Harmonix made the late 2000s rock. You couldn’t go to a party or bar without seeing four plastic Rock Band instruments in a corner just begging for you and your friends to butcher a classic pop tune with. The music game fad tragically died out in the 2010s, but for a brief while Harmonix’s new DJ simulator, Fuser, rekindles some of its high points and inspires hope that the genre could make a comeback. Fuser does an admirable job of invoking the sensation of being an artist by helping you freely mix tracks like a pro, but score chasers may find that for them, the party is short-lived.
Every set of Fuser begins the same way. First, you fill your digital crate with records that span several eras and genres. The selection feels truly all-encompassing, with over 100 options from back-in-the-day jams like Patti Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” to new-school hits from the likes of Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny along with plenty of obscure filler songs. Add in some digital noise-makers like drum machines and synths, and you’re ready to hit the stage. From the moment you drop your first disc, your job will be to wow the crowd by mixing and matching tracks across different songs; each one comes with up to four components representing vocals and various instruments, and those can be remixed independently. Can the drums from Brad Paisley’s “Mud on the Tires” sound great with the strings from Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It?” Of course they can!
This works seamlessly more often than not, because there is a lot of behind-the-scenes heavy lifting being done by Fuser to make everything mesh and sound like disparate parts were supposed to be together all along. Inevitably, however, there’s a number of mixes where the magic trick feels far less enchanting, including some that just never feel like they would truly be considered as party starters in a scenario like this. Is there anything more cursed than dropping the vocals to “Killing in the Name Of” over any part of Smash Mouth’s “All Star?”
Regardless of the material, the key to good DJing is dropping records with pinpoint timing. That could be in a general sense, like making sure you’re cuing your music either on every fourth beat (the downbeat) or more track-specific pickups that signal the perfect time in the next group of bars to drop your piece. On top of that, you can change the key or tempo of your running mix among a bunch of other options, and all will send the crowd swinging from the digital rafters in elation when blended perfectly. The nuances of how the scoring system works are pretty obscure though, so while nailing the basics consistently promises good scores it’s difficult to know how to break through to five-star runs.On that note, hopping into any mode before playing the eight to 10-hour campaign would be a mistake. The story of an up-and-coming DJ stumbling into opportunities to play on the stages of the world’s biggest acts is a boring and rote one, but it’s also Fuser’s effective tutorial, spreading handfuls of lessons and techniques over its 36 levels. In almost all of them, you’ll learn a new trick like adding distortion filters to tracks or how to synchronize drops of multiple instruments at the same time. There’s a smattering of objectives to complete during each performance, usually revolving around using the newly introduced skill or ability in your set. This is the most effective way to learn how to combine Fuser’s many components into a good show. That said, there are so many things to learn, involving so much menu surfing and management, that I rarely used any of these concepts outside of when I was specifically asked to.
When things clicked for me, Fuser felt as cool and challenging as my best times with Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Going back to old stages to try to beat my personal best, armed with new knowledge and songs, was fun and fulfilling. The campaign is also the only mode with nearly this much to do. Frankly, the absence of a dedicated mode that takes the objective-based play of the campaign into a more arcadey setting is a big disappointment. The campaign stages are fun but fixed rather than dynamic, and don’t allow you to feel like you’re being fully trusted to keep up with the level’s demands without the tutorial-like guardrails.
Progression also feels a bit drawn out. On level up, you gain two types of points to spend on music and cosmetics. The amount of XP you gain per set feels very low. I finished the campaign at level 7 and still had a significant amount of songs that I couldn’t afford to unlock. I can’t imagine sinking a dozen more hours into Fuser just to unlock songs I’ve never heard before and likely wouldn’t hear again elsewhere.
The online-only Battle mode pits DJs head-to-head, retaining a basic set of Fuser’s gameplay rules while modifying others to create a sense of competition. The spontaneous song requests and specific asks – drop a song from the 2000s, play a guitar record, etc. – remain and are the major way to earn points on top of solid execution of the basics. But all of the advanced stuff you learned, like fading and rising, and tempo switching are disabled. The sharp focus on the basic loops of gameplay does keep Battle mode feeling balanced and strategic. Ranked play restricts the music you can put in your crate at lower levels, but once you rise up the ranks there’s a deck-building quality to preparing your lineup and specific mix combos in advance before throwing down with opponents. Post-campaign, people who want a more hardcore DJ experience will spend lots of time in Battle mode, despite how confusing the more nuanced rules can be.
Fuser Review Screenshots
In Freestyle mode, you are let loose to do whatever you want with the tools you have available. This is the mode Fuser bridges the gap between rhythm game and actual digital instrument in a way that most in the genre can only hope to. With a little practice, you can create whole performances that feel like real artistic expression as opposed to dressed up karaoke. You can even share them for others to experience. This fits right into the rising demand for musical performances on streaming sites like Twitch (though maybe not into its relationship with playing licensed music on its platform). There’s a co-op mode as well, and here a pair of people can pass the mix back and forth to one another in collaborative set-slamming. The mileage you’ll get from Freestyle is user specific, of course; I got my feet wet with it a few times but didn’t find much there for me without a score to chase but a real musical creative type could spend ages with it.
None of the multiplayer modes are local, which feels like a sin for what is a game tailored for social settings. Sure, nobody is going to parties these days, but in a hopeful future where people can see each other in person again it’s odd that playing Fuser together is off the table. That two people can stand at the same table and mix together, or that you can’t watch up close as a rival sees you hit a huge drop combo in the head-to-head mode, is a huge miss.
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