Fuse is a game whose visuals sell it brutally short. The technology is impressive, and the art direction quietly accomplished - a sort of tidied-up Gears of War viewed through the lens of a Saturday morning spy cartoon series. But the nuances - a subtly tinted palette, a touch of Ratchet & Clank to the enemy character models - won't be obvious at a glance, or even after half-an-hour with the single and multiplayer modes.
It's a bit depressing when you consider that the original, more charismatic look and feel, showcased in the game's first trailer and later revised to give it more "punch", aren't all that far removed from the more pedestrian spec ops get-ups we see today. Hulking lead character Dalton still hulks, sultry '60s-styled starlet Naya is just as sultry, if a little less '60s. Quite why Insomniac felt obliged to alter the aesthetic just enough to annoy fans but not enough to set the two versions apart eludes me. The weapons are the key point of differentiation, as you may have guessed from the screens - Insomniac's original blueprint was more of a puzzler, more about gadgets than guns, but publisher EA appears (and I'm speculating here) to have taken issue with the scarcity of booms and bangs.
Booms and bangs there are plenty in the final incarnation of the project, but it doesn't follow that this is just another grand-standing blockbuster, cobbled together from second-hand materials. Not quite. Insomniac's trademark irreverence has corroded the staples of third-person shooting, producing a game that handles much like Gears but pays out in markedly different ways. Let's illustrate this with a small-scale example: exploding oil drums. In Fuse, those drums are packed with the titular Fuse, an extra-terrestrial material which plays havoc with nearby matter. Blow one up, and balls of deadly, excitable energy will ricochet around the area, posing as much danger to the player as they do your enemies.
The game is full of transformative touches like this. Most obvious are the Fuse weapons themselves (there are also standard-issue SMGs, rifles and shotguns to call on), which apply a range of status effects that can be combined for bonus experience points. Dalton's Mag-Shield blocks bullets and Force-shoves enemies unwise enough to close the distance, but also increases the XP generating properties of any projectiles you fire through it, making the tank of the group the cornerstone of any offensive action. Izzy's Shattergun crystalises victims and also hoists them up out of cover for others to smash. Jacob's Arcshot is probably the gun most suited to lone wolf play - it's effectively a sniper rifle with a flesh-melting finish that doubles as a fast-and-dirty minelayer, gushing white-hot mercury from the point of impact.
The pick of the bunch remains Naya's Warp Rifle, however. It's an utter joy to use, a love letter to damage-dealing brinkmanship whose projectiles transform enemies into latent blackholes. Kill off one of those afflicted, and the poor soul will emit a shockwave that triggers all the other singularities nearby, and the challenge is thus to tag as many enemies as possible before nuking the whole bunch in one kill. The rifle's fire rate increases with very shot, but going full auto for too long will overheat the weapon, so you'll need to feather the trigger carefully to achieve optimum performance. It's an intricately conceived showcase for the ingenuity bubbling away beneath Fuse's generic looks.
Reading the above back, I'm struck by how straightforward I've made everything sound. In practice, Fuse's enemies seldom give you the leisure to think coolly and calmly about the tools at your disposal. Regular Joes armed with SMGs and riot shields are startlingly manoeuvrable and aggressive, crowding you in from the word go, but it's the special units that prove most worrisome. Within moments of firing up new "co-petitive" multiplayer mode Echelon - think round-based wave combat with cycling objectives, that often see players competing for points - I'm grabbed by a cloaked assassin and hauled off to an untimely death courtesy of a fumbled QTE. When we do manage to ferret out the stealthy sorts and push back the grunts, the enemy resorts to shock troops armed with jetpacks, who immediately swamp us. Later, a giant robot picks me up and vomits lava at me till I disintegrate.