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Fuser is the new game from Harmonix - the studio behind legendary music titles Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and PlayStation 2 cult hits Amplitude and Frequency. And it's quite possibly the developer's best music game yet, mixing as it does fantastical moments of towering euphoria with the very real-to-life stress and worry of keeping a crowd moving to what you're playing out.
A DJ game where you're in control of four decks at a time, Fuser breaks its array of genres-spanning tracks into four distinct channels. This means you can craft your own mash-ups with ease, the game's under-the-hood systems making Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name' align its drums and bass with Billie Eilish's 'Bad Guy' vocal and the horns from DMX's 'X Gon' Give It To Ya' with machine-perfect precision. There's a guide that scrolls, showing when's right to add a fresh element; but I found that, assuming I knew the songs playing, it was easier to mix by ear than following on-screen prompts.
And this is really the big draw of Fuser: the wild combinations it not only makes possible, but makes work. It takes the impressive song-splitting tech and hugely satisfying play pattern of Harmonix's (brilliant, but poorly selling) tabletop game DropMix and implements them in an achievement-driven video game. Progress here is tracked in a campaign mode that teaches you the ins and outs of how to use Fuser's decks - cueing tracks, altering tempos, muting elements to produce crowd-stirring build-ups, and delivering drops like a pro - and measures your success at winning over a crowd.
There's far greater potential for generating unique mixes in Fuser than you'd get with using four CDJs and a mixer in real life. And I say that as someone who spent over a decade bouncing around behind decks, in pubs and clubs aplenty around the country and at festivals in the UK and overseas (highlights including playing the afterparty of Barcelona's amazing Primavera Sound festival, and inside a weird scout hut at a Norwegian festival where the sun never quite set). I was only ever a part-timer, DJing on the side of Actual Work, but when I get a mix just right in Fuser, it takes me back to doing it for real, getting the next track in with silky smoothness so that the join is completely hidden beneath complementary melodies. I get that exact same buzz.
But with that high comes one of the main stresses of playing records to a room full of people. Requests. I've spent most of my time in Fuser's freestyle mode, where all the functions of the decks are available to you, and experimentation is never punished should a mix go awry. But in the campaign, there are always objectives to hit: play two songs from the 1980s while muting the bass on at least one of the four decks, things like that, and your timing has to be exact. You have to hold that mix for a certain length of time, and the objective is complete - hit all the objectives and the crowd will love you. Well, with the exception of the individuals who just won't be happy unless they hear their own favourites.
Mid-mix, in campaign mode, you'll see little speech bubbles rise from the crowd. "I'd love 'Never Gonna Give You Up''," someone will shout, while you're trying to wrestle a trio of high-energy dance cuts into an objective-winning arrangement. Rick Astley, now, really? But fail to respond to these requests - which can come more than one at a time - and the overall crowd satisfaction can fall.
Again, this is just like doing it for real, when you can really be finding your flow in a mix only for a punter to wander over, gesture for you to bend your ear their way, and then scream: "All this rap's a bit much, what about some Nirvana?" On a hip-hop night. That you're running. That's clearly advertised as a hip-hop night. It's right there, on the poster, that you walked past, on your way in. Uh.
Naturally, the stages of Fuser are wildly fantastical, enormous arenas of dance with incredible set designs that exist only in the very biggest-ticket live gatherings (remember when we had those?) And how you break the mixes apart and build them back up, dismantling rap tracks and dropping throwback rhymes atop Basement Jaxx beats and country guitar licks, really is way beyond what a pair of Pioneers can deliver, however creative you are. That's the fantasy side of Fuser: what if the rules of mixing were rewritten, and anyone could stitch songs into a sequence that made a huge crowd bounce? It's incredible escapism, whether you've DJed yourself in your time, or have next to no sense of rhythm whatsoever.
But the real-to-life side? I was not expecting this game to stir within me the same panic and dread that I felt whenever someone would stroll over, confident as can be, and declare that what I was playing was not what they wanted, and that they've paid their money and want to hear something else. (Again, right there on the door, my dude.) Mercifully, the way Fuser works with its tracks, none of them will run out and the decks will fall silent - which very much can happen when you're being unduly harassed for The Killers but you're mixing out of a Killer Mike banger. So at least there's that. And you can always switch on a 'no-fail' mode in the campaign, should the requests be too distracting.
I've been putting around 30 to 40 minutes, most nights, into Fuser ever since it came out earlier in November. I dive into freestyle and allow myself some happiness - something we all need in 2020, huh. Suitably cheery and steeled for a more demanding crowd, I click across to the campaign and aim for some more achievements, some more currency to unlock more songs for my DJ crate. I see the requests rise - and I calmly sub in just a few seconds of their gotta-hear-this number... and then almost instantly eject it, to return to what I'm mixing. Turns out they're easily pleased, and the slightest hint of a song will suffice.
Shame the same could never be said for the overly persistent IRL annoyances - up in your face when you're just trying to do your job. A bit like working in the online games media, really. Erm, security, if you could... see this gentleman away from the decks? Thank you, thank you...
The song selection 'out of the box' in Fuser is pretty good, but naturally there's no accounting for personal tastes. It flits from Lady Gaga to Ace of Base via Nelly and Fatboy Slim, with diversions into Latin rhythms and the cheesiest chart pop. Chances are you'll be able to pull together a good dozen records for any single mix that you actively enjoy blending together. And when you want more, Harmonix have you covered - for a price. Each new track costs £1.79 (on Switch at least) - which is obviously more expensive than buying a single song digitally, but there's a lot more to these tracks than what you hear on the radio. I happily paid for some Amerie and Justin Timberlake to use in my sets, and will be dipping again before long, I'm sure.
While it has to appeal to both turntable beginners and disciplined mixmasters alike, which could compromise its instant-click appeal, Fuser isn't found lacking in the slightest, whatever your past experience of DJing. Its purest joy, for all of its online options and battles, is absolutely the freedom of the freestyle mode, where creativity can run rampant - but if you want to face off with bass and beats as your arsenal, Scott Pilgrim-style, with a pal, the option's there. Longevity will be determined by how much the song library grows, but right now, Fuser is an exceptional music game that needs to be heard by, and played by, as massive a crowd as possible.
Pros: incredible mixing mechanics that allow for both basic and superbly nuanced sets, clear tutorial via the game's campaign, very eclectic song selection
Cons: that same song selection will see some tracks totally ignored, some cutscene performance problems on Switch (but nothing during gameplay)
For fans of: DropMix, DJ Hero, Aaero
Fuser was tested using Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher, NCSOFT. The game is out now for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's scores here.
Featured Image Credit: NCSOFT, Harmonix
Topics: Indie Games
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