Al Gore was right. By the year 2161, the inconvenient truth of the matter is that global warming has become the number one global power. America’s shorelines have risen to an alarming degree, turning many coastal cities into Atlantises, the central plains into an inland sea, and the United States into a geographically split landscape.
But it’s not only Rand McNally that’s been enjoying job security through the constantly changing map. Terrain Deformation (Fracture’s reason for being) is the big sell that constantly changes the face of the battlefield on a micro scale. While most developers of action-shooter games have focused their efforts on deforming the architecture, per se, of the battlefield – hard cover and foliage degradation, collapsible buildings – developer Day 1 Studios’ programmers were forced into countless late nights at the office, working the gargantuan task of figuring out how to transform the terrain itself. How that feels, exactly, and how that changes the game, specifically, can’t be described through any process short of getting your own hands in the dirt
Call it a waterbed shooter. Call it a Jell-O mold platformer. Realize that it’s both. But also realize, before you call it a “gimmick,” that Fracture is utterly devoted to its cause. Every type of grenade moves the earth. Only two guns out of the full-lineup armory don’t pound the ground in some way, shape, or form. Each level is crafted to take full advantage of deformable terrain. The singular vehicle driven during the campaign is equipped to break down and build up the road. So no matter what else may strike you as generic in the scenery or the character design, you will never forget that you’re playing Fracture as long as there’s a patch of dirt within arm’s reach.
And there’s zero guesswork involved in deciding whether your Entrencher, a continually-recharging Terrain Deformation weapon permanently attached to your forearm, can in fact deform the terrain: If it’s brown, you can deform it – if it’s gray, you can’t. This accomplishes two conflict-of-interest things. First, it ensures that in single-player and multiplayer that you’ll intuitively know, without hesitation, what terrain you can affect and what terrain you can’t. Second, it ensures that in single-player and multiplayer that you’ll have to fight the visual boredom painted across two-thirds of the game’s three acts.
The first act has the hero-formerly-known-as-Mason-Briggs, Jet Brody, flying into the newly-formed capital city of the Pacifican States, San Francisco. The Bay Area is the real-world home of publisher LucasArts, and the name Jet Brody, incidentally, was bestowed by George Lucas himself after he found the name Mason Briggs too generic. Publisher LucasArts’ writers played a significant role in the characters’ backstory, although their effort only passively makes its way onto the screen. Jet was raised in a houseboat on the Mississippi Sea, which is a Mark-Twain-worthy detail that’s ignored in-game. Colonel Roy Lawrence, spearhead of the Atlantic Alliance, adopted Jet at a young age -- which is likewise ignored in-game except for the fact that the Colonel is being literal when he calls Jet “Son.” General Nathan Sheridan, the rogue leader of the Pacifican States, is treasonously bitter about the preventable loss of his twin daughters – although this tremendous fact is brushed off with a passive one-liner in a cutscene. And the introduction of female bit character, the Japanese-born Mariko Tokuyama, during the second act neither heats up nor cools off the game screen.
Nevertheless, the overarching conflict of cyber technology versus genetic engineering (the driving ideologies behind the Atlantic Alliance and Pacifican States, respectively) is at least a step up from the incredibly lazy aliens-versus-humans trope baked into too many other shooters.Jet’s stable of weaponry, due to its dedicated Terrain Deformation capabilities, renders even the most mundane gun into something far more exciting. The aforementioned Entrencher, along with serving as “the key that unlocks the world of Fracture” (as stated by Day 1 Studios), is a makeshift weapon that can stun enemies as they’re bouncing and falling while the ground is raised and dropped from under them. Not to mention its emergent ability to crush enemies – and yourself if careless – up against ceilings. The ST-4 Torpedo Launcher is a brilliant addition (“Inspired by Buggs Bunny and Tremors”) that sends a subterranean round tearing a scar across the landscape that remotely detonates on command beneath the enemy. The ALM-37 Deep Freeze gun temporarily keeps the ground from moving; plus it plays freeze tag with the bad guys, stopping them in their tracks, and allowing you to shatter them with a single melee hit. The Pacifican Rhino creates a ‘glued together’ ball of rocks that bowls itself across the lumpy landscape: Novel, but easily avoidable. The Lodestone rifle is difficult to implement in combat, but essentially creates a miniature black hole that sucks everything within a small radius towards a central point. This can sometimes crush enemies and crates together, but is only practically used during a few staged platforming moments during single-player. These are some of the more unique options in Fracture, though there are plenty of other standardized and recognizable automatic firing options available as well.
The four types of grenades also wreak plenty of havoc. In addition to serving up a platter of splash damage, the Tectonic and Subsonic grenades violently raise and lower terrain. The Spike Grenade lifts a molten pillar of earth a couple stories into the air, giving a height advantage to your line of sight, giving you a lift to otherwise inaccessible platforms, giving an upward push to sagging walkways, or giving you a “Van Helsing” Xbox Achievement if you somehow manage to squish an enemy against a ceiling above (something I pulled off accidentally, and only once, during my early hands-on time at LucasArts in September).
The star of the show is, inarguably, the Vortex NP-32 Grenade. Simply toss, stand back, and watch a swirling vortex create a tornado of debris and baddies spinning and yelling before a bright blue explosion expels them – dead – in every direction. It never ever gets old, especially in multiplayer. And it’s a deft trick pulled off by Day 1 Studios (if you find yourself sucked in and spinning around for a few seconds in one of these Vortex Grenades) that lets you think, if for only a few seconds, “Hey, I can still think straight. Maybe I can get out of this alive.” But nope. You’re dead before you ever fully realize it. And of all the ways to die in a multiplayer match, finding yourself inside the event horizon of a Vortex Grenade is actually a fun way to die. It’s inexplicably difficult to be angry at it.
Multiplayer comes with eight maps and eight game types. There’s the “Ft. Point” map tucked under the San Francisco Bay Bridge. “Burning Divide” reveals a lava flow cutting through Yellowstone Park. “Area 52” is, yes, a storage area located next to a certain other famous storage area in the Southwest. Urban Decay takes the multiplayers across the continental divide and into Washington D.C. (the site of act three in the single-player). While “Biohazard” and “Solar Winds” track back to the Southwest and West Coast once again.
Free for All multiplayer mode is unbelievable levels of chaos – as its name implies – as it’s every man for himself. Team Free for All at least turns half of the dots on your radar green and the other half red. Capture the Flag is straight-forward enough, while One Flag Capture the Flag singularizes the match’s focal point. KingMaker and Team KingMaker is all about securing and holding ground for as long as possible in good old king-of-the-hill fashion. Except for the fact, of course, that in Fracture a hill one moment could be a trench the next. Break-In requires teams to split up defensively and offensively to defend their “King” region while securing the other team’s. And finally, Excavation has your team alternately raising pillars for your side at designated areas, while destroying the opposing faction’s pillars otherwise. And your hunch is correct: With the wild card that Terrain Deformation introduces into the multiplayer arenas, the action is as frenzied as you predict.
The idea of tossing around the battlefield with pillowy Terrain Deformation effects is inarguably unique, but couched in very dull surroundings. A fight against an 800-foot monolith is visually impressive at first, but winds up small in execution. The vehicle stage is more plodding in pace than would be huffing the distance on foot. And there are just enough hints at characterization to leave every eventual detail blowing in the wind. It’s ultimately not difficult to get acclimated to the gameplay in Fracture, and there’s even a small playground mode that unlocks more and more goodies as you swipe collectibles from the single-player campaign, but it’s a gentle letdown to see the story almost completely entrenched beneath the Terrain Deformation mechanic. And an inconvenient truth about Fracture is that it can’t break itself off a piece of classic status, but it merits an award for solidly pulling off its ideas in the first place.