three times and each time got a pretty unique experience, with entirely different enemy layouts and situations. The game's got dodge-rolls, stealth (for one character), climbing, and down-but-not-out functions that allow you to get brought back up if you get killed, and this made these scenarios even more interesting since you could have vastly different playstyles for each of the four characters. I was surprised to find that yes, the AI-controlled characters will come over and bring you up if you're close. Or at least, they did it most of the time: sometimes they risked death and pulled out some risky maneuvers to get me back into the fight, and then on the other spectrum, a couple of times they just stared at me completely dumbfounded, doing nothing at all, and watched me die my final death. So clearly the AI still needs at least a little bit of work, but I came away generally impressed with how it's working. I guess my standards are pretty low at this point, as multiplayer functionality and graphical prowess have been massively improved yet AI has been mostly stagnant since 1998's Half-Life, but games like Fuse seem to be a step in the right direction.
Fuse isn't the most entirely original game to be set for release this year, but it's got some key features that will hopefully set it apart from the many run-and-gun games we'll be seeing before the next console generation begins. The decision to always place all four playable characters into the fight at once no matter how many players are in the game will prove to be a bold move, and the inventiveness of weapons and abilities should do a lot to make Fuse unique. There's still a little while to go until the game's release date, which isn't set in stone but is looking like late Spring at this point, but already Insomniac has put together what looks like a mostly polished, really fun game to play. The idea of another third person shooter at this point is probably not exactly the most appealing thing to some gamers out there, but Insomniac's shown that they've got the talent and skill to, er, infuse the genre with innovation and a renewed feeling of fun.
Sorry about that pun. It won't happen again.