(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
When Insomniac announced Overstrike, I was quite excited. Sure, it was yet another shooter, and we have plenty of those, but the team behind Resistance looked to be returning to what it truly does best — a game that’s not only full of guns, but stuffed to the gills with color, style, and an honest sense of fun. The trailer for the game, revealed at E3 2011, didn’t just get me excited, it had a lot of tongues wagging. It was fast, visually vibrant, with an exaggerated not-quite-cartoony aesthetic and an extremity to the violence that made it more comedic than brutal. It looked, in short, effing brilliant.
Fast forward to just over a year, and Overstrike is no more. It is now called Fuse. The colors are not varied anymore. The aesthetic is more realistic. The tone? Dark and gritty. Overstrike has become just another EA-published shooter, seemingly designed to appeal to the Call of Duty audience that EA has by now developed an unhealthy obsession with. The result has been gamers across the Internet vocally expressing their now total lack of enthusiasm for the project. Many have claimed they’ve stopped caring about it. Others have angrily snapped at EA and Insomniac for ruining a great premise with homogeneity. I’m not always on the side of gamers when they do this thing, but in the case of Fuse — I absolutely cannot blame anybody feeling let down.
The change from Overstrike to Fuse is almost a fucking joke. It’s like somebody set out to deliberately satirize the videogame market by presenting a game everyone was excited for, then surgically going down the bulleted list of tired tropes in order to produce the perfect antithesis of everything unique and original in a videogame shooter. The name has been shortened to the one-syllable, four-letter word that is just so easily marketable to people with tiny attention spans. The visuals are grey-on-grey so that we know it’s “mature” and serious. The characters appear generic and dull, the kind of cookie-cutter space marine types we’ve seen a dozen times before. The silly rock music blasting in the original trailer has been replaced with the same bubbling bass noises that pass as atmospheric audio in games these days. If it wasn’t so official, and if I didn’t know a guy who was at the preview event and saw it with his own eyes, I’d have thought this was a prank.
Presentation isn’t everything, and the overall quality of the game itself is the most important aspect. However, presentation can have a serious impact on how your product is perceived, and as we’ve discussed before, trying to copy the market leaders just doesn’t work. People are excited by things they feel they haven’t seen before, not something that looks similar to a thing they already like. If that’s all it took to get people excited, the cash-in rip-off movies produced by The Asylum would be huge box office draws. People were excited for Overstrike because it specifically didn’t look like Fuse.
If you want a fantastic example of how this all works, one need look no further than Borderlands. When that game was first announced, it was a very brown, ordinary looking shooter. I was excited about it because I read a feature on its gameplay and it sounded fantastic. However, very few people raised even a single eyebrow when the game was mentioned, because to them it looked like just another ordinary shooter. Then they re-revealed the game in PC Gamer, with a cel-shaded look and colors that popped out and grabbed attention. With just one magazine cover, Gearbox Software automatically won itself a place in the spotlight and a ton of excitement from gamers who before couldn’t give a single solitary shit. The game went on to be a big success, has a sequel on the way, and I feel confident in saying that the aesthetic change was a HUGE contributing factor. In fact, I’d argue that the cel-shading saved Borderlands. Graphics aren’t everything — but the way they inform the tone, style, and uniqueness of your project can make all the difference in the world.
Overstrike has gone in the opposite direction. It started with the same kind of excitement the new Borderlands generated, then cashed in that goodwill to start resembling the old Borderlands. Exactly who fucking thought that would work? WHO is manning the controls at these companies, thinking that in order to be a success, you need to visually parrot another successful game? WHO keeps forgetting that an audience doesn’t pay attention to the same song sung twice? Why are videogames so fucking stupid?
Oh and don’t think the association with Electronic Arts has gotten past anybody. While I won’t go as far as to pin the blame for this on EA, I will say that it just seems like another crude joke that the moment Insomniac starts working with the industry’s most creatively unambitious publisher, it starts making creatively unambitious games. So far, Insomniac’s had two projects with EA — a social game on Facebook that blatantly copies both Pokemon and FarmVille, and the grey co-op shooter Fuse. From Ratchet & Clank to these two gems. It’s like EA-by-numbers. If that’s not just the perfect statement on that problem with AAA game development right now, I don’t know what is.
From now on, when I want an example of the miserable grey sludge that big budget games seem to be sinking into, Fuse is now the perfect example. It’s absolutely perfect in its ability to demonstrate what a game could be versus what it is. So perfect, in fact, that I still haven’t quite ruled out the fact that it’s all one big practical joke and that I’m going to look very silly later.
In the meantime, however, I’m going to go play more Borderlands 2. Because that game looks pretty as well as plays superbly. At least some AAA games are still doing it right.
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