Version tested: Xbox 360
Cliff Bleszinski observed recently that Active Reload is one of the best ideas in the whole of Gears of War, and the fact that nobody's ripped it off is bizarre - especially when you consider how much they have ripped off. Gears may not have invented clip-to-the-wall cover systems, but it certainly popularised them, and even if you discount that, you can't throw a stone without hitting an action game that owes Bleszinski a pint. Fracture certainly does, having nicked the Roadie Run with an almost actionable disregard for variation, and - if that's any indication - the gently concealed data chips you collect and the player-character's crimson barrel-chested armour are also casual lifts.
Fracture doesn't have a cover system though, and that's because its big thing is terrain deformation, and deformed terrain is too curvy and freeform to snap your back to, even if the game's enormous volume of crates, boulders and barrels would be a perfect alternative. Instead you dig instant pits and compose muddy mounds to certain (hard-coded) depths and heights using the 'Entrencher', and the game plays out around this deformation as a standard third-person shooter. The implications are interesting: protect yourself from turrets by erecting makeshift cover, solve puzzles by pushing, steering and burrowing past things with the terrain, and tackle enemies by juggling them into the air and letting rip with your basic arsenal.
Sadly the developers won't leave you to it. Even after a heavy-handed tutorial level, every puzzle solution is the blindingly obvious last step at the end of a narrowing gamespace, or simply highlighted by icons or described by your CO, who barks instructions through an earpiece throughout. Anything that isn't spoilt by design falls down almost immediately because the solution is simple and repetition and clunky mechanics ruin the satisfaction of implementing it, the wrong bit of ground regularly leaping or sagging in response to what seemed like a well-aimed Entrencher blast.
As for combat, your arsenal is surprisingly puny, utilitarian and understocked for long stretches, while enemies are numerous and accurate, so instead of making tactical judgements about how to utilise deformation you either madly spam the floor to carve out a window for your Halo-style overbody shield to recover, or forget about it entirely, only remembering when the Entrencher is upgraded with new functions. Basic mechanics are mishandled, with creaky analogue acceleration meaning it's harder to target your foes than it should be, while the range of enemies is predictable and they rarely react to being shot until they absorb the final bullet, emphasising the grind and removing any sense of pace from firefights, which are either slow, ranged affairs or fierce and frantic up until the last moment.
Graphically the game is repetitious and bland, and everyone walking past my desk inquired whether it was an Unreal Engine 3 game - not a criticism of Epic's ubiquitous technology base, but an obvious sign that there's little at any given point that we haven't seen before. The most unusual thing about the visual design is that all your enemies appear to have been clad in gold foil, conjuring images of C-3PO Arbiters, while pretty much all the environments are gunmetal greys, muddy browns and mossy greens spread across deformable basins, through caves and over prefabbed military and industrial facilities that could be from Halo, Resistance or any other recent shooter you care to mention. The quality of Michael Giacchino and colleagues' expressive, rousing score is in sharp contrast to what's being thrown through the frame buffer.
There are a few good moments, but there's nothing particularly innovative. The vortex grenade, which swirls and gathers everything in its vicinity, including rocks, crates, enemies and pickups, eventually levelling out and distributing its victims face-down across a wide area, has been done before (as long ago as Quake mod Painkeep's Gravity Well, to pluck the oldest one from our collective memory), and an epic encounter with a skyscraper-sized walking dreadnought is sullied by the memory of much better equivalents in games like Halo 3.
Meanwhile, the game's Americocentric post-climate change story about conflicting biological philosophies is drowned out by a functional script, bland characters and conveyor belt scenarios (one of which centres around an actual conveyor belt), and there's nothing to like about the chap whose shoulder you spend the game looking over (especially his name - Jet Brody, for goodness sake). Set-piece moments pepper the arc, like the destruction of a familiar San Franciscan landmark a third of the way through, but these are immediately drowned out by the descent into another clichd game of assault the genre staple facility, and while checkpointing is usually fair, irritating enemy design (hopping, jetpack-equipped rocket-launcher types, for instance, or burrowing mini Corpsers) and the game's other faults compensate by elevating the frustration levels.
Away from the campaign, Fracture supports 12 players across a range of familiar modes, the one exception coming in Excavation, which is a team-based game of capturing and holding territory by erecting and then protecting a spike. With a middling array of weapons, second-best mechanics and the same issues as in single-player conspiring to distract you from terrain deformation abilities, however, there's nothing here that will encourage you to come back as often as better shooters like Gears of War, Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, and nothing structurally interesting to note, save perhaps the perfunctoriness of the 360 Achievements, which reward 50 games completed in various game-types and 10, 100, 250, 500 and 1500 multiplayer games endured. We pity the people who care about this stuff enough to bother.
We get through a lot of third-person shooters in a year, and our tolerance inevitably drops, so it's worth acknowledging that many of the vast list of things we object to in Fracture equal the low standard set by the likes of Turok and Haze, and that if you managed to survive those games without burning down the shop that sold them to you, this will suffice for a weekend's distraction. But with the vastly superior Gears of War 2 just weeks away from release, and even Dark Sector delivering an order of magnitude more innovation and class, there's little reason to celebrate a game that fumbles the basics of this generation's most prominent copy-and-paste genre and almost singularly flops with everything else it attempts.
4 / 10