Review: RAGE

October 20, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan

id Software is often the developer labelled as the daddy of the modern-day first-person shooter. While their pedigree in that field is without question, and something we witnessed first hand at the Eurogamer Expo, it’s been a really long time since they’ve given us something new. Instead they’ve focused on great sequels, polishing their idTech5 game engine and re-releasing their classic games across multiple platforms.

So, after a hefty wait, RAGE becomes the first new IP from id Software since Quake in 1996. Does it live up to the heritage that they’ve been reminding everyone of recently?

Raging conditions
In regards to story, Rage is bit like the Ying to Brink’s Yang; only instead of floods changing the landscape forever, an Asteroid has hit and devastated Earth, turning it into a desolate wasteland. Before the impact, humanity hand-selected gifted people from society and placed them under cryogenic sleep in underground bunkers called Arks, with the idea that they’d later emerge to rebuild the planet. You, the player, are one of those chosen few.

109 years after you were first put to sleep, you awake in a broken cryogenics unit; your colleagues are all dead and you remember nothing. After making your way out of the facility, dazed and confused, you are pounced on by hideous mutants. Just as they’re about to make you wish you’d stayed in bed, you are saved by a wasteland inhabitant called Dan Hagar. Luckily for you, it seems that people outside the safety of the Arks survived the Asteroid and have managed to form little settlements around the area. Dan is the leader of one such community.

After rescuing you and driving you to his town, Dan explains about the current lay of the land. He informs you how bandits rule much of the wasteland, while mutants haunt the old cities. He explains that a government called ‘The Authority’ is seeking all survivors from the Ark, although their intentions are unclear. Taking a shine to you, Dan entrusts you with several missions directly related to the safety of his people, as you set about adjusting to your new life in the wasteland.

The pre-rendered intro detailing the events leading up to your awakening is absolutely stunning, while the rest of the story is told in real-time as you play through. In an open-world game like this, it’s hard to convey a focused story in the way that id Software are used to, and it’ll seem that way early on too. Thankfully, the more you play, the better the story gets, improving slightly in storytelling as you go through. It feels like it’s purposely designed this way rather than an imbalance, allowing you to soak in and adjust to your new environment, just as your character is, before giving you the crux of what the game is really about.

While it’s never going to match a slimmer game of say, Half-Life, in terms of a smart, focused story, what it does is coherent and enjoyably so. There are some minor gripes, such as how eager your character is to do the will of perfect strangers (highlighted in hilarious fashion by Penny Arcade), or how similar the entire thing is in setting to a little-known game call Borderlands.

The important thing, however, is that it succeeds in setting a decent atmosphere and provides an engaging backdrop for all you’re about to do.

Like a darker Borderlands...

Early on in the game, RAGE will have that initial sense of wonder and discovery as you try to piece together what has happened to the world since your character closed his eyes for that long sleep. However, it doesn’t take long before you fall into a very familiar gameplay pattern.

The game is an open world affair, to a degree, and provides you with three towns over its course that act as your hubs for missions. You get to a new town, explore and talk to the locals, and they’ll provide you with things you can do. Once you’ve done all the greatly important stuff there, you’ll be directed to the next town.

The earlier, smaller story missions may only be simple transportation missions or fetch quests with the odd bit of combat thrown in, but the bigger missions will see you packing off to large enemy locations to take out entire gangs. The bigger missions are also where you’ll find your more typical id-styled gun play and excellent level design, and this is how the game really comes into its own. Unfortunately, some of the optional missions will see you return to old locations, but the quality of the combat does go some way in making up for that. I did, however, find myself rolling my eyes after completing a main mission to suddenly find that a side-quest in the same location just happened to crop up.

The combat is unquestionably fantastic, though. There are some truly great moments against enemies that don’t just take cover and shoot, but will bob and weave to avoid your shots. Even the ranged enemies will charge at you when necessary, making the core combat extremely changeable and thus, more exciting. Foes will use the scenery to their advantage too, swinging off pipes, and running up walls to gain the height to come down on you harder with mêlée attacks.

They’ll also react realistically to being shot at; peg one in the leg as they’re charging at you and they’ll stumble forward, with realistic momentum carrying them over. How they’ll deal with this depends on the style of the gang or faction you’re up against. Some will just fall awkwardly, while others, their clan famed for being nimble, will use that momentum to just roll towards you so that they can still get their lethal strike in. Shoot someone in the gut and they’ll hold their stomach in, clearly in pain when they move. If you can down someone without quite finishing them off, they will drag themselves behind cover and still take pot shots until you get in that final blow. The animation for all of this is spectacular.

There are, of course, different types of enemies too. Each faction has their own style and tactics, so facing each one becomes a different proposition. The mutants are very different behaviourally to the gangs, and as such pretty much rush you in numbers at every opportunity. They can still utilise weaponry, albeit mêlée weapons like blades and scythes, which will sometimes just get thrown at you. There are bigger and badder flavours of mutants, such as the tentacle-armed Kraken or one that sports a grenade launcher and takes an age to down. These are a great challenge, especially when you realise how important it is to keep stocked up on ammo…

Yet another facet of design that brings shades of Borderlands...

The controls are as smooth as you like, with the now-standard FPS set-up mapped nicely to the pad. It almost feels like Bioshock at times, partly to the fluidity, but also down to the weapons and tricks that you can perform as a result of them. One thing that seemed odd to me was the length of time it takes for your character to get knackered after running. It seems as if you can’t go four steps without him panting like an asthmatic in an iron lung; I’m not sure why id were so stingy on this. It’s fine when you’re in the claustrophobic confines of the focused mission areas, but if you want to quickly jog around the towns and the world map, it slows you down a little.

Aside from your usual arsenal in shotguns (which you’ll be using a lot), assault rifles, SMGs, sniper rifles and the like (which all handle well), you can use different types of ammo to change things up and give yourself an advantage. For example, when you eventually take on The Authority or The Gearheads, you’ll find them best taken down with anti-armour ammo. There are quite a few alternative ammo types for each gun and you can buy them all from the vendors in towns; alternatively you’ll pick them up while looting.

The crossbow that Hagar gives you when you part company opens up a few new options in combat all by itself, with electric bolts (which react to water how you’d hope) allowing you to fry enemies, while the mind control dart allows you to possess your unwitting target to walk them into a crowded area and detonate them in a glorious lumpy mess of claret. Some of these weapons are battered and aging, while others are new and futuristic. It’s very nicely balanced.

Along the way you’ll find and be given recipes for these different ammo types, weapons and other tools, which can be made on the fly once you’ve looted the ingredients. You’ll be able to fashion Wingsticks (a bit like boomerangs, which deal decent damage), remote control cars strapped with C4, Sentry Bots, EMP grenades, or drill mechanisms that will break locks. Other seemingly useless bits of junk will help too, as you can acquire half an old binocular to use as a scope in conjunction with your pistol. It’s a decent system that’s a lot lighter in depth than in action RPGs, but refreshingly accessible. If you’ve got the pieces to make an item, it’s a button press away in your menu and won’t distract you from the action.

Looting comes in two forms. You can steal items from the many corpses you’ll ‘create’ (can’t loot muties, though, they disintegrate) or snatch them from the environment. A slight downside here is that you have to be pinpoint accurate to bring up the option to loot, and getting your reticule perfectly in-line can prove to be a little finicky on consoles, leaving you sidestepping a lot until you get it right; though, it does make up for it in other ways. If there is a shelf with several types of item on it, you don’t have to select each separately as you would in other games of this type. You just point at one thing and you’ll pick up everything that’s near it. It’s a nice little time saver that prevents you getting lost in endless looting, and means you can worry about sorting it all out when you get back to one of the towns.

I was very interested in seeing how id would handle the matter of health in RAGE, with their old-school roots playing on my mind. I was surprised to see them come up with something that combined older and newer elements, while throwing something entirely new in to the equation. When taking general damage, you are free to withdraw and hide behind cover and allow your health to regenerate; very much in the new school. At times this isn’t possible when you have numerous enemies rushing at you, so you’ll have to keep topping up your health with bandages to keep afloat; that’ll be the old school, then. Here comes the clever bit.

If you then take too much further damage and die, you’ll have to play a mini-game where you must use your inbuilt defibrillator. Here you use the analog sticks to match different directions, then you must hit both triggers at the right time to restart your heart. How accurate you are with both of these elements determines how much health you restart with. It also clears any enemies out as it gives off an electric charge as you get back up. If you die again before your defibrillator recharges, then it’s game over and you’ll have to go back to a checkpoint or a previous save.

I’ll be honest; when I first heard about this system I thought it would eat up way too much time and be a ball-ache, preventing you from getting back into the action quickly, but it really doesn’t have much of an impact at all. What it does is give you a fair old whack in getting to cover or clearing out the enemies, providing you with plenty of chances to get your shit together before it loses patience with you and takes the most drastic of action.

Thou shalt not pass!

So, moving between the locations then. This is where the much talked about driving mechanic comes in, and I must admit that vehicles control pretty tightly. Is it the best car handling in an FPS so far? Yeah, it probably is just about, even after you ignore the PR hyperbole surrounding it. Is it groundbreaking? Not at all; it’s just a bit tighter than in other games of this type.

In fact, the general driving between missions and locations is probably the weakest aspect of the game, as well as it handles doing it. There are bandit-controlled areas of the terrain with other vehicles and turrets that you’ll have to avoid or destroy to get around safely; however, fighting these guys gets a bit old, and annoyingly on some stretches they’ll always spawn in the same starting locations. There are rewards for killing them, though, thanks to an ongoing side-quest you’ll get early on.

There are a number of vehicles on offer for you to drive, all with different strengths and speeds. If you take too much damage you can always call a mechanic from one of the towns to come give you a tow (at a cost), which repairs your car automatically. You can also repair them by visiting the garages yourself at any point. You can even go as far as to tune the cars to meet your specific demands, such is the depth that id Software went to, but whether you’ll bother or not is a different matter.

All these cars are customisable with new skins, weapons, wheel spikes and power-ups that you can apply once you start taking part in races and earning racing slips (a separate currency) to spend with selected vendors.

It’s in the racing that the driving fares a lot better, reminding me of MotorStorm on a smaller scale, with added shields and ballsy weapons. There are many different types of race that you can take part in: straight races, weapons-engaged races and solo time trials for example, and they are all a lot of fun. The problem is that I didn’t find much myself very enthused to go back in and take part, except for when the story dictated that I needed to.

That aside, there’s plenty of other things to do in between proper missions, with card games, music games, holographic battles, and even a game where you must stab between your outstretched hand just like Bishop in Aliens. There are also some delivery missions that are quite fun, which struck me as a kind of post-apocalyptic Crazy Taxi.

While the races and these activities are nice asides, they are merely filler that you probably won’t spend a lot of time with; it’s the core game that’s the jewel in this crown.

The driving is tight, but ultimately the least exciting part of RAGE...

In need of its own id…
RAGE impresses in visual impact straight from the off, showing off its huge scope and impressive draw distance the second you step out of the Ark. That said, you’ll spend a lot of your playtime noting how much it looks like Borderlands after that; hell, just squint a little, and you could even fool yourself that you are playing Gearbox’s masterpiece. While the similarities in design are painfully obvious to all, it’s hard to deny that it looks absolutely gorgeous; though it’s not entirely without issue.

If you absolutely want to see RAGE at its best, then I whole-heartedly recommend following id’s advice and installing the game. Even when doing that, there are some graphical hiccups that crop up occasionally to put a blot on an otherwise attractive experience. Texture pop-in is a definite issue at times whether you install or not, especially just after load screens, and sometimes if you just turn too quickly, you’ll notice little blurry patches in your sights for a second or so. The counter to that is the argument that every inch of RAGE is unique; you’ll find no two separate locations looking alike here.

Despite RAGE looking somewhat familiar, there are elements of the design that are entirely its own. The enemies are brilliantly realised, with each gang and faction having their own look that is easily distinguishable from the next. There is an amazing amount of detail that’s gone into the NPCs and enemies, which is not often the case with shooters of this type. The weapons are also a high point, and considering that you’ll spend much of the game with them floating around in front of your face, you’ll never tire of looking at them. There’s a really cool contrast here too, from newer, futuristic weapons to beat-up old AK47’s held together with masking tape.

There is also lot of visual fan service to discover. You’ll notice subtle references from the very beginning, with a DOOM bobblehead sat on Hagar’s dashboard and characters wearing tees relating to classic id games throughout. Then there’s the more extreme examples, like entire hidden rooms designed to look just like classic Wolfenstein 3D or Doom. At times it’s very much a celebration of id software; that is until you notice references to Bethesda’s stable too.

While all of that is definitely cool and fun to find, especially for fans of id, it can’t help but compound the initial feeling that RAGE is a game that hasn’t really found a direction of its own during the development process.

These guys are relentless...

What’s with all the shouting?
Just like the visual fidelity, the audio is rich and high in quality. Once again, though, you’ll notice similarities to other games; the general backing to the calmer moments will evoke memories of (you guessed it…) Borderlands. What’s there suits the apocalyptic vibe very well, though. Once into the action you’ll be treated to the big, dramatic overtures, with orchestral stabs that help get the heart pumping in the midst of battle.

In battle, the game is loud and visceral. Guns sound brash and explosions are awesome, especially when they coincide with turning one of your enemies into liquid. Enemy chatter is a pleasure to hear, as they tell each other where you are, that they’re retreating for cover or when they’re downed. There’s a good variety in voices too, with each gang following its own theme.

The voice acting in general is a highpoint. While everyone already knows that John Goodman voices the first civilian you meet, the supporting cast, no matter how minor, really do all nail their parts. While not all of them are big Hollywood names, you’ll certainly recognise a few voices as you go through, including the voice of a certain General Roy Campbell, fresh from Kojima’s over-hyped conspiracy simulator.

Co-op is all the RAGE
RAGE does come with a decent multiplayer component; although, it’s not entirely what you’d expect for the competitive side of things. Oddly, all of the competitive modes focus solely on the driving and vehicle combat side of things (labelled Road Rage, for a reason, then), and while you have a couple of different flavours on offer, the combat is essential to victory in all of them.

Meteor Rally sees you traversing the maps, picking up meteor fragments and taking them back to designated zones. Chain Rally is more of a point-to-point affair, where you must be the first to pick up a randomly placed checkpoint, then be first to the following ones to chain the points together. If someone beats you to one, you must start from the lowest tier of scoring again. Triad Rally is similar to the above, but you must be the first to collect three Rally points to win. Lastly is Carnage, which is a free-for-all massacre. The one with most kills at the end of the game wins. No surprises there.

The maps on offer are all open and sprawling, with hazards and power-ups scattered around. The game offers depth with the usual levelling systems common in modern-day online games, allowing you to unlock new skins, cars, and weapons as you level up.

The core gameplay here evoked fond memories of the likes of Twisted Metal: Black and Hardware: Online Arena back on the PS2, but obviously more advanced and much less frustrating. That said, while it’s all good fun and the online is more than stable, I couldn’t help but wish that they had also catered for some traditional online shooting. RAGE would have really suited some deathmatches, or at least Mutant Bash TV in its own mode; an opportunity that is sadly missing. Luckily, there is a fantastic co-op mode here instead.

Elsewhere the game looks gorgeous. Well, except for this guy; he looks ugly, but he's meant to... shut up!

Wasteland Legends puts you and another (either online or split-screen) in the heart of some of the stories and tall tales that you hear about during the main campaign. You’ll take part in the Pilot episode of Mutant Bash TV, find out how Dan Hagar came to find his trusty sniper rifle, and many others in the nine available missions. Here, RAGE keeps the intensity from the firefights in the main game, but simplifies it in the process by putting it in self-contained levels that are brilliantly laid out.

You then have the benefits of having a partner, as they can revive you when you’re down, and provide cover while you make a break for a mission objective. At times you’ll feel the influence of Left 4 Dead as you trigger something and await the onslaught. Only here you’re dealing with intelligent enemies with their own weaknesses, not just ones that rush you. All the RPG elements are somewhat streamlined to help things move along quickly; you can’t loot, craft, or choose your loadout (though you can restock your ammo regularly and pick up other items, again in a similar way to Left 4 Dead). Instead it allows you to focus on the game’s real strengths, and it’s definitely a worthwhile ride.

RAGE-quit or Raging success?
With its setup, RAGE is a bit of a departure for id Software, yet it still manages to feel like a very safe release in today’s market and this is simply down to familiarity. Still, what’s here is unquestionably polished, beautiful and highly playable.

A lot was made of the driving mechanics before the game was released, and while it’s definitely a little step forward, its impact is fleeting. It’s the typical FPS sections that prevent RAGE from being ‘just another post-apocalyptic shooter’, putting it well above your average gun wank. The co-op ain’t half bad either.

Yes, it’s not the forward-thinking masterpiece that people were hoping for (and in some cases expecting), but irrespective of that, id know how to make an engaging shooter, and that’s just what they’ve done. No surprises, but definitely worth your time.


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