The world is never too futuristic for crossbows.
id Software's involvement has been surprisingly limited this generation. After inventing the original first-person shooter, the company never chanced a new direction outside of Doom and Quake for two decades. Four years ago, however, id announced Rage, a title that's seen its own share of delays. Does this modern FPS redefine a genre?
In the near future, the real-life meteor Apophis makes contact with Earth, effectively wiping out the majority of civilization. As a precaution, thousands of volunteers were sent into space via Ark capsules to reemerge when the world became habitable once more. 106 years after impact, an Ark survivor reawakens to find the rest of his pod buddies deceased. Stumbling out into his wasteland surroundings, the quick intervention of a fellow human saves our errand boy from hostile bandits, after which he is immediately tasked with eliminating the remaining clans as a sign of repayment. Sadly, it’s disappointing to say the rest of Rage's story is largely irrelevant.
An authoritative force – called the Authority (original, huh?) – exerts its dominance over the remaining free peoples of Earth, not unlike Half-Life 2’s Combine, but their villainous role seems poorly contrived. The breadth of their evil is alluded to but never really shown. Interfering with their later occupancy of Wellspring or Subway Town results in a mere warning, despite you being their intended target. Even with microscopic Nanotrites flowing through the player’s blood, which can jump-start the hero's heart upon death, the overall narrative is terribly uninteresting. There are no humanizing revelations, no unforeseen plot twists, just the drive for survival and a sudden cliffhanger ending.
For many, though, the story may hardly matter. Rage is the first game to implement the new id Tech 5 engine, and simply put, the graphics look gorgeous when they fully render. Character models exhibit sharp details, and the locales showcase the destructive aftermath of a world in chaos. Not once did I experience lag, hiccups, or stutters in performance, but I highly recommend installing the game, as it nearly eliminates the frequent texture pop-in. I swear the amount of detail loading that plagues Rage gives the Unreal Engine 3 a run for its money.
Of course, quality graphics are not nearly enough to bring a world to life. An all-star cast of voice actors, including John Goodman, and fantastic motion capture help as well. It is clear the developers spent months tracking movements to make every animation as believable as possible. Mutants flip from rafters, run along walls, or scale railings to attack your unprotected flank, and the rag doll physics entertain as foes killed mid-sprint stumble and falter before skidding to a stop on their faces. But as I recommended before, install Rage to the hard drive. Later in the campaign, I noticed periodic audio syncing issues where a character’s lips would begin moving before any real dialogue was spoken. And during one boss battle, my in-game audio actually cut out completely, even though the menu sound effects continued to work fine. No amount of quitting to the main menu, restarting my Xbox 360, or uninstalling and reinstalling could fix the glitch. Thankfully, once I entered a new zone, the audio returned.
The car combat can be quite explosive.
While the gunplay matches the same "shoot bad guys until they die" rhythm, the equipment makes the combat unique. Watching wingsticks (bladed boomerangs) curve through the air and embed themselves in enemies' necks, only to return back to your hand for another throw, delivers a satisfying experience by its lonesome. But RC bomb cars, sentry turrets, and sentry bots, while still useful, fail to present the same grizzly show of decapitating mutants. Of course, it won’t be easy dealing a killing blow to the opposition while they wisely hide behind cover and blindfire around corners. Bandits will crawl to cover with shrapnel in their legs, and hearing the AI call out for a collective retreat, then watching them act on that command, surpassed my expectations.
Generally, I had no issues with the controls until an enemy breached my personal space. At that point, the lack of an auto-aim system hinders the melee combat, and trying to swap weapons during these frantic moments becomes less than intuitive. Selecting a specific firearm and its unique ammo completely also halts movement, leaving you open for more thrashings and bullets to the face.
The frustration of dying is further exacerbated by the lack of a checkpoint system. The only autosave feature included in Rage saves progress after entering a new location, so the closest checkpoint often requires more than a dozen minutes of backtracking. Instead, progress can be manually saved at any time, and to prevent further unneeded irritation, a defibrillator surrounding the player’s heart can restart the dead organ once until the device recharges, but failing the accompanying minigame will result in a “Game Over” screen.
"No, officer, I have no idea where that graffiti came from."
To break up the encroaching boredom that comes with saving the world, minigames offer reprieve for the inclined gambler. Players can gather character cards scattered around the environments for use via turn-based card game, Tombstones rests with the luck of the dice (mostly because the game controls the outcome), and other minigames like Strum and 5 Finger Filet are more skill-oriented, as the rhythms soon became too fast for my average reflexes. Races are also a popular sports attraction, but serve as a meager distraction. Taking home the gold earns you certificates for modifying vehicles with salvaged weapons, engines, tires, and paint jobs, yet there is seldom reason to complete any but the required races unless you’re gunning for achievements.
Although I understand this next design choice by the developers to keep gamers in the action without getting lost, too often I wanted to explore more of Rage’s ravaged beauty, just to be forced down more linear corridors of bandit firefights. There is virtually no deviation from the main objective in Rage. Rather, players are free to zip around the Wasteland Burnout-style in dune buggies armed tooth and nail with rocket launchers, but the barren rock contains few secrets besides vehicle jumps. Many hideouts dot the landscape too, though most are locked until the story requires blowing their facilities sky-high. In a twist that breaks from business tradition, however, an online pass does not prevent access to the multiplayer, but to some single-player content. Hidden throughout the Wasteland are sewer wells with scores of rare and valuable loot. I only encountered two wells during hours of exploration, though, so they are entirely possible to overlook.
Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, folks.
Now even if they are practically polar opposites, I know numerous players that have already drawn comparisons between the post-apocalyptic worlds of Fallout 3 and Rage. The way I see it, both games are merely pieces to a larger puzzle – perfect together yet average alone. While Fallout 3 nailed the open-world explorer facet, Rage refines the first-person shooter aspects that hindered Fallout 3’s gameplay. Having to rely on V.A.T.S. to kill even the lowliest of enemies became too monotonous. Still, the looting portion remains a prominent characteristic in both titles. Nearly every item taken in Rage serves some function, whether you’re engineering extra ammunition or selling the junk to vendors.
Rounding out an above average single-player experience are the offerings of subpar multiplayer races and cooperative challenges. The nine Legends of the Wasteland missions provide backstory to the more memorable NPCs. For example, how did Dan Hagar receive his trusty sniper rifle, or why was the pilot episode of Mutant Bash TV never aired? While I had fun tackling the onslaught of mutants and bandits with a friend, the missions are just too short and can be completed within a couple hours. Gamers feeling the need for speed can level up in the frenetic vehicle combat races, unlocking weapons, skins, and other modifications to tote around on their death-dealing hunks of mayhem metal. Objectives involve collecting falling Feltrite meteors, forming pieces of a triad, and so on, but considering id Software’s multiplayer pedigree and Rage’s excellent gunplay, I was let down by the absence of competitive deathmatch or team deathmatch modes.
Rage is not the "Fallout 3 meets better FPS mechanics" crossover gamers initially perceived, but Rage is an apocalypse-driven shooter with fantastic gameplay nevertheless. Although the software is clearly within its infant stages, Rage does well testing the id Tech 5 engine at 60 frames per second, with solid visuals to boot. While character animations rival the industry’s best, frequent texture pop-ups mar the presentation. The story is largely absent and ends too quickly as well, leaving players with many unanswered questions. The lack of proper checkpoints and competitive multiplayer modes disappoints, too, but the Death Race-style vehicle combat, heavy emphasis on looting, and talented voice acting carry the added burden. As id Software's newest IP, Rage possesses the required makings of a finely tuned shooter experience.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: id Software
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Cooperative), 2-4 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC