Tuesday, October 11, 2011

REVIEW - Rage.

Going on odds, you didn't play DOOM back in the day. You likely played it much later, when it didn't come on a pair of three-and-a-half inch floppy discs. The Day was 1993, and id are just as much master of the finer points of shooting in three-dimensional space now as they were then. They damn well should be - they created the genre.

Were you there for the onset of "DOOM clones?" When every second game released was a cheaply made, horribly-playing rip-off of id's seminal work? In the same way crappy fighting games exploded after Street Fighter II to eventually settle down to a few well-tuned studios (Arc System Works, SEGA AM-2), in the same way the flood of Grand Theft Auto me-toos were pared back to a few really grand open world games (inFamous, Assassin's Creed), the rest of the development community has stepped up.

There are, to be sure, lame first person shooters out there - but for the most part we sup on finely-tuned, ambitious, eye-popping and creative fare like Call of Duty, BioShock, Killzone, Resistance and Halo.

First person shooters have evolved, and Rage suggests we've come to expect more from the genre than id is prepared to supply. It's a fast, frantic, fun game, but neither does it deserve a blanket-statement declaration of quality.

It's quality, with caveats.

Rage's male characters are hugely varied in form and fashion, but the ladies are all post-apocalyptic frontier future hotties. Why is that sort of depressing?
[update] It took me a few months, but I figured it out. [/update]

Take the world, for example.

The studio has always excelled at atmosphere, so I'm troubled to report that I was soundly disappointed by Rage in that regard. The ruined post-apocalyptic future, brightened by a few (see: two-point five) pockets of frontier civilization hints at a richness the game itself does not supply.

Rage is populated by interesting characters which are never fleshed out. Presentation, here, is never less than excellent. The cast is phenomenal, boasting the likes of John Goodman, Phil LaMarr, Nolan North, Steve Blum, Claudia Black and Paul Eiding, and character designs are similarly delightful... but I find it hard to give a crap about any of these characters.

It's distressing that the character I remember best is the girl who teaches you how to throw a wingstick, and a testament to the casting and character design that even she popped and felt briefly alive. The world of Rage is visually impressive and richly painted, but one gets the sense that it's only as deep as the flat screen it's being played on.

id Software is also known for providing titles which are technologically flawless, and while Rage's framerate (locked at 60FPS) is stunning, I can't help but be a bit nonplussed by the much-touted megatextures.

If you focus and pay attention, you'll notice that texture pop is omnipresent. When your view isn't moving - or better yet, when it's focused on distant canyons and clouds - the game looks incredible. If you then turn around to look at the ground - or just to the side - the textures for whatever you're standing near will take a second to pop in.

For a game that offers such incredible performance and draw distance, that's not so bad out in the wild wastelands - but when you're indoors and the cupboard you turn to looks like a bad crayon drawing, it's jarring and hugely detrimental to the task of being absorbed in the experience.

id Tech 5, so necessary for maintaining the game's framerate and winding canyon runs, is utterly useless at providing immersion - and immersion is a huge part of any first-person game.

Fortunately, Rage has one hell of a saving grace.

It plays perfectly. The Tech 5 engine's ridiculous framerate, combined with id's lusty weapons, supernatural comfort in the genre and Rage's dashing, crashing, spastic enemies make the title an absolute pleasure to play.

The puny Settler Pistol serves well enough until you get your mitts on a proper weapon, and then the game becomes a sublime dance of death. Powerful, potent arms spring from your sleeves and deal savage death to your foolish foes. When a sudden flood of enemies leave you bruised and bloodied, the game never feels unfair - the fault lies with the player, because all the tools you require are available to you - and Rage offers a ton of tools.

The enemy animation and AI also deserve a tip of the hat. Mutants and bandits spring off walls and over cover, with never a hitch to suggest a transition from one canned animation to another. Shoot a rushing enemy in the shoulder and he may be thrown back by the impact, he may dash on blindly, as if he didn't even feel it, or he may raise one hand to his wound, all while raising his blade on high as he closes the distance between you.

The shooting is wonderful.

The greatest strike I can make against it is that, on normal difficulty at least, it is far too easy. I defeated the game entire with little more than the combat shotgun and the sawn-off, alternating between buckshot and pop rockets (mini grenades). Fortunately, on the harder difficulty settings the game proves doubly satisfying - a visceral, snarling, glorious beast of elegant, athletic violence.

If you ever loved the way an id FPS feels, I can promise you will love Rage for that alone.

There's also driving. It's okay. It's pretty fun - but it's not the game's strength.

Rage (almost) never forces you to drive. Optional races are there, if you want to pimp your ride - but (almost) every story mission merely requires you have a car with enough armor to get you from A to B. B is invariably a dungeon, for lack of a better word, that shows off id's spectacular first-person shooting - and it's the overhead, here, that gives me pause.

The Wasteland, to start, is a profoundly boring place. It's very pretty to look at, but there's nothing to do there (save completing stunt jumps and blowing up bandits), and after a few minutes exploration you'll discover it's not a very large place. It's more or less a criss-cross of closed paths for you to drive through - mildly claustrophobic and utterly purposeless, when the game's real point and purpose are the "interior" sections, and the shooting.

When you get to point B, you'll find a door that allows you access to a complex populated by wasteland raiders or mutants or whatever - there's an autosave, and a lengthy load.

Once you're inside, the game will never save again - and you might be fighting, tooth and nail, for quite some time. You can save whenever you like - but when you die and the game gives you the option to auto-load "the last checkpoint", it's very vexing to discover yourself back outside the dungeon.

The game ignores all the manual saves you made after entering the place. More than that, the autosave doesn't even do you the courtesy of placing you on the right side of the goddamned loading screen - to get back inside and try again, just walk forward, hit X and wait as the game (sigh) autosaves, and proceeds with its long load.

...troubling - and an example of Rage's developers being blind to the forest through the trees.

This doesn't feel like a game born of an inspired idea and a passionate group of artists - instead it is the perfectly-capable, pleasing-to-play product of folks (who are really good at their jobs) doing their jobs. With Rage, their job seemed to be making a game that takes advantage of John Carmack's latest miraculous bit of tech - and the game certainly does that - but Rage is only at its best when it forgets what it should be and settles down to what it wants to be: a corridor shooter.

The world is ill-defined, with less flesh than Doom 3's back in 2004. The narrative is as flat as a canyon floor. The title's interiors are lush and perfectly designed, but are repeatedly re-used over the course of the game (the first time you're tasked with entering a bandit hive you'll make a circuit which will eventually deposit you back at the beginning - the second time, you'll go through it in the other direction!). The driving is fun, but so pales in comparison to the first-person combat that it seems like a needless distraction.

Worst of all, this is a first-person shooter that's never immersive - which is largely the point of a first-person game.

No, that's not entirely true. There are beautiful moments where one lives entirely within Rage - where the world bleeds life and passion and thrills : when it's just you, your crazed would-be murderers, and a firearm you've given a pet name to. The iffy textures and lackluster context for your combat melt away, and all that exists is the action - and the action is absolutely delicious.

  • wonderful, liquid, impactful first-person shooting, augmented by a glut of tactical options
  • fantastic enemy behavior and animation
  • bring me my shotgun
  • when you die and revive yourself with the defibrillator (to your enemies' surprise) it feels totally badass. Ain't no killin' me.
  • beautiful visual and character design
  • an incredible cast - even the smallest roles are perfectly performed
  • Phil LaMarr
  • fun post-apocalyptic combat racing. It's probably the best driving I've ever played in a game that's ostensibly a first-person shooter.
  • the game is locked at 60FPS, which has a major effect on the feel of the gameplay
  • it is, technically, incredible - and particularly beautiful when looking at landscapes
  • a world you want to get to know better

  • the world itself seems paper-thin, with no real depth to it
  • the narrative is a stumbling afterthought
  • omnipresent texture pop
  • the most racist garage mechanic ever
  • I have no idea what they were thinking with their autosave system. It's as if the game wants you to spend as much time as possible behind loading screens
  • the game's small overworld and its whole driving component seem to exist merely to show off id's new engine, and pales in comparison to the shooting
  • hello, denizen of the American post-apocalyptic wasteland. That's a strange European accent you have! Were you raised in an exclusively Russian-speaking family who kept to themselves only to find your way to this town as an adult where you learned English, which would explain your accent? Or did you - ninety years after the world ended - charter a patchwork balloon to fly you over the ocean to America (because America is the place to be after the world ends)? No? Been here you whole life among these otherwise uniformly English-speaking people? Then your accent doesn't make any sense.
  • rationalize it all you want, that was a terrible ending
Rage is regularly beautiful and beautifully fun, but often feels strangely hollow.

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