There are industry stalwarts with pedigree, then there are developers that defined games for a generation. I would put id Software in the latter bracket. There is no doubt that gamers would still be playing first person shooters today if there hadn’t been iconic classics like Wolfenstein or Doom paving the way, but when would the industry have gotten to grips with the genre, and how would they be different? Gamers of a certain age mist over when talking about those classic games, partially due to the groundbreaking nature of the games and partially with fond memories of the creaking hardware that managed to run those games. These were run and gun games making history, with blocky graphics and no narrative, but they captivated a generation.
Today we have seen the recent release of Rage. From memory this title has had a protracted development cycle, and people had high expectations not only due to the developer’s history, but also the extended gestation. I remember early videos that cited vehicle combat and first person shooter combined, it looked good, then things went quiet. Borderlands and Fallout both came and went, both tackling the post-apocalyptic setting differently with magnificent results. There was a period where I had forgotten about Rage, my mind confusing that early footage with Borderlands and filing it away. It was still there in the background and Rage would be released when it was ready. Well, almost.
This game is big, really big, and even though size isn’t everything, a 20-plus gig install on a console is pretty meaty, coming in on three discs for the xbox and a single blu-ray for the PS3 (it helps to point out that the Microsoft hardware is starting to show its age). The PC version is another story, and even though I have not been exposed to it, I understand that it has been beset by issues, bugs relating to graphics cards, and an apparently obviously ported infrastructure.
The premise of the game is post apocalyptic, and before the audience groans, the intro movie does a beautiful job of laying the groundwork. The Earth is subject to a bad case of deceleration trauma vs an unstoppable asteroid, and you play as one of the chosen few that are buried beneath the surface in human time capsules known as ‘Arks’, in readiness to resurface and put things right when the planet becomes hospitable again. Of course something goes astray and you are the only survivor from your Ark, stepping out unprepared into a world of destroyed beauty.
'This one's for the Queen, innit?'
Beauty is the right word for the environments, and if the game’s three discs consist purely of graphics I understand why. Initially it feels like an open world, and it is in the sense of being able to travel to various areas, but the paths and neatly locked down into gullies, twisting canyons and decaying Motorways. Once you hit an entrance to an internal area, the map shows a blue spot; you jump out of your vehicle and with the magic of loading find yourself inside. It works for this game; there is no real need to go wandering over the hills to see what’s there, and as I said, the game is beautifully imagined. Every environment is a treat to the eyes; destroyed buildings, the wreckage of an old hotel – we may have been there before, but not with such detail and lack of repetition. The environments may not vary too much in colour palette, but they have been put together in enough of a way to feel fresh and avoid the genre clichés.
From the opening moments as you step from your Ark, you are thrown into danger, scooped up by an NPC, and from there on you start to follow the narrative. Given the environment this would seem to be the right way to go, a sequence of missions makes sense if they are handed to you and the person handing them out offers a reward upon completion. It could have been an RPG, but it is not – it is, as with all id games, an exercise in inventory management, or making sure you don’t run out of ammo. The NPC characters tend to be pretty run of the mill, but are really very well modelled. Some of their lines can go on a bit too long, where I would be happier snapping to the ‘accept mission’ menu. The first group that you meet are also very generous, pretty much giving away anything of value to you in return for very little. I guess things never really make sense in the wasteland.
Missions inevitably lead to combat and usually some vehicle action en-route. The in-car times are generally good fun; they are certainly integral to the overall experience and do not feel tacked on. Handling is good enough, as is the range of vehicles and weapons. Not to mention that vehicles can be tuned and upgraded by spending at the relevant stores. The currency for upgrades is gained by winning races and achieving stunts or kills. The vehicle races offer a nice diversion and some relaxation time in between surviving the missions, and at least a few of them are story-related, which means unavoidable.
The combat side of things can at times feel a little old school, but also shows some exciting promise, especially in the behaviour of the enemy AI. I cannot remember the last time a wounded enemy ran away from me to find cover, where they could take better aim, and having replayed a few checkpoints due to my own stupidity I can vouch that it is not scripted. The animation is top notch as melee attackers come sprinting and somersaulting at you, using the environment to jump and swing, while ranged attackers sit back happily behind cover, blind firing, moving when needs be and swearing when my grenade rolls in nearby. The weapon choice is not huge, and is revealed pretty early on, but can be upgraded along with the use of varying ammunition types (smacking slightly of Bioshock, but played out well enough). We have been spoilt by current gen shooters in the amount of ammunition and spent weapons that enemies drop; in Rage you have to loot a body to see what you get. It may be ammunition, money or other items, but you can never grab that nice looking rifle they dropped – the first few times I looked on sadly as it melted away, but soon got over it.
Loot also plays a handy part in the engineering side of things. Once you start picking up a few recipes, you will find that the stuff you have been picking up by spamming the Y button now has a purpose. Being able to construct your own field dressings, lock grinders and auto-turrets certainly has both charm and great use.
Futuristic parking wardens: aggressive.
There are a few other nice aspects, such as the gambling mini-games, the card decks and id Software Easter Eggs. Trust me when I say they add to the experience. My favourite little quirk is your internal (nanotrite-tech fuelled) defibrillator mini-game that gives you a second chance at revival, I think it’s worth dying for and adds a nice mechanic that could be used in other games. The game does offer multiplayer, and in the light of every man and his dog offering first person multiplayer, I think the developers did the right thing going with a vehicle-based component. My only gripe is that even when all three discs are installed, booting up multiplayer still asks me to switch to my third disc, which seems like an oversight.
Rage is a big game. It’s not the freeform epic that Fallout was, but it will keep a dedicated gamer busy for a while. Now that it has been around for a couple of weeks some people may call the missions and narrative repetitive, but what did they expect? This team built a genre in games where each mission consisted of collecting red, blue and yellow keys without being killed, and those games were still fun. I also believe that if Rage had been released in a quieter time of year without being surrounded by the current crop of big franchise releases, it would have made more of an impact.
My advice is this, do not think too hard about or get wrapped up in the story – enjoy Rage for the experience it offers: satisfying combat, some great gadgets and one of the most beautiful wastelands I’ve ever seen. My other advice is to pick up the Anarchy DLC pack and equip yourself with the very handy, id Software-trademark sawn-off shotgun.
Lasting Appeal: 8.5
If you've given Rage a try, post your comments below. Alternatively, go here to read our interview with id Software creative director, Tim Willits.