One of the oft-repeated historical curiosities about the Maya is that they conceived the wheel yet never found a practical application for it. Maya kids had wheeled toys and Maya calendars were imagined as wheels...yet when it came to hauling something, your average Maya just heaped his shit on a sledge and dragged it like a pack mule. Exciting and revolutionary possibilities were sitting right there in front of them and yet — for whatever reason — they went unexplored.
I found myself daydreaming about this when playing Fracture, a third-person shooter that arms players with the Entrencher, a sci-fi weapon that can either gouge pits into the earth or raise it up into mounds. (It seems the only way first- and third-person shooters can distinguish themselves anymore is by concocting some bizarre new weapon for the players' arsenal.) The ability to reshape terrain on the fly is an attention-grabbing, fresh concept, and something that raises a player's expectations — but it ends up superficially realized, scarcely used and then buried under 40 tons of stale ideas for good measure. Like the Maya and the wheel: There was an interesting idea sitting there, but the developers never figured out anything to do with it.
It took me about half the game to finally realize this, after hours of expecting Fracture to be just a little cleverer than it actually is. One easy example: Early in the game you encounter the first boss, a hulking biomonster that attacks by either charging or rolling a huge glowing boulder in your direction. Watching the thing's boulders follow the contours of the ground, I was sure the strategy for beating him would somehow involve using my nifty new Entrencher to turn his projectiles against him. So I ducked and weaved around the behemoth's attacks, expertly sculpting the terrain to guide his boulders right back into him, over and over...only to slowly realize it wasn't doing anything to him at all. Turns out, all I had to do was shoot him. The same way I've been shooting big monsters in games for, oh, a quarter of a century now.
What is this Entrencher for, again?
It's not just lacking imagination in the gameplay department: Every single aspect of the game is similarly uninspired or worse. The player controls clichéd sci-fi videogame hero Jet Brody — a bald space marine who looks exactly like characters in a dozen other games (and so forgettable I actually had to look his name up, even after playing through the whole damn game). He takes orders from a gruff African-American colonel who astonishingly isn't chomping a cigar or threatening to PT enlisted men until they die, and the main villain used to be a good guy...until he went crazy. The game even cribs from itself: I'm almost positive there's an entire in-game conversation that's repeated — word for word — twice, a few hours apart. I'd double-check if it didn't mean having to play through it again.
Everything about Fracture just looks and feels like a generic, made-up action game some teenager would be playing in the background of a romantic comedy. That it's clunky to boot (your crosshairs are more or less meaningless, your shots regularly hitting whatever low cover is in front of you) and culminates in one of the most infuriatingly annoying final boss battles in recent memory (and a palate-swap enemy to boot) makes it tough to say much of anything nice about Fracture. The moral of this story is: One good idea isn't enough...especially if you don't even do anything with it.