Wot I Think: Rage
Happy to be angry
Rage, the first id game since - careful now - Doom 3 - came out on Tuesday in American climes, and is due in the retailer-oppressed UK tomorrow. After initially losing a day to the PC version's notorious technical problems, which ultimately led to picking up a different graphics card and manually tweaking configuration files, I've since been haring my way through its wastelands and tunnels, on foot and on wheels, and I'm ready to offer my verdict. Return to form, exploring new frontiers or compounding age-old problems? Let's find out, stranger.
"Red Orchestra 2?"
"Nah, too much of an acquired taste."
"It was pretty good, but…"
"Mmm-hmm. Alright for some."
"Duke Nukem Forever?"
"You're not taking this seriously, I can tell."
"Deus Ex: Human Revolution?"
"Not really the same thing, is it?"
So went, roughly, the conversation between Jim and I earlier. We couldn't do it, but maybe you can: name me a better PC FPS released this year so far than Rage. The depressing mess of technical problems at launch are inexcusable - especially given id's Tim Willits told me almost two months ago that they were pretty much finished and the nature of Steam releases afforded them extra time for spit and polish - but we already know that story. What of the game underneath this instant drama? I think it's rather special, I'll have you know.
You've probably got a fairly accurate impression of it over what's been almost half a decade of promotion: it's a sci-fi shooter with vehicular bits, an inventory and a smattering of open-world freedom. Some folk seem to think id had promised Fallout 3-levels of openness and are grumpy that's not the case: I'd never got that impression, but perhaps the marketing has over-egged the free-form pudding. There's probably also a Pavlovian response going on too though: see post-apocalyptic desert, expect open-world.
Rage is a halfway house between the traditional linear shooter and the 'eh, do whatever' sandboxes of other after-disaster games. To make progress, to see more, to shoot different kinds of things, you will have to go into its carefully fenced-in interiors and gun down whatever pops up in front of/behind/below/above you. Thing is, you don't feel that insistent, unrelenting hand on your back, pushing you forwards, occasionally darting up to forcibly stop your head turning in another direction - Rage works hard to get rid of, or at least hide, the cattleprod of Call of Duty et al. You go into the tunnel/collapsed building/spooky ruined hospital/cordoned-off prison sections when you're ready to go into them. They're all pretty quick and peppered with setpieces, some very effective but others leaning towards repetitive, and either side of them you're free to do other things.
It could be looking around the truly impressive hub towns and admiring Rage's single greatest feature, its character design; it could be taking on a quickie fetch or sniper defence mission for extra cash; it could be spending said extra cash on weapon ammo and upgrades; it could be racing your increasingly souped-up buggy for prizes'n'kicks; it could be one of several slightly awkward minigames such as that thing Bishop does with the knife in Aliens, guitar-strumming or card gambling. There's plenty to do and, while none of it quite climbs all the way to top-tier spectacular, as an overall package this is to today's shooter norm what London Zoo is to a pet shop on Norwich high street.
I'm fearful of sounding like an apologist here, but I just can't take the cries that it's just another id game or just another so-so FPS at all seriously. Yeah, it's got plenty of pop-up monsters in plenty of corridors, but this is id reaching so far out of their comfort zone that even comparing Rage to their uneven back catalogue is almost pointless. Though they deserve every bit of outrage they're suffering for not including a proper graphics settings menu - what were they thinking? For me though, it does not ultimately overshadow what is a great, bold, characterful piece of work from a studio that formerly seemed to be speeding towards irrelevancy.
Again - what most stands out for me is the work they've put into the human characters who hang around the game's non-combat areas. They look phenomenal, both in terms of the arcane tech powering their detail, the low-key, mostly realistic but ever so slightly stylised oddness the art team has designed them with, the richness of the incidental animations and, most of all, the sheer life in the faces. I've banged on about that before, but most everyone is just a little… off. Not ugly as such, but imperfect rather than the usual sanitised, flawless symmetry of gamefolk. That, coupled with the attention to detail and a raft of really professional performances (which soars far above the largely unremarkable but likeably relaxed writing), makes for characters I'm convinced and charmed by.
I can't do a lot with 'em and most of 'em are rooted to the spot, but they accentuate the pleasantness of Rage's downtime and the unpushy flow of the game. id have never done anything like it before, and even so they trump most of their contemporaries: even the vast majority of DXHR's characters, for instance, might enjoy far more nuance and ambiguity, but they're nowhere near as magnetic or memorable as sad Dan Hagar or chipper, homespun-wise Mick the Mechanic (I love Mick; I wish he was my uncle) or thuggish Mayor Redstone or the tough but beautiful woman who runs the bar in Wellspring or the middle-aged no-one who wanders around with his beer belly hanging out of his tattered clothes.
Consistently impressive and varied face and clothing detail aside, Rage doesn't always pull this off, admittedly - the plot-centric Resistance group you join up with are blandly heroic, and tied into the game's hitherto gentle plot slowly taking on a more conventional go-save-us-from-oppression narrative. Even so - it feels grown up and it feels loving in its characters. The profound difference between Rage and Borderlands - which some people persist in poisonously comparing this game to, as though Gearbox somehow have sole rights to what long ago became the standard wasteland action fantasy tropes - is that Rage doesn't drown the world it's carefully built with overt gaminess.
However, there are two very different games squeezed into Rage. One is its world, comprising its characters, the small, semi-open world between its relatively few but always sizeable interiors, the racing and the odd-jobs; the other is, you might say, an id game. That's where Rage can stumble at times, which I'll explain in a moment. However, I am all-told a big fan of the shooting in Rage: from tedious, underpowered plip-plip-plip pistol beginnings, it grows into a carnival of over-the-top violence, as you get to indulge in surprisingly unreserved quantities of special ammo types (the shotgun that fires grenades is my personal favourite) and deadly gadgets (the adorably loyal spider-bot is my personal favourite of those; especially when it cutely climbs stairs after you). Puts me in mind of BioShock, particularly 2, a little in terms of broadly being on a fixed path but constructing your preferred arsenal to tread it with.
Presumably there are people who prefer machineguns and the exploding RC cars, or turrets and the mind-control crossbow bolts, or the pistol bullets that turn into six bullets on impact and EMP grenades, or and or and or and. Plenty of stuff is simply looted from corpses (though you can't collect felled foes' weapons, which is vaguely jarring) but most of it is constructed from found and bought junk using an expanding repertoire of recipes and a simple but agreeable crafting interface.
You can rarely step outside the rollercoaster track on Rage's main missions, and there's some distractingly obvious impassable barriers and scripted door unlocks crudely built in to ensure this, but you're pretty uninhibited in terms of how you make things fall over. Having an inventory, one you manage yourself, makes a huge difference to a shooter - because that's one piece of control scripting doesn't take away from you. It means you're making your own decisions about how you play, and Rage is completely happy for you to indulge yourself on that front - in fact, it enthusiastically fattens you up with combat possibilities.
Unfortunately, the specialness that seeps out of Rage's pores in its downtime is often entirely absent in its id-time. The enemies are short on variety both in terms of appearance and behaviour - the AI doesn't have many tricks and is easy to second-guess, and one mutant looks the same as another. On top of that, the enemy design is humdrum, in sharp contrast to the distinctiveness and character of the friendly NPCs. Pale leapy guy, hood-wearing guy, punk guy, armoured suit guy… They are only there to be fodder, of course, but they just seem so deeply ordinary against the wonders of Rage's downtime towns. And, too often, it will default to those old id standbys - enemies popping up out from nowhere, or rushing you in a gradually spawning swarm until the script ends and a door unlocks. It goes to so much effort to build a convincing place, but then often blows it by blatantly showing its working. A hearty roast dinner with tons of trimmings, but it used packet gravy and microwaved the carrots.
On the other hand: look at the size of that thing. When Rage wants to, it really knows how to pull off a setpiece and a half. Contrived boss battle or not, that engine can do wondrous things with scale and destruction. Better still, when the game lifts itself out of corridors and partially-collapsed concrete rooms full of junk, it's flat-out spectacular. If you don't ever play its Dead City level you won't see what might just be the most impressive and atmospheric mainstream videogame sight this year. Imagine if Fallout, any real comparison to which is simply disingenuous and bewildering, had been made with this tech, this amazing way of rendering the ruins of a metropolis.
Out in the desert, Rage also looks startling. I'm not at all happy that I ended up changing my graphics card and even then having to apply a load of tweaks to get it running smoothly, looking sharp and not suffering from that ungodly texture-pop, but the sights of the open wasteland, as I'm haring along in my rocket-armed buggy can be breathtaking, if your graphics card is deemed worthy enough by the game's auto-settings. Huge and detailed and there, even if most of it is little more than backdrop - but the point is it doesn't look like mere backdrop. (A tip, by the way: upgrade your second buggy as soon and as much as you can, as it makes the driving a whole lot more like you hope speeding an armoured four-wheel drive vehicle through the desert would be.)
It'd be easy to lament that this brilliant technology, once it's working, is wasted on a mere shooter. True, I'd love to see id Tech 5 also put to use on something more wild and free, but I'm also very happy that it's powering this shooter. Rage is often guilty of ordinariness and blandness in its main missinons, but it definitely pulls off being more than just a journey of unthinking destruction. The lengths it goes to for world and character design, and its refreshing lack of interference or handicapping in terms of its large and satisfying arsenal, results in something far and above most anything out or due out this year that's predominantly based around moving a reticule over a man/mutant's face. It has flow, it has character, it has life and it has stair-climbing friendly spider-bots. id have learned a lot, and without abandoning why we used to love them in the first place.
Rage is out now in most of the world, and tomorrow in the UK.