Bethesda Softworks' Rage starts off quickly and with little fanfare, as I learned last week during a two-hour hands-on play session that began at the game's title screen. A giant space rock hits the Earth, wiping out just about everyone, while your character sits in stasis aboard an orbiting space station. We then jump ahead to the moment you return to the waking world, an event triggered when the space station you were sleeping on comes crashing back down to the Earth.
After a brief control tutorial aboard the crashed spacecraft, you stumble out through a nearby door and into a rocky, desert landscape marked by towering brown cliffs and jagged pathways of sand and dirt. Seeing no other humans nearby, you set off on the sole path away from your former transport.
As you come to a bend leading to some kind of structure, a bellow echoes across the rocks behind you. Suddenly you're on your back, pinned down by some kind of raider dressed in tribal gear and wielding a nasty-looking blade. This is it, you think. All those years in stasis, not to mention the dodged apocalypse, and everything ends here, in a filthy cave less than 10 steps away from your crash site.
That's when you hear a loud POP! and an explosion of blood issues forth from your attacker's head. Less than five minutes have passed -- less than two if you cut out the intro cutscene -- and you've already been indebted to someone for saving your life. Welcome to the world of Rage.
As it turns out, a better savior couldn't have been asked for. The gruff, sniper rifle-toting Dan Hagar (whose voice is immediately recognizable as John Goodman) is a man with a good heart, someone who's trying to make something for himself and his fellow settlers in this barren world. Inviting you to ride in his buggy back to safer ground, Dan lays out the situation.
You are an Ark Survivor. There are those in the world who would pay a lot of money to get their hands on your body, living or dead it seems. The group to be feared is The Authority, an oppressive governing organization that everyone seems to pretty much universally despise.
The scenery pops with detail as we ride along toward Dan's home. This initial area of the game seems pretty featureless at first glance, but observant players will pick up on signs of life almost immediately.
One sizable rock face is adorned with graffiti of a giant octopus-like creature. Elsewhere, a man tends to a small camp situated right near an entrance to some kind of sewer; he tells you when you meet him later that there's loot to be found down there, but it turns out to be inaccessible for now, a future DLC add-on perhaps.
Getting back to Dan's settlement, we get a clearer picture of the situation. There are bandits nearby in Ghost territory, and your arrival is almost certain to bring the hammer crashing down on Hagar's home. Handing you a pistol and keys to a quad-wheeler, Dan sends you off to take out the trash, protecting both yourself and his home in the process.
The vehicle controls are simple enough to grasp -- I used the quad and eventually a larger buggy during the play session -- though the early rides you gain access to are pretty sluggish. There's an upgrade system to tap into later, something you learn quickly enough as characters start to comment on your vehicle's lack of weapons, but you'll have to put up with puttering along at least through the early part of the game.
Your first mission, and the several that follow, involve exploring a number of bandit encampments and rooting out the bad guys. At first, it's just killing to protect the innocent, but Dan and other quest-givers eventually task you with more elaborate missions, such as recovering medical supplies or exploring an extensive network of rooms in search of parts for the old, broken-down buggy that will eventually become yours.
While you can run around with your gun screaming out your location at every turn, stealth is an option as well, at least some of the time. In every mission I played, things eventually got hectic enough that the time for sneaking was clearly done, but your progress can definitely be eased with the careful application of a few silent kills. The gunplay is solid, with hefty weapons delivering the right amount of kick to feel authentic in your character's virtual hands. They seem a little underpowered though, with the enemies you meet soaking up a few too many bullets before they finally go down.
The early enemies I meet are pretty similar in appearance to the initial raider that Dan capped, unwashed, partially undressed bandits equipped with tribal gear. Some rush you with wicked-looking blades while others send bullets your way from behind cover. A couple of human-sized mutants are spotted -- and promptly gunned down -- as well, but there's no sign of the game's larger enemy types in these early hours.
Missions are offered by quest-givers scattered among the game's various settlements. The first few groups of friendly survivors you encounter are based in small settlements set right into the open world. Wellspring is the first proper "hub" you encounter, a bustling city filled with diversions like card games, shops, and a job board.
You can earn money to spend in those shops by completing missions, and also by collecting the various items scattered throughout the world. This side of the game is very RPG, as you'll manage an inventory of weapons, tools, crafting components (provided you have the right schematics) and straight-up loot. Everything you're carrying is marked with an icon that tells you what use it has to you, handy for differentiating crafting components from money-earning loot.
By the time you've run through those early missions, you'll have picked up a pistol, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a boomerang-like tool, and a buggy of your very own. You'll have schematics for the locked door-opening Lock Grinder and health-restoring bandages, and if you were careful with your spending, you might even have an assault rifle and a monocular, which essentially serves as a scope attachment for your pistol.
Once you've pushed through these intro adventures, Dan tells you that it's time to part ways. Your continued presence puts his community in danger and, as much as he appreciates your help, it's time to move on. He just has one last task for you: plant a bomb at the sealed gate to Wellspring, blowing it to smithereens and restoring access to the city for Hagar and other nearby settlements. It serves you too, of course-- Wellspring is the next stop in your adventure.
Following a brief load screen you find yourself at the entrance to the most elaborate human living space you've yet encountered in Rage's post-apocalyptic world. It's not much of a city in comparison to New York or Los Angeles, but there's life here. The buildings around you look both patched-together and well-kept. There are surely trouble spots to be found, but this Mayor you're hearing about seems to run a tight ship.
The office of Wellspring's big boss is your first stop, and it also turned out to be the last stop in my demo. The portly Mayor is happy to welcome you to town, but something's going to need to be done about your clothes first. Your Ark survivor status is evident since you're wearing one of those specialized jumpsuits, and it has to go. So begins your first mission in Wellspring: find a new set of clothes!
That seemed like a good point to stop, with our hero freshly arrived in Wellspring and set off on what will almost certainly be a much larger adventure than "Find a new hat to go along with your new duds!" So the takeaway from the two-or-so hours I spent playing?
Rage is fun. The beautiful art design doesn't look quite as good in motion as it did in early trailers, but the hybrid of FPS shooting and stealth mixed with the RPG mechanics and open-world presentation combine into an experience that is immediately engaging. There's nothing in those first two hours that hasn't been done before, but dammit if it isn't a good time doing it all over again.