Reviewing games can be a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of temptations that you have to avoid to write something worthwhile and meaningful along with fun and easy to read. I’m not saying that I have it on lock, but I would like to think that I’m aware of more than a few common pitfalls. For instance, I’ve used the phrase “mixed bag” exactly once in my career and still regret it to this day. I never have (and hopefully never will) described a game as “visceral” or “cinematic” and left it at that. Those are easy ones to dodge once you’re aware of them.
The tougher ones are the abstract bits—the things that require an analysis of your analysis—but they demand vigilance all the same. Consider the worth of having a lede constructed entirely of the history of a game’s development. Does that inform the reader of how it came to be and sets the tone for the rest of the article or is it just an easy introduction? How much context is necessary to make your points stick before it becomes a documentary on game development or, worse yet, boring?
One consideration that I’ve seen come up a lot recently on Twitter and podcasts is when you talk about what a game isn’t more than what it is. Reviewing a game, by all means, should be a breakdown of entirely what it is as a final product. There are, of course, gray areas where you can muck about and dip into the out-of-bounds, but that is mostly limited to discussing broken features (which can affect the overall recommendation) and missed opportunities (which usually don’t). The zeitgeist has a localized iteration of the problem: talking about what you wish a game would be.
Let’s take a look at Fuse, the latest release from Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developers Insomniac Games. It’s a third-person shooter that centers around four agents of a special operations squad called Overstrike 9. You are set out to stop the villainous Raven Corporation from acquiring Fuse, a strange alien substance that can be used to superpower weapons and enable Raven head honcho Fable to take over/destroy/ravage/whatever the world.
If you recall, Fuse was not always called Fuse. At EA’s press conference during E3 2011, Insomniac president Ted Price came out and showed off a trailer for a game called Overstrike. It featured the same team of agents, except with a more Ratchet & Clank-y art style of cartoonish realism and instead of self-serious characters and plot, it seemed to highlight the inner misfit of the quartet and a trademark Insomniac sense of humor. Understatement, charm, and a bit of slapstick. It was all there and seemed more than anything a revitalization of the company’s handle on the shooter genre.
But then came the 2012 PAX Prime keynote with Price, in which he revealed a new IP called Fuse. Soon, outlets confirmed that this was indeed the same game as Overstrike, simply reworked. In that reworking, though, the game seemed to lose a lot of personality. Less than a week later, this teaser come out and drew ire at 0:43 where the new character designs are revealed and are decidedly less quirky and less…70s-feeling. Soon after, the official announcement trailer came out and confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions: it looked generic.
It was a problem Insomniac seemed to have overcome with Resistance 3. It was a post-apocalyptic first-person shooter with aliens and stuff, but it at least featured some inviting and vivid colors. This trailer showed a lot of brown and gray and industrial-looking places with a super serious cast of characters. What happened to the nonchalance and the wit? Even the (ostensibly) same robot dude seems to have left the Pixar hangar and drenched itself in Terminator dread. Once the box art was revealed a couple months later in all its cliché glory, it seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, hammered in by the Internet’s finest cynics.
I haven’t quite finished Fuse yet, though I have made quite the dent in it and can confirm several things: it’s really bland and really not funny. Take those two quips as you will since I have yet to complete the game (maybe it all turns around in the last third), but so far, word on the street of this being a very mediocre game is dead-on. I don’t much care for the characters, the story is generic, and the saving grace (the imaginative weapons) is too limited. Mechanically, it’s a perfectly sound shooter, but it takes a lot more than that to stand out among the crowd nowadays.
Settling in around the first hour, it became hard to not wonder what Overstrike would have been like. That reveal trailer at PAX was enough to fill my brain with so many possibilities and scenarios of what brought those agents together and how they would interact. Based on my experience of Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, I felt like I could piece together where Overstrike might have been headed and I could tell that it was going to be right up my (and many others’) alley. There would be gravitas where it was needed, sure, but it would also carry a distinct flavor of charm that only Insomniac would be able to achieve, the same one that made me like Captain Quark despite him being a blundering idiot. None of that, however, was to be found in my time with Fuse.
And that’s where talking about what a game isn’t versus what it is gets dangerous. The aesthetics are only half the battle (or somewhere thereabouts). As Overstrike, the game might have been a chore to play through and decidedly less refined mechanically as Fuse. Comparing a game that exists to one that doesn’t is unfair to both parties as the one that exists must be judged entirely on its own merits and the one that doesn’t exist should only reflect you in your latent desires to maybe one day make your own video game.
Perhaps the devil-may-care shtick simply wasn’t working in that milieu of Overstrike. Maybe marketing said it wasn’t tracking well. It’s even possible that Fuse and Overstrike were two totally different games until something (finances, personnel, etc.) forced them to consolidate. But none of that matters because Fuse is what resulted from it all. Of course I consider myself among the many that would have liked to have seen what Insomniac was going to do with that zany take on a squad shooter with Overstrike, but that game (as far as we know) doesn’t exist. It could have been just as middling or the worst game ever made or something so revolutionary that the industry grinds to a halt to marvel at its perfection, but that’s not Fuse.
When you talk about games, it’s important to realize what it means to talk about a game for what it is. Discussing wasted potential and “what could have been” is fine and, to be perfectly honest, a lot of fun, but that can’t be held against the resulting game. Critiques of any medium have to occur in the same realm as everything else, and that is the one that exists. And that means sometimes only wishing Overstrike existed.