Fuse isn't the best shooter you'll play this year, but if you're looking for some online cooperative action and Borderlands 2 just isn't scratching the itch, then Insomniac's newest game could just be the right choice. Long-time PlayStation-centric developer Insomniac has wrestled free of Sony's console-exclusive clutches and managed to get a game published through EA's rather selective Partners program where the original developer keeps the rights to their franchise. Insomniac remains fiercely independent with the release of Fuse, their cooperative-oriented third person shooter on Xbox 360 and PS3.
In Fuse, you play as one of four characters in a sci-fi near future. A new element called Fuse has landed on Earth and it's extremely potent when weaponized. Various evil groups are getting their hands on it, and now the fate of the world hangs in the - oh, you know how this goes. The four playable characters in the game each have their own backgrounds and play into the story a little bit differently, but this is an entirely linear game, so their roles in the plot aren't really terribly important. You've got the beefy caucasian male starring role for Dalton along with Jacob, Izzy, and Naya, all of whom are well-acted and prove to be fun to play with both their unique Xenotech guns and with their special abilities and talent trees.
The biggest twist about Fuse's gameplay is that all four characters are in the game at once in all modes, and the player can tap a quick button combo to swap between any of the four. And you'll need to do this in solo mode a lot, because in the hands of the AI, the characters that you're not playing are largely ineffectual. They're not often stupid or completely broken, but the game dramatically reduces the damage they do in an attempt to make the player the star. It sounds like this is just a terrible idea, but think of the alternative: some guy posting a YouTube video of him just walking through the game and never firing a shot as the AI does all the work. Basically, Insomniac put themselves into a bit of a bind here, as they couldn't make the AI buddies as powerful as you are, but it's frustrating every time you see them firing whole magazines at an enemy and doing only a few slivers of damage
It's still Insomniac's fault, though, since they're the ones who made the decision to put all four characters in the game no matter what; I've got no idea what the solution was supposed to be, but I'm not paid to design games. I'm just here to tell you what works and what doesn't, and frankly, a lot of Fuse's fun really falls apart in the solo mode. Now, the split-screen and online cooperative modes are different, because there you have more than one player with full-power guns, and if you have two or three players, that allows people to switch around in mid-mission all they want - especially when they get bored of one character or need one's powers or weapons to make a particular section easy. Unfortunately, the quick swap is disabled entirely in four-player mode, rather than having some popup appear with a "request to switch" or something. I guess Insomniac was expecting that most people would be playing with strangers online.
The gunplay in Fuse is solid stuff and the frame rate and movement are all very competent. It's really fun to use the special powers of your Xenotech weapons to create combo effects with the other players' special weapons, and the unique Fuse abilities each character has only expand things further; I had a lot of success slinking around invisible as Naya and stringing together melee takedowns fast enough that I rarely had to disable my cloak. Likewise, the shield Dalton projects and eventually deploys allows players an easy chance to put out some heavy fire without worrying (as much) about taking damage. All of this is necessary as most enemies are bullet sponges; as far as one-shot kills go, few go down with any less than a sniper rifle headshot.
As you play in both the regular campaign and in Echelon mode, which is sort of a randomized version of Horde mode with various objectives that pop up in each wave, you will level up your characters and get the chance to put talent points in. I do like that you get your version of a character even when joining someone else's game, not the one that he or she built, but it should be pointed out that this progression system doesn't exactly equal RPG-like depth. There's no stat-changing gear, there are relatively few choices in what amounts to a single talent tree, and few options really change the way you'll play each of the four characters. And on top of that, the really fun and innovative weapons are really only the unique Xenotech weapon each of the four characters are stuck with; there are others, but they're much more conventional SMGs, assault rifles, battle rifles, a pretty bad shotgun, sniper rifle, and some heavy weapons that are often more of a burden to try and make work than they're worth.
The plot in Fuse is a bit convoluted, with quite a few characters jibber-jabbering into your ear, multiple backstabbings, and more than a few little twists. I hate to say that I want less story in a game, but in this case, it may have actually been just a bit much for a game of this scope. Borderlands 2 gave players a simpler plot with a known villain and then spices things up with goofy side quests and lots of funny and unique communications between the characters. Here in Fuse, Insomniac insisted on story-based banter between all four characters many times in each level, all along with new plot developments going on at the same time. Simply put, it was just too busy for a game that might have been better served keeping things a little simpler.
Overall, Fuse is a solid, lighthearted romp that is best enjoyed with friends in an environment where you have a few drinks and keep talking over the dialogue to call each other names constantly. This is not a game that was ever going to ingratiate itself well to Super Serious Video Game Critics, but I think that in the right frame of mind and with the right people, it can prove to be a hell of a lot of fun. Jump in without hesitation if you've got some buddies that are going to grab this game on the same day, but if not, it's probably best to wait for the inevitable deep-discount sales.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy provided by the publisher.