By Alec Meer on August 23rd, 2011 at 6:00 pm.
While Dishonored was the best thing I saw at Gamescom by a long shot, bagging the bonus invisible award of ‘most pleasant surprise’ was id’s soon-to-be-released Rage. I feel like I’ve been seeing Rage forever by this point – so many trailers, so many preview events, even some hands-on time. And I’ve always thought of it as this fast, dumb, relentless, obvious thing – which, it transpires, is because I’ve always been shown it as if it is. I’ve been shown or dropped straight into fighting, rather than approaching the game at the pace it’s designed to play at or nosing at the world it’s built. Now, I feel completely different about it.
At Gamescom, I played the first hour of the game by myself, at my own speed (and, for the first time personally, on PC. It looks splendid at high resolutions, and such a visual boost from DXHR, which I’d been playing just a couple of days previously). This means I’m looking at the same stuff Dan Gril did for us a couple of weeks back, only he played for a bit longer. So, sorry about that – however, there is, quite simply, some stuff I want to say about the game myself.
It’s stopped being An id Game to me now, and in an entirely positive way. Sure, the shooting is fast-paced and meaty and it’s got a fairly high-tech engine, but it’s very much become Rage: its own game rather than Rage: another id game to me. The first hour is admittedly fairly linear, as it’s teaching you the ropes, but it does a bloody good job of not feeling linear. Hanging around the first settlement, run by the small Hagar clan, my main interest was not in running off to shoot some out-of-town bandits but in exploring what had been built in this survivor hamlet, seeing as I was free to do so at my leisure. Lead Hagar, Dan, voiced either by Michael Ironside or someone who can do a note-perfect impression of him (update: oh, it’s John Goodman. Whoops!), is a beautifully-animated man of equal parts tough gruffness and sad resignation. He could have been the generic veteran soldier character, but instead he looks and sounds increasingly tired and worried, his initial bravado when he rescues you from a bandit attack subsiding to something more slump-shouldered when his own settlement suffers a raid and he doesn’t feel he can do anything about it.
I have no idea if the game can sustain it, but the other characters in Hagar’s settlement were equally well-sketched. Alas, I don’t have screenshots of them – all the pictures here are from other areas, other people, and most importantly they’re not in motion, with all those tiny animations that effectively masked the fact they were generally rooted to the spot. Another Hagar, a bald, middle-aged chap with embarrassingly sticky-out ears is fascinatingly, but most importantly humanly ugly. Halek Hagar runs the poky shop, characterised by mutton chops, kindly eyes and a convincing smile. Then there’s Loosum Hagar, a 20-something woman.
I… I don’t usually do this sort of thing. But… Well… God, this is embarrassing. I went back for a second and then third look at her. Because… well… because she was kinda cute. Oh no! I’ve admitted it. Honestly, I don’t tend to go in for fancying polygons; never entirely understood it. But there’s something about Loosum… Fortunately, project lead Tim Willits, when I chatted to him later, confessed that he thought the same thing, so at least I’m not the only one feeling funny about someone who doesn’t exist.
I didn’t think she was cute because she had a bare navel or a pneumatic cleavage, though Rage has not proved itself immune to such tawdriness. Loosum was incongruously glamorous for the setting and wasn’t dressed at all appropriately for desert survival (so you’ve armoured your shoulders but you’re wearing hotpants? Really?), which is always a source of annoyance, but at least she hadn’t just fallen right out of a Jim Lee comic: she looked fairly, well, possible. My silly thought was entirely and only because of her face. It is a lovely face, and that is both because it is a very well-animated face with a nice smile, and because it is an imperfect face. A hint of a kink in the nose, a ever so slightly wonky smile, a smudge of dirt or dust here and there. A person’s face, not an eerily symmetrical, ultimately characterless, plastic porn star videogame face. Imperfection, it transpires, is a great to way to escape the uncanny valley, at least a bit, and especially when paired with what seems to be top-flight facial animation. The same odd magnetism is true of the male characters too, though I wasn’t being so creepy about them: they’ve got small things wrong with them, like those daftly protruding ears, and that makes me believe in them that much more.
These characters also did a fine a job of not blantantly or robotically declaring their purpose in the game. Loosum is there to teach you how to throw wingsticks, the tri-bladed boomerang weapon. There’s no glowing icon on her to denote she has this or any such purpose, and if you wander up to to her she’ll greet you wryly before you do anything. It’s not until you press ‘use’ that she’ll segue into exposition mode and offer you the wingstick mini-mission, and even then she does it by chatting away casually; only then does a little screen full of text saying exactly what you’ve been asked to do and what you’ll get for it pop up. It’s such a small thing, that initial approach dialogue, but it makes such a difference. Even in Human Revolution, I could circle around major characters I’d been sent to speak to, even plunge from four storeys up to land spectacularly in front of them, and they wouldn’t so much as blink. Not until I pressed use. Little things like that, when a character seems aware of your presence, they make the world seem a bit more alive, not simply waiting for you to tell it what to do.
Then I headed off on some kill missions, nobbled some bandits, made my way back, and trekked to another small settlement, curious about what I’d find. There, too, the attention to character detail and the measured pace of looking around meant soaking it in was such a pleasant surprise. An old lady, Janus Outrigger, perhaps leaning towards the Kindly Grandmother stereotype somewhat, but she was so convincing in it – from the high-detail face to the frail body language. Detail like her spectacles being made of two different pairs, one red, one blue, taped together, did a far better job of explaining what kind of world this was than any amount of exposition could have done. Everyone I meet seems so distinctive, not the generic wasteland people you might expect. They all have their own faces, their own demeanours. Yeah, you can’t do much with them outside of a quick chat, but their presence and their palpable there -ness makes this seem like so much more than a desert of blood-in-waiting. These settlements are places I want to hang around, savouring their character designs. Shooting bandits? Well, that seems fine. It’s the context for it that’s mattering to me.
That’s all I’ve got to say on top of Gril’s piece, to be honest. It’s a side of Rage I hadn’t seen before, a surprising and artful layer of non-violent class and finesse I’ve never experienced in an id game in the past, and I’m so looking forward to observing more of it in the larger settlements the full game offers. Of course, it could just turn into a mindless shootfest later on, but I really am thinking this is the moment when id finally grow up.