Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Starfire Studios
Space used to be the final frontier. Back in the days when Sidewinder joysticks ruled the roost, videogames relished in catapulting us into the wild black yonder; masters of our own destiny as we explored the infinite galaxies. We used to travel between the stars from the cockpit of our trusty vessel, beholden to no-one but ourselves and the alliances we made. The universe was our oyster and games were our gateway to brave new worlds. Those days are over now.
So when a group of ex-Rare developers get together and develop a Space Sim for Xbox Live Arcade deep in the retail killing fields of mid-November, it's probably worth paying attention. Fusion: Genesis may sound like a cheap and cheerful downloadable puzzler, but it's that rarest of beasts: an old-school space sim brought up to date with this decade's mechanic of choice. A Twin-stick shooter... with a whole galaxy of content.
After you escape from a vicious attack with little more than a beaten-up old clunker and an advanced AI prototype, Fusion: Genesis throws you headfirst into an entire galaxy of warring factions, overarching intruigue, missions and opportunities to make serious money. Steering your ship and attacking enemies with the tried-and-tested dual stick formula (an accessible joy, though admittedly sluggish until you've upgraded your ride), you'll chart your own course through multiple systems - joining and abandoning factions at a whim in order to undertake missions, mining asteroids for profit and earning persistent experience that funnels into new skills or attributes. It's a big idea for such a typically basic foundation, and it works beautifully.
As with any serious space sim, Fusion: Genesis offers a huge amount of customisation options for savvy captains. Your coffers will take many hours to fill, but can be splurged on a plethora of new ships, different weapons, commodities and equipment. Graduating from a hopeless garbage scow to an intimidating intergalactic warship is an addictive gameplay mechanic that rewards you for each minute you put in. More interestingly, however, are your Sentients: AI drone companions who shadow your ship, assist in battle, aid in mining and provide their own unique abilities that can be accessed from the D-Pad. These cohorts can be further improved by feeding them crystals or even transferred to your Windows 7 Phone via Fusion: Sentient; forming yet another onion-like layer of depth within a deceptively hefty title. The more you dig, the more you'll find.
In a seriously impressive twist for a downloadable game, Fusion: Genesis features drop-in online multiplayer for up to four pilots - either friends or complete randomers who can stop by your game at a whim and give you some fire support. It's a neat idea and works well if you communicate effectively, but without the ability to instantly warp to your partners or share story missions together (chances are that all players will be pursuing different ends), it never quite feels as relevant as it should. A servicable horde mode entitled Dark Legion Raids is a lot more fun and provides some of the more exciting moments that Fusion: Genesis has to offer, as players scurry around defending a space station and unlocking new upgrades, ships and weapons as they do so.
Unless you're a Space Sim veteran, your major issue with Fusion: Genesis will probably lie with the pacing. Or more accurately: the complete lack thereof. Each faction's missions are incredibly similar - kill this, defend that etc - and as you'd expect, mining asteroids is as interesting as pressing the A button, sitting back and watching the progress percentage gradually climb to completion. Getting anywhere also takes a long time, even with upgraded engines. It's part and parcel of the genre, not the game itself, but it's a shame that the new twin-stick focus didn't allow Starfire Studios to create a more varied and visceral experience. The thrills are slow-paced and methodical; stemming from the joy you'll get from grinding hard enough to finally afford a new ship or levelling up your favourite sentient rather than pow zoom whizz bang second-by-second stimulation. Adrenaline junkies will quickly tire of the sluggish exploration, but if you put the time in, you'll be rewarded in spades.
There are a few other problems that serve to mar the experience from time to time. Menus and markets are rather clunky and unintuitive to navigate, especially when in-flight. The lion's share of the dialogue and story is delivered through text screens and static renders, which can be difficult to read and certainly don't provide an sense of immersion. A weak tutorial also somehow manages to be both far too slow and nowhere near comprehensive enough, providing an underwhelming start to the campaign that will scare many players off long before it has a chance to shine. It's clear that Starfire Studios never quite had the time or resources to fully realise their ambitious mission statement.
But with dozens of hours of content and an entire galaxy at your thumbsticks, it's not worth dwelling on the negative.
- A whole galaxy to explore, dozens of hours of gameplay
- Myriad customisation options, ships, weapons and sentients
- Deceptively, dangerously deep... with twinstick SHMUP accessibility
- Sluggish non-pacing
- Clunky menus and overly convoluted GUI
- Can become very repetitive. It's the nature of the beast.
The Short Version: Fusion: Genesis won't be to everyone's tastes. Its methodical approach will repulse and confuse fans of traditional shooters, but it puts an entire universe and countless hours of exploration under your thumbs. A divisive value-packed triumph.