Fuse review: Shoot first

Fuse is that bad movie your friends like to sit down and slice apart. It's best played with friends, where teamwork and some interesting weaponry help dull the blunt impact of bad game design, awkward animations and a lack of atmosphere.

Without friends, Fuse is nearly intolerable, hampered by inept AI teammates and even thicker enemies. By yourself, every animation quirk and odd design choice frustrates as you wonder who could have seen the same problems and given them the thumbs up.%Gallery-170888% The titular "fuse," a volatile and experimental substance that falls into the hands of paramilitary outfit Raven, forms the crux of the story. You play as any of four members of Overstrike 9, a mercenary band that is sent in to investigate and, eventually, accept the role of heroes when things go awry. After the first mission, Fuse's story becomes little more than a revolving door for ridiculous villains and nonsensical plot points. By the end of the brisk campaign, which was barely over six hours, I still had hardly any idea of what was going on and why. It was like a television show blaring in the other room – you can hear it, but you're not retaining anything that's coming through.

It doesn't help that Fuse has almost no personality or atmosphere. You fight the same five enemy archetypes over and over again, though later in the game there are at least some palette swaps to help liven up the shooting. There isn't even much music to accentuate the conflict of killing hundreds and hundreds of enemies, which makes up the lion's share of what Fuse has to offer – at the end of any given level, it's common to rack up over 300 kills. Whether partnered with AI or human teammates, eliminating those enemies becomes boring quickly.

Fuse attempts to keep its only trick fresh with your squad's fuse-powered Xenotech weapons. Each operative has his or her own gun: Dalton has the Magshield, a barrier that halts enemy bullets but allows friendly fire to pass through; Jacob uses the Arcshot, a crossbow that can chain together liquid flame; Naya has the Warp rifle, which creates miniature black holes and eventually allows her to cloak herself; and Izzy fires the Shattergun, which crystallizes enemies. Using Fuse's "leap" mechanic, you can swap characters at (almost) any time, allowing you to take advantage of each unique weapon.

The Xenotech weapons are easily the best part of Fuse, and using them together allows for interesting combinations, but the problem is that it's never clear what these combos do. Shooting enemies through the Magshield, for example, yields more XP than a normal kill, but other combos aren't explicitly laid out.

Beyond designating each combination with a name and point value upon discovery, Fuse doesn't elaborate. It's like a blackjack dealer ending his shift right after dealing the cards – Fuse dumps these guns in your lap, slaps its hands and walks away, leaving you to figure it out on your own. You won't, for example, find anything as addictive or inventive as Bulletstorm's Skillshot checklist to chase. Self-discovery isn't necessarily a bad thing, but combinations are never codified or cataloged, which lessens their impact.

Still, the Xenotech weapons prop up Fuse's arcade-like gameplay, where all points earned are dumped into a universal economy to unlock abilities for all agents. This brings up another problem: each character's skill tree is largely the same, save for a few Xenotech-specific abilities. I wound up spending points in each skill tree in the same way – ignoring base gun skills and generic health buffs in order to increase Xenotech critical damage and weapon proficiency. For a game ostensibly trying to leverage gameplay variety with four different characters, the available skills are anemic.

Whatever merit these systems have is deflated by Fuse's abysmal AI. Sometimes your Overstrike 9 teammates will stand still in the middle of a firefight, or when you're trying to rally on a checkpoint, which requires all four teammates to be present. You're not allowed to leap into another character if you've been downed, leaving you at the mercy of your computer teammates for revival. On many occasions, they just kept on fighting while I bled out on the concrete and died, forcing me to restart the encounter. It's annoying during a normal firefight, never mind during boss fights.

As a boon for your boneheaded companions, enemy intelligence doesn't fare much better. Soldiers frequently just stand still and shoot or, even better, quickly run up to take a position right where 14 of their buddies just died. Enemies soak up bullets, and Fuse makes no attempt to portray them as anything but ignorant infantrymen sent your way by the truckload. One time they literally come in on trucks.

All of Fuse's most intense encounters involve trapping you in a confined space with an enemy that must be peppered with an inordinate number of bullets. There is no variety, nothing that makes these confrontations worthwhile or memorable. After a few scripted encounters – whether it was a mech, a helicopter, two mechs at once or more helicopters – I grew tired of the rigmarole.

Robbing these encounters and the rest of the game of any tension it may have had is line after line of insipid dialogue. Every boss fight, it seems, is an opportunity for the Overstrike 9 team to engage in pointless conversation. Jacob, for example, tells Dalton that if he talks down to him one more time, he's going to lock Dalton in a room with his cat. In another scene, while stripping a dead soldier of his eyeball to bypass a retinal scanner, Dalton remarks, "You guys wanna get a taco when this is over?"

Echelon mode is the other side of Fuse, essentially the campaign encounters minus the story-driven fluff and witless dialogue. You fight waves of concentrated enemies on maps pulled from the six campaign levels and, while gameplay suffers from the same inherent stagnation the campaign does, Echelon is, at least, more streamlined.

Some of Fuse's issues are alleviated by human partners, which make for a more survivable experience that promotes Xenotech cohesion – the real prize at the bottom of the cereal box. Combining abilities and dispatching hundreds of robo-henchmen feels good with friends. Human players who capitalize on med beacon locations and have an ounce of creativity in Magshield deployment make Fuse much better, but it's still a thrill without any legs, as if the game hopes players will ignore the rote gameplay if it allows as few lulls as possible between enemy onslaughts.

Ultimately, Fuse can't see the forest for the trees. It assumes the best parts of shooters are when you're slamming on the right trigger, and it glosses over the rest. Breaching animations are emblematic of this overarching problem. Two members of Overstrike 9 place explosive charges on a wall and then, without moving away or reacting to the impending force, simply turn around while the wall explodes just a few feet away.

Fuse's basic mechanics are functional, even interesting, but they're hamstrung by poor AI (on both sides) and boring encounters. Friends make things better, but even then this locomotive doesn't take long to run out of steam. Fuse is satisfactory at best and frustrating at worst, and a bare-bones shooter without any personality or flair.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Fuse, provided by EA. Fuse is also available on PS3.

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