Fuse, Insomniac Games, And Flashes Of The Fantastic

When EA asked me to stop by and meet with Ted Price during GDC last week, I wondered what I would ask him and how our discussion about Fuse would go. Ted Price is the head of Insomniac Games. The developer behind Fuse has an incredible history of creating beloved PlayStation franchises, like Spyro, Ratchet & Clank, and Resistance behind it. I could gush, and I did a little bit at the time, but this new brand with EA seems to throw people off. What is Fuse? What kind of game is it?

Fuse itself is a black substance with destructive capabilities, but the game it's based on was originally revealed as Overstrike at EA's E3 2011 press conference. It's always been a shooter with unique characters and a big focus on cooperative play. The other side is the "co-petitive" wave-based Echelon mode, where enemies explode into cartoonish bags of cash and coins spin merrily on the floor begging to be greedily collected.

To better understand the game and my positive impressions of it at GDC, I looked back at that on-stage reveal of Overstrike. At E3 in 2011, Insomniac was developing a game about four elite agents. Dalton karate kicks some henchman and uses a shield to deflect bullets back at another attacker. Jacob shouts and kicks a guy out a window, while Naya turns invisible and snaps necks. The final member of the foursome, Isabelle wears a coat two sizes too big and shoots an enemy with a bubble gun. Even at this early stage, Overstrike had these four essential building blocks.

The prerendered video at EA's presser launches into rock and roll and Dalton quips sarcastically at the end, but I did my best to breathlessly sum it all up in our E3 liveblog:

Rock and roll spies who aren't sneaky and kill lots of guys with rock music in the background and they each have their own personalities and they probably clash but they're like a family who complete missions together with a rock and roll soundtrack.

That's Overstrike.

As canned as it sounded, I was attracted to its charm and character, but it's been absent for much of Fuse's pre-release preview circuit. I've seen the game several times now and I've played numerous builds. One featured an incredibly steep difficulty curve in the wave-based Echelon. Another demo showed off the team's weapons but left the characters themselves rather quiet. Where was the rock and roll? What was Insomniac doing with this new property? I grew more and more concerned that its personality had been lost in the name change.

And then I sat down with Ted Price last week at GDC. I sighed in relief as the hotel suite had two chairs, two TVs, and two Xboxes linked for a cooperative campaign demo. We would be playing the second level and I was eager to get more hands-on time. Before this, I remembered the characters feeling heavy and the cover system feeling clunky. Not so last week.

Dalton gingerly snapped into cover, mantled, and took off at a sprint. Price told me about the characters and what was going on in the story at the moment. As we moved through the level, the group interacted and commented on the action at hand, and overall everything in the game seemed to feel more responsive. Enemies were smarter and the AI controlled partners in the game played their roles in combat better.

I wanted to ask more questions, but the furious fighting kept us focused on combining our firepower to devastating effect. Insomniac has also added a bonus system for weapon combos, meaning that knowing the effects of the game's Fuse-powered guns will enable higher scores and improved efficiency in battle. Dalton could still pop open a shield that could blast enemies, Naya could still turn invisible, and Izzy could fire a Fuse-powered gun to crystallize enemies, but more importantly, communicating and calling out targets was a matter of life and death.

Price directed me to use Naya's invisibility to sneak up on an enemy. When I blew the stealth kill, he switched to Dalton and covered me with the shield while we fell back. Using the LEAP system I switched to Jacob, still on the second floor of the arena, flanked a turret enemy, and then switched to Izzy to mop up any remaining grunts. Dalton said something to the effect of "Well, that was easy."

It was remarkable how entertained I was by a concept that previously fell short of my expectations. It felt like this elite group of soldiers called Overstrike 9 had finally come together as a team and as a "family," the way the original Overstrike trailer suggested. Maybe it's wrong to say that Fuse is about a "family" of spies anymore, so much as it's about a group of friends meeting by the water cooler… if that water cooler is filled with a powerful black substance that can be weaponized on a whim.

For a third-person shooter with a heavy focus on cooperative play, that's what you want to see. Insomniac treats their material with gravity, but also a sense of humor. Fuse doesn't beat you over the head with its premise, but it feels like classic Insomniac work: flashes of the fantastic, a smirk, and some awesome firepower.

Fuse will be available for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on May 28th. You can preorder now and get a cache of bonus weapons but make sure you communicate with a few gaming buddies ahead of release. This one will be better with friends. Damn! I should've gotten Ted's Gamertag. How do you start an Xbox Live friendship like that?