The story behind Starfire Studios is almost as interesting as that of their first game, Fusion: Genesis. Apparently a group of four developers at Rare decided they actually wanted to produce smaller games more quickly than they had at Rare under Microsoft and so they branched out to do their own thing. And so Fusion: Genesis was born: a smaller-scale Xbox Live Arcade title that dares to aim big. Apologies in advance for the long review, but there’s just so much ground to cover.
Fusion: Genesis may be a twin-stick shooter, but other than the controls it has little in common with games like Renegade Ops. Instead, it’s closer to classic sci-fi PC RPGs like Star Control and Privateer. After a wittily-written and voiced tutorial in which your abusive scientist mentor is killed, you’re faced with the choice of joining a faction. That decision will affect the next several hours of play, though players can freely switch between factions any time between missions.
Fusion’s futuristic civilization consists of five competing factions: the Consortium (traders), Syndicate (pirates), Praetorians (police), Dominion (military), and Revenant Order (obnoxious religious fanatics). Each group has its own outlook and goals which lead them to be neutral and/or hostile to some of the other factions. Behind the scenes, a more alien and sinister race threatens to upset the precarious order of things.
The way the game is set up, you can’t not be in a faction. Each one provides its own quest line that reveals a portion of the overall story. Progressing through the quest line unlocks the ability to purchase better ships, which in turn can use better weapons. Ships don’t transfer between factions, so you’ll basically start from square one each time you join a new group, though your credits, weapons, and skills transfer over.
That’s the other benefit of factioning up – once you join one, you can spend Faction Skill Points on that group’s unique skills. These include combat maneuvers such as Cloaking, Cloning (which creates a temporary double to fight alongside you), and Teleporting, plus passive abilities like faster Harvesting and increased Cargo capacity. Players are free to spend the points earned from leveling up in one faction on another’s skills and you can’t earn enough points to max out everything, so character customization comes down to preferred playing style.
Fusion gives players lots of other choices too – sometimes it feels like too many thanks to the confusing and poorly-arranged menu system. Take the Sentients, for example. These pet-like AI partners fly alongside your ship, zapping enemies and providing all manner of useful support. They come in three basic varieties: DPS (damage dealers), Tanks (defensive), and Healers. To level up a Sentient, feed it crystals gained from harvesting (mining) asteroids. This nets you points to allocate the robot’s abilities, which are either passive or activated by the d-pad during battle.
So far so good, but Sentients also have two screens of stats. It’s hard enough to figure out what the stats do since the game doesn’t really tell you and there’s some overlap of names between the two screens. The first screen’s points come from leveling up, while the second screen’s are earned in a much more convoluted manner. You’ll need to mine a bunch of crystals, combine them, and then manually feed them to the little guy to get those points. The Sentient leveling system cries out for streamlining, though you could probably ignore it and still do alright.
Sentients also play heavily in Fusion: Sentient, Genesis’s Windows Phone companion game. Coming from Wahoo Studios rather than Starfire, Sentient puts players directly in control of a squad of robots in a strategy setting. Since Sentient takes place on the ground instead of space and plays entirely differently than Genesis, it doesn’t feel strongly related to its big brother.
The two games do share some connectivity, thankfully. The more powerful sentients that can only be found as rare Ark raid drops in Fusion: Genesis are actually common drops in Sentient. Mobile players can either gift the little robots directly to console players or sell them in Genesis’s Auction House. Thus the Windows Phone game should provide a steady influx of rare and useful Sentients to the XBLA title. For more details and a video demonstration of the two Fusion’ games connectivity, see my article at WPCentral.
Genesis has been billed as an MMO-lite - an apt description in many ways. Each of the game’s hub areas, as well as the areas you’re sent to on missions, is essentially an instanced zone. The game automatically sends other players into your instance, so it’s not unusual to spot a ship with a GamerTag beneath it, jetting off to do its own thing.
The presence of random players certainly makes Genesis’ world seem more alive than most other Xbox 360 titles, but the idea isn’t carried to its full potential. You can’t communicate with randoms in any way, not even with predetermined phrases or gestures like Castlevania: Harmony of Despair offers. As such, the only way to party up with such people would be to message them through the Guide button menu and arrange it. But who wants to bother with that?
On the other hand, if you set the PVP option to ‘On,’ you’ll sometimes stumble across players from opposing factions. It doesn’t happen so often as to become annoying; you’re always encountering AI enemies in the hub world anyway. Running into the occasional human and blasting him or her to smithereens proves to be a real treat.
Playing with up to four friends with mics can also be very enjoyable, though not without several caveats. First, everyone needs to complete the 30 minute-ish tutorial and join a faction before they have access to multiplayer. Considering the complexity of the game and how easy it is to miss important instructions, that seems like a wise requirement.
Less understandable are the hoops that follow. You can’t play with someone from a different faction, so everyone must travel to Alpha Station and choose to join the same faction. After switching, you'll have to fly to the Faction’s base and talk to its leader. Only then can players accept invites. Both steps of the process waste a lot of time that could be spent playing together. The developers should have simply enabled an option to automatically join a friend’s faction upon accepting an invite.
The actual quest structure slightly impedes team play as well. After joining a faction, the flow of the game involves completing non-story faction missions until you’ve earned enough points to unlock a faction story mission. Complete the story mission and the process repeats until eventually you’ve maxed out your faction level and finished its overall story.
Teams can take on several kinds of missions together as they earn faction points, including unique group missions (that closely resemble regular ones). But once everybody has earned enough points to unlock the story mission, the teamwork must be put on hold. Inexplicably, story missions must be completed independently instead of with a group. Thus co-op comes down to doing a few missions together, going solo for a while, and then joining back up until the next story mission. If only teams could take on story missions together, cooperative play would flow much better.
Mission objectives also work strangely in co-op. Whereas mission progress is shared between players in pretty much every multiplayer RPG ever, Genesis throws convention to the wind. Whether the mission involves killing X number of enemies or repairing X number of satellites, every pilot has to complete every objective on his own - even if a teammate has already accomplished the same objective. This usually results in partners completing missions at different times. Teaming up to earn faction points can still be faster and easier than going solo since teammates can at least fight enemies together and/or heal and buff each other, but it sort of feels like you’re playing by yourself alongside another person instead of truly cooperating.
Special Missions are the true saving grace of Fusion: Genesis’ co-op. Reaching milestones in certain factions unlocks the Legion Raid and Warzone missions. Legion Raids are Genesis’ version of Horde mode. Up to four players must defend a space station from waves of computer-controlled ships. Since everyone is trying to do the same thing, the sense of cooperation is far more palpable than normal missions.
Warzones pit two factions against each other as each side tries to destroy the enemy’s flagship. Each side has a limited number of lives, so working together to capture strategic points on your way to the main target is a must. Warzones tend to be ghost towns because of only specific factions can join them and each hub area has its own separate Warzone… Nothing that a proper matchmaking and queuing system couldn’t fix. But even just teaming up against the AI is pretty fun.
Finally, completing the last Story mission (which ends with a whimper, BTW) unlocks Ark Raids. The Ark is an awesome WOW-style raid dungeon. It’s packed with high-XP enemies and bosses that drop rare weapons and items. The final boss would be frustrating to take on alone, but with a group of high level players you’ve got a fighting chance. Completing Ark Raids, like the other special missions, earns special points that can be spent on unique high-level items.
The TL;DR multiplayer rundown:Matching random players in the same instanced zones is cool, but feels undercooked thanks to the inability to communicate with each other. Having to manually switch factions to play with friends is time-consuming and annoying. Because teammates can’t do story missions together, co-op has a generally stilted feeling as teams must regularly separate whenever they unlock new faction story missions. Group mission objectives are not shared, which is totally bonkers and makes co-op less fun than it should be. You’ll definitely want to team up for special missions, which feature greater teamwork and rewards than regular missions.
Despite multiplayer's many fstumbles, Fusion: Genesis is still an amazing game. It packs an incredible amount of content for a team’s first title, let alone a downloadable one that only costs ten bucks. I must have played it for over 30 hours and I still have two factions quest lines left to finish and many levels to go before I hit the cap. The backgrounds and film-like musical score are absolutely beautiful and help draw you into the game’s world. The story seems to have a great lore behind it even if it’s told in a disjointed manner and very little payoff. With a few multiplayer improvements and a steady stream of content, Fusion: Genesis could have unrivaled staying power for an XBLA game. Regardless, Genesis stands as a must-play for fans of science fiction and RPGs alike.