In the last year of development for id’s newest first-person shooter RAGE, you might be forgiven if you thought “MEGATEXTURES” was actually its title. The word had been bandied about by PR horns and the videogames press so much that it was almost easy to forget that this was a first-person shooter made by the people that effectively created it with Wolfenstein 3D almost 20 years ago.
Yet here we are, on the tail end of a promotional tour that made no bones about it: RAGE is the next DOOM. But has id evolved beyond its innovative roots to carve a niche for itself among a market bloated with shooters?
At the beginning of RAGE, your character is one of several humans parked inside a cryogenic chamber called an Ark. A giant asteroid is on a collision course with the earth (apparently Bruce Willis was unsuccessful) and the Ark people will one day reawaken to repopulate the human race.
My character’s name is a mystery, as well as why he was chosen to become one of the Ark’s inhabitants. Perhaps the world’s governments considered his mute-ism a valuable asset.
Several problems present themselves once you’ve awoken. Somehow the Ark technology has failed every other super-special human locked in stasis, leaving them shriveled corpses in shiny caskets. Walking out the door introduces you to the new Earth – a wasteland.
What the hell happened to everybody?
Things are pretty bleak from the outset. It seems a few humans survive in the Wasteland, but it’s hardly a camping trip. Cities sleep in ruins, bandits menace travellers foolish enough to venture outside the few safe havens, and an oppressive organization known as The Authority strikes fear in the hearts of men and women just at the mention that they might be in the vicinity.
The game goes on for several hours without so much as a peep from The Authority though, so for the first few dozen quests that several colourful characters send you on – take a shipment here, clean out the bandits there – you might be forgiven to think that the real oppressors are just the bunch of lazy mechanics and narcissistic politicians standing in front of you.
And don’t expect them to do anything other than stand there for the roughly 10-15 hour single-player mode – most of them won’t interact at all with you or the world around them short of giving you missions and thanking you when you’ve completed them.
The wasted potential is doubled by how emotive and well-animated they are for the half-dozen or so lines they deliver. Dan Hagar’s calm demeanor suggests a weary middle-aged man who sees a surrogate son in your character. Kvasir, an expert in robotics, is permanently hooked up to his lab, his Doctor Octopus-like appendages move with a delightful whimsy, as if they had childish minds of their own.
The landscapes you’ll see while driving though the Wasteland are a sight to behold. The sun casts brilliant shadows across the rocky canyons and cliffs. Dust and shredded bits of paper linger in the stale air. If I had a 3-D monitor it would probably make me cough.
It’s disappointing, then, that the incredible vistas come at the price of any interactivity. Prepare to knock ineffectually at doors barricaded by little more than planks of plywood. Shoot all you want at that vase or, hilariously, that dilapidated cardboard box over there. Nothing’s going to move unless it’s trying to kill you.
The gameplay is as beautiful as the scenery, and thankfully carries a lot more variety as well. Every enemy gang or clan acts differently, from the tinkering Gearheads to the power-armoured Authority soldiers who act with impressive squad tactics and high-tech weaponry.
The individual AIs, though, are truly impressive: goons change their tactics on the fly, and you’ll never guess whether an adversary will take cover or weave, bob and roll around your frantic shotgun bursts. Some will crawl on the ground after a fatal injury, while others prop themselves against a wall and continue to fire in their last moments.
The Mutants are the most impressive and fearsome examples of RAGE’s artificial intelligence, ducking, rolling, and running along the walls all directions solely to bash you over the head with a rusty knife. It’s a manic and welcome change of pace from the “regular” human gangs you meet throughout the Wastelands.
The voice work for the enemies is excellent, as well. The Wasted chat with Cockney accents while tinkering with their dune buggies in the garage. Authority soldiers chatter tactics and signal their teammates on their radios. “Come on, we just want to make friends!” taunts one bandit. “Whoa, stop throwing those things everywhere!” says another as I chuck a grenade in his direction.
Along with an impressive arsenal of weapons like crossbows and shotguns, all with inventive alternate ammo fire like explosive shotgun shells or crossbow bolts that turn your enemies into mind-controlled time bombs, the combat in RAGE is incredibly varied, unpredictable and satisfying.
If only the rest of the game’s structure and philosophy were as robust.
Every level is laid out in the same circular path that leads you out the same entrance, with extremely few detours or open areas. The Wasteland itself isn’t nearly as open-ended as you might expect – you’ll often drive from one mission to the next with little in the way of exploration.
You’ll run into bandits on their buggies, paving the way for some vehicle-to-vehicle violence. It’s a nice distraction in a Mario Kart-meets-The Warriors kind of way, but falls far behind the meat and potatoes of the first-person shooting. You can play several races and combat matches that organizers in the two main hub cities provide, but with only a handful of modes and maps it won’t sustain you for more than a couple of hours.
While pretty, everything besides the core shooting gameplay feels half-baked and incomplete. It’s a shame given how good a first impression the world and its inhabitants make on you that you’re only given a slight idea of just what you and the handful of Ark survivors – none of whom you ever encounter – were supposed to do when you woke up.
The campaign ends abruptly and with zero payoff, leaving you to ask the same question I asked at the very beginning when I walked dazedly out of the Ark: “What the hell happened to everybody?”