Harmonix’s Fuser Fuses Rock Band, DropMix Music Gaming Into One Rocking Time

Harmonix, which kicked off the music gaming renaissance via Guitar Hero and Rock Band that filled our homes with rock music, and our closets with plastic instruments, is back with another appealing attempt at keeping the beat alive. Fuser, set for launch on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch this fall, shows the clear DNA of the studio’s older games like the original Guitar Hero, while blending in some of the music mixing innovation of its recent board game DropMix, for a unique experience that looks to emphasize player choice in every aspect.Fuser’s campaign will put players in the position of a DJ headlining a series of rocking festivals, but this is not about Harmonix finally offering up a competitor to Activision’s DJ Hero. Instead, Fuser is about, well, players fusing together tracks from the promised library of over 100 songs to keep the crowd entertained, satisfy mid-set requests, and achieve new high scores.You do that by mixing together different strands of each particular track on four different disc plates. Start off by choosing, say, the drumline to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” mix in the bassline to Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” throw in the guitar line of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and layer on top the vocals of….Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” if you’re me at least.

We Got the Beat

Each track featured in the game has four different stems (some mix of vocals, guitar, bass, keyboard, percussion, etc.) you can choose from, and outside of early tutorial-lite suggestions and requests (which I’ll get to in a bit), it’s up to you to mix and match to taste. Harmonix’s music mixing tech – something it showed off so well in the board game DropMix – is kind enough to all the artists involved to make everything sound cohesive, even in a weird mix like the one I described above. There’s an incredible joy in testing different track parts together to find a mix I really grooved with.

Though Fuser’s full launch includes a freestyle mode so you can experiment to your heart’s content, while playing a show in the campaign, as I did in the tutorial level, there are some rules to adhere to if you’re interested in scoring well. Throughout the level – which is playable at PAX East 2020 – the audience shouts for specific elements to be thrown into the mix, and completing these timed objectives contributes to your overall score.Requests pop up as you’re playing, with requests for an ‘80s track, or a hip-hop song, or the vocals of Lizzo’s “Good as Hell.” You can ignore them and a little text will pop up expressing their disappointment, but if you’re a score chaser like myself or any long-playing Rock Band fan, you’ll want to satisfy those requests ASAP.

Smartly, Harmonix has found plenty of little touches to evoke the key elements of music into the gameplay, since you’re not just trying to beat match a guitar riff or drum pattern anymore. For example, above your virtual DJ plates is a beat counter, measuring out the beat and tempo of the song. Dropping a new track on a beat can earn you more points, even though dropping a track on an offbeat could occasionally be an objective.Things get increasingly more complex, and evocative of musicality, in more difficult levels. I was shown a hands-off demo of a much later level, in which objectives included things like changing the key and BPM of a song, hitting on specific beats, satisfying a freshness meter, and more. Watching this level was like watching someone play Guitar Hero on expert for the first time — I knew pretty instantly if I took the controller I’d be fumbling requests, mixing, and more. But I could easily understand the natural progression from what I played to what I was shown, and it had me eager to train up to get there.

Your Song, Your Artist

One of Harmonix’s most intriguing selling points that I only saw a sliver of in the demo was the extrapolation of self-expression at the core of the music mixing. Harmonix really wants to emphasize the player’s power in bringing this DJ fantasy to life through a host of customizable elements. The DJ themselves is entirely customizable, including hair, tattoos, and more. Even the venue can be adjusted to your preferences, from what’s projected onto stage screens to the beach balls being bounced around the audience.

(When asked about future DLC content, Harmonix declined to state post-launch plans, instead emphasizing how fully-featured the developers are planning for the launch game to be.)

There will even be the option for players to custom-make their own loops that can be implemented as tracks instead of the officially licensed music. I only saw a brief inclusion of it in the hands-off level, but I appreciate Harmonix’s ambition to have its latest music experience revolve around player creativity, not just the creativity of the musicians included.

I’m excited by the potential of Fuser from what I saw in my demo, even if many of Harmonix’s plans were more tell than show. Still, the escalation from the tutorial to the advanced stage demonstrates a clear attempt to recapture the magic of jumping from Easy to Expert on the plastic guitar. I’m eager to chase that loop again.

Coupled with the customization options, and the joy of mixing music in an environment meant to encourage choices, and Fuser is setting the stage for a comeback I’m eager to take part in. As a longtime music gaming fan, I’m all for seeing a resurgence of it, especially if the barrier to entry doesn’t involve a lot of plastic instruments. And I can’t imagine anyone better suited for the task than Harmonix.

Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Editor, Podcast Beyond! Host, and The Beatles: Rock Band is one of his favorite gaming experiences ever. Talk to him on Twitter about your favorite music gaming setlists on Twitter @jmdornbush.

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