RageBy Adam Sessler - Posted Oct 03, 2011
Having no new game since 2004’s Doom 3 and no new franchise since 1996’s Quake, Id Software may have earned the dubious honor of being the Terence Malick of videogames: such sporadic output brings with each release expectation and skepticism.
With this baggage, Rage, both a new game and new franchise from Id, arrives in a distinctly different landscape for the first-person shooter, the very genre Id Software invented. True to form, they have delivered a game with astonishing technical prowess. What is even more satisfying is how the technology works in the service of the game to provide an experience that is decidedly ambitious, contemporary, and distinct. While it’s not perfect, it is exceedingly fun.
How The Dinosaurs Felt
Rage takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been decimated by an asteroid. Anticipating the end of the world, governments sequestered certain citizens deep under the earth in Arks: cryogenic time capsules set to re-emerge at a later date with the hopes that society can be rebuilt.
You play as one of these chosen ones and start the game with your Ark resurfacing. All of your ark-mates are dead except for yourself, as you emerge to an earth that is by no means uninhabited, but a far cry from civilized. Bandits, mutants, and a technologically advanced autocratic force called the Authority, have laid their claim to a wasteland affectionately called. . .the Wasteland.
Quickly, you find yourself in the service of various human groups that have not allied themselves with any of the factions and expect you, with your novel background, to assist them in their survival and eventually, to help foment revolution.
While much has been commented about the similarities between Rage and recent games such as Borderlands and Fallout 3, the game, as the others do, taps into the greater cultural tradition of the Post-Apocalypse as the reinvention of the western (as is typified by the Mad Max films), detailing an untamed, amoral landscape where a loner attempts to make his existential mark. Rage is in lock step with the tradition; however, Id more than manages to distinguish the game as its own through a unique visual and game design.
At its heart, Rage is a shooter in an open environment. The Wasteland -- with its two major hubs Wellspring and Subwaytown -- is where missions and sidequests are initiated, and you get opportunities to trade for weapons and supplies, and to race the cars you acquire throughout the game.
The open world alludes to the RPGs or GTAs of gaming, with vast expanses to explore however you may, but in Rage, the open world primarily serves to create a sense of place, and the benefit to the game is significant. The wasteland is a nightmare version of a Roadrunner cartoon with rocky mesas and destroyed highways lying obsolete under oppressive sunlight; tucked away in a corner is the one natural pool of water which assumes a distressing novelty amidst the blight.
The hubs, especially Wellspring, are even better demonstrations of not only the game’s visual fidelity, but also its fully articulated art direction. Modeled after a western trading post fit for Gary Cooper, the residents of this dusty dirty form a miasma of styles: old west, Asiatic fantasy warrior, survivalist, huckster, grease monkey and bald thug. All of this, against a backdrop of richly detailed grime and detritus that, coupled with the stunningly elegant and fluid animations, create a visual palette that is almost too much to absorb initially and continues to amaze long into the experience.
The End of The World Never Looked So Good
Making the end of the world so alluring is Rage’s signature accomplishment. The game creates a cohesive whole, which gives the action a grounding that many shooters eschew in favor of pell-mell pacing. Rage allows the player to settle into the environment; you discover its oddities and slowly invest in understanding the curious logic that governs this alien world. Such languid unveiling of Rage’s mysteries carries the game through most of its considerable length, until the narrative loses interest in reconciliation, showing its structure to be elliptical rather than organic.
Until Rage’s unfortunate conclusion, the game treats the player to a host of action set pieces that maintain variety, invention, and excitement throughout. Typically, you will be sent to the lair of one of the numerous factions that inhabit the world to retrieve the item, or just to run the nasties out of the place, which means combat -- solid, satisfying head-splooshing combat.
Your Arsenal Awaits
Throughout Rage, you acquire numerous weapons, none of which fall too far outside of the typical implements of death. Many of these weapons have alternate ammo types -- electrical arrows for the crossbow, armor piercing bullets for the assault rifle and so on -- which become increasingly important as the enemy types become more varied and specific in their behavior. More importantly, the weapons feel hefty and important and the combat controls beautifully: aiming is rock solid and hitting your target leaves you feeling like you’re saying something.
In addition, Rage allows the player to create numerous devices and ammo types once a schematic has been acquired and with sufficient ingredients found throughout the game. These range from turrets and sentry bots (with strong AI) to bandages and wingsticks, the 4-pronged boomerangs that can make all the difference in close combat. Of particular note is that these devices can be constructed at any point during the game.
This variety in offensive maneuvering is matched with the enemy types found throughout, which can be classified into three groups: mutant, bandit and Authority. Each plays very differently from one another. The mutants rush in numbers and the Authority plays the most defensively, but within these three types -- especially among the bandits -- are a wide diversity of behaviors that keep every encounter (not just the outfits) fresh. The ghosts are a frighteningly acrobatic group that will swing and leap from bars, Gearheads are armored to the hilt and are more than happy to use advanced devices like the sentry bots, and Jackals have barbaric ingenuity and knowledge of their home base. The AI of these enemies can be remarkably responsive to the environment, not just with their use of cover, but by using alternate routes to flank and group tactics that keep individual moments in the combat sequences vital and invigorating.
Mutant Drama Club
What adds the greatest drama to the combat are the animations that sublimate these tableaus of carnage into something exquisite. The loping ferocity of some mutants or the scramble of bandits to favorable positions once you’ve been discovered adds an immediate excitement and focus on the moment. Enemies, when shot, can drag themselves desperately behind cover or raise their torso to fire off dying rounds. These small touches, despite becoming familiar as the game progresses, lift the innate repetitiveness of shooting beyond the rote and into something special and exceptional like few other games.
The level design for the various combat scenarios is similarly detailed and thoughtful, lending each instance its own sensibility and significance. Underground lairs can feel cramped, cluttered, and paranoid; an entirely destroyed city looms with abandoned menace and informs the fighting with an odd sense of hopelessness.
In the game’s most inspired set piece, cliffs and canyons connected by ziplines and rope-bridges convey a primal degradation that compose the game’s most harrowing sequence. As with most of the game, inside these backdrops are carefully composed combat spaces that keep each engagement from feeling like the ones preceding it, maintaining a compulsive momentum that drives the game forward.
The aggregate effect of the meticulously designed components that comprise the action sequences – with the exception of the game’s final level – is not only elegant but distinguishes Rage from contemporary shooters, while incorporating all the aspects that define the current generation. The lasting effect champions fun over endurance and, somehow among the geographic misery, a boyish enthusiasm in the creative. It isn’t very often that I find myself reloading a save because I could have obliterated my foes with far more invention.
Driving For Fun and Profit
Shooting is not the sole activity in Rage. The game has a substantial and satisfying automotive component. Driving gets you from a hub to a mission point, but there are bandits along the way who need to die in their dune buggies and in town, there are races in which you compete. This could have become a tiresome imposition on the player, but Rage avoids the common pitfalls with two simple designs: strong and reliable driving controls and never having to be in a car for too long. The controls are as strong in driving as they are in shooting, and only improve in satisfaction as you earn upgrades for your vehicles. Being behind the wheel provides strong visceral satisfaction that offers a nice respite from the on-foot combat.
Car combat in the Wasteland is simple and fun and over quickly, never proving an obstruction to getting to the good stuff. Racing is equally satisfying and plays like an adult version of Mario Kart. Although diligent upgrades ensures that some races become quite easy in short order, the rally races, where you attempt to continuously collect spawning points on the map, prove more challenging, especially in the later events.
We’ll Be Better Together
Car combat is the sole competitive multiplayer mode in Rage, where up to 4 players can engage in deathmatch or three variants on the Rally format. Due to the strong controls, the car combat is decidedly fun, but will probably be best appreciated when playing with friends. The emergent chaos in the matches should elicit more free-spirited competition than determined success, and the requisite leveling system that opens up new weapons and cars can keep things dynamic while the core gameplay remains relatively simple.
Two-player cooperative, on-foot multiplayer is also available and is most reminiscent of Uncharted 2’s offering. You and another player take on side-stories to the single player campaign, each with certain objectives that prevent the missions from devolving into repetitive slaughter fests. The level design doesn’t approach the complexity of single player but the controls and tone are consistent and make a nice addition to the package.
Things Fall Apart
At its heart, Rage is a single-player game and, given Id’s historical status in multiplayer design, a daring one. The accomplishments in Rage are manifold but just don’t carry through to the game’s conclusion. The second act of the game, centered in the Eastern Wasteland with the hub of Subwaytown, comprises far less of the game than one would expect (I’d guess a 70/30 split). Instead of building on the awe from the first act, the game narrows in both scope and geography. The stunning vista of a Babel-inspired city, built precariously on top of itself, viewed when first arriving in the region is acknowledged and never visited.
While you have the option to revisit Wellspring (which requires swapping discs on the 360), the game seems to all but abandon story elements and characters, to say nothing of the geography, that have comprised so much of the players attention and investment up to this point. The luxurious indulgence of getting lost in this remarkable gamespace is quickly supplanted with a nagging sense that the game wants to hurry you to its conclusion and be done with it.
The action sequences are as good as preceding ones – in fact, they’re among the best – but are now contextualized in a narrative space that feels fragmented and unsure of itself, which diminish their resonance in the overall experience. The unsavory “Mayor” of Subwaytown is ripe with potential, but is unceremoniously removed from the game not long after his introduction, never to reappear. Ambient dialogue hints at potential missions in the strange city above that never manifest and in short order the residents of the town are pushing you out the door to your inevitable expiration in the game.
When that expiration comes in the final level of the game, the life and energy that defined the Rage is sucked out of the screen. Short, uninspired, and slipshod, in its final moments, Rage runs away from denouement into an incoherent mess lacking in narrative, challenge or any sense of finality.
No boss battle, no challenge . . .just identical hallways and elevators, pressing buttons and shooting monsters that jump from shiny closets. The shock of how Rage concludes almost reaches the absurd, as it articulates the criticisms that plagued Doom 3. The game ends on a cliffhanger, but after the final 20 minutes, I was numb to any sense of anticipation or curiosity.
Is This A Satisfactory Ending?
I have played and loved many games with undeserved endings, but Rage moves past letdown to a violation of the player’s trust, reframing the mystery and excitement so beautifully unfurled in the preceding hours into something lesser; the carnival barker finally lets you behind the curtain to only belie his bluster.
Rage is an exceptional gaming experience . . . unfortunately, it’s a little too memorable.