Xbox Live Arcade Title
(Thanks to Starfire Studios for providing a copy of Fusion: Genesis for review)
As a sci-fi geek I couldn’t help but grow excited when some ex-Rare employee’s announced that the first game from their newly formed studio, Starfire, would be a top-down shooter set in space, promising 40-hours of gameplay, the ability to command massive ships and, a first for Xbox Arcade, a persistent online world. But that’s quite a bit of ambition to package into a simple Arcade game, and fear began to creep into me as I wondered if they could pull it off. They did, but my fears were not entirely unfounded as Fusion: Genesis (generic name ahoy) is often a little too ambitious for its own good.
The game’s storyline starts off promisingly enough with you and your tiny little ship being given a series of tutorial missions from an angry old man, to whom you are an assistant. This opening sequence contains some fantastic humour as the old bugger insults you at every turn, turning the usual dull tutorials into something quite amusing. In true gaming fashion it isn’t long before things are getting blown up, though, as a mysterious enemy arrives, intent on stealing the research that the professor had been working on, which seemingly holds the key to saving the universe. The humour followed by the attack seemingly set the tone for what could be a fantastic space romp that’s unafraid to laugh, yet still intent on delivering a compelling tale, but almost as soon as you’ve left the initial section it all begins to fall apart. The rest of the story is told almost entirely by text and quickly becomes a nightmare to follow as various factions are introduced, all of whom can be joined and have stories of their own, are introduced along with the different characters, but keeping track of who is actually who, what they stand for and why the hell they’re involved is frustrating as their so devoid of personality that you simply don’t care. Throw in some large holes in the story where things become rather illogical and you’ve got a story that isn’t going to be rivalling Star Wars, Firefly or Battlestar Galactic (the new one) anytime soon.
Still, the politics and battles of the many factions that make up this section of space are hardly going to be your first concern, because as soon as you’re through the initial stages of the game you’re thrown into the vastness of space and left to your own devices, free to do what you will, fight whom you will and join whomever you wish. While many would have you believe that space is a boring place to look at, nothing is further from the truth, and Starfire have taken this to heart by crafting some truly beautiful backdrops for your space-faring adventures. The various sectors of space that you will visit each have their own distinct personalities, with shattered planets and massive space-stations dominating the view. They’ve also used this to create a more interesting gameplay area by using asteroids, broken up pieces of metal and more to create corridors and obstacles, although it’s best not to question why you can’t just go up and over the damn things – you’re in a spaceship, after all. Yet these vast expanse of black stuff with sparkly bits does come with two flaws; the first is that simply telling that objects are in the foreground and which are in the background can be a little tricky, often making you crash your ship straight into a floating rock and swearing loudly. Likewise the power ups that dead enemies drop can also be a nightmare to spot. The second is that navigating this expanse is extremely frustrating thanks to an objective arrow that doesn’t seem to have any sodding concept of where it’s going. Locating mission objectives quickly becomes a pain as your objective arrow merrily spins in circles and often points entirely the wrong way. This wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem if the map itself was a little more helpful, but it isn’t.
Assuming you actually do manage to navigate your way through the universe without plowing into something at insane speeds, there’s a considerable amount of depth in Fusion’s gameplay. On the surface it seems like a fairly standard top-down twin-stick shooter; you move with the left stick, fire weapons with the right (and certain others with the triggers) while venturing around the universe, taking on the various missions. Yet hidden behind that simple exterior lies hidden depth; you can level up your pilots skills, spending points on abilities that can let you clone your ship or activate super shields, equip your ship with many different upgrades and a variety of weapons to suit your playstyle. Floating along with you is a Sentient AI, a small ship that follows you around, which can be upgraded into the most powerful asset you have using a variety of skills. And, of course, you can take control of ever more impressive ships in which to feel like a badass. All of this combines to make a compelling experience.
Levelling up your character is simply done by gaining XP, which can be done by destroying enemies but is most effectively gathered by taking on the various faction missions. Your pilot has a series of basic stats such as damage, speed and defense that can be slowly increased, yet adding a point to any of these feels nearly pointless. Increasing a stat usually only results in a one or two percent bonus, and so venturing forth into the fray with pile of points invested rarely makes you feel any more powerful than you were before, rather defeating the concept. More enjoyable are the various skills which can be upgraded. To unlock these you’ll again have to join up with the various factions, and getting points to spend on them can only be done by completing main story missions within them, but it’s totally worth it as you can get access to some sweet tricks, such as cloning your own ship to help you out in a fight or activating a super-shield that’s capable of absorbing vast amounts of weapons fire. Compared to your basic stats, upgrading these gives you meaningful results. Your Sentient is also capable of being upgraded, again using simple levelling to deal with basic stats. But this little robot minion also comes in three flavours: tank, DPS and healer, with each packing special upgradable abilities for you to play with. You can even sell them in online auctions to other players, or buy any that take your fancy.
If your simply wanting to amass a fortune then the game urges to take up the hobby of mining asteroids for ore which can be sold at the many space stations that inhabit Fusion’s world. But mining ore probes to be a dull exercise that yields poor results. Ore is barely worth anything at the stations, and with no variable economy there’s little reason to try to find the best buyer. For the little credits mining brings in, it quickly becomes a pointless exercise as doing faction missions will net you far more cash at a much quicker pace. Simply put, the system doesn’t feel anywhere near as developed as it could have been. But mining still has one use; it gives you various colored crystals which you can feed to your Sentient to make it more powerful.
Speaking of which, the different factions are what make up the vast majority of the games claim to a forty hour completion time, yet this is somewhat of an illusion.. Each of the factions have their own unique storylines that also tie in with the events of the over-arching story, making it essential to play them all if you do actually want to learn everything about the game. But to complete the story for each faction you’re going to have to grind your way through an almost absurd amount of pointless little side-missions. It’s here that Fusion makes up its forty hour game time, using a series of dull missions that repeat themselves continually. With names like ‘Patrolling’, ‘More Patrolling’, and ‘Even More Patrolling’, you’ll quickly learn that actually finishing every factions storyline is going to be a challenge to your patience. At best these missions serve as a way to rack up insane amounts of money, which, later in the game, pretty much gets throw at you, but that means you’ll be sent out on missions that simply requires you to fly to a few checkpoints, blow up two ships and return home, taking just a few minutes to complete, before having to head back out and do the same thing again. Seriously, did Picard ever have to do this much bloody patrolling? At first these are enjoyable diversions, but before long you’ll find that your head hurts, but sadly these missions serve as the best way to gain the XP required to unlock the main story missions and faction missions.
At least blowing up enemy ships is fun. Fly into combat and there’s a decent level of depth to be found yet again. Smaller enemy ships simply require some blasting to pummel through their shields and emerge as the victor, but larger ships require you to focus fire on one section of the shields to puncture them, forcing you to carefully maneuver to get the best firing line while keeping the strongest part of your shields facing the enemy. Early in the game fighting enemy ships with little fighters and the like is good fun, but it doesn’t match up to simply parking a cruiser in the middle of a fight and unleashing hell. Sure, it’s not the best strategic choice ever, but it will keep the sci-fi nerd in your grinning like an idiot, because, and let’s be honest here, what sci-fi lover hasn’t thought about freaking awesome it would be to command their own ship? Deftly piloting your ship through an asteroid field while combating an enemy fleet is damn good fun. However, the game is prone to some utterly brutal difficulty spikes. On one mission you’ll be carving through the enemy with just a single blast, and the next mission, literally, will have you destroyed in seconds as you face off against tiny ships whose shields have suddenly become impervious to your weapons and whose firepower is seemingly equal in power to a freaking sun.
But considering the amount of work that has obviously gone into crafting the various gameplay elements it’s almost brought to ruin by the games apparent inability to explain….well, anything, really. The game simply throws you into the universe, failing to explain practically anything about levelling up, how to use warp gates to get from sector to sector or even that you can combine crystals to make black crystals which can boost your Sentient’s major abilities. It could be argued that this leaves a sense of discovery about the game, and to a point this is true, yet the there are just too many things in this game that do need be explained that simply aren’t. A slick, intuitive interface would help to alleviate this problem, making figuring everything out much easier. Shame it doesn’t have one, then. No, what Fusion has is, quite frankly, a horrible interface that makes levelling up your character, equipping upgrades and changing weapons a chore. Simply levelling up your stats requires you to go through multiple menus that don’t feel intuitive at all. The only positive about is the design style suits the sci-fi setting.
Like the rest of the game the online components are a mixed bag of good and bad. A few tweaks in the options allows your world to be inhabited by other players going about their business, and another tweak turns on the Player vs Player, allowing for some intense space battles to take place. And that’s a good thing, because points earned by destroying poor helpless noobs can be spent on some pretty awesome weapons for your ship. Should you feel the need to actually cooperate with these space faring lunatics, you can jump into some special missions such as Warzone which has you flying around capturing points and, well, shooting everything up. These modes are pretty good fun, and also happen to hand you shiny points to trade in form even shinier weapons, but it doesn’t take long for them to become fairly dull. Likewise Legion Invasion missions simply require you to blow things up, again becoming old fast. Outside of these missions, though, your interactions with the other players is extremely limited, with the inability to tackle story missions together feeling like a wasted opportunity to create some real team-play. But the most likely scenario is that you won’t even be able to find your friends as there is no way to distinguish AI from players on the map, nor is there any way to warp directly to their location, so you’ll probably all just end up flying around and doing your own thing, occasionally bumping into each other. The end result is that Fusion’s multiplayer elements feel half-baked.
But despite these numerous flaws, Fusion is actually fairly enjoyable. There’s something very addictive about Fusion: Genesis’s gameplay. There’s just something that keeps you coming back, something that keeps you grinding through the missions and something that keeps you mining asteroids for crystals. It’s hard to put into words, but it is there. Perhaps it’s simply the sci-nerd in me, demanding that I don’t abandon my ship to the harsh ravages of space.
+ Commanding a cruiser!
+ For an XBLA game, it’s huge!
+ Plenty of stats and numbers to play with!
– Stupid damn objective arrow.
– Horrible interface.
– Vicious difficulty spikes.
Fusion makes use of beautiful backdrops to give each sector a distinctive feel, and on the technical side it fairs prett well.
The little voice acting there is passable, as is the music and sound effects.
It starts off with some great humour, but quickly falls apart.
Numerous problems exist, yet there’s plenty of depth to be found here, making it quite compelling at times.
Forty hours for XBLA game? Hot Damn! And for just 800MSP. But then much of it is just copy and paste missions.
The Verdict: 7
Summary: Starfire have crafted an ambitious title that falls short of its mark, but it’s still an enjoyable sci-fi title, and for 800MSP you get plenty of content.