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Fuser review: Dropping the beat in COVID times

Fuser takes the outdoor music festival and brings it into your home. Our review.

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In so many ways, we're cursed to be living in interesting times. Throughout 2020 and for the foreseeable future, it doesn't look like outdoor concerts or music festivals will go back to normal. The Coachellas, the Lollapaloozas, and the like aren't safe to attend, nor will they be for a long time. Partly because of that, Harmonix's Fuser couldn't have come at a better time. The latest effort from the makers of Rock Band beautifully conveys the joy found in the festival scene and proves to be a lot of fun, even if there are a couple of record scratches.

DJ hero

If you've missed our previous Fuser coverage, the premise is summed up very simply. On the surface, it looks like Harmonix's old DropMix game without the physical component. However, there's much more to it than that. The game's campaign is more goal-oriented, making it feel more similar to Rock Band. But, outside of the scoring systems, this feels like a whole new game and one that looks to teach its players what it means to be a part of the festival experience.

There are many people out there, myself included, who aren't DJs. They have no aspirations of being DJs and the closest thing to a playlist they know is probably the "Shuffle" button on their smartphone. And the thing to know about Fuser going in is that being a faux DJ is a much different animal than being a faux guitar player. It's not as simple as "follow the rhythm." Playing song snippets and mixing them together involves taking individual songs and understanding their four components: vocals, keys/horns, guitar/strings, and percussion. All of these are mapped to a different face button on a controller, making the main controls feel simple to grasp. Still, putting all the pieces together on paper sounds like it can be overwhelming.

With that said, Fuser does an amazing job of walking players through what it means to be a DJ. There are two main components to the campaign: learning how to mix music properly and using that knowledge to engage crowds. I walked into this game with barely any knowledge of what a dropbeat or a pickup is, but part of what makes Fuser feel like such a success is that it's a strong teacher. The campaign sees players meet various DJs, who will occasionally cut into their sets with helpful tutorial advice. It doesn't take long for players to get started, but the campaign only moves them in baby steps. There are new mechanics introduced throughout the game, which threaten to feel overwhelming, but are brought in at such a leisurely pace that it's easy to absorb and utilize that new information.

Fuser also gets credit for integrating an intuitive objective system. Looking at the bigger picture, this is one of those games that could collapse under information overload, but the objectives are easy enough to understand and follow that it becomes easy to follow along. That's not to say it isn't challenging. Crowd requests will come quickly and at a moment's notice, which will send players scrambling through the crate catalog in search of the right song and the specific instrument.

As easy as Harmonix tries to make the Fuser experience, there are a couple of ideas that don't quite hit, at least for novice DJs, anyway. Specifically, the idea of instrument loops and effects is a cool one and it's one that advanced players will appreciate. However, making drum or piano loops can be tough for anybody without the slightest sense of rhythm and getting those objectives more often than not leaves mixes sounding ugly. Fortunately, it's entirely possible to get through the campaign on mostly the basics, but I still get a stomach knot when I get prompted to make a custom drum loop.

If there's any issue with the campaign, it's that it's easy to learn, but clearly difficult to master. Even as I utilized every new trick taught to me, I've only been able to finish with two-to-three star sets. For the life of me, I can't think of what more I need to finish a set with five stars. And while that's probably more user error than anything, I can see a lot of other casual players thinking along the same lines. Unlike Rock Band, there are no difficulty levels here, so taking things down a notch is not an option. Having said that, there's a No-Fail option available for anybody who just wants to go into the Campaign with a pressure-free environment.

The great outdoors

The other major element of the Fuser formula is simulating the outdoor music festival experience and it's something that Harmonix does admirably. The various settings all look like real-world events, decorated to look like Harmonix's best homage to festivals like Coachella and Burning Man." There are also day and night options that allow players to further immerse themselves in the concert atmosphere.

Harmonix's character creation system returns and the worst thing I can say about it is that the character models don't look like they've evolved much beyond those seen in Rock Band. Primitive character modeling aside, though, I can at least say that there are dozens of customization options available out of the box with even more unlockable through the campaign. Fuser has two distinct currencies, which solves the issue of having to decide between character outfit pieces and actual music tracks. Those currency totals can be increased through a leveling system, but I should note that the amount of time it takes to level up does feel noticeably slow. That doesn't feel too great when trying to unlock the majority of Fuser's setlist. Fortunately, it's easier to cut into that time since XP can be earned in both single-player and multiplayer.

Fuser's multiplayer offerings are a mixed bag. There's a competitive head-to-head Battles mode and for as great as Fuser is about teaching players its mechanics through the Campaign, it's annoyingly vague about how to get into Battles. Battles feels overly complex and even after grasping the rules, it just doesn't feel fun. This felt like a miss.

Co-op Freestyle, on the other hand, is a cool multiplayer mode that allows up to four players to take turns on the stage. Players can deliver their best mixes and informally challenge the other DJs to outdo them. While this mode is mainly for fun, there is a minor competitive element to it, because Co-Op Freestyle is open to spectators. Those spectators can make their own requests and cheer for the mixers they like the best. While there are no winners and losers in Co-op Freestyle, whoever gets the most cheers can leave the game with an increased sense of pride.

Can't stop, won't stop

If you've ever had an even minor interest in getting on the turntables, Fuser will be the game you want. Harmonix's music curation is still the best in gaming, assembling a setlist that spans the decades with even more songs coming down the line through DLC. The mechanics are explained in such an easy-to-understand way that you'll be spinning records in no time. And if you don't want to get into the Campaign or anything competitive, you can get down at your leisure with Freestyle mode. And if you put together something you like, Fuser has simple sharing features that lets you show off your best stuff.

Fuser definitely has a few rough patches, like the Battles multiplayer and the slow rate of XP growth. Plus, let's face it, we can't all be as good as Marc Rebillet, so there are some features that players won't be able to take full advantage of without sounding ridiculous. But, for pure musical fun, there are few games in 2020 better than Fuser.


This review is based on an Xbox One digital code provided by the publisher. Fuser will be available on Steam, the Epic Games Store, the PlayStation Store, the Microsoft Store, and Nintendo eShop on November 10, 2020 for $59.99. The game is rated T.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Review for
Fuser
8
Pros
  • Fun idea that brings out the best in mixing music
  • Strong setlist out of the box
  • Campaign walks players through mechanics in easy-to-learn way
  • Loads of customization options
  • Co-op Freestyle is a lot of fun
Cons
  • Adding your own instruments and/or effects doesn't always work out well
  • Level progression feels slow
  • Character models look dated
  • No local multiplayer
  • Battles mode doesn't feel fun
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