What exactly is Fuser? The upcoming title from Harmonix--the musical maestros behind Frequency, Amplitude, the original Guitar Hero titles and the Rock Band series--can be difficult to parse from screenshots alone. There's no mesmeric note-filled runway rolling towards you, and while the coloured decks along the bottom of the screen share the visual language of the studio's greatest music game hits, it's not immediately obvious how you interact with them.
The concept is quite simple, as we recently discovered in an online demo from the Harmonix team followed by hands-on time with a PC build. While the myriad elements aren't as immediately readable as the rail-based rhythm of Rock Band, the sandbox scope and freedom on offer opens a whole new world of possibilities.
In a nutshell, Fuser puts you in the footwear of an aspiring DJ attending crowded festival sites, steadily building rep with the help of colourful personalities, and spinning discs from a crate of genre-spanning classics. Simple, really.
In fact, Harmonix is keeping things straightforward in more ways than one: there's not a plastic peripheral or USB dongle in sight. Fuser is controlled solely with the pad your console came with. Rock Band veterans who still have wardrobes jammed with expensive, bulky instruments will likely breathe a sigh of relief, but the lack of bespoke deck-based controller also raises questions. How can Fuser hope to capture the infective, musical spirit of the studio's finest output with a mere joypad?
The transition from rock star to DJ makes this less jarring and not requiring another accessory means Fuser is more accessible to a wider audience. Accessibility extends well beyond controller convenience and is a core tenant of the game. Rock Band fans will no-doubt have watched YouTube videos of god-like Expert runs with their jaws agape, bewildered and belittled by the fact that the skill ceiling is so incredibly high. How the heck are they doing that?! Becoming that proficient is akin to learning a real musical instrument.
Fuser brings the skill ceiling right down while also broadening horizons with a larger palette of possibilities. You can actually make music now, something that was never true in Rock Band. That's not to say Fuser is easy or unfocused--there's huge potential for skilled players to show off what they can do--but it affords anyone the ability to express themselves beyond the confines of the rigid rolling fretboard.
That self-expression permeates the whole game. A comprehensive, non-gender specific character creation suite greets you before you embark on your career. Including a wide range of tweakable physical attributes (including tats, masks, body paint and more), you can tailor your style and personality to the Nth degree. Personalisation extends into your stage show, too; everything from lighting, pyrotechnics and laptop screens to items held by the waving crowds.
You can actually make music now, something that was never true in Rock Band.
As you might expect, the crowd is the immediate barometer of your mixing prowess beyond the traditional 5-star scoring scale. Each stage has a different promoter who acts as a mentor and takes you through the tutorials, but the base gameplay involves selecting one of four component tracks--drums, bass, melody (typically keys, strings or brass) or vocals--from a selection of songs spread across the top of the screen and dropping them on the four turntables pulsing with ripples of colour at the bottom.
The left stick controls a cursor and hovering over a song gives access to its four component tracks, each mapped to a face button (we played using an Xbox pad that mapped the blue drum icon to the blue 'X' button on the left of the diamond, but we're told that the icons and colours alter on a per-platform basis). If you want, say, the drums and bass from Dua Lipa's "Don't Start Now", simply hover the cursor over the track and hit the two appropriate face buttons. Move to "Rock the Casbah" and hit 'X' again to drop a different beat, preferably in time to the beat bar scrolling just above your decks. Throw in some Panic! At The Disco vocals and melodies from Cardi B and you'll hopefully have something that sounds passably fresh.
By dragging and dropping the tracks to specific decks you're able to run multiple tracks of the same type (bass/vocals/drums/etc.) from different songs. You can also cue up tracks, mute them individually and switch between them on the same deck. Fuser calls for consideration and strategy in a way that is quite different to blundering your way through "Blitzkrieg Bop" on a plastic Strat.
Fuser calls for consideration and strategy in a way that is quite different to blundering your way through "Blitzkrieg Bop" on a plastic Strat.
Points are accrued by meeting requirements that pop up on the bottom right of the screen. These can be anything from using specific elements from specific songs, playing a certain genre, dropping tracks on the down beat and many other goals. The crowd may request certain artists, genres or decades and fulfilling their wishes takes you ever-closer to the 5-star score.
Each mission varies in exact length and will have you dealing with increasingly complex tasks as you get better. Despite some careful tracklist curation and guidance during the tutorials, though, it is entirely possible to end up producing an unpleasant dirge. With a grab bag of goodies, it's tempting to throw all your favourites at the wall, but sometimes tracks just don't gel and less is invariably more, especially in the opening stages. Very quickly you'll gain huge respect for the intricate, on-the-fly artistry of the best disc jockeys. It's easy to put different vocals over a killer beat, but coordinating four spinning discs and thinking about complimentary licks and kicks really feels like spinning plates once you're out of the tutorial. There will be players who find the traditional, predicable scrolling fretboard much more comfortable.
You pick your playlist from a 'crate' of records prior to each mission. Some tracks are pre-determined for specific gigs and you're able to flesh out the remainder at your discretion. The number of songs permitted varies depending on the mission and a slimmer selection earlier on stops you getting overwhelmed - later missions give you more slots. In addition to skipping through your song pool, you hit the bumper buttons to navigate to an 'Instruments' section containing a variety of synths to improvise on and create accompanying loops for your mix.
As we mentioned earlier, if you're more at home gazing into the middle distance for incoming 'notes', Fuser's multitasking and freedom might take a while to click. Soon, though, the different elements sink in and the interface proves arguably more approachable than a scrolling stave of notes; certainly less intimidating to newcomers. Harmonix's UI blends elements from its previous games with a Spotify-style scrollable playlist presentation and it works well on a pad (or with a mouse). We asked if the Switch version will feature touchscreen support and were told that while it's not off the table, it isn't in the plan initially. Touchscreen control would seem an obvious addition to enhance accessibility on Switch but having played with a pad, we can say it works just fine as is.
In Freestyle mode you can select your venue and time of day and play around with any of the songs you've unlocked. It was actually here where we had the most fun during our time with the demo. That's not to say the Career mode wasn't engaging; rather that the freedom in Freestyle felt even more novel after years tied to an unchanging tune. Experimenting and finding your own groove can be just as fun as scoring 5-stars, especially while you're exploring the playlist and controls. BPM and pitch can be fiddled with, risers build cresendos into the mix at the touch of a button, and you can save and export your masterpiece mixes to social media.
The game will launch with over 100 tracks spanning the '60s to present day. The infrastructure for DLC (including further songs and outfits) is in place and similar to previous projects, the appetite from players for new content will dicate Harmonix's post-launch approach, although the exact form that will take isn't clear at the moment.
There are other unknowns, too. How effectively can Harmonix showcase such a grand sandbox across an entire game (our demo was limited to two non-consecutive missions and Freestyle mode)? We haven't sampled the multiplayer yet, either, and Harmonix certainly has its work cut out if it wants to rekindle the incredible feeling of playing along with your pals as part of the band.
in multiple senses, Fuser feels like a very timely game
However, its emphasis on accessibilty really works in Fuser's favour. In the past, genre fans (metalheads, indie rockers or whoever) could retreat into their chosen track packs, avoid unloved and unwanted songs as far as possible and stick to their familiar favourites. Here, you have to engage with different styles outside your particular wheelhouse; to find common threads and points of interest in things you might otherwise never have given the time of day. This was true to a certain extent in previous Harmonix games, but the developer is taking it to a whole other level. Add in a focus on accessibility and representation and, in multiple senses, Fuser feels like a very timely game.
Ultimately, it represents the culmination of Harmonix's musical catalogue to this point, bursting out the other side of the plastic peripheral pile with a single, slick offering for anyone with a console and controller. The name is apt, then, and although it remains to be seen if Harmonix's sandbox DJ sim can keep you engaged for an entire career, Fuser has potential to become the studio's biggest hit.
Fuser launches in Fall 2020. All images in this article were supplied by Harmonix.