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Fuse preview: The creator of Ratchet & Clank is a square peg trying to prove it can fit in a round hole

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The past two years haven’t been especially kind to Insomniac. The famed studio hasn’t fallen on hard times by any means, but it has certainly been on something of a bad luck streak since 2009. Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time received spectacular reviews, but it failed to make a dent at retail. In 2011, it doubled down with the critical hit Resistance 3 – another sales failure – and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One which didn’t earn much critical or consumer praise. Since then the studio’s been adrift. It tried to huff half-hearted life into Ratchet & Clank by spinning the series with tower defense, attempted to infiltrate Facebook gaming with Outernauts, and went multiplatform on consoles for the very first time with its EA partnership Fuse. No game embodies the company’s identity crisis quite like Fuse.

EA showed off a brief two-player demo of Fuse at an event in New York City this February, and the game is a bit like stew: Plenty of chunks to chew on, but few distinct flavors. By merit of its persistent four character set up—Naya, Dalton, Izzy, and Jacob of the secret agent organization Overtrike 9—Fuse offers an interesting spin on its penchant for unique and strange weapons. All four characters carry a unique upgradeable firearm and have a specific “Fuse” skill. Dalton, for example, carries around a sidearm that projects a magnetic shield in front of him that can both defend allies or fire bullets and grenades right back at aggressive enemies. Izzy carries a fierce machine gun with great range and can toss out a beacon that heals allies in its vicinity. The variety of skills and weapons feels like a minimalist version of the deep arsenal in Resistance 3 or the almost Dadaist armory in Ratchet, but the absence of creativity is made up for in the variety of character. If you’re playing with four people, everyone serves a small selection of interesting roles. If you’re by yourself or in a smaller group, you can constantly change to a different character on the fly. As a result, the team has a bit more personality than in other third-person shooters like Gears of War that lock you into characters with no differentiation between them.

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Gears is a ready touch stone for Fuse’s firefights. It too has you ducking behind cover in sectioned environments, but it’s a much faster game. The enemies are so aggressive that it’s impossible to stay in one spot for more than a few seconds, necessitating creative use of those Fuse powers and, as Insomniac intends, teamwork. During the portion of the game on display set in Johdpur, India, I was mowed down repeatedly for trying to play it slow in good cover. The AI and my partner both were reliable for reviving me on the spot, but it quickly became clear that success requires aggression in kind. In many ways, Fuse is like People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, forcing you to creatively consider your environment. The likeness is emphasized when you see the scores popping up over off-ed enemies; 100 points for grenade kills, etc.

If only it had some of Bulletstorm’s personality. Based on this chunk, you’d be hard pressed to recognize Fuse as the work of Ratchet & Clank’s humorists or even the dour sci-fi authors of Resistance. The only character in the proceedings came from Izzy’s bright red hair and the preponderance of green leaves and blue skies. It’s brighter than your average shooter, but even the enemies look like loaners from C-list shooters like Dark Sector. The levels are challenging, make no mistake, but the whole thing culminates in a fight against an armored big guy carrying a flamethrower. Shooting the exposed gas tank is the swiftest way to bring him down. Nothing unusual. The teamwork tactics feel great, but the story and aesthetic trappings they’re couched in feel as dated as a Palm Pilot. And this is a game made by the people who invented a grenade for turning people into penguins.

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It’s impossible to say how Fuse will feel as a finished game before it comes out in the spring. Insomniac’s James Stevenson said that the characters’ weapons and skills had been beefed up for the demo—those points earned in fights are used for leveling up your squad—so who knows how they feel before they’re stronger. One thing working in Insomniac’s favor is that weapons, weapon upgrades, and skill trees are wholly experience based; no microtransactions or price-gouging DLC here.

Fuse is a transitional game for Insomniac, even in this small slice. It feels like the work of a maverick but populist team trying to prove they can fit in with the most profitable studios in the mainstream. It’s hard not to wish they’d continued making the Steven Soderbergh-flavored title they were making when Fuse was still called Overstrike, but that doesn’t mean this game will be a wash. In a season where BioShock Infinite is coming out though, personality is the most important weapon in the shooting game arsenal. 

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‘NBA Live 14’ preview: EA’s basketball sim returns after years away

No one envies the spot EA Sports' Tiburon team is in with NBA Live 14. The twice-cancelled, long-absent pro basketball sim finally hits the courts in 2013 after a pair of near-releases in 2010 and 2012. The upcoming game, launching on November 19 as a next-gen exclusive for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, has a lot of expectations riding on it. How will EA Tiburon differentiate this new game from its chief competitor, NBA 2K14? What can NBA Live offer that brings something fresh to pro basketball sims?
Hit the courts. Just like many other professional sports simulation, there's no narrative other than the one you build for your player or your team on the court in NBA Live 14. The game's new Rising Star mode gives you the opportunity to create a fresh player and run through his 25-season career.  We didn't get to see this mode in action, but it keeps you locked to the player you've created - complete with custom, zoomed-in camera angles specific to Rising Star - for every game. There's no pre-draft interviews or press conferences, or any of the other role-play trappings that are increasingly common in other sports sims; it's just your player and a long ladder to climb toward greatness.

A separate Dynasty Mode puts you in the GM's seat, managing trades, free agent pickups, and the like, while also playing through any of the games that you choose to (simulation is always an option). We didn't get to check this out either, but expect a similarly barebones, first-time-out presentation. Both of these modes (along with the others in the game) benefit from EA Tiburon's partnership with Synergy Sports Technology, the company that tracks and logs NBA stats and team tendencies in real-time. This information will also be pushed to NBA Live 14 (provided you have an active Internet connection) within an hour after each game, affecting everything from individual player stats to the types of challenges you can take on (discussed below).
Capturing the big moments. In addition to the two franchise-focused modes, NBA Live 14 also updates regularly during the season with mini-challenges that are designed to capture memorable moments from each day's games. Take Derrick Rose's game-ending floater on Halloween that secured the Chicago Bulls a win over the New York Knicks with just 5.7 seconds left on the clock. It was Rose's first home game since he injured his knee 18 months ago. On the NBA Live 14 side, that moment is realized as the "A Rosey Homecoming" challenge accessible from the main menu; fire it up and you get an opportunity to replicate the game-winning shot. Throughout the season, the list of available challenges will continue to grow. There's no plan to take them down, so you'll be able to return to them as often as you wish.
Baller ball handling. NBA Live 14 subscribes to the same philosophy that many other EA Sports titles do, of using the right analog stick as a more directly tactile interface within the game. In this particular case, the right stick tweaks how the ball carrier dribbles. Push back and to the left (based on the ball carrier's orientation), and the bouncing ball will be directed behind the player's back. For defensive maneuvers, push and hold the stick in the opposite direction you're facing to keep the ball behind you in a more guarded stance. Cross left and right as you crash toward the net to whiz by defenders and sink a quick basket. It feels natural almost immediately, and somewhat similar in basic design to EA's Pro Stick puck handling in the NHL series.

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Finding your way in ‘Fuse’: A guide to surviving Insomniac’s co-op fragfest

Insomniac Games introduced its new sci-fi universe this week with Fuse, a co-op-friendly third-person shooter whose principal hook is the specific abilities of its four playable characters. The four members of Overstrike 9 - Dalton, Izzy, Jacob, and Naya - all bring unique talents to the cover-based combat, with some help from their powerful Fuse weapons and an assortment of secondary abilities.
Fuse serves up a steep challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Especially if you prepare accordingly - that's what this guide is for. We'll take a look at each of the four characters, what their strengths are, and how you can best put them to good use. We'll also run through some basic tips for getting the most out of your game. You know the drill: Read on, play better.
Cooperation is key
Find at least one friend to play Fuse with, though getting a full party of four real players to replace the AI is ideal. This is a game in which most of the combat is built around massive combat arenas. Any given encounter generally offers at least half a dozen different flanking routes. Friendly AI is smart enough to stick with the human-controlled player(s) and even split up when the situation allows for it, but you can't issue squad orders, limiting your tactics and turning a surgical strike into a head on confrontation.
Headsets are a necessity. Plan your actions out, communicate regularly, and do your best to work as a team. You also earn more points for combining your fuse attacks, plus they are devastating when done properly. Stealth play is nearly impossible in a solo game, but it's much easier to coordinate with four humans as you quietly pick apart a room full of enemies. Fuse supports drop-in/drop-out co-op play; just make sure if you're the host that you leave the session open to friends when you first fire up a save.
Going lone wolf
You can play Fuse solo as long as you're okay with taking a more cautious approach. The competent friendly AI is mostly solid when it comes to rescuing you from a downed state. They're less effective when you stray too far from the pack, but that's to be expected.

More importantly, any session with less than four human players gives those who are there the opportunity to take advantage of the LEAP feature. Holding down the Back/Select button brings up the LEAP menu, a four-way cross with each of the four playable characters mapped to a specific button. You switch characters on the fly, provided there isn't another human already controlling them.
The LEAP feature is particularly helpful for solo players during the tougher combat encounters in Fuse. This is especially true later on in the game when ammo pickups become scarce. Switching characters is almost a necessity during the final mission, when the villainous Raven Corporation starts to throw all of its forces at you.
Skill trees and team perks
Each of the four playable characters in Fuse brings something different to combat, but all of them follow roughly the same progression over four tiers. The first relates specifically to the character's Fuse weapon, the second unlocks a support ability, the third powers up grenades with Fuse, and the fourth unlocks Fusion, a limited-use supercharge that gifts the entire team with unlimited Fuse ammo for a brief period.

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Electronic Arts reportedly shutting down its EA Partners label

Change may be afoot at Electronic Arts. While the publisher has yet to officially confirm anything, multiple unnamed sources confirm to Game Informer’s Mike Futter that EA is shuttering its EA Partners label. If true, the move would only be the latest in a recent series of internal decisions that see the publisher moving away from Facebook gaming, changing up its corporate leadership, and consolidating its console game development to only a handful of titles. 
We’ve reached out to EA for comment, but there's been no response to our inquiries as of this writing. We also reached out to Epic Games, an official EA Partner on Bulletstorm, but the house that Unreal Engine built refused to comment.
The Partners program was formalized in 2009, but EA started building relationships with independent studios and releasing their games long before. The publisher's BioWare and DICE acquisitions are both products of those early partnerships, and those two studios - responsible for Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Battlefield between them - rank among the publisher's most valuable assets.
Some EA Partners games have yielded great success for the company, namely the Rock Band series and Valve projects like The Orange Box and the Left 4 Dead series, but the label has also produced a number of high-profile flops. Critical successes like Double Fine’s Brutal Legend, Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned, and Epic’s Bulletstorm were all considered sales failures upon their release. The Partners program even produced two enormous MMO turkeys, Realtime Worlds’ APB and Flagship Studios’ Hellgate: London.
As of now, it looks like Insomniac Games’ Fuse may be the last title to be released under the Partners label. There is one other in-development project that is part of the label, though: Respawn Entertainment’s first game, which may be named Titan, based on a recent trademark filing. That game is set to appear at E3 2013. We’ve reached out to Respawn for comment as well, but we'll likely have to wait until E3 to find out how the rumored closure impacts EA's relationship with the ex-Infinity Ward studio.

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