By – George Weidman
Nestled at the bottom of one of RAGE’s dusty ruined staircases lays an Easter egg: a box of “Quayola Quayons,” branded with the iconic Quake “Q”. “64 Shades of Brown!” exclaims the packaging. At least they’ve learned to make fun of themselves.
RAGE represents id Software’s decades-long history of unsuccessfully flirting with the RPG genre. Aside from a couple of re-releases and cell-phone spin-offs, they barely even make games anymore (how many years has it been since Doom 3?) and seem to prefer gambling with engine licensing instead. Skewed towards consoles and uncharacteristically tame, RAGE is just one more slip away from coherency on id’s roster. It’s the latest in the long line of unimpressive tech demos that they’ve been making since Quake 2.
As a weird foster-child between Borderlands and Fallout, RAGE (published by Fallout stepdaddy Bethesda) doesn’t really have room to accomplish much on its own. Visually, the game is damn near unmistakable from what a less-colorful, less-inspired Borderlands would have looked like two years ago (characters even have a bit of a cell-shaded outline.) The gameplay throws away all of the run-and-gun fun that makes classic id shooters so great, instead opting for the slower, cover-based “whack-a-mole” shooting gallery that comprises today’s shooter mediocrity.
The very concept of RAGE starts to lack panache after the opening cutscene. RAGE’s post-apocalyptic world is the result of a simple external threat: an asteroid impact, as opposed to the internal human failure of Fallout’s nukes. Anticipating this impact, the people of 2029 preserve the last specimens of humanity through a group of orbital satellites called the “Ark” program. Three generations later, it’s time for your Ark to crash back to Earth. You wake up alone and disoriented, with no real goal or mission awaiting you in the wasteland. But just as the slightest chance of free-roaming exploration goodness can happen, you’re forced into an on-rails car ride that begins a chain of quests that keep you on a tight leash throughout the entire game.
If the premise sounds like a set-up for an RPG, that’s because it is. It would be an accurate assessment to call RAGE a single-player Borderlands. Yet unlike Borderlands, all of RAGE’s RPG elements are unenthusiastically half-baked. Inventory management, crafting, and trading are all present. But there’s no weight limit, and this throws much of the RPG limits out of skew. Essentially, there’s no reason not to snatch up every visible bit of sellable trash. There are large towns offering side-quests from secondary characters and job boards, but these are mere time-sink distractions from the main quest. They all boil down to a handful of quickly recognizable categories. Sniping minigames and car combat jarringly teleport you out of the town into the side-quest’s area. Quick re-runs through previously-cleared dungeons are monotonous and offer meager rewards that aren’t worth the effort. There is even a diverse assortment of minigames available (one of which is a surprisingly complex collectible card game), but they all fill similar roles as shallow, undeveloped time sinks.
Trying to deal with RAGE’s RPG mechanics is a very numbing, disconnecting experience. Case in point: sellable trash items such as headphones and cookware, after making the trip to your inventory, are inexplicably transformed into a single item called “small objects”. Another example: accepting a quest from a local bartender to destroy bandit cars outside of town functions more as an on-off switch for a money-making mechanic. There’s no player-driven prompts or interactions fleshing out this one quest in particular: reward money simply siphons directly into the player’s inventory at the precise moment of every car-combat kill for the rest of the game.
The main questline has no real underlying plot or antagonist and follows a conflict between two one-dimensional, morally black and white factions. Friendly NPCs only exist as talking heads that immediately spout shady, self-incriminating rumors at the prompt of the “use” key. There are no moral choices, skill trees, points to distribute, or levels to gain. The closest thing to character development happens one-third of the way trough the game, when you must choose a class that makes your character only marginally more efficient at skills that the other classes are already efficient at.
All of this talk about character development and RPG elements is emblematic of where RAGE’s priorities are at. For four years, id has been advertising RAGE as a vehicle for next-generational graphical fidelity, and the final product that’s been released is looking suspiciously behind the times. At first boot, RAGE doesn’t actually look very good, thanks to a lack of graphics options that puts you at the mercy of the auto detect mechanism. After tweaking with the .cfg files and struggling with a disastrous release build throughout the opening weekend, I finally managed to get the game to look like what was advertised, looked a bit questionable.
To put it bluntly, RAGE looks kind of awful up close. Visually rich and beautifully-animated models stand on top of low-resolution, flat smeared textures. Some of these textures even have color-compression artifacts, like they were ripped from YouTube. Smaller environmental objects are 2003 material, lacking smooth polygonal details and crisp textures. It’s a problem that is visible on consoles as well and will keep RAGE graphically handicapped no matter what kind of computer it’s played it on.
With version five of the ancient Quake engine, id has adopted more of a policy of compromise than graphical gratuity. After proper configuration, (which should seriously be easier than manually configuring files in notepad) RAGE chugged along beautifully without a hitch, never once dropping below 50 FPS. Carmack’s “megatexture” technology is more of a tourniquet than a cure-all; RAGE is capable of looking absolutely gorgeous, but only when it’s rendering sweeping outdoor vistas that are seen from a distance (and also not when you’re not quickly whipping your view back-and-forth and noticing the blatant texture pop-in). They’ve put an insane amount of detail into some of these environments, and the art director, Stephan Martinere, has animated its characters with a degree of liveliness and kinetic expressiveness that has to be admired.
However, take a bit if time to stop and smell the roses, and it all falls apart. Besides the blurry textures and low-poly environmental objects, cheap smoke-and-mirror tricks can be spotted everywhere. Sadly, environments are totally static. RAGE’s high-tech graphical tricks aren’t capable of deforming terrain or blowing up buildings or even knocking physics objects off a table. Jarring color-grading is used instead of proper HDR and bathes some areas in sepia-tone brown that reminds one of 2007’s worst shooters. Skyboxes aren’t animated and become conspicuously pixilated through scopes. Foliage and birds are flat, 2D sprites that face the player head-on from all directions. These compromises look bad– they just don’t look like the high-tech, $60 graphical benchmarks that previously had id driving game technology forward. That it gets away with all this while still demanding 25 gigabytes of your hard drive is suspicious as well.
The one thing keeping RAGE from being a bad game is the one thing id has a history of doing best: the “shooting-things-in-the-face” part of the game. Each of RAGE’s 10 guns shoots with just the right amount of kickback, and they all produce a loud, bombastic noise and flash that makes every shot satisfying. A scoped pistol perfectly replicates the feelings of precision and power that made the first Halo’s pistol so iconic. The assault rifle sprays out a visually dazzling display of bullets that’s tactically viable as well.
Bad guys are comprised of beastly mutants and beast-like men, who take cover, throw grenades and quickly zigzag in and out of the player’s crosshair at close ranges. There’s a large variety of ammo types, grenade cooking is there, and you have the option of bringing along turrets and sentry bots. The hearty arsenal of deadly gadgets include remote-controlled bomb cars and crossbow bolts that let you briefly control (and then explode) enemies. The gunplay is actually pretty good stuff, and turns RAGE from a flat-faced, gravely-voiced bore into something more lively that’s actually pretty fun to play.
The downside is that all these weapons and gadgets make for a bit of an overpowered character. The sniper rifle and machine gun are overpowered, and although health regenerates too fast, you have plenty of items that make it regenerate even faster. Also, it’s possible to waltz into a gunfight with over 30 grenades. What’s up with that? Playing on “Nightmare” mode is recommended.
Multiplayer is present, but it’s not the glorious return of id arena shooter goodness that you might expect. Believe it or not, it’s the car combat that actually steals the show here. Id has elegantly pulled off car combat with the kind of accessibility and high skill ceiling that made the Quake games so good online. There aren’t many weapons available, but it should be just enough to ease the anticipation of anyone looking forward to a next-generation Twisted Metal game. Co-op dungeons runs are available, but are ho-hum. It’s highly disappointing to see that id didn’t include any options for testing out the gratifying gunplay of the single player game against other players. It could have been great. Huge maps, ridiculously overpowered weapons, vehicle combat and fast player movement are all present, and it could have created a gloriously modern competitor to Unreal Tournament 2004. Instead we have to settle for a little experiment in car combat.
Is it Worth Your Money?
Ever since Doom, id has never been shy about how purposefully storylineness their shooters are, and it’s a bit painful to see them try so hard at what is clearly not their talent. Even compared to the story-driven lameness of Doom 3, RAGE barely bursts onto the scene with the same kind of excitement its predecessors did. It lacks ambition. It’s actually not that bad of a game, but only because it fulfills its own low expectations. I can’t recommend it for someone looking for a truly excellent shooter, but there are certainly worse shooters out there.
Unlike a lot of FPS games these days, shooting in RAGE is fun. But RAGE’s fine combat buckles underneath the weight of RPG elements that look amateur by comparison. The game can be fairly long too, lasting anywhere from eight to 30 hours depending on how many side quests are attempted. Nevertheless, the whole package doesn’t reach the threshold of quality that your $60 deserves.
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