The Beautiful End Of The World
After 15 hours, millions of bullets, four heavily armed cars and a heaping pile of dead mutants, robots, bandits and authoritarian super-soldiers, I finally beat id Software’s Rage. As I sit down to summarize my experiences with the game down into a relatively brief review, I am reminded of id Software’s legacy. This was the company that popularized the FPS genre with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, and Rage is their first real game since 2004’s Doom 3. In the past seven years, quite a lot has happened with the FPS genre. Concepts such as persistent multiplayer, the introduction of RPG elements, and large set piece design have taken root, due to games like the Modern Warfare series. So, we expected a lot from Rage, and rightly so, given id’s impeccable pedigree. So how did the game turn out? Pretty damn good, so long as you know what you are getting in to.
A Gorgeous Museum of Death
The obvious first thing to discuss is how Rage looks. Put simply, at its best, Rage is the best looking game I have ever played. Now, the caveats: I played Rage on a high end PC, post patch (more on that later), with settings turned just about as high as possible. I cannot speak to the experience gamers will have playing Rage on the Xbox 360, PS3, or a low end PC, but even then I suspect that Rage will look better than most comparable games on those platforms.
The character models while great, do not attempt the same kind of photo-realism as the environments, but rather are designed with a specific aesthetic in mind. Characters are well detailed and animated, and enemies especially have a wonderful sense of movement that I have never seen in another game. Not only to different types of enemies (mutants, the different bandit tribes, etc) move differently throughout environments, but they also have their own momentum that continues even after you’ve dispatched them. For example, as a mutant comes barreling down after you, it may leap over obstacles, bang it’s club off the wall or floor, and just as it reaches you, you shoot it in the head. In most games, this would be the end of it, but instead, the id Tech 5 engine allows that mutant to continue its momentum even in death. Depending on the gun it may lurch forward in the direction it was already going, tumbling to a stop, or it may fly back (in the face of real physics) and slump against a wall or box. This is intensely satisfying and greatly adds to a sense of immersion in the game.
I am more than happy to let some of my screenshots speak for themselves, but indulge me a moment to praise Rage’s amazing environmental graphics. Landscapes look stunning, so much so that they approach that fabled photo-realism we have been talking about for years without ever dipping into the uncanny valley. The ambient effects (again on a high end PC) are equally good, with vegetation swaying in the breeze, dust floating around in rooms and light streaming in from windows, creating realistic and beautiful environments.
That all being the case, it is jarring when you suddenly realize that all of this is an elaborate cheat. What I mean by this is that Rage achieves it’s amazing graphical fidelity through cutting certain corners and limiting graphical and player interactivity. For instance, the light in the game is not reactive, it doesn’t create real shadows, nor can it be altered. Whatever shadows that exist in the game are pre-placed, and they cannot be altered, nor can the light sources themselves. This effectively allows the game to appear to have great lighting without actually having to render full real time lighting.
Likewise, environmental objects are, for the most part, entirely indestructible and immovable. If it is not an exploding barrel, a certain type of wooden crate, or one of a number of items that you can loot (in order to sell or engage in a very rudimentary crafting system), you cannot do anything to it. See that vase? No matter how many times you shoot it, even if you lob a grenade right next to it, it will take the beating and keep on being the same vase as always. The vast majority of environmental objects are like this. Pretty much everything you see cannot be interacted with in any way. The purpose of all this makes sense: giving all those objects physical properties would tax the engine, so treating them as static scenery allows the game to focus on what it clearly does best, make things look pretty. However, all of this very pretty but non-interactive scenery leads to the impression that the player is not so much living in this post-apocalyptic world, as he is wandering around in a particularly violent museum. Look but don’t touch.
There’s plenty more to say about the game’s graphics, but not much point in doing so. They look great, but understand you need a good system to get the most out of them, and do not be disappointed when you realize that id has forgone the trend of interactivity and destructibility, as seen in games like Battlefield and Modern Warfare.
When I decided to purchase Rage, the PC seemed like the obvious choice. After all, not only was this a FPS (which often play and look better on the PC), but this was id Software, an historically PC centric studio. Surely, the PC version would be the one to get. As it turns out, this was an unfortunate assumption.
As you may have already read, Rage’s PC launch was plagued with severe bugs and glitches, and even now, post-patch, some problems remain. To sum it up, both the AMD and NVidia drivers at launch were poorly compatible with Rage, leading to issues like blank and missing textures, severe texture pop-in and most of all… screen tearing. It was so bad at the beginning that the game was virtually unplayable. This was only compounded by the fact that in its original state, Rage did not allow users to set very basic graphical options, like texture fidelity or v-synch. The only answer for many PC Rage players was to engage in a little computer alchemy, creating their own config files and adding launch commands in order to alleviate some of these issues. Needless to say, this is not something that the casual PC gamer would do, so many of them were left out in the cold with buggy games.
Since then, the game has been patched and many of these issues have been solved. V-synch can now be manually enabled, the texture pop-in is noticeably reduced, and the texture cache can be manually selected. Even so, the actual texture quality is still spotty at times. You see, id designed the game in such a way that it would automatically detect your system’s capabilities and would automatically adjust its graphical settings in order to give players a very smooth experience. There are two big problems with this: first, the game just isn’t very good at actually detecting what your system can handle. Second, once it has decided that you need lower res textures, you aren’t able to actually change it, without getting in to the aforementioned self-made config files.
The result of all this is that users with high end PC’s may be forced to play with lower res textures. Id is promising to fix this in a later patch, but it’s a shame it’s even an issue. It seems pretty obvious that a lot of this could have been avoided if id had just given users the options to manually change their graphical settings, something nearly every other PC game has allowed for well over a decade. Instead, they got clever, and it bit them in the ass.
So the bottom line here is that the game is now very playable, but many PC users will still not get their ideal experience due to some of the graphical issues with Rage. Most, if not all, of this will likely be solved in future patches, but potential buyers should be aware of what they are getting into.
What About Killing Stuff?
Here we get to the main purpose of Rage. Sure, the graphics are gorgeous and the corresponding bugs are annoying, but first and foremost, Rage is a Shooter. More than that, it is an id Software shooter, and retains a good amount of the fast-paced action from games like Quake and Doom.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Rage is not really an open-world game like Borderlands or Fallout. Sure, it may look that way on the outside, but in reality Rage is very much a corridor shooter, albeit one with optional side missions and driving around from place to place. These two aspects are really the meat of the game: classic corridor shooting and driving/vehicle combat/racing.
As I said, the corridor shooting is reminiscent of games like Doom or Quake, in that it is fast paced, brutal, often overwhelming, and very narrowly directed. Often there is only one direction to go, so getting lost is never really an issue. Bucking the trend set in Doom 3, id doesn’t rely so much on spawning enemies in monster closets (though there are some to be found), so many enemies are pre-placed, or spawned off in the distance.
The gunplay is intense and satisfying. Different weapons and ammo work better on certain enemies, so a certain level of strategy is necessary. Moreover, the game allows players to use secondary weapons. So, in addition to your standard collection of guns (including machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols, rocket launches, etc), you can use sentry turrets or robots, or my personal favorite: the wingstick. Picture a three bladed boomerang that just loves to decapitate dudes, homing in on their noggins automatically, and every so often gets stuck in an enemy’s head. Facing down a charging horde of mutants and/or bandits becomes a thrill when I am simultaneously mowing them down with my combat shotgun and chopping off their heads at a distance with my large collection of wingsticks.
I should mention that the enemy AI is pretty great. Different enemies behave differently, and in character. Mutants will charge you head on, while some bandits prefer to take cover, some will work in teams and flank you, and some will even use robots. The smarter enemies will dynamically respond to your actions: if you kill too many of them or charge too close, they will strategically retreat to a more defensible position. If you throw a grenade, they get the fuck out of the way. If you throw a wingstick, and they see it coming, they just might duck. Fighting smart enemies like this makes the game even more fun, and I commend id on their work in this respect.
The one complaint I have about the gunplay is that many of the more powerful weapons are entirely unnecessary. For instance, the rocket launcher is only ever used on the only real boss of the game (which comes about half-way through and not at the end). In fact, most of the bigger and tougher enemies appear early on, before the player gains access to the better weaponry. Later on, you will get rockets that can be used against vehicles, but since you will almost certainly be in your own vehicle when encountering enemy cars, these are useless. Finally, near the end of the game players will get their hands on a particular id-centric uber-weapon, but I personally found almost no use for it, since almost all of the combat encounters at the end were against soldiers and mutants, easily dispatched with normal firepower. Big guns deserve big enemies to use them on, and they just aren’t there.
I’ll address the racing/car combat briefly: it’s a pretty big part of the game. Throughout it all, you will get four separate cars, each of which can be outfitted with weapons and usable items, as well as upgrades. These cars will get you from place to place in the wasteland, and will allow you to kill plenty of bandits (in their own cars usually) while you travel. Surprisingly, the car combat is a lot of fun. At its best it reminded me of the old Twisted Metal games, in a good way. There is something intensely satisfying about locking on some homing missiles on a fleeing enemy, just to see them explode gloriously as your munitions hit their mark. In addition to impromptu roadside vehicle combat, the cars can be raced in organized events in the two towns you will be spending time in. These include straight up time-trial races and combat races. These are actually quite a bit of fun, but once you have a fully upgraded car, there isn’t much of a reason to go back to them.
Ending this section, here is my one big complaint about the gameplay, specifically on the PC: using a mouse and keyboard is terrible. The game was clearly designed with consoles in mind, as the interface and control setup favors controllers over the traditional FPS mouse and keyboard. Using secondary items, selecting weapons and ammo, and driving vehicles are far more difficult than they need to be on a mouse and keyboard. However, playing the game on my Xbox 360 controller on the PC made all of these problems disappear. With the added benefit of force feedback, the game became even more fun. Even so, it’s a damn shame that in 2011, id Software made a PC FPS that plays best on a console controller. My suggestion: if you are going to play this on PC, use a 360 controller. It will make your life much easier.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Earth has suffered an apocalypse and society has collapsed. In the far post-apocalyptic future, a vault… er… Ark has opened, with a lone surviver stepping out into the wasteland only to discover that humanity survived, in a fashion, but must now defend itself from roving bands of mutants, bandits, and an oppressive, malevolent and technologically advanced Authority, complete with jack-booted super soldier thugs.
So yeah. Rage isn’t going to win any marks for its original storytelling.
In fact, Rage won’t win any award for any aspect of its story. Apart from being wholly unoriginal, it is also barely there. Throughout the game there are certainly themes of humanity’s struggle to survive against nature and The Authority, culminating in a mission taking the player straight into the heart of the big bad itself, but frankly all of this just serves as an excuse to move the player from one environment (and enemy type) to another. The dialogue is well written and well delivered, but none of it adds up to anything resembling an interesting storyline. There aren’t any big plot twists, no significant shifts or narrative arcs. Generally the game seems content with the fact that there is any story at all. I will mention that Rage does feature John Goodman as an early voice actor, so it has that going for it. Which is nice.
That’s All The Rage
So there you have it. Rage look gorgeous on PC, provided you have the hardware to support it, and don’t mind that the game cheats a bit in order to look as good as it does. It had a rough launch, but it slowly improving. The gameplay is fast and fun, and the vehicle combat and racing is surprisingly strong. It’s a shame that the game plays best on a controller, while traditional mouse and keyboard FPS gamers are left with the dregs, but such may be the reality of the modern games industry. Finally, gamers should not go into Rage expecting a vast open world such as that found in Fallout or Borderlands: Rage is very much a straightforward corridor shooter at its heart, and likewise gamers should not expect a grand narrative. Like all of the id shooters before it, Rage comes down to this: shoot stuff and have fun doing it. Frankly, even in an era where games are embracing big set pieces, diverging storylines and moral decisions, just shooting a bunch of bad guys may be enough, especially when it is done so well.
A final significant complaint: the game’s ending is the utter definition of anti-climactic. Without getting into spoiler territory here, don’t expect much out of Rage’s final moments. The entire sequence feels very tacked on, as if the designers did not have the time, money or ideas necessary to finish their game properly. It’s a shame, but very few games know how to handle endings well.