At first blush, Rage is the most visually stunning game I've played all year. This includes Killzone 3 and Gears of War 3, and I expect the id Tech 5 engine should stand up well to Uncharted 3. A year of thirds, and this new kid swaggers onto the stage, all bluster and bravado. For the first time in a long time, I beckoned people over to my desk with calls of, "Hey! Come here! Look at this! This is in-engine. On a console." All I was doing in the game at that moment was walking around the lip of a deep canyon under a blue, blue sky, and looking down upon a battered, weary industrial installation of ambiguous utility. Yes, wow. The bedazzling graphical chemistry between Rage and my lovestruck eyes eventually fizzled, but merely meeting her at the door on our first date, I was ready to take a knee and offer a ring.
In a time when id-developed games were the anticipated shooters, aloof gamers often dismissed the finished works as "another id tech demo masquerading as a game." id games were no-holds-barred corridor shooters, rendered in graphics engines that ate the new high-end 3-D PC display cards for breakfast. Doom and Quake redefined the notion of "visceral." Quake was that game's development code name, but it became the shipping title even though it had nothing to do with the game's story. It didn't matter! There was no story! id games dispensed with plots, purpose and deep gameplay, commencing with switch-flipping and mindless close-quarters discharge of massively overpowered weapons: Targets weren't terminated; they were pulped. And it felt damn good.
Though its engineering efforts remained exemplary, id lost miles of ground in the convergence of sweeping cinematic narrative with claustrophobic combat. Doom 3 looked great, but it played like a paint-by-numbers relic of a bygone era. The mindless shooter didn't vanish; it's still a gaming mainstay today. But years ago, there was an abrupt onslaught of innumerable studios cranking out Doom-esque titles left and right. id inexorably reached the most common fork in an evolutionary path: adapt or die.
Rage is id's first all-out attempt to adapt to contemporary gaming, incorporating prominent narrative and gameplay styles from numerous genres. Like the countless designers that id had inspired, they chose to go about it by lifting the finest accomplishments of various studios and dropping them into their own game. Unfortunately, id copying everyone else doesn't work out as well as everyone else copying id.
There's a brief sequence in Rage in which a victorious foe mimics verbatim a line best known in latter-day gaming from Guerrilla's category-defining Killzone 2. Whether it's intended as homage or humor, it comes across more ironic than anything. For a studio to wisecrack or sarcastically pay tribute in a game, it has to be doing the genre at least half as well as the other studio. id isn't, not these days, and certainly not in Rage. A couple of minutes past the opening cut scene — an engaging prologue full of exceptional promise; a cut scene that should be sued for false advertising — there's a visual reference to a previous id franchise. Barely into the game, the nod elicited a grin from me, but after a few hours, I started thinking that with Rage, id hadn't even earned the right to wink at themselves.
Rage isn't a bad game. What's troubling is that every element in it is fake; they're superficial manifestations of game design components. Rage feels less like a game and more like a mannequin. The clothes are the breathtaking visuals, but underneath, it's nothing but plaster and paint, where you'd expect to find something lusty, warm and living.
Rage could have been a run-and-gun goof-off FPS, but there are too many RPG inventory management complications. Mindless shooting loses its luster if you're conserving ammo because you have to get back to a settlement to buy more, or make do with scant amounts scavenged from drops and dead bodies. Sometimes, though, there's a surfeit of ammunition, but you never know. You have to loot your kills because there's always something there you might need. Often, it's cash that you can use to buy ammo. Or that cool new paint job for your dune buggy. You need plenty of ammo for a rainy day: Oh, this guy is holding nothing but canned food. You can sell the cans to a vendor for cash, and then you can use the money to buy more ammo — or a paint job or a homing missile weapons upgrade for the buggy … but you're half-dead taking enemy fire while daydreaming about the glitz and gadgets you can buy later.
Rage could have been an RPG, but the things you buy, the clothes you wear, the badlands you clear, the NPCs you impress or discourage, the weapons you use — these things really don't make any difference. You can get very good with a nasty little bladed throwing weapon rather unfortunately called a "wingstick," but it's substantially irrelevant because you could probably slog through all the main story missions and most of the side missions and jobs, wielding only a toothpick. Your character isn't allowed anything like ethical choices within missions, and none of his actions in the game influence his moral fiber. The publisher having done so well with RPG/shooter hybrid Fallout 3, I'd have expected someone at Bethesda Softworks to advise the id designers that should they spend too much time on shooting, pretty character models and bloody death animations, they'd scotch all the RPG potential.
Rage could have been a postapocalyptic racer, a bit like Fuel, but the interaction of the vehicles with the landscape is visually the weakest part of the game. Buggies and ATVs sort of float over the terrain, kicking up clouds of dust but leaving no lasting marks. Handling and control mechanics for vehicles in a shooter or RPG are quite good, better than you might expect, but for a straight racing experience, the controls are poor and unwieldy. The races required for main story missions are hobbled by perks that so readily ensure your win on the first run, they feel like unlockable cheats rather than temporary vehicle upgrades. Damage incurred in optional side races doesn't carry over to the same vehicle in the greater game world, further banishing the RPG angle to the back corner of Rage. Most of the vehicles can be outfitted with an array of powerful weapons, so you can drive with pride in the wastelands. Though you're frequently set upon by enemy vehicles in the midst of driving segments of main story missions, you can almost always speed past them to your next destination, whereupon the bad-boy buggies abruptly disappear.
There's a whole giant grab bag of FPS/RPG/racer features spiked deep into Rage's heart. Many varied weapons are doled out in reward for missions or become available for purchase at local merchants. Numerous vehicle customizations can be made for speed, defense, offense and just for looks. New friends hand over important engineering diagrams and recipes; after collecting the required parts, you can, from within the character management screens, build and equip everything from heavy-duty lock-busters to those whirling-death wingsticks to curative bandages.
The mere presence of bandages points out the flaws in Rage's catchall approach. There are three different ways to restore health. I've seen two-faceted approaches to wellness in a game, and those are usually poorly integrated and superfluous. But three? I need a manual just for the health system. There's the usual reddening HUD when you're under fire; staying out of combat swiftly restores your health to full capacity. In a time when gamers accept a red-HUD, wait-it-out health restoration, id bothers explaining this ability with some racket about futuristic nanomechanical enhancements.
Next, you have in your items menu medicated bandages, which will even more rapidly restore you to full health. You can find bandages at drops during missions. And you can make your own bandages if you have the recipe and supplies. And you can buy bandages from vendors. Finally, there's a last-ditch salvation in Rage: more nanomechanical tomfoolery. If you die, you have one chance to revive yourself via a defibrillator. It's like you have built into you one of those portable, automated cardioversion machines — if those machines made you perform a series of Quick Time Events before restarting your heart. How quickly and accurately you perform the QTEs determine how much health is restored. This last bit is almost entirely pointless because once you're zapped back to life, the electrical defib discharge stuns nearby enemies, allowing you time to back off and regain full health. Or use a bandage you couldn't get to fast enough in the overly complicated inventory and quick-use d-pad assignment system.
If you haven't heard, Rage is set on a postapocalyptic earth. Like many things in the game, it doesn't matter. It could be set in an alternate universe Disney World populated by especially vicious, deviant summering teenagers operating the rides and donning the cartoon-character costumes — little if any of the gameplay would change, and it would be a lot more interesting. The id Tech 5 engine could certainly do a lovely job rendering the familiar theme park. Perhaps the license wasn't available.
I'm a big fan of postapocalyptic fiction, but in Rage, the world is nothing but a pretty, expansive backdrop for missions. Most game worlds are backdrops for the action, but in Rage, there's little life in it, literally or figuratively. Fallout 3's after-the-bombs world is largely lifeless, too, but its Capitol Wasteland, though not underwritten with id's technical graphics prowess, is awesome and majestic in its decimation. Rage's world is embroidered with old highways, roads and dirt tracks; it's not truly free-roaming, but since the driving element is integral, id did a decent job providing the perception of a more fully open world. Still, there's little motivation to explore beyond the requirements of main story and side missions.
Early in the game, Rage provides the best argument I've ever heard for using rather anonymous voice actors in games. Dan Hagar, the friendly wasteland-dweller you meet first, is voiced by celebrated actor John Goodman. Almost all introduction to the game, and assignment of its initial missions, is directed by Hagar. You'll hear a lot of Goodman. I rather like him in both comedic and dramatic film roles. I enjoy his voice acting in numerous animated movies, especially his outstanding lead turn in Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." But as Dan Hagar, I can't get out of my head, "Roseanne! Roseanne! Can you get me another beer outta the fridge? I got the game on in here." Though Goodman's delivery is perfectly fine, his very recognizable working-man's accent and diction, although the only sort of voice truly suitable for Hagar, broke my sense of immersion. I wonder if naming the character "Dan" was purely coincidental. Had there been an artsy girl named "Darlene" hanging around Hagar's settlement, I would have quit the game right there.
In other matters of audio, the original score is competent, but I miss the electronica style of id's 1990s games. I realize the studio's musical style was founded in large part on audio limitations of PC soundcards of the era, but it was a signature element of their games; I'd prefer that to Rage's admittedly more sophisticated score. Weapons and explosive sound effects are likewise competent, but they're somewhat anemic compared to contemporary blockbuster shooters.
Mission design reminds me of the recently released love-it-or-hate-it Dead Island, which similarly attempts to meld elements of FPS, RPG and even driving in a largely open-world environment. Rage has a better time making the missions fit the narrative context; though many of them approach drudgery, they are at least more consistently sensible and reasonable than some of Dead Island's dead-end quests. Rage's main story missions sometimes unexpectedly branch when you think you're following a simple, single track, but not frustratingly so. The digressions are typically brief and readily accomplished, but Mutant Bash TV, which you're required to experience as a branch of a main story mission, is the most obnoxious, nerve-wracking sequence I've played in a shooter campaign since Gears of Wars 2's journey through the gut of a giant worm. id, your cutting-room floor called: It wants Mutant Bash TV back.
As you'd expect of any id title, Rage includes some multiplayer modes. There are several two-player co-op stories presented in the form of side missions. They're nothing spectacular, but they add to the overall length and value of the game, as well as the option to play cooperatively with a friend.
It's almost as much of a shock discovering in the final game that the competitive multiplayer features are limited to driving modes as it was hearing about it in preview publicity. In a game world filled with mutants, it's easy to spot Rage's competitive multiplayer as more of a mutant appendage than a fluid extension of the campaign. For those who dare, there are only four game types. Triad Rally and Chain Rally both involve capturing rally points and are largely similar in design. Meteor Rally sends competing drivers out to pick up "fallen meteors" — astronomers and geologists call those "meteorites," but I'll let that pass. Once in possession of meteorites, players score by dropping them off at collection points on the map. If it sounds like a slightly modified Capture The Flag, that's because it is.
The last mode is an id original, Deathmatch, renamed Carnage in Rage. Armed and armored wasteland vehicles duke it out for dominance, with the most kills taking the round. If Carnage were in fact Team Carnage, it wouldn't seem such a futile effort. In its present incarnation, the mode doesn't balance things for drivers dealing out the most damage to a target before a competitor comes flying off an embankment, guns blazing, to steal the kill. In a team presentation, even if you didn't personally get the kill point, you'd still feel like you were contributing to your team's win.
The first few hours of missions are fun, and for a while, it's interesting to just look around. All the multiplayer modes are playable in split-screen; that's welcome in any modern game. There are some hints at truly unique underlying game design that must have been covered over with years of windblown wasteland dirt. For example, there's an innocuous-looking little item you can buy for petty cash early in the game. The thing doesn't do anything like what you'd expect it does from the purchase screen description. It does something much, much cooler. In fact, I don't recall a shooter surprising me quite so much in such an ostensibly trivial aspect in a long time.
Ultimately, Rage will prove a disappointment for people who really expected id could pull off integrating all those genre elements. But that's why they say, "jack of all trades, master of none."
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