Fuse is a bold step for Insomniac Games. Not only are they creating a squad-based first person shooter (a new genre for the team), but they're making the game on non-Sony systems - a first in the company's eighteen year history. Famous for Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, Fuse (which was previously known as Overstrike) could well prove to be a watershed moment for the developer.
To find out how it came about, I sat down with Insomniac's Brian Allgeier. A 21 year veteran of the industry, Brian has worked at Insomniac Games for some 13 years, during which time he was the lead designer and creative director on the Ratchet and Clank series, before becoming the creative director on Fuse - Insomniac's first ever fully-owned IP.
"The opportunity came up for us to come up with a new concept - this was a little over three years ago", Brian explained by way of introduction. "I'm a big fan of the old James Bond movies, I like mission impossible, and a lot of those action movies from 80s. I got pitched an idea, a four-player game that's co-op based with really distinct classes, and it fit really well within that spy genre."
"I thought there were a lot of sensibilities in terms of creating a Mission Impossible-style game that fit with the Insomniac DNA. The focus on really imaginative weaponry, very distinct characters, and a story that takes place across multiple exotic locations. Fortunately, the whole team got really excited about that, and we started building up a lot of momentum - that's when we started to focus on having these fun, exotic weapons that the our [characters] use."
In the game, you take control of one of four different characters. A setup that's not dissimilar to Borderlands, perhaps, with one critical exception: all four characters are present in the game all of the time; in singleplayer, they'll simply be controlled by AIs. The interaction between these characters is the crux of the experience, the literal fusion from which every aspect of the title (including its name) is drawn.
The story of the game is grounded in the discovery of a mysterious stuff called Fuse, which bonds with various earthly elements to create new and exotic materials. These materials, naturally, are leveraged first and foremost to craft new types of weapons, an eventuality that's all but guaranteed by human nature.
Each of the four characters has markedly different Fuse abilities, a difference that is heavily leveraged by the gameplay. Dalton, for example, can generate a huge shield with his Fuse abilities, using it to both protect himself (and his pals) and devastate the enemy, thanks to its ability to store kinetic energy from incoming weapons fire and then turn it back on his foes. Enemies are numerous, rapidly respawning, and devastatingly powerful, so smart use of this ability is key to success.
Izzy, on the other hand, one of two female characters, has a weapon that's capable of creating singularities (black holes); when used well, it's an amazingly effective way to take out a large number of enemies at once. Add in Jacob, the sniper, and Naya, the stealth class, and you have four characters that are great at their particular discipline but utterly unsuited to other tasks - creating the fusion-based teamwork the game so closely aligns itself with.
Does that mean singleplayer will suffer in comparison to the multiplayer experience? Not necessarily. "It's definitely a different dynamic when you're playing with other players, versus just by yourself," Brian explained.
"We wanted to develop a rich story that was compelling for singleplayers, that they'll get immersed in, but we also wanted to create that team element. That's why we offer this feature called Leap, that lets you jump between characters - so you're not limited to just one class; at any time you can jump to another operative and use their weapon. That's going to give somewhat of a different dynamic, even though that feature's also available when you're playing in two-player or three-player."
Making a game in which 75% of the team you're controlling (when playing solo) is actually driven by artificial intelligence is risky business. If an AI enemy does something daft, it's often great - an opportunity to exploit, a way to get a leg-up on the opposition. Having a teammate do something stupid, however, is almost without exception a frustrating, forehead-slapping moment.
That risk and importance hasn't gone unnoticed at Insomniac. "From the very beginning of the project," Brian explained, "we knew that we had to make very strong AI. Playing games myself, I get really annoyed when the AI gets in the way or they feel ineffective, and you're wondering why they're there."
"At the same time, we don't want the AI to play the game for you, so there's definitely a balance to strike in making them capable but not too powerful. When I play, there's never a feeling of having to jump into the AI and use them; it's really more of a bonus option. I think you could play the entire game as one character and it would be a satisfying experience, but there's always an opportunity to jump into another character."
In practice, while it took some prompting from a nearby "handler" for me to try the feature, I found switching up between the four protagonists to be a largely beneficial and satisfying experience. Almost like switching weapons, you can zap over to someone else on the team to take advantage of their special ability - it's a cool idea.
What was less successful, in my mind, was the general implementation of the bulk of the gameplay. While far short of bad, it was certainly clear that the game's got a way to go before it's at the level of quality we expect from a game at this end of the console generation. Controls were a bit on the awkward side (particularly those relating to cover), respawning enemies gave things a farcical feel, the difficulty needed tweaking, and the visuals were extremely bland in every way.
Still, March is far enough away and EA's pockets are suitably deep that I'm sure Insomniac - with their wealth of expertise - will be able to get it across the line in time. The idea is certainly a strong one, and a game set in the slightly daft super-spy world of 80s cinema is most assuredly a good fit for videogames. Now that it's less about having the right ideas and more about getting the game up to standard - something both EA and Insomniac have a lot of experience in - there's every chance that Fuse will be worth the wait.