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South Of The Border: Rage Previewed

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“We didn’t want to do another Doom, another Wolfenstein, but we knew that at its core it had to be a first-person experience.”

It’s a line I heard lead designer Tim Willits say twice during last week’s Rage demo, plus over a dozen variants on that theme: his lure to unsure packs of journalists who’d almost forgotten Rage existed. By id standards, it’s not been long in the making – but it’s been long enough that I can’t help but approach this latest demo with a very different mentality to those first videos back in 2007. Borderlands has been and gone, Fallout 3 has been and gone, Bioshock 1 and 2 have been and gone. This Winter, we’ll have another post-apocalyptic combat game to join those teeming end-of-the-world ranks. It’s created by id – Doom id, Wolfenstein id, Quake id. And, let’s be honest, Doom 3 id. How will they win our love back?

With prettiness and bullets, mostly.

My initial thoughts of the demo was that it certainly looked good, even great, but not that This Is The Future face-slap that we’ve come to expect from new id engines. Then I looked at what Willits was playing the game on, and had to revise my thinking. He was running it on a 360 – yeah, boo hiss, etc – but I could have sworn it was a PC game. For console owners, this thing’s visuals have a sharpness and detail they’ve probably never seen before. I can’t wait to see what it’ll look like on decent PC. Willits claims there probably won’t be an ocean of improvement, but “John Carmack loves to have some little wingdings you can turn on.” Even if they’re minimal, it’ll be a treat for the eyes simply in terms of the sheer amount of glorious stuff that fills the game.

“It’s a truly uniquely textured world. Gone are the days of the same space corridors over and over again. We’re able to do very unique environments.”

There is clutter and incidental detailing everywhere, a palpable solidity and meatiness to the otherwise familiar sand’n’steel’supermutants design. The outdoor environments, reminiscent of Arizona’s mighty valleys, do genuinely look hand-carved rather than simply repeated. The indoor ones – well, there are a lot of metal girders going on. A lot of Rage clearly still boils down to shooting monsters in corridors. But they are much prettier, more interesting corridors, filled with the junk of a dead world.

“We didn’t want to do another Doom, another Wolfenstein, but we knew that at its core it had to be a first-person experience.”

I’m quoting that again because it’s about as defining a statement as could ever be made as Rage. Don’t go thinking this is more than a first-person shooter, that it’s truly off into RPG territory. It comes with tantalising bells and promising whistles, but you know what you’re in for.

“We have stayed true to our core but we have made something uniquely special and different.”

‘Unique’ is another word which keeps coming up. I want to believe him, and I know I’m being guilty of terrible pre-judgement – but I’ll never forget questioning him and Tod Hollenshead years ago, on the eve of Doom 3’s release, as to whether id were worried Half-Life 2 had set a precedent for world and interaction in a first-person shooter that they might not meet. “Didn’t you see the crane puzzle?” they replied, incredulous. The crane puzzle! Yes, of course. Adjusting the position of a few crates with a big crane would make Doom 3 a thoroughly 21st century first-person shooter. Id need to earn my trust now, not expect it. Thankfully, Rage isn’t Doom 3 or Quake IV all over again – they’re definitely pushing outside of their gloomy comfort zone.

“We have vehicle combat, vehicle racing, we have a whole host of new and rich characters all wrapped around this much more compelling story than we’ve had in other Id games. For us technology is key but gameplay is also key.”

It’s the distant future, after an asteroid has destroyed most of civilization. You play a survivor frozen in an Ark (terminology shared by Brink), and upon emerging into the blistering sunlight, you find a war-torn world of subsistence and angry mutants. Plus a sinister force known as the Authority. No ‘what if Superman and Batman were dating’ analogues here, though – this is a pseudo-governmental force of unknown origin and motive, and who are very interested in Ark survivors… To that end, friendly NPCs encourage you to ditch your Ark suit ASAP and buy something a little more anonymous. Yup, Rage has shopping. Given word has it John Carmack didn’t even want a Use button in Doom 3, an economic model is a big step forward for id.

“The world is full of items, things you can collect, pieces of engineering items.”

And people. In the town of Wellspring – one of two major population, loot and work hubs in the game, the other being Subway Town – people are chatty and distinct. There’s the girl people were leching over in screenshots yesterday, there’s the guy reading comics in a bar, there’s a giant inflatable gorilla above a raceway and there’s quest-giver Crazy Joe, whose craziness is evidenced by wearing a hand-stitch gasmask with an antenna stuck on it. It’s a dense but bright environment and, while Rage is inevitably going to draw many comparisons to Borderlands, in terms of life and detail it beats Gearbox’s game hands-down.

I’m struck by the sound design, even in this demo. The garage/raceway, in particular, seems so much more there because of the miscellaneous sounds of wheel-changes and heavy machinery from unseen sources. Wellspring’s ramshackle, but it’s no ghost town – and a lot of that sense comes from clever audio cues.

Then it’s down into the tunnels for some mutant-hunting. The game still looks great, but the change in light, in space and in characters is a little jarring. Above ground, a casual observer wouldn’t have guessed this was an id game. Now, they probably would. But they might also think it was related to Bioshock, a game which casts a tall-shadow over Rage’s semi-customisable combat. All inquiries as to Rage’s inspirations are, of course, batted away in favour of another variant on the “we knew we had to do something different but the same” line.

Ammo and gadgets is both bought and constructed from parts, themselves collected or bought with the dollars you pick up as you slay people and vehciles. You’ll get to play with the likes of remote control car bombs, replaceable turrets and roaming sentry bots (deliberately evoking Doom 3’s). “Find simple recipes for, use ‘em the way you want to use ‘em” says Willits, as he fries a mutant bandit by shooting the water around it with electrobolt ammo. Another mutant appears, cartwheeling through the air whilst flashing blades like a good little Splicer. He’s a Ghost, a human bandit gone a little wrong.

That’s just one bandit tribe, however. Another are The Wasted, lumbering skinheads wearing Union Jack clothing, unmutated but replacing somersaults with heavy weaponry. ““The game not only has very uniquely textured areas, but with the different bandit clans and settlers we really tried to add a richness to the game. Big wpeaons, big explosions, but it’s wrapped around so much more.”

The escalating presence of the Authority suggests high-tech foes will enter the mix too. Noticing a science-fictional neolgism on the pause screen, I enquire what a ‘nanotrite’ is. “As part of the Ark program you’re injected with nanobots” These heal and defibrillate you when you die, so presumably are Rage’s answer to Vita Chambers. They may be much more than a tricksy way of avoiding reload screens, however. “You’re like a buck rogers man from the past stuck in this world where every thing’s very rustic, but ultimately you find out there’s more to this nanotrites than than meets the eye. Are the mutants mutants because of cosmic rays, or is it to do with the nanobots?”

The multiple tribes are strictly enemies, however – there’s no factional system here, or indeed any choice about what to do with your character himself. ““It’s about the growth of your arsenal,” confirms Willits. “There are opportunities to play the game differently, but it’s a single narrative that’s open but directed.”

Much of that openness involves side-missions either on foot or in-vehicle. It’s hard to get a real sense of what degree of importance the much-vaunted buggies really play in the game, but Willits claims they’re pretty much optional. You can walk. It’s not much fun, but you can. Driving is an additive type experience to the action, depending on the tyoe of player you are.” It’s also a chance for random fun-carnage: you earn money for every vehicle you destroy in the wasteland. I’m a little worried the driving’s only about travel and distraction, but at the same it’s a chance to explore the beautiful great outdoors – and that may well be where Rage shines most. “We knew that we had to do something. We needed to make sure Rage wasn’t just mutants. We knew we could do the first-person stuff well.”

If there’s a strangely sombre tone to this preview, it’s purely because I’m entirely undecided about Rage. There’s no denying it’s a visual show-stopper, but that alone doesn’t carry the clout it used to. I want to be enjoying this pretty place they’ve made, not simply blasting a hole through fixed bits of it. The root of my hope for it is the combat, which has opened up enormously compared to id’s previous work. It’s no longer a matter of being given a shotgun after three hours and holding onto that until you get a plasma rifle. Instead, it’s collecting and constructing the arsenal you prefer – the pistol, for instance, has an ammo type called Fat Boys, which turn it into essentially a one hit, one kill weapon. Will you spend your money and parts on building that ammo, or would you rather fit your manta ray-like crossbow with electric bolts?

Superficially, id are playing it a lot safer than a lot of people hoped they would, but closer inspection suggests they’re handing players a lot more keys than has been their tradition. Cautious optimism is an appropriate reaction. Like that Ark survivor, though, these veteran developers have emerged into a world they perhaps weren’t expecting. I just hope they’re ready for it.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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