Joystiq impressions: Fracture (PS3/360)

Zack Stern
Z. Stern|05.03.07

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Joystiq impressions: Fracture (PS3/360)

LucasArts and Day 1 Studios unveiled Fracture last night at a San Francisco media event. The Presideo campus headquarters of LucasFilm, LucasArts, and ILM (as seen on Conan O'Brien) housed us for several game videos, a demo, and question-and-answer time.

We weren't allowed to play Fracture, but I got a better sense of the title beyond the initial announcement. Fracture, which will rely on players reshaping the game's terrain in real-time, has a lot of potential. A few parts of the game concerned me -- like how the terrain weapons don't affect buildings and if changing the landscape will be fun in the middle of a fight -- but the basic ability to ripple and distort the land was impressive. Hopefully, Fracture will live up to its potential; we've already seen destructible games fall short of their hype.

Jim Ward, President of LucasArts described that company's strategy to rebuild its game catalog. We're all familiar with the first part of his three-part plan: making more Star Wars games. (He specified "high quality" Star Wars titles. Good to know.) Additionally, LucasArts is rebuilding the Indiana Jones franchise, especially with the new movie in production.

Fracture fits into the neglected third category: creating new IP, either within LucasArts or working with outside developers. "We're more than the Star Wars and Indy company," Ward noted.

Ward discussed how the next-gen approach has been about graphics, but how LucasArts is still committed to story and gameplay. Fracture will use the power of the PS3 and 360 to compute and render the landscape's changes, instead of trying only to wow players with visual details. Ultimately, Ward wants Fracture to be "storytelling supported by great technology" instead of a gimmick.

LucasArts and Day 1 Studios only unveiled the premise and backstory of the game. In the future, terrain-manipulating weapons are adapted from technology used to reshape the land after flooding. Unrelated to that, scientists begin genetic engineering experiments with bad results, causing the East coast to pass laws against that sort of tinkering. Instead of giving up, the scientists fly to the West coast, with its noted lack of morals, and keep modifying the human genome. After those experiments are banned on a Federal level, the West coast decides to secede rather than give up its super-human powers, leaving the East to pummel the West back into the union.

While a serviceable premise -- although I laughed out loud at the graphic of the airplane lines flying to the West coast, where we match delicious stem cells with a good white wine -- the game demos focused on the technology instead of the story. I wish that LucasArts and Day 1 Studios had talked more about why gamers would care about the protagonist, but they didn't answer those questions. All that was clear was that the West coast is evil, you'll play the single-player game only as an Easterner, and they're building multiplayer modes into the game but didn't disclose specifics.

Story aside, the actual gameplay looked interesting. The game is played in a third-person mode with a cross-hair target; they decided to use this perspective to give a better sense of scale and let players more closely identify with the protagonist. While they didn't let us touch the controls, the game seemed to play similarly to a FPS but in a third-person perspective; the camera seemed locked just behind the character, and he was able to strafe and move as in a standard shooter.

The terrain weapons will come in several varieties, but mostly rely on a limited supply of grenades. One grenade will raise hills, and one will lower them. Another grenade will cause a vortex that implodes and sucks in nearby objects: people, land masses, boulders, and more. One weapon will cause a pillar of earth to rise out of the ground. Other guns will shoot and chip away at the landscape, while another weapon will form and launch a large boulder to bowl away enemies. My favorite weapon will launch a grenade underground that players can detonate after it closes the gap to an enemy.

The game will use more traditional guns, too, and players will switch between all of these options in battles. From the demo, I'm concerned that all of these options may be too much to manage in a firefight, but I'll have to hold judgment until I can actually play the game. The presenters also stressed that they're trying to appeal to a wider audience than hardcore gamers; they want more casual players to be able to complete the game and are also targeting a teen rating.

The terrain morphing looked great, with the earth rippling and then solidifying as if in an earthquake. But since the buildings and other structures aren't affected by those weapons, Fracture could become less of an open playground as intended.

One example demonstrated was when the character wanted to gain access to a building, but all of its doors were locked. A conspicuous piece of the building had been blown off, and the player could tunnel underground and into this hole. While a good demonstration of what's possible in using the terrain tools for puzzle-solving, this seemed artificially designed into the game instead of an actual situation the character would encounter. It would make the most sense to just blow a hole in the building, but LucasArts and Day 1 Studios acknowledged that that was beyond the processing power of the game's engine.

Only in development for 15 months so far, Fracture is already impressive for the way that the earth can be reformed in real-time. I hope that LucasArts and Day 1 Studios live up to their promise that the story will be equally important; if so -- and if it's also fun to create terrain cover and other techniques in a battle -- Fracture could introduce a new class of action games.
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