Way back in the early ‘90s, id Software essentially invented the first-person shooter when they released Wolfenstein 3D. They continued to dominate the genre they defined with Doom and Quake in the years following, which today are recognized as some of the most successful and important franchises in video game history. While all three of these IP’s have had all kinds of sequels and remakes in the years since their initial creation, id seemed to have retired more or less from the industry proper. That is until this year with the release of Rage.
In the year 2029 a massive asteroid collides with Earth, wiping out the majority of life on the planet. The player wakes up in an ark, one of many cryogenic stasis chambers buried beneath the Earth as part of the Eden Project, an international attempt to preserve humanity’s existence after the Apophis asteroid’s impact. However the Eden Project was an apparent failure – you’re released from cryo to find the rest of your ark killed and much of the ark itself badly damaged. After making your way out into the wasteland, you discover a handful of small civilizations meekly carrying on. Between constant raids by bandits, swarms of attacking mutants and the oppressive Authority, the few good people in the wastes are left to survive or rebel, both lifestyles leaving little time for anything other than shooting, gambling and racing. You’re thrown into the push and pull of things, using a myriad of bullets and vehicles to blast your way through what’s left of Earth.
Without understanding it’s pedigree, Rage might not seem like it warrants the attention it’s getting. Particularly because the game’s been marketed with fairly tight lips there seems to be a lot of fuss over what seems to be just another post-apocalyptic monster-shooter. I was definitely a part of that mentality, even with the knowledge of id’s importance in the industry, and superficially at least, it’s a fair judgment. You probably won’t come away from the game remembering unique set-piece moments and caring much about the story itself, but what you will get is borderline addictive gameplay and, well, fun.
id can definitely use Rage as proof that history and reputation count for something; these guys understand gunplay like no one else, and boy do they make use of that knowledge. Right from the start you can feel the weight and power behind your pistol, and though there are a pretty modest set of firearms you get to play with, there are enough ammo types and weapon classes to keep things varied and interesting. Every weapon has its benefits and detriments and you learn quickly what works on each enemy type. Lots of shooters can boast far more weapons to pick up and use, but it usually just means finding the most powerful one and using it forever. Rage isn’t satisfied with that. For the first time in recent memory, I found myself ducked behind a wall thinking strategy in an FPS game: “Okay, my assault rifle isn’t working, and they won’t get close enough for my shotgun. I have 12 explosive bolts left in my crossbow, but Ghost bandits are too evasive for my accuracy.” Solution? Pop some fatboys in the chamber and blow them away with my pistol.
This leads into my second point. The AI in Rage is fantastic. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an NPC actually dodge bullets before. I mean, many games have had enemies that will duck, roll or hide behind walls, but never contextually to my actions. Different types of enemy have their own unique behaviour – certain bandits will rush and throw mid-range weapons before slashing at you with axes and blades, mutants will climb and jump around your bullets, and heavily armoured Authority soldiers will use cover and grenades to try to draw you out of safety. There are even occasions where I’ve nearly cleared out a room and the last two bandits will shout ‘He’s kicking our ass! Fall back!” and run back to the next room. It really feels like the AI reacts organically to you, and whenever it seems that you’re actively affecting the game world around you the game is doing its job.
The game is set up in a sort of faux-RPG format. The world is essentially open, and missions are doled out through optional jobs chosen through conversing with NPC’s in hub worlds. Most of these jobs involve traveling by buggy through the wasteland to one of the many faction territories that function as ‘levels’ in the game. Here is where you’ll find the majority of enemies to shoot and explode. Accompanying the ‘RPG-lite’ mission format is an equally simplistic RPG system for upgrading your equipment. Throughout the game world you’ll pick up and purchase recipes and schematics that allow you to build more advanced tools that’ll help you throughout the campaign. The most popular and easily the coolest of your kit is the ‘wingstick’, a bladed boomerang that does heavy damage and can even return to you if thrown properly. Working out the bullet, evade, wingstick rhythm is a joy, and it’s probably the most satisfying weapon in your arsenal. The little RPG elements benefit the game by deepening the gameplay just a few inches more. It’s just a taste, but it’s enough.
Finally there are mini-games to play in each of the small hubs that include gambling your money on 5-finger fillet, a simple chance game called ‘Tombstone’ and a collectible card game similar to Magic: The Gathering. On top of this is the more campaign-relevant racing circuits you’ll need to participate in to upgrade and unlock your vehicles. The cars all feel clunky and handle wildly at first, but before long you’ll be breezily boosting and shooting your way around corners relatively easily. The racing is barely more than another distraction that helps vary the gameplay and keeps the gunplay from getting stale, but it works and can be a blast.
Rage can be a really pretty game most of the time. It features wide, varying landscapes and beautiful lighting. Up close the details start to blend and look a little muddy, and (at least on PS3) the game is constantly popping in layers of detail every time you move the camera, but truthfully you spend so much of the game in a frenzy of movement and bullets that these issues are pretty hard to notice when you’re actually involved in the game world. It also helps that characters move and speak with relative liveliness, thanks to less rigid dialogue animation and some quality voice-acting. Add to this the sheer size of the damn thing (Rage comes with three discs on the Xbox 360) and minor graphical problems are easy to overlook in exchange for the length of gameplay you get out of it.
If you’re exhausted by the amount of similar-looking FPS games that seem to come out every month, Rage is probably not on your wish list. In that respect, you might not want to go the $60 route. That being said, you may be surprised to discover how much you’ve been missing real entertainment in a shooter. The story is a tad conventional and truthfully, doesn’t really go anywhere and ends quite suddenly, but this is a rare occasion where it doesn’t matter. Rage is just that fun to play.