A good bluff single word name is what every up and coming new action game needs to properly project its masculinity. Doom, Quake, Rage, Prototype, Fracture, Prey, Crackdown, Condemned, F.E.A.R., err... Turok. You know what you're getting with a name that blunt and muscular and it doesn't involve moving virtual furniture or petting polygonal dogs.
The only problem is that as different as the games might be the names are so similar it's hard to tell them apart. When you first clicked this link where you 100 percent sure which game this was? Maybe it was that one by the guys that did Hulk: Ultimate Destruction? Or was it that new one from id Software?
It's neither, it's the new LucasArts game that isn't a Star Wars tie-in. Crazy talk we know, but this really has nothing to do with Star Wars at all and, according to the LucasArts producer we got to chatting to over a rather nice roast chicken lunch, the thought of making it yet another Jedi based tie-in was never entertained. Incredible as it may seem LucasArts has turned off the license-printing machine and decided to enter the world of original ideas.
Fracture, you may now be beginning to recall, is actually perfectly sensibly named, since the game's plot and gimmicks all revolve around interfering with the Earth's crust in various third-person shoot-'em-up benefiting ways. "Terrain deformation" is the term LucasArts has concocted to describe it and which no one but them will ever use without feeling slightly silly.
Your adventures in topographical realignment are achieved via two key methods, the most obvious being your trusty Entrencher tool which with a press of the left bumper instantly carves a two metre wide crater in the ground, while pawing the right bumper creates an instant molehill of the same size. (You can also use it to knock back enemies if you run out of ammo, but it doesn't do anything more than that.)
The other means of messing with mother Earth is by flinging grenades, of which there are currently four types - two of which simply replicate the raising and lowering of the Entrencher but in an easily-thrown bite-sized form.
The Spike grenade is more interesting because it creates an instant vertical shaft of quickly cooling lava, which you can use to poke and melt encamped enemies, knock over objects or even jump upon to use as an impromptu lift. The final Vortex grenade doesn't do much to the terrain at all, but it does create a mini tornado that sucks everything into it and then explodes - which is still terribly useful.
LucasArts (developer Day 1 Studios, who did the MechAssault games, didn't seem to be around) was happy to demonstrate all this in the first ever look at the second of the game's three main areas - the slightly dour-sounding Desert South West.
At this point all the exciting talk about making the earth move for genetically enhanced bad guys hits the cold hard light of ultra generic art design. If you can imagine every sci-fi movie and game from the last twenty years being put into a giant mixer, turned to gooey pap and then excreted out in the form of the world's least memorable looking enemies, dropships and backdrops then you might get an idea of just how bland this game looks.
On a technical level it's often quite impressive, but the production design seems to have been neutered in order to ensure more conservative gamers don't have their minds imploded by the presence of so many new ideas, thus providing a comfort zone of (over)familiarity in case they get scared by it all (or haven't played Magic Carpet before).
Once you get over how boring the game looks though it's clear that the gameplay itself has a lot more to say for itself. Even just having the desert level played at us by LucasArts it all looks great fun as you watch mountainous cover being created with a single button press, incongruous stacks of crates and concrete pipes fly into bad guy's faces and observe cleverly circuitous routes being taken around bad guys by digging under the ground or climbing above it.
Elsewhere there was still no sign of any vehicles to drive about in, but they are still apparently in the game. If we had to make a blind guess we'd imagine that one looks like a warthog and the other is a sort of ATV. Although naturally we all hope and pray for flying motorbikes.
The best bit from the vehicle-less desert section involved some mutated dog monsters (which look like the Zerg from StarCraft) tunnelling around under the ground like the worms from Tremors. The LucasArts chap had clearly dealt with their sort before though and was able to dig them out of the ground with the Entrencher and fling them into the air with a Spike grenade.
Disappointingly little time was allowed for us to actually play the game ourselves, as we were only allowed to work through the tutorial level which will itself be released as a demo in August or September.
The only problem with playing the tutorial level is that every puzzle and objective is spelled out in excruciating detail, making it difficult to tell how obscure or experimental later obstacles will become. According to the producer though things do all become less obvious as soon as the game feels you've found your feet.
What we did get to experience though was the simple joys of messing about with the terrain and raising up the earth across the level until it was as pockmarked as a teenager's face during a Clearasil shortage. Heaving up the earth to protect yourself as you circle round to take out a turret is definitely great fun, as is making use of the welcomingly imaginative range of non terrain-deforming weapons.
The torpedo launcher proves particularly good value as you fire it into the ground and then watch it tunnel along before detonating it under a suitably large throng of enemies. There's also a mine-firing gun, which allows you to explode UN-unfriendly explosives at a time of your choosing.
Plus there's the ice gun, which not only freezes enemies, allowing you to smash them into ice cubes, but also enables you to freeze the ground so that it can't be interfered with for a while. (Later on in the game the enemy gets to use its own Entrenchment tools.)
Talk of a 12-player online mode sounds particularly alluring once you start to experiment with the tactical possibilities offered by the game's weapons. As a chat with the LucasArts producer later revealed, play-testers just love moving objects around the map with the Entrencher, even though it was never meant to be used that way, and so this has been encouraged in multiplayer maps and incorporated into some of the later puzzles.
To the obvious dismay of LucasArts at that point we had the temerity not to get killed and suddenly it was all hands over the TV screen time before we could see any more - as if the game had suddenly turned into a cowboy plumber caught in the act. Despite the limited play time though the game definitely impressed. It's all a case of not judging a book by its cover but if your partner fell for that old line then maybe you will too with this game.
Fracture is due out on PS3 and 360 this September.