I feel like this should be two reviews, really. I’ve got two minds here. One of them of them has the upper hand, luckily, so I’m not risking a schizoid crisis as I ponder the fractal splendour of Rage. But there’s part of me that’s trapped by a blanket of awe, and is bubbling and festering away underneath. I’ll lance that boil in due course, but in the meantime…
This is an FPS from the people who invented the genre. It is of impeccable lineage. I think if you look at its birth certificate, its full name would have more double-barrels than the bargain bin in a shotgun superstore. Anyone who’s played an Id game will know something of what to expect. Stunning visuals, smooth gameplay littered with gore and shock, and monstrous bosses with ridiculous guns. Anyone who hasn’t played an Id game is lying, or a doppelgänger that must be slain.
Id deliver exactly what you’d expect. They deliver it in spades. With spades. Giant killer spades. Spadefuls of spades just piling up all over you, and each of those spades have little shovels and trowels hidden away in secret compartments. I would defy anyone to claim that this doesn’t give you just what you were looking for, or just what the trailers led you to expect. If you missed out on the colossal marketing push that heralded the release, well done, that’s pretty impressive. Here’s a recap.
So it’s the future, and everyone has been wiped out by a giant asteroid impact. Luckily, some government somewhere (let’s pretend it might not have been the American one, let’s really go crazy here and say it was Finland) saw it coming and therefore hid a bunch of super soldiers in underground arks. Once the apocalypse was over, these soldiers would pop up like militarised mushrooms and re-establish a world order of peace and love. Because that’s what super soldiers do. Ask anyone.
But it’s all gone wrong, so as you, the nameless, voiceless hero thaw out of your cryo-sleep, you stumble into a world where the only culture to survive was a single DVD of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and everyone has taken that to be the norm. Cue an incredible journey through a hellish wasteland of canyons, abandoned and re-purposed architecture, desperate survivors, insane bandit gangs, advanced military dictatorships and rabid mutants. And cars. And guns. And mini-games.
It looks amazing. Flat out amazing. I know there’s been a lot of problems with the PC release, and lots of people are apparently unhappy about how limited the fine-tuning is on the graphics here. Maybe I was just lucky, but it looked killingly good on my rig from the get-go. I didn’t feel any need to make it look better, I think I’d have burst my eyes. The detail is amazing, the scenery suitably devastated and stunning. Everywhere are things you want to go and explore, horizons to alarm or daunt you and hints of things to come. From the incredible fluidity of the animations, that really bring a cast of NPCs to life with impressive depth and humour, to the care apparent on every visible surface of the world, this is a piece of art. You’re fighting in somebody’s exquisite painting of a hellish future. Utterly credible, utterly haunting and very convincing. This is a benchmark game, in terms of appearances, other games will now have to match this or be judged.
Within moments of stumbling, blinking, into this epic vista, you’ll be told to go and shoot people. Don’t act all surprised or offended. That’s why you’re here, it’s an FPS from Id. Honestly, what do you expect? A multi-layered dialogue tree? Match three? No. Take your bloody pistol and go and shoot up some dudes you never met, and stop whining. You’ll have a ball. There are many well-imagined bandit factions to tangle with, from the hilarious cockney Wasted to the axe-flinging Jackals, each lurking in their own fantastic fortress. The characterisation is superb, both in voice and appearance. The bandits take it in turns with the agile, cackling mutants and the armour-clad Authority to keep the levels varied, and there’s a good scattering of bosses and unusual monsters around the place to keep you uncertain as to what will try to kill you next.
The game has elements of RPG to it, with mission hubs and quest givers, many of which are optional. It’s not the longest game unless you take all the options, so do, they’re worth it! The job boards in particular have some gems in the sniping missions, which have a great sense of story to them (albeit a story acted out at a long distance in which you shoot most of the protagonists). And if you need a change of pace, try a racing mission, or a delivery mission. Or try and cut your fingers off playing knifey-knifey with a lunatic in a bar. Or gamble on dice. Or play a collectible card game against a half-blind cheat. There’s plenty to do, and all of it is fast-paced. Nothing outstays its welcome, it’s a real sandbox of apocalyptic entertainment.
Great guns too. Everything stays useful, even that very first pistol. I was still using it in the last levels, firing off upgraded Fat Mommas to take the crowns off Authority goons. Even the gimmicky ones, like the mind-control crossbow, are a messy joy to wield. And all of them have alternative ammo, as well as a bizarre array of gadgets to craft and deploy, like the deadly wingsticks or the spiderbots. Same goes for your selection of cars, which can tout aspect-seeking missiles, bomb-car escorts and short-lived invincible shields. The car sections are incredibly fast and furious, but also feel strangely optional – you can always just floor it and avoid trouble if you’d rather.
Everything is glossy and sleek, and easily digested. The levels are straightforward – no puzzles, just well-laid out corridors full of guys waiting to get shot – and they look so good it’s a real pleasure exploring them.
And them, abruptly, it finishes.
And you cannot skip the credits. I don’t care how precious you are about your staff, if your credit sequence is just moody guitar music and a list of sound technicians, enable the skip function. Or is that why you called the game Rage?
The bubble bursts, a bit like my boil is now going to, and it does leave a sour taste. This game is 25 gig in size, which is almost all textures I guess, and it took me a week of evenings to play through it. That’s fine, that’s probably better than the average shooter. But the end is horribly abrupt. Why am I disappointed? Partly, I suppose, from the fact that the game I was enjoying being over. But there’s a little more to my dismay than that.
Firstly, this is an easy game. I played it on hard, expecting that would extend my enjoyment. I’m not the greatest shooter player going, although I can point and click a bazooka like the best of them. But not only does your health recharge, as is the norm today, but you also have a supply of craftable health packs to use if things get bloody. And if you die, your built-in defibrillator gives you a second chance at life (plus the bonus of shocking the miserable bandit now going through your pockets). I kind of liked this at first, it’s funny and cleverly done. But by the end, I think I’d actually died only twice in my entire play-through, and both of those occasions were in car explosions. I just felt a bit too unkillable. Maybe I should have chosen Nightmare, then – I’ll certainly go back and see, but all the same. The racing has the same problem, it’s remarkably easy, and I’m a shit driver in games, as in life.
And the story isn’t great. It’s not bad, and the characters really do hold it up, but it’s like seeing amazing actors in a bad soap. Nothing gets tied up. One of my favourite guys, the fellow who first helps you, vanishes without trace half-way in. Did I miss a side-quest? What happens to Redstone, the villainous mayor in the second town you visit? I thought he was going to betray me to the bad guys, but I never found out. If the Authority is using Ark soldiers like me, where are they all? None of the goons I shot auto-resurrected. Why won’t anybody answer my questions? Is it because I’m mute?
I have two faint suspicions. One is that this game isn’t really for PC gamers. Let’s face it, we’re not the kings in the market these days. Playing this would be much harder with a gamepad than a mouse, mostly because the enemies are so fast and slick. They dodge, weave, use cover and leap about all the time, and I reckon my thumb would be hard pressed to match it. It is easier with a mouse – I know this is a can of worms, but I’ve played with both – it is easier to follow unpredictable movement with a mouse than it is with a gamepad. Fact. You don’t need to fiddle with lots of graphics options on a console, and so there’s no point putting it on the menu here. Fact. PCs don’t sell as many games, so there it is less important for developers to pander to that end of the market. Fact. Big release games like this aren’t made exclusively for us any more, which makes me a bit sad. But I’m a gamer. I’m always going to be a bit sad, that’s life.
My second faint suspicion is that they ran out of time to make it as complete as they had in mind. Or even, god forbid, the money ran out. I can see a few unfinished plot ends here and there. However good the level and character design is, it’s disappointing to see how much is recycled. One whole level is just flat-out repeated, only you run the corridor backwards. That’s embarrassing, even if it’s one of the best looking ones. The different bandit clans all share the same basic animations and attack patterns. They look and sound different, sure, but they play the same. And many of those spectacular backdrops are just that, backdrops. For a cynical jade like me, after a while the colour of the curtains don’t matter. I can’t fail to spot that it’s the same old show in front of them.
Did they really run out of money or development time? Set up for DLC is more likely, really. That option is certainly in the menu. Bethesda’s involvement is interesting. I reckon they’re behind the excellence of the NPCs, which makes me even more hungry for Skyrim, which may look this good and have the freedom to roam that the tight corridors here lack.
But look, this is splitting hairs. Rage is a strong, amazing-looking game, worth playing through for the art on exhibit as much as the old-fashioned but still solid core gameplay. The legend of Id is not dead, and this is as much of an essential purchase for your FPS library as anything else they’ve ever done. It’s worth the cash, and it leaves a big impression, I’d say go for it.