“Finally.” That was the first thought I had in my head when Rage was released this month. Throughout the five years of its development, it felt like you couldn’t go anywhere without Rage being brought up as id sent out a stream of screenshots, gameplay previews and even launched an iPhone game. As Rage got closer and closer to release, it seemed to be drawing comparisons between Fallout 3 and Borderlands (which I will be doing often in this review), although id was quick to point out that it was nothing like them - a shame considering those games were more engaging. The biggest issue with Rage is that there is very little meat on its bones. It is by no means a bad game, but if this was intended to herald some magnificent return for id, its a pretty weak one.
Rage’s paper thin story begins with a massive asteroid careening towards Earth and as part of a lucky few, you are put into cryostasis within wide network of shelters called Arks, designed to protect the future of humanity from the violent devastation of the asteroid’s impact. After an indeterminable amount of time, the game starts with you waking from stasis to the sounds of blaring klaxons. Forced to leave the Ark alone, as your mates have met an unfortunate end, your first moments in this new and terrible world involved being violently harassed by a random thug who is then shot by local man Dan Hagar (voiced by John Goodman!). Before you can catch your breath, Dan has you moving around the Wasteland running his errands. As a silent protagonist, you really don’t have much say in most matters and it seems as though these strangers are far more concerned about the main character’s situation than he is.
Rage is a first person shooter, which should come as no surprise considering that id practically invented the FPS genre. Although Rage presents itself as an open world shooter, it is difficult not to feel as if you are being led on a fairly linear path. You can travel off the beaten path, but there is nothing much to see. The best thing about Fallout 3 was that it managed to deliver a great sense of discovery because there was always something to see and do in every direction. Never did I get the feeling that Rage wanted to let go of my hand and say, “Go play. Be back in time for dinner.” Instead, the breadcrumb trail visible within the in-game mini-map is constantly telling you where you should be going at any given time.
The bulk of the game has you completing quests in order to advance the plot and are handed out by major NPCs that reside in the small number of human settlements in the Wasteland. After accepting a quest, you’ll hop into your Mad Max-style car and speed off into the direction of your objective, fending off attacks from bandits and collecting falling meteorites for extra cash. The cars handle well, but the vehicle experience isn’t compelling and it wasn’t long before I caught myself tuning out, bypassing combat and meteor collecting altogether. That’s what happens when driving sequences function primarily as a bridge from one on foot sequence to another.
Despite the number of locations and variety of objectives, it doesn’t take too long for feelings of deja vu to settle in. The game tries to dress things up a bit, but the fact of the matter is you’re pretty much repeating the same task over and over. The breakdown for the game’s missions involve driving near the entrance of a level, getting out of the car, shooting enemies and collecting an item or turning a device on/off. You’ll revisit locations often, travelling through familiar territory before being led towards a different part of the area. To id’s credit, the pathfinding in the game is fantastic. I tend to have the problem with getting lost in first person shooters and it has not been an issue here.
If shooting and vehicular combat gets to be too much, you’re welcome to participate in a host of mini-games and racing tournaments. In the town of Wellspring, there are a number of chance games including a dejarik-style (any Star Wars fans out there?) game that involves rolling dice to fend off holographic mutants, five finger fillet and a card game loosely based on the recent Warhammer 40K CCG. You can bet money on all these games, which is useful because there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of cash circulating the Wasteland and you’ll need every dollar to buy supplies. Apart from cash, you can also earn racing certificates that can be collected from winning car races and can be used to upgrade your vehicle’s offensive and defensive capabilities such as increased armor and better weapons. Races are simple circuit-style courses and after being forced to play through a race, I really had no desire to do any it more.
Combat is tight and comfortable - it would have to be, right? You’ll have access to a standard laundry list of guns, including a pistol, machine gun, rocket launcher and crossbow. Each weapon has several different ammo types which can be used against various enemy types. Through an in-game craft system, you can create secondary weapons such as walking sentry turrets, a razor sharp boomerang and EMP grenades. You can aim down the iron sights for most weapons, but you can also purchase a zooming monocle that grants a sniper rifle-level of zoom, but it only works with the pistol. The brief animation that plays out when you activate the zoom had me worried that I was entering a Doom 3 flashlight situation, but thankfully you can fire while gazing through the monocle. You’ll want to be sure and stock up on ammo before heading out on a mission, because there doesn’t seem to be much of it in the field. You can loot corpses, but I had a few instances of traversing through levels with no ammo.The biggest gripe I have with combat stems from the disconnect of mouse sensitivity between the camera and menu cursor. Initially, I found camera movement to be a bit sluggish, so I ramped up the sensitivity to it’s highest setting and while the camera was noticeably better, the cursor speed for in-game menus was way too damn fast. Lowering the sensitivity helped, but in-game movement suffered. I adjusted the settings once again and now every time I go into the menus to select ammo and items, it requires intense, tongue chewing concentration.
I’m familiar with the phrase, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Well, here comes the part of the review where I heap some praise for Rage. As it stands, this is the best looking game of all time. The incredibly high resolution of the in-game textures is nothing short of breathtaking because the game looks so photorealistic. The entire game looks like concept artwork, it’s THAT good. I absolutely love the design of this world and unlike other post apocalyptic video game settings, Rage’s Wasteland looks very much lived in. Clearly the remnants of human civilization have been picking through the ruins of nearby cities to build settlements.
One of the problems I had with Fallout 3’s design is that it would often repeat assets, resulting in many of the environments looking similar, if not the same, from one another. With Rage, I didn’t get that feeling. Each location in the game is unique and great care was put into their design. My favorite location in the game is the lair Doctor Kvasir. When you first reach the doctor’s home, a large balloon powered by propellers lifts from a canyon, carrying a bridge for you to walk on. Due to the position of the camera during this sequence, for a brief moment I thought I was playing Myst 3: Exile again. It looked so amazingly out of place from the general disarray of the Wasteland. The incredible graphics extend to the character models for all of the NPCs, many of them showing off an incredible range of detail in hairstyle and clothing. There are some fantastic character animations both for enemies and friendly NPCs and it is clear that the animators spent a considerable number of hours animating these people because their movements are incredibly fluid and expressive. It makes me wonder if any motion capture was involved.
Sadly, Rage’s incredible good looks come at a cost: horrible, unsightly texture pop-in. The visuals have a fairly unusual quirk: it appears that the game will only load the textures that fall within your current field of view. Although everything looks gorgeous in front of you, if you move the camera slowly in any direction, you’ll spot unsightly low resolution objects for a moment before the textures have had a chance to fully load. Perhaps this was a conscious decision to lessen the processing power on computers, but given the amount of hype the visuals have been given, it is somewhat disappointing. For the most part, the texture pop-in is somewhat unnoticable while driving and engaged in firefights, but if you take the time to admire the scenery, it gets to be more glaring.
The strange thing about the PC version is that there are no tweaking options available for video settings. I recall spending at least a half an hour trying to find the right settings to get Doom 3 running smoothly, so I was surprised to see that Rage’s video options are limited to brightness, anti-aliasing and resolution. I went online to see if there was anything I could do to decrease the instances of texture pop-in and was able to create a config file that made things a bit better. John Carmack mentioned recently that a patch will be made available which grants more video options, so we’ll see if that makes any difference.
Rage can be a fun game, as long as you temper your expectations a bit. Yes, it is an open world shooter, but it’s not Grand Theft Auto or Fallout 3. It’s quest based structure is simple and straightforward and you cannot customize your character outside of a one time class choice. It sports an interesting crafting system which allows you to put all the junk and vendor trash you’ve accumulated to good use. If you like shooting stuff in a beautifully realized world, then Rage is for you. And yet, despite all this I can’t shake the feeling that the experience is considerably shallow. It lacks the elements that make similar games a far more compelling experience. Borderlands had gun collection, Fallout 3 had character progression. Yes, you can upgrade your car, but you won’t be spending much time in it anyway.
Rage comes packaged with two multiplayer options: co-op and vehicular combat. Co-op missions are set outside of the game’s central narrative and function as a means to flesh out certain elements of the Wasteland and it’s inhabitants. For example, one co-op mission tells of how Dan Hagar obtained the sniper rifle he gives to the main character. These levels pit you and another player in a contest for points that are earned from kills with bonuses being rewarded for certain feats like head shots, assists and multi-kills. In Road Rage, you’ll compete with other players in various vehicle based games and races. There is some degree of progression in this mode, as you can unlock better cars and weapons.
There are plenty winks and nods to previous id titles, including the much discussed hidden rooms based on Doom and Wolfenstein and you’ll often come across the large demonic symbol from Doom 3. One of the first things you see at the start of the game is a Doomguy bobble head sitting on the dashboard of Dan Hagar’s car. And speaking of bobble heads, when you meet with the mayor of Wellspring, sitting on his desk is a Vault-Tec bobble head!
As you can tell, I found it difficult to view Rage in a vacuum. As much as it tried to distance itself from other games of its ilk, the problem is that games like Borderlands and Fallout provide for a much more compelling gaming experience. Fault, I think, is due this being id’s first title since Doom 3, which came out in 2004. The design of Rage feels old and traditional and while Bethesda and Gearbox found a way to evolve open world games, this game feels like a considerable leap backwards. If anything, Rage is a great showpiece of what id Tech 5 is capable of, as it has some serious potential. The AI is pretty decent, knowing when to fight or fall back during the course of a firefight and it makes me excited to think of what a Fallout game would look like if running on id Tech 5.
Ultimately, the issue with Rage is that while it is not a bad game, it just doesn’t live up to the hype. Strip away the high resolution textures and all you’re left is Borderlands without guns, Grand Theft Auto without car jacking, Fallout without the character building. To many, id is regarded as the father of the first person shooter. If we were to roll with that comparison, Rage is like the elderly patriarch who has returned to assert dominance over his brood, only to find that they have long surpassed him.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.