My apologies to Diplo. Like an old grandpa shouting at rock music, I'd dismissed the role of the superstar DJ as a mere knob-twiddler. A laptop loader. Someone who just rocked up with an iTunes library full of songs and a pocket full of party powder. Fuser, the new game from the creators of Rock Band, proved me wrong with a look at their new DJ sim, which will have you dropping beats and obsessing over loops before you can say "make some noise."
You might be picturing something like Rock Band or Activision's DJ Hero, where you just have to hit colored buttons on a peripheral at the right time. Fuser is more complicated - but also more satisfying - than that, and there's not a plastic accessory in sight. Instead, you're given free-rein over a set of four turntables to drop records onto, and over 100 songs to choose from. You might take the drumbeat from a Billie Eilish song, lend it some heavy bass by way of 50 Cent, and throw the resulting earworm together with a sprinkling of Lizzo vocals and a Smash Mouth melody, timing your additions to the downbeat to really wow your audience.
Or you could be a monster and just have the vocal tracks from four different songs playing, making your set sound like the backstage warm-up vocals at a local production of Cats. As long as you're keeping your crowd happy, switching sounds to stop songs getting stale, fulfilling requests like more pop, and matching your timing to the rhythm, you're in control of the music you make.
"The way we define skill is you're operating with intent. You're doing everything on purpose and you're working within the requests and the game goals," explains Daniel Sussman from Harmonix.
Unlike previous music games, this one isn't pushing the distinctly tired 'rise to fame' narrative, forcing you to endure levels that look like dive bar toilets before eventually hitting the big time. Harmonix wants you to feel like "hot shit right out of the gate", and while there is a campaign, Fuser is about player agency, underscored by a modern understanding of the DJ profession. The tracklist isn't just banging EDM, but mixes old and new, from Blue Oyster Cult and the Clash to Lady Gage and Post Malone. As well as over 100 tracks (and you can bet your glow sticks that number will grow with post-launch DLC) Fuser has six different venues to perform at, and an embarrassment of customization options for your DJ avatar. My demo featured a woman who had clearly been crafted by a Vice intern, with Day-Glo makeup and a half-shaved head.
Pump up the volume
I loved Rock Band, pouting until I got to sing or play lead guitar, but I'd never been drawn to the musical lifestyle presented by FreeStyleGames' DJ Hero. My first hands-on with Fuser completely changed my mind, inducing that same hypnotic state that I'd felt trying to master The Pixies' Wave of Mutilation in Rock Band. I started hearing songs I already loved in a new way, wanting to drop the loop at just the right time, the tempo throbbing in my ears as I cued up discs and planned my transitions. The controls have been carefully mapped to standard controllers, with each turntable represented by a different face button, and flipping through your record collection just a case of hitting the bumpers. I was playing with an Xbox One controller, but it's easy to imagine it translating to the Dualshock 4 or even Nintendo Switch.
As usual, a simple interface hides plenty of nuance under the hood, too. Slip into the next layer of menus and you can change the tempo of your tracks, or even switch them from a major to minor key. You can have tracks cued up under each turntable for quicker switches, and - for the real musicians in the house - Harmonix has even provided the option to record your own samples on a variety of in-game instruments. Blazing hot marimba beat anyone? It's almost terrifying to think what hardcore fans are going to create, even as the rest of us happily sit on our couches mixing a bit of Fatboy Slim with Imagine Dragons and thinking we're the next Calvin Harris.
"I've been making music games at Harmonix for 20 years," says Sussman. "What I feel like everyone thinks of when you talk about a music game is something like rhythm-action, and it's been very refreshing to work on something that is really different."
Straight away it's easy to see the potential for a game that combines the all-consuming flow state rhythm games with the ability to create. Streamers playing hours-long sets for fans with their own mash-ups, players with a talent for creating weird and wonderful sounds going viral… the list goes on. According to Harmonix, this is all part of the master plan, and even tricky legal stuff like music licensing for the tracks has been set up to take this into account. Add to that the addition of co-op, multiplayer, and freestyle modes, and Fuser is shaping up to be a party game that finally makes people want to party.
Fuser will be playable at PAX East this week and will be released in fall 2020.