Rage Review: Presentation and passion don't always make the grade.
You'd think a game named Rage would elicit a more passionate response. Doom III, id Software's last in-house game, sure did. With its infamous flashlight and ?monster closets,? it seemed to put gamers on either side of the love or hate line. Not nearly as divisive, Rage is the most ?meh?-inducing title id has ever produced.
An apocalyptic shooter with decidedly old-school priorities, Rage favors graphics and gunplay over narrative and character development. There are quick saves, multiple discs to swap or install, and a focus on single-player with limited online offerings. All this was the norm in the heyday of the boys who brought us Doom and Quake. Once again the team has set a graphical high watermark, this time on consoles, but now they're lagging behind in story telling and gameplay innovation.
Right from the get go, Rage hits you over the head with how pretty it is. The game has massive textures and an epic draw distance. The id Tech 5 engine has made Rage gorgeous, and why not? id has had plenty of time to work on it; it has been seven years since Doom III, after all.
All this beauty comes at a price, however. Rage is three discs on Xbox 360, and unless you're trying to get through Moby Dick
during the load screens, you really ought to install it. Each disc is it about seven gigs, but you can install them one at a time if you're short on space.
Rage loses no points from me for multiple discs and a recommended install. What id managed to squeeze out of six-year-old Xbox hardware must have Bill Gates clicking his heels. Microsoft should be slapping screenshots on buses across town; it might just be the best looking game on the system. The PlayStation 3 version looks great too, though it's anti-aliasing isn't as sharp. There are a few jagged lines that mar presentation that's otherwise on par with exclusive series like Uncharted and Killzone.
Rage does have one heartbreaking technical failure: texture pop in across all platforms. The 360 version, when installed, has the least of it. It's prevalent on the PS3, and absolutely plaguing the PC version. There's hope; the game runs at a butter smooth frame rate, so it's likely a software issue that id's planned patches can solve. Still, it's frustrating that a title with such a lengthy development period could be released like this.
Rage is also short on originality, even in places where id used to shine. There just aren't very many weapons in the game. There's one pistol, one shotgun, two assault rifles, a sniper rifle, crossbow, a rocket launcher and a chain gun-type BFG you only have for the finale. Dust off a copy of Quake III: Arena and you'll see that id is capable of a more varied arsenal than this. Worst of all, you'll have nearly all these weapons by the halfway point. There is actually one more weapon, a double-barreled shotgun, but id made it a pre-order bonus! That's just criminal in a game so short on guns.
There are multiple ammo types for each weapon, but you're still employing the same old firing mechanics: aim down the irons/scope, fire, repeat. Sure, I just described nearly every modern shooter, but other games create variety with new environments and enemy tactics. Not only does Rage recycle levels, it's different factions of enemies use very similar strategies. There are riflemen who use cover and flush you out with grenades (which they never to seem to run out of), then melee and shotgun men who charge. Once you figure out their ammo weakness, you just stock up and unload. To use a Pokemon analogy: if you're taking down the fire gym, bring plenty of water-types, and keep one ground type for the inevitable ?surprise? electric attack.
There is one wild card in Rage's armory: wingsticks. Deadly little bladed boomerangs that fly back to your hand on a clean kill. If you neatly lop off an enemy's head (a satisfying experience, let me tell you) you can recycle the weapon. Hurling them willy-nilly or smashing them on enemy armor will drain your supply. Also, the weapon comes back to where you stood when you threw it, so you need to stand your ground if you want to catch it. These bad boys make for rare moments of unique, quick-thinking combat. Two mutants charge you with your shotgun drawn: hurl a wingstick at the further foe, and give his buddy a face full of buckshot. Their corpses will crumple as the blade coolly returns to your hand. Not that is some Mad Max type stuff.
The enemy's AI also livens up the combat. Soldiers never charge when they have perfectly good cover, and they fall back to a better position when they're outmatched. I saw enemies execute dives and somersaults so eerily clever, I reloaded to see if it was scripted. Nope, the AI is just that good, and there's enough strong animation to back it up. As is the case with most of Rage, there's unbelievably strong technology at work, but the gameplay just grows familiar.
Speaking of the familiar, there's Rage's plot, if you can call it that. It's ironic that this game is published by Bethesda, since anyone who played Fallout 3 will feel pretty ?been there, done that? about Rage's story. You're the survivor of an Ark, an underground stasis chambers where humanity hid from an asteroid apocalypse. You emerge to find a desert wasteland where everything has gone all Mad Max. A scrappy survivor with the voice of John Goodman comes to your rescue. He gives you a ride in his dune buggy for the game's opening rail sequence. On the way back to his hideout, a group of bandits eyeball you; the local totalitarian military force is offering a hefty reward for Ark survivors.
Rage's opening establishes a great mood and sense of place, then immediately squanders it by booting you out the door to eradicate the aforementioned bandits. Goodman's character says they need to be eliminated before they attack the town, so he sends you out to kill them, alone. Are they really such a threat if you can butcher them single-handedly with a pistol? Why not have them siege the village and get the player working with the NPCs, so the narrative can develop a character or two?
I don't think I'm letting my desire to have John Goodman for a wingman taint my review here. Rage fails to develop anything resembling a plot to the point where it doesn't even have a villain, just malevolent forces that want you dead for reasons only hinted at. There are Ghost Bandits, Gearheads, Jackals, and the Authority, who ultimately become the big bad guys. NPCs are constantly saying, ?oh, the bandits are killing us,? and ?you don't want to fall into the Authority's hands,? but you never actually witness any of it. Rage is all talk, no walk in the antagonist department, and violates the biggest rule of story telling: ?show, don't tell.? You don't even encounter the Authority until act two. At first I thought this was admirable pacing, but then the game wrapped up without even showing me General Cross, the Authority's leader. Actually, the game only bothered to mention him twice, so Rage isn't very good at ?telling? either.
Next to it's attempt at a plot, Rage's other biggest blunder is vehicles, which are used for getting to and from missions, and that's all. They can be upgraded and outfitted with weapons, which is very addictive. Upgrades are earned by winning races and busting up bandit vehicles, which I did obsessively, at first. Then, once I realized how utterly inconsequential vehicles were, I lost interest. Anything having to do with them, except driving yourself to the next mission, is optional, and you can bypass the need for upgrades by simply buying shield power-ups and mashing on the accelerator until you hit your destination. Once the mission is accomplished, you can call for a tow, which fast travels you back to town. What a wimpy design decision. id must have worried shooter fans wouldn't like the vehicular nonsense, and would reject Rage. So id made nearly anything vehicle related optional, and completely marginalized some refreshing gameplay.
There are no vehicle missions in Rage. Story-wise, you never accomplish anything behind the wheel except getting from A to B. There are two times where the game will make you race to unlock a vehicle essential to a quest. Otherwise, you can race as much as you want to earn upgrades, but once you realize how inessential they are, you'll likely stop. Sadly, racing for racing's sake isn't much fun either. It's repetitive, and none of the car's handling has much depth. Once you're familiar with a track, you're Mario Andretti, and the AI eats your Formula 1 dust.
Strangely, driving composes an exact 50% of the game's multiplayer options, since it's one of two modes: Combat Rally and Legends of the Wasteland. This strikes me as an insane choice. Like most of Rage, Combat Rally is fun initially, and then gets really, really old. You drive around collecting chunks of meteorite that you turn in for points, all the while defending yourself against enemy vehicles. The more meteors you turn in at once, the bigger your multiplier, so there's an incentive to gamble that makes racing to the finish line with a heavy payload genuinely tense. You can also upgrade your vehicles with CoD style weapon unlocks, but as in single player, there's little to be done with vehicles and thus no motive to do so. Having one or two other forms of vehicular combat, or even a vanilla racing mode, would have solved this. It's mind-blowing that this is the only online vehicle option.
Also mystifying is the lack of deathmatch. id obviously wanted to try something new here, but someone should tell them there's a difference between stepping out of your comfort zone and tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, we have Wasteland Legends, a campaign mode playable only with a partner. This too is admirable, id spent the time to design levels built for two players. It does recycle some environments from the campaign, but that's no big deal. The big deal is the lack of checkpoints, which makes the mode too frustrating to be bothered with. It's just way too hard. You get a very limited amount of ammo and wingsticks, and unlike the single-player, where you can grind the cash for a beastly arsenal, this is all you're getting.
Check point saves are also an issue in single-player, because the game simply doesn't make any. There's one autosave when you begin a mission, and then it's on you to remember to quicksave. Why? Being able to quicksave is a nice feature, especially if you were ever a PC gamer, but forgetting to do so makes for lost progress and much frustration. It's a nice option, but it should be in addition to smart checkpoints the game manages for the player.
Still, single player is Rage's best offering, thanks to strong character design and voice acting. NPC's are exquisitely animated, even if they're given little to do, and they're all voiced very well, despite their stock characterizations. What's really bothersome is that Rage's two towns are carbon copies of each other. One looks all steampunk Western, and the other is more Blade Runner, but they have almost the exact same quests. In both towns there's a bartender who has you hunt bandits, a job board with sniper and bounty hunter missions, and even an old man who needs medicine. Worst of all, I got old man Norbu his medicine, and though there was a nice bit of dialog about what a hero I am, nothing changed. He didn't move or even change his posture. How am I supposed to get the emotional satisfaction of helping the elderly if they still stand there quivering like wheat in the wind?
It pains me to hate on a game with such great AI and graphics, but Rage is easier to admire than enjoy. Despite the texture pop, it looks great, and there was some real care put into each system's version, but as far as combat and plot are concerned, the game is painfully bland. The guys at id have definitely played a lot of Bioshock and Half-Life 2, but didn't really pick up on what made those games work. Hopefully they'll learn a thing or two about characterization, motive, and gameplay variety before they make Doom IV or Rage II, both of which are hinted at. Rage is a technical achievement, and a welcome sign of life from the iconic developer, but it falls short on original gameplay and story. Give it a rent, but let the buyer beware.