The Double-A Team is a newish feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
Last week, we had a ramble through Shadowrun. This week we exhume Fracture.
(Oh, and we have an archive of the existing Double-A Team pieces now. Enjoy!)
Listen up, jarhead: Fracture drops you into the chunky boots of Jet Brody, a fired-up vanguard trooper tasked with turning the tide of a 22nd-century US civil war. How did Brody find himself in a dropship plummeting toward a weirdly landlocked Golden Gate Bridge? Fracture's backstory is genuine science-fiction, in that it is predicated on the frankly absurd fantasy of politicians actually doing something pro-active to avert an imminent eco-apocalypse.
The game's rocky road to the far-flung year 2161 involves whizzy new terrain-deforming tech being deployed to buttress the affluent east and west coasts against rising sea levels while ignoring the bit in the middle, splitting the US into two geologically and soon ideologically separate blocs. But never mind all the world-building guff: simply bask in that incredible handle.
Jet Brody! Jet! Maybe it's short for Jethro? Christening your hunk-a-lunk hero with a name like that is pretty much the equivalent of budget airline Speedy Boarding when it comes to being inducted into the Double-A Team hall of maim. Not that there was ever any doubt that Fracture would make the cut.
Even a passing glimpse at the 2008 cover art suggests an abundance of bumptious Double-A energy. It depicts a cratered battlefield of scorched rock populated by various armoured heavies, crackling energy discharges and glowing crates caught mid-tumble. One aggro dude is even framed by Brody's widely planted and clearly very powerful legs, like Roger Moore on the For Your Eyes Only poster if Q had been dishing out Crysis nanosuits.
All this gung-ho daftness hits you even before you get to Fracture's main gameplay gadget, a man-portable version of the continent-reshaping bobbins that created the schism between the east coast Atlantic Alliance (heroic advocates of extensive cyber augmentation) and their western rivals the Pacificans (down-and-dirty DNA-fiddlers) in the first place.
Once installed, this Entrencher tech gives Brody the ability to raise or lower the terrain in his targeting reticule simply by spamming the bumper buttons, abruptly creating rocky speed-bumps or depressions to stymie the Pacifican swarm. Such instant landscaping is the sort of thing you usually get in god games like Populous or From Dust, but initiating it at boots-on-the-ground level rather than from a celestial height admittedly gives Fracture an initial thrill.
This was a knuckleball attempt to reinvent the cover-shooter template popularised by Gears of War. Instead of diving toward waist-high walls when coming under fire Brody could simply conjure up his own rocky cover. But this power fantasy quickly collided with PS3/Xbox 360-era technical limits. You could only raise rubble to a certain height; dig too deep and you hit an impermeable bedrock. Discovering these restrictions emphasised that you were essentially playing a fairly bog-standard corridor shooter lightly sprinkled with sandbox floors.
The Entrencher tech arguably generated the most fun out of combat. As the campaign trundled from a sunny west coast skirmish toward a snowy Washington DC showdown, one of the side distractions involved some actual mine craft, challenging Brody to create an improvised marble run capable of steering explosive Hydra Balls toward some bothersome shield generators.
But even if its USP ended up feeling a little tokenistic, Fracture had a secret throwaway gimmick in its back pocket. Toss a vortex grenade into a clump of enemies and they would be sucked up into an entertaining mini-tornado of howling wind and debris, a chaotic stunt that reliably enlivened even the most stilted firefight.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a game built around creating mini earthquakes would have lots of minor faults. But there will always be a place in my heart for Jet Brody, the loyal grunt who could literally choose what hillock to die on.