Rage is the debut title from id Software's id Tech 5 game engine. It was given a cross-platform release on Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: id Software
Genre: First-person shooter
, racing game
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
The game is set in a Mad Max
style post-apocalyptic wasteland; in this case a near-future Earth that has survived a direct impact by an asteroid. The protagonist is a nameless nanotech
-enhanced soldier who awakens from cryogenic sleep
with no apparent memory of how he got there or what he's supposed to do, the sole survivor of a half-dozen or so coldsleep coffins in a small pod/ship called an Ark
. On emerging from his Ark, the protagonist is quickly recruited by settlers of the wasteland and is asked to take sides in an emerging multi-sided conflict between the settlers, various bandit tribes, feral mutants, and a high-technology totalitarian government/military organization known as the Authority.
The gameplay is divided between first-person shooter elements, third-person racing/driving elements, and various minigames available in some of the friendly settlements throughout the world. The FPS portions of the game are divided into short, linear missions; areas where these missions take place often cannot be revisited, and enemies typically do not spawn until the beginning of the mission, and never really respawn after the mission has concluded. The driving elements of the game are divided into track-based races and exploration/combat in the Wasteland.
The game has a limited economy; the FPS sections of the game include rewards in the form of cash, salable items, and crafting elements that can be used to produce secondary weapons such as "wingsticks" (tri-bladed boomerangs capable of decapitating multiple enemies with a single throw), deployable turrets, sentry robots, advanced ammunition types, grenades, and healing items. Money can be spent at shops in the settled areas of the Wasteland, to purchase ammunition, crafting elements and schematics, and occasionally new weapons or upgrades to weapons and armor. The racing elements of the game offer limited rewards for this game economy, instead mostly resulting in "certificates" which can be used to purchase assorted vehicle upgrades.
The game has little in the way of role-playing progression; upgrades to the character's maximum health exist but do not occur frequently; the numbers wouldn't get much attention anyway, because health regenerates slowly over time. Growth in the character's combat abilities is much more a function of slowly increasing access to equipment: first more and better guns, later specialized ammunition types for the already-unlocked weapons. The protagonist is able to carry every unlocked gun with him, with generous limits on ammunition and inventory space.
The game has some multiplayer elements, but does not have the fully-integrated cooperative campaign that we've seen in many of the most major 2011 shooters. There's a two-player co-op mode called Legends of the Wasteland, which is mission-oriented FPS gameplay. The second mode is a player-vs-player racing game called Road Rage.
First and foremost: this game is just gorgeous. id Software isn't really known for making great games, but rather for making game engines that push the graphical limits of modern computing/gaming hardware. From the very first seconds of gameplay in Rage, I was struck by how lush, stylish, and polished the game is from a visual perspective. There's an immense amount of detail, from graffiti on the walls to the way enemies interact with the environment as they fight you. Human enemies scrabble for cover, and climb up and down structures as they advance or retreat during fights. Mutants swing from overhead pipes, leap at you from high perches and railings, crawl under security gates and out of vents, etc. Security drones shoot and fight in melee combat, and it's so beautifully implemented that sometimes it's more fun to sit and watch those drones fight your enemies than it is to fight them yourself. It's really amazing how much more dynamic these enemies are than in any of the other top-of-the-pile 2011 shooters.
However, in spite of these technological advances, the gameplay feels like a throwback to an earlier era. The FPS mechanics are pretty sparse and old-school. There's no cover system, no squad tactics, no significant limits on inventory size. There are extremely limited stealth mechanics, focused on a single silenced weapon: the crossbow. The HUD has very little going on, and the level design during combat sections of the game typically offers one and only one way to progress from entrance to exit.
The racing feels like a throwback as well, strongly reminiscent of the Twisted Metal franchise, but also scratching the Rock n' Roll Racing itch for me. Death on the racetrack is entirely harmless: no game over, just an immediate respawn and a few seconds of invincibility. The same is true for your opponents. Exploration and vehicular combat in the Wasteland have a very arcade-like feel as well, including mission objectives like "destroy 5 enemy vehicles" or "drive through all the waypoints before the time limit."
Quests in the game, whether for side-quests or for main plot elements, all start in one of two ways: 1. Press a button to hear a monologue from an NPC describing what they want you to do, followed by a "yes/no" dialogue to accept or refuse the quest. 2. Press a button at a Job Board to see a text description of the job somebody wants you to do, followed by a "yes/no" dialogue to accept or refuse the quest. There are no menus to ask follow-up questions, no branching dialogue, and the protagonist doesn't speak.
The game isn't 100% linear, but it's close. There are frequent opportunities for side quests and for free-roam backtracking through previously completed areas; for the most part this doesn't feel like an "open world" so much as an excuse to re-use more of the world maps in the name of fleshing out the gameplay from less than ten hours to a little above twenty.
I really disliked this game's use of its chosen setting. Life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland should tell a story about humanity, about how we might respond to the near-total destruction of our civilization, about what we have to do--and more importantly what we will do--to survive. The Fallout franchise has done this in a quirky, tongue-in-cheek way; a rumination about the nuclear annihilation the world seemed to be running headlong toward during the height of the Cold War. Metro 2033 took a much more existentialist approach to the same basic scenario. BioShock and Portal let us explore the ruins of grand experiments, both social and technological.
Rage feels like a theme park; Walt Disney's take on life after a direct asteroid hit. First we had Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Now we have Wasteland. The friendly NPCs feel like animatronic robots: Press a button, hear the story of the next exhibit. Insert a coin, play a game of chance. Don't try to take the dead man's gun and sell it back in town--it fired real bullets, but really it was just paper-mache. All that lush environment that the enemies swing around on like a jungle gym? Good luck interacting with any of it. Most doors are locked, nothing is deformable, your character can't climb or hang or crawl or jump more than a couple of feet in the air. Your entire free-roam exploration of the wasteland takes place in canyons; even where the sides of the canyons aren't particularly steep, invisible walls prevent you from climbing or driving too far outside the intended play area. The game is constantly testing your ability to suspend disbelief; respawns during combat-heavy races, frequent use of easter eggs harkening back to other id Software and Bethesda titles, even points where a fatal car accident ragdolls your character through goalposts to a "field goal" sound. As a setting, it's a pretty good excuse to have evil dudes with mohawks and loincloths rush at you with bad intentions and improvised melee weapons. I just don't feel like there was any serious attempt to make this world something that some small part of the player could actually inhabit.
By comparison, I had essentially none of these complaints about Epic's Bulletstorm, released earlier this year. It had very similar theme park aesthetics, but where Rage took place on Earth and left me feeling like it should have said more about the people who live here, Bulletstorm took place on a bombed out resort planet in a classic space opera setting. A universe so gratuitously invented asks less of me intellectually and emotionally. It's strange, but that turned out to be a good thing; a discussion I think I should probably save for another write-up.
Visionaries are a wonderful, dangerous thing in the video game world. The visionary behind id Software is John Carmack, computer graphics guru. Carmack games push the envelope in that one area; this is software development that's likely to inform the graphics requirements of future game consoles, the capabilities of future video cards, even the contents of industry standards like DirectX
. A decade of interviews with people who have worked with the man all tend to agree: John Carmack is a treasure, a one-of-a-kind, a visionary. id Software as a development house exists to support his vision, and it's a powerful, worthwhile vision. Anyone with an interest in video gaming state-of-the-art should play Rage for this reason.
The problem is, it's basically the only reason to play Rage instead of something else. It's a pretty good trick, but it's still just one trick. There are better shooters, better racers, better realizations of the setting, better level design, better stories, better voice acting, better art direction, better experiences for the price. The entire studio exists to support Carmack's vision, and as a result they've under-invested in a lot of other key areas.
id Software isn't the only visionary-led development house to languish in this way. Lionhead Studios under Peter Molyneaux is notorious for producing games that are built around exciting ideas but suffer similarly deep structural problems. George Broussard drove 3D Realms into the ground trying to capture lightning for a second time with a follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D; the resulting product was released by a third party, and showed a consistent and ambitious vision that left the technical scope of the game so broad that the product was ultimately crippled by under-development and pervasive implementation problems. Team Bondi collapsed under the weight of Brendan McNamara's vision for L.A. Noire and the resulting game was simultaneously praised for its technological advances and panned for the incomplete, empty feel of the broader game. The silver lining with all of these studios and their flawed products is the same as the silver lining for Rage: breakthroughs that happened here will hopefully see widespread adoption in more mainstream titles over the years to come.
The game engine is a technological triumph and will almost certainly see future life in games built by third parties. Rage isn't the game engine, though. It's the first-party title that id Software built on top of the game engine. The game is pretty, it's even fun in an arcade-game sort of way, but nothing here is going to touch you on an emotional level, and nothing here is going to blow your mind. In the end, I suppose I think of it as a failed experiment with a promising technology. What's the point of making such a visually flawless game if you're not going to use it to immerse the viewer into a more perfectly realized story?