After a relatively long development cycle, a cycle that spans some of the best years we’ve seen in gaming, id Software has finally given birth to their long-awaited and highly anticipated new intellectual property (IP), RAGE. Events like these are quite rare; with only three active IPs (Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake), the last new IP released by id Software was nearly half-my-life-ago when they introduced Quake to the gaming world in 1996. It’s hard not to have high expectations for RAGE, especially from a developer that pretty much invented the FPS genre and has since delivered games of the highest technical caliber with fantastic art, sound and atmospheric design; it’s equally difficult to review a game that is as enjoyable as it is disappointing.
When Doom 3 was released on the Xbox in 2004 it was one of the best-looking (if not the best-looking game) on the console at the time. However, despite its technical prowess, it was a very linear, straight-forward, corridor shooter; a throwback to the early days when all we needed between point A and point B was a gun, a mission to save the world and few monsters to slow us down along the way. Its success I attribute not to its innovation in game design (it is hardly forward thinking in that respect), but to the games ability to completely absorb you within its world, attacking our basest of instincts with a confluence of visual and aural miasma.
Enter RAGE and, aesthetically, similar sentiments emerge. The game looks absolutely fantastic, the atmosphere and environments oozing with character, with a frame rate that can make other games look like a slideshow. However, beneath this layer of polish lies a game that feels fresh at times and moldy at others; a victim of both a long development cycle and the rampant evolution in gaming over the last four years since RAGE was announced in 2007. Id succeeded in using old-school FPS concepts to create the enjoyably harrowing combat encounters in Doom 3. Similarly, id nailed the combat in RAGE, without having to reinvent the FPS and relying on tried-and-true FPS concepts. But RAGE also maintains a dated feel to it at times that takes away from the game and results in a world that is interesting but underdeveloped.
To give you a brief background to the game, you’re a survivor who has just awoken after having been cryogenically frozen for over 100 years in a subterranean structure called an Ark. The world has changed. The Apophis asteroid struck Earth those 100 years ago and most of the world was annihilated in the wake of its destruction. Prior to its impact, you were put into the Ark as part of a world-wide program that took scientists and other significant people and froze them underground in cryo-pods so they could rebuild Earth. Things didn’t go exactly as planned and that’s where your journey begins.
To put it simply, RAGE looks amazing. The texture work is fantastic; the animations are fluid, and the lighting is phenomenal. Despite some texture loading at the outset of each level, this is one of the best looking games on the Xbox 360. The minute you step out of that Ark and into the new world you immediately feel that sense of place; the bright sun, veiled by a spattering of clouds across a large open, formerly functional structure now embedded into the valley. Broken ramps, twisted metal, remnants of a past civilization juxtaposed against the sweeping vistas, looming canyon walls, and bright blue sky presume a wonderful dichotomy between the passing of an old civilization and, in its “ashes”, the start of a new one. Looking across the vast desert landscape you can’t help but notice the love, care and attention put into crafting a world so bleak, desolate, and subversively charming.
The vast, seemingly open environments beg to be explored but, for the most part, the game provides little motivation to do so. There isn’t much to find outside of the central hub areas and the different gang hideouts. There are some plants you can harvest and plenty of enemy buggies and towers to destroy but outside that there is little else to find. A part of me wished for more to find, more to loot, more to explore but once I determined the limits of my exploration within the game world I came to terms with that rather quickly. Doesn’t really take away from the overall game experience and I attribute this mostly to the expectations set by other games that share this similar, post-apocalyptic world. Maybe if the game were set elsewhere no stigmas would be attached but we’ll never know. It’s quick to note that if you’re a fan of Fallout 3 and are looking for a similar experience you’re not going to find it here.
As soon as you’re in control of your character you’ll immediately notice how incredibly smooth the games runs. Silky smooth. So smooth that after playing this for a few hours it took about a minute to acclimate to the lowered framerate of other, popular shooters. In some cases, targeting was almost too smooth as it required a little more precision than I’m used to. In fact, I think the shooting in Rage actually improved my accuracy in other games.
The gunplay is RAGE is simply fantastic. Shots fired near enemies cause them to flinch as they dive and slide into cover. Hands going up over their heads as bullets whiz by. Seeing enemies fallback to safer cover as their numbers dwindle is pretty awesome to witness and gives the combat a very organic feel. If you’re a fan of shooters and are looking for a visceral and incredibly polished sort of gunplay that engages you, forces you to adapt on the fly, and challenges the years you’ve spent honing your shooting skills, you’ll immediately feel at home.
There are a few weapons at your disposal, with ammo upgrades for each, but I found myself relying mostly on my wingsticks and a combat shotgun. If you enjoyed Borderlands and are looking for the same kind of weapon customization you’ll be disappointed. However, it’s something that you won’t necessarily miss as the weapons you have in RAGE are more than adequate and the wingsticks almost too useful. In addition, sheer skill can easily compensate for a lack of firepower and, in most cases, is preferable. I remember upgrading shotgun ammo to include pop rockets, a sort-of explosive grenade launcher. It made for an easier run through, but a much less satisfying one. I found myself going back to normal ammo and wingsticks, which required more tactics on my part in exchange for a much more enjoyable and exciting skirmish.
This is RAGE’s greatest success, making combat so engaging and fun that you will naturally find your “tactical sweetspot”, a compromise between weaponry, skill and a little creativity. If you’re a seasoned FPS veteran, you may be fine with just a pistol and a couple of wingsticks. If you’re green, you’ll need your Authority AR, wingsticks, a couple of turrets and a handful of HE grenades. Either way, you can easily have a blast exploring creative ways to tackle a group of enemies.
Combat isn’t limited to these on-foot shootouts as id added buggies to the game. The buggy racing is solid and I enjoyed participating in some of the race events available in the game. I actually had a more enjoyable time with some of the buggy combat between hubs/levels and it would have been nice to see an arena type event in addition to the combat races offered in town. In the end the buggy serves as a break from all the shooting and side missions; a means by which you got around the world and a way to make money and that’s pretty much it. Although there are a few races that are required to move the story along, racing is entirely optional. However, upgrading your buggy will help out in the wasteland as increasingly stronger enemy buggies can easily “end” you if you’re not fast or strong enough.
I really enjoyed the first few hours of this game. Physics aside, the intro movie did well to set-up everything with enough intrigue to keep me craving for more. I played through about half the game and was just having a blast. Then things started to get a little monotone, a little too familiar; that initial sheen began to lose its luster. At some point, I felt like the game was beginning to outstay its welcome. I was still having some fun with the game, but my enchantment had long gone, my interest in it became pragmatic, and I felt little connection to the world and its inhabitants.
In its deconstruction, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s missing from Rage because in its separate parts the game is fun. Looking back at the game I have fond memories decapitating mutants, playing a close game of RAGE Frenzy (in-game strategy card game that’s actually pretty fun) barely hitting the last rally point to win in a rocket rally race, driving around in my Cuprino destroying those unfortunate bandits silly enough to engage me in combat, etc. However, I can’t really remember any characters that had a lasting impression on me or any important relationships that I had developed during the game. The person who I consider the closest to the protagonist in the game was Dan Hagar, but you barely spend time with him after the first few hours and even then, you’re simply an errand boy.
This lack of character development contributed greatly to my feelings of disassociation. You never learn enough about the other main characters in the game and you spend even less time experiencing the world with them. The only time you really traverse the world with any of the other characters in-game is when Dan Hagar picks you up from the Ark at the start of the game. Even then, the dialogue barely adequate in properly priming the player for the new world.
You Are, Therefore, I Am
The thing about having a mute protagonist is that he/she needs supporting characters with personalities with which players can identify, and thus, to which they could “attach” to that main protagonist. In developing strong feelings for both allies and enemies, it also helps to have the protagonist directly participate with or even witness the actions of his allies against the main antagonists. Half-Life 2 is the perfect example. Even though Gordon Freeman is completely mute, the people and the world around him breathe life into him. As we play through the game, we feel emotionally connected to Gordon Freeman, and if not to him, to the cause, to the characters and to the world that he inhabits. We fight alongside his resistance members, we directly experience the oppression of the Combine, In a sense, we become the character and in those moments we are immersed. That’s the trust I gave RAGE in the first few hours; the benefit of the doubt; the hope that it would provide me that same level of emotional investment in the resistance and their cause. It never happened; the feelings I had for either the resistance or the Authority were luke-warm and under-developed. That’s the crux of my disappointment.
Style Over Substance
In addition to the dearth of personality, the world of RAGE developed little throughout the game. There is this inorganic, static nature to the world that became increasingly apparent as the game progressed. You could perceive no passage of time throughout the game, other than the natural progression of activities, which provided some temporal structure. It seemed the hub area existed as a beautiful interactive snapshot of the world in one particular moment. It very much reminded me of old school Zelda and other old school RPGs where towns were very static, with its inhabitants’ entire existence limited to standing patiently, waiting for your interaction.
It didn’t bother me initially; in the first few minutes I was mesmerized by the sky and clouds and how gorgeous it looked to see the rays of sun fighting to poke through; I was pleased with those random NPCs telling me how happy they were I completed objective X as I’d casually walk pass them. However, as I progressed through the game, the skies stayed the same, the NPCs remained mostly static, and the world didn’t physically change. As a result, my existence within the game world began to lose relevance.
There is a general arbitrariness to the world, to some of the missions and to some of the design within the game: there are different clans and territories but little to no mythos surrounding them; there are numerous NPCs but little substance to their characters; there are some side jobs but they did little to add to the narrative of the game nor did it really introduce us to new relevant characters. As far as arbitrary design, there is room in particular that comes immediately to mind. In one of the levels I came across a door with a lock grinder. Entering the door was required to proceed to the next area so it needed to be opened. Luckily, I already had a spare lock grinder on hand but I decided to explore the area a bit. In the room, literally, next to the door was desk. In the desk, a brand spanking new lock grinder ready to use. Why even place a lock on the door? At least spreading lock grinder parts, with which I could fashion a lock grinder, randomly throughout the area would be a better design choice. They may as well have placed the shiny lock grinder right next to the door.
Even though the jobs, missions and small tasks provided more to do within the world and gave the town a little more life, their existence seemed to be an arbitrary means to accomplish just that. The sentiment that kept me going, and, over the course of the game, slowly faded was my sense of wonder for the world RAGE inhabited. I had yearned to learn more about what has happened in the last 100+ years since the disaster. How was the world before the asteroid crash? What does the Authority really want with me? What’s so special about me? You receive very few answers about yourself and about the world and as a result, most tasks begin to feel like busy work. Fun, busy work, but it all begins to feel nearly fruitless since your actions seem to have little impact on the world and the characters around you, or at least it feels that way.
The Importance of Myth
It is this general lack of mythology within the world of RAGE that really prevented me from becoming entrenched and fully engrossed within the world. We learn too little about what happened before the asteroid hit, too little about the current world and its inhabitants and too little about ourselves. We can pick up books, with clever titles, but there is no content to read; there is nothing to learn from them. We can just sell them for more cash and move on. If not with the characters or the towns, I wish they at least used these books as an opportunity to bring more meaning and more myth to the world. Games like Bioshock really nailed this concept, allowing us to connect with the world so completely, so much so that is still resonates with me today. What they did, and what RAGE could benefit from, was the synergistic way the game blended the art, writing, and gameplay in a way that gave meaning, purpose and myth to Rapture and to your silent protagonist.
I remember one such confluence of events in Bioshock. Early in the game, I’m introduced to the splicers and notice them wearing these funny masks. Later, I remember passing the posters for the 1959 Masquerade ball with a gentlemen wearing a mask in advertisements throughout rapture. Further in the game I came across a wrecked ballroom, with an audio diary that recorded the events that happened within the ball. Shortly after listening to the disturbing audio diary, I’m attacked by a group of splicers. This type of visual, aural, and contextual cohesion created such a fantastic atmosphere to the game and gave life to the world.
It’s hard for me to chastise RAGE for not being as open a world as Fallout 3, or for not having the same customization options as Borderlands, or for not being as emotionally deep as Bioshock, for the same reasons I can’t chastise Fallout 3 for not being as good a shooter as RAGE or Borderlands for not having a more cohesive plot, or for Bioshock not being perfect. However, it’s also hard for me to ignore RAGE’s missed opportunities and its lack of character and narrative and depth. RAGE is good at what it does and that’s being a shooter at heart. The few side missions, the solid racing, the card games just add an additional layer to an already solid package. But I can’t help but feel disappointed with RAGE for not keeping my interest and for allowing my initial enchantment devolve into something more prosaic. In its separate parts and in bite-sized chunks, RAGE succeeds and there is much fun to be had in the world. But as a whole the game lacks a cohesiveness and mythology that it so desperately needs to become more than just the sum of its parts.