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From Overstrike to Fuse - hands-on with Insomniac's next gen engine

Strike two: Ratchet & Clank's answer to Gears of War

According to Insomniac boss Ted Price, there's precious little separating the people who design games from those who play them. "The act of playing a game, in my opinion, is a lot like the act of creating it," he tells us. "Because in games you create your own reality." It's rather a high-minded remark from a man who, not long ago, walked us through the finer points of nailing a soldier's arm to a wall with a jet of molten metal. But it speaks to the fact that gaming's most destructive tricks are also often our most flexible, rewarding ways of expressing ourselves.

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Guns in games don't simply kill, they shape and direct - poking environments into weird, post-apocalyptic configurations, hosing the preset lighting with riotous SFX, punching nodules of AI to elicit different reactions. They're more like gorgeous ornate paintbrushes than weapons, slopping drama all over the place. As the developer of the riotous Ratchet & Clank, Insomniac is no stranger to mind-expanding firearms, but it's never created anything quite as ambitious as ostensibly over-familiar co-op cover shooter Fuse.

'Fuse' is a volatile alien goo discovered by Men in Black types in the '40s, and the basis for the game's four headline weapons. As the name implies, it's all about what you combine it with. Stir the stuff into a pot of anti-matter and you'll end up with the Warp Rifle, a raging hellcat of a mid-range rifle whose shells seed miniature black holes in torsos which can be overloaded to create furious chain explosions. Spill it over some ferrofluid and you've got the Magshield, a rippling liquid iron barrier which accrues kinetic energy from bullets and converts it into a bullying counter-wave.

Add some Melanite to create the Shattergun, whose victims erupt into jaggy crystal sculptures, piercing nearby comrades and crystallising them in turn. And last but not least there's the long-ranged Arcshot crossbow, whose bolts reduce their targets to agonised, highly contagious tornadoes of white-hot mercury.

Each gun is the exclusive preserve of one of the game's protagonists (in single-player, you can switch between them without penalty) - four mercenaries caught up in a shadowy war between the aforesaid Men in Black and megalomaniac outfit du jour Raven. The chemical metaphor also speaks to how each character's skillset compliments that of his or her fellows. Big growly Dalton is the tank, never far from the crossfire, but his Magshield also functions as a sort of magic lens: other players earn bonus damage and XP when they fire through it. Ice queen Naya's warp rifts can be triggered by team-mates, allowing her to operate as both a direct damage-dealer and a support trooper, smearing the effect across groups so distance specialist Jacob can nuke the lot with a single Arcshot bolt.

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Each gun also has an unlockable ability mapped to the right bumper, alongside more pedestrian level-ups like reduced cooldown time, boosted damage and so forth. Given enough XP, the Arcshot's ammunition can be remotely detonated, letting Jacob splash mercury behind advancing clusters of riot shields. Izzy, the team's hacker, can throw healing crystals to create circles of KO-reversing balm.

Needless to say, the Fuse weapons serve up some pretty fancy pyrotechnics - few wartime spectacles trump that of some uppity paras freezing into sputters of green glass, like some sort of just-add-water home science kit. But the environments actually threaten to steal the show: a who's who of prospective Bond movie locations which extends from a war-torn Indian palace to a snowy mountaintop lair characterised as "Darth Vader's ski resort", complete with a hair-raising gondola ride. The sub-tropical island base we're given to fool around in feels a bit low-key by comparison, with its concrete bunkers and waving palms - but there are surprises like the canisters of raw Fuse which litter the clearings and corridors, spewing bouncing balls of death when they're broken.

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