Rage has a lot of pedigree behind it, which many people turn to when hyping it up. Conversely, a commensurately large group seems to be sleeping on the game, dismissively drawing comparisons to Fallout 3 and Borderlands.
After getting my hands on the first three hours of Rage’s campaign, I can safely say the detractors are off base and the lobbyists have much more to point to in support than “It’s from the guys that made Quake and Doom.”
Rage (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed], PC)
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Software
To be released: October 4, 2011
Rage begins with the main character waking from a prolonged sleep and exiting the Ark, the name given to the spacecrafts select members of humanity where shuttled off in to protect them from whatever impending apocalypse gave birth to the game’s wasteland. As you emerge into the world, you’re instantly blinded by the flood of natural light rushing in, which produced the cool effect of me actually having to look away from the bright screen, squinting, while partially shielding my eyes from the influx of sunlight -- plus one immersion point.
After a few seconds of exploring this unfamiliar land, the main character is promptly attacked, and then rescued by the man that will be assigning you the majority of your early quests -- after all, you owe him. Little else is covered with respect to the backstory during the first three hours of gameplay, other than the fact that Ark survivors are “special” and will fetch a high price if turned over to the seedy-sounding, foreboding “Authority.”
The gameplay structure seems similar to a lot of open world RPGs, including Borderlands and Fallout 3, two games Rage is often compared with. Various people will assign you tasks, which are accessible from the game’s main menu. Select a quest and the mini-map will lead you to where you need to go. The game seems to be fairly open after you complete some of the first tasks of the game and get yourself armed -- the guy playing next to me actually ended up in a wildly different location than I did by the time my hands-on time was through. Along with that, an NPC hinted at what could be considered even further divergent side-quests in the form of traversable sewer hatches, relics of a bygone era that are strewn about the wasteland and are said to contain some phat loot and powerful adversaries.
Still, while comparing Rage to its contemporaries in terms of its open world gameplay structure seems appropriate, the game is an unabashed first-person shooter, unlike some of the game it draws comparisons with. As is to be expected from this team, the game plays great. The first-person perspective has an appropriate wobble to the camera when moving and the gunplay feels rewarding. Each weapon I got my hands on was incredibly detailed -- something that I always felt was surprisingly rare in games where you spend the entire time looking at the gun -- and had a palpable sense of weight behind it due to some excellent sound work. It might have just been the fancy TRITTON headphones I was experiencing for the first time (they’re awesome), but I almost jumped because of the resounding boom that echoed in my head the first time I unleashed my boomstick on some poor soul.
The arsenal, while being largely comprised of videogame mainstays -- assault rifles, shotguns, etc. -- seemed to have a distinct personality all their own because of these subtle touches, while the various ammo types, easily selectable on the fly, definitely liven up gameplay. Of course, the game does have some sweet, unique weapons, too. Towards the end of my time I got my hands on the crossbow, which was loads of fun to stealthily eliminate enemies with and had a satisfying twang after every bolt I let loose. The wingsticks, essentially bladed boomerangs, were also fun to use thanks to their excellent decapitating power (fun fact, decapitated heads will dissipate, dead enemy bodies don’t). Thankfully, the game also provided me with a satisfying sniper rifle that had plenty of zoom; because that’s the only way I’m getting headshots in an FPS.
There is also a cool revival mechanic, cleverly tied back to your character’s status as an Ark survivor. If you die, your character seems to be imbued with a defibrillator, which is used to revive yourself via properly executed button prompts, though it has to be recharged after each use, so it can’t be completely abused and doesn’t take the challenge out of the game. How much health you’re given back is dependent on how well you executed the button prompts and the device also emits an electric shock capable of killing nearby enemies. I thought it was a clever touch, especially considering it has a legitimate basis for being there per the narrative, and a good way to keep from any potential frustrating deaths that lead to a large loss of time or progress.
The one thing that bothered me during my hands-on time with Rage was the enemy AI, which seemed to be completely reactionary and dependent on my maneuvers. For some reason, there were a lot of instances when the enemies somehow spotted me long before I could see them, yet all they would do is yell something like “I see him” or “He’s here,” and they never seemed to actually get a jump on me. All it did was alert me to their presence and ensure I would go look for them. Conversely, however, there was one instance during a firefight where I was dispatching enemies pretty handedly, and instead of waiting to be slaughtered, a couple of the enemies that were left actually retreated to a room where there were more enemies waiting for me, which I thought was sort of cool.
In addition to the core shooty bits, vehicular combat has an important place in Rage, as it’s the main means of transportation across the sprawling wasteland. You start out with a loaner ATV before upgrading to your very own heap of a buggy, which becomes a much more formidable vehicle once you begin upgrading it and outfitting it with weaponry. There’s a race circuit in Rage and winning races gives you the credits you need to upgrade your vehicle. The vehicle control is tight and it’s fun to blow up other cars with your car. One of my favorite things about driving, however, was that Rage actually encouraged me to drive a bit carefully. For instance, I drove my ATV against some metal sidewall, which led to sparks flying and a cacophonic sound emitting from the headphones, which led to me actually feeling bad about messing up my vehicle -- another plus one immersion point?
Aside from shooting stuff being fun, the thing that struck me most about Rage was the level of detail in the world. To put it simply, Rage has the prettiest wasteland I’ve ever seen. While there are the appropriate amounts of brownish and orange hues, they often carry inherent warmth to them, thanks in part to some dynamic lighting, and there is enough subtlety and variety in the colors to keep Rage from feeling oppressively brown and drab. The game excels graphically, but it’s also surprisingly pleasing aesthetically.
There are an enormous amount of little touches I noticed in the game that added to the immersion factor and help make the world of Rage one worth exploring. For example, I walked up to a decrepit fountain soda machine and was able to discern a unique flavor of soda on each of the little nametag squares. There are also unique, clever gambling ventures in the world which appeal to the gambling addict in me, including a completely made-up card game that uses cards found around the game world (it’s something out of Final Fantasy VIII, basically) and another game that involves rolling dice and hologram characters -- it’s neat, kind of adorable and adds to the unique flavor of the game world.
The sound work I touched on earlier also adds to the experience of the game as a whole. While strong sound effects lend weight to the gunplay, they also add character to the rest of the world. For example, going into a person’s place of residence and hearing somewhat different kinds of music helps to characterize those characters. Ambient sound effects and inter-NPC chatter make the world feel as alive as a shotgun’s rewarding boom or the delicious shattering of bullet ridden glass in combat.
In the same vein, the game also has some topnotch voice work. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to spend a while trying to place the first voice you hear frequently in the game, before coming to the shocking conclusion of just who it is. You’ll also probably notice Steve Blum.
The strong voice acting works in tandem with Rage’s graphical prowess. The character models are all varied and detailed, while the character animation deftly manages human-like subtlety. When talking to characters, the facial animation is incredibly nuanced, resulting in some surprisingly life-like performances, while the NPCs also move around fluidly, making hand motions and the like, keeping them from looking like robots. While the deeper workings of the plot are still entirely nebulous to me and I don’t know how deep the narrative is, Rage (or at least the tech behind it) definitely has the potential to deliver a strong narrative.
Rage is definitely a modern shooter, yet there were some interesting things about it that brought me back to earlier days of gaming, such as a cleverly implemented mini-boss (health bar and all) and the fact that the game is aiming for a 15-20 hour campaign (compared to the modern shooters that seem to get away with a fourth the time and even less actual content.)
If you like first-person shooters, I don’t see why you wouldn’t like Rage, because it’s a tight, well done FPS. At the same time, it’s a game that someone like me, someone who burned out on this generation’s love affair with first-person shooters by the time of the first Modern Warfare, can enjoy. It’s fun, there’s a lot to do, and the tech behind it is incredible.