Rage begins in outer space. There’s a meteor floating slowly towards the Earth at thousands of miles per second, it’s going to smash everything to pieces and everyone’s going to die. You get to watch it scattering dust in Saturn’s rings and glancing off the moon as it travels inexorably towards us – and the start of another post-apocalyptic first-person shooter.
For me though, Rage began exactly four years ago. On 2nd August 2007 I was sitting in the audience at QuakeCon when id Software announced the identity of its next proper game after Doom 3. It was going to be a first-person shooter but it was also going to have driving bits, and it was called Rage.
Back then the developer’s fans – myself included – were broadly excited, but also privately concerned that this new racer-shooter hybrid might not be a proper id game. Proper id games are about fidelity in control, extreme violence, and ingeniously designed levels packed with fierce monsters. First and foremost they are proudly corridor-driven first-person shooters.
Rage certainly doesn’t feel like that when it starts. 106 years after the meteor hits Earth you wake up from your cryogenic sleep to the sound of sirens. The other stasis pods in your “Ark” are now coffins, their occupants mummified by years of malfunction. As you stumble outside and your vision clears, you peer out into a world you don’t recognise and wonder what to expect.
A bit like Fallout 3, your first view of the big outdoors is bright and yet gloomy at the same time. Your Ark is buried high up the side of some sort of quarry, staring out over mountains of rubble, abandoned tower cranes and industrial decay under the baking rays of a sun the world can finally see again.
Within seconds of getting your bearings, though, you’re caught up in a fight between some local bandits and another leftover human called Dan Hagar, who rescues you and whisks you away in his dune buggy.
He doesn’t really explain why he’s rescued you, but as he drives you back to a ramshackle old gas station and auto shop that he shares with a few other survivors – coasting past bandit patrols performing executions at the side of the road along the way, and peering at you over the top of his green-tinted sci-fi sunglasses – he talks about the bad guys who jumped you and alludes to a scary controlling force called the Authority who pay big money for chumps like you who stumble out of Arks.
Hagar quickly gives you something to do. The bandits who he interrupted to save you are based nearby, and once they realise he intervened and killed their friends they will soon head down the hill and turn Hagar’s little corner of the post-apocalypse into something a little bit more Apocalypse Now. It’s up to you to go and do something about them, so you head to Hagar’s garage, borrow an ATV (that’s a quad bike in old money) and start following the breadcrumb trail on your mini-map to your objective.
It’s a slow burn of an opening. Even 90 minutes later, when you reach the first big hub town of Wellspring – itself not much more than a rickety corrugated village planted on top of a rare source of water – you still know very little about the hostile forces that justify the local mayor’s paranoia about your Ark origins and the heavily fortified 30-foot reinforced steel barricades that control people coming and going.
But in every sense that should matter to an id Software fan, it’s fast and furious. When you reach the bandit camp that Dan Hagar sent you to, you go through a door and find yourself in an id Software first-person shooter.
The building you’re in is a rundown tenement block overlooking a canyon. Inside, the bandits have piled up rubbish and built wooden gangways, and there are skulls on sticks and graffiti smeared on the walls in blood. At one point I think I spy a Quake symbol among the chicken-scratch.
Within seconds, that id Software feel starts to assert itself. You have to aim your pistol for yourself, which itself is virtually unheard of in modern FPS games, and as you work through rooms and neat arrangements of corridors (blessed corridors!) bandits either fire at you with their own popguns or sprint towards you prancing around waving scythe-like blades in your direction.
After a few of these missions you’ve built up a nice little arsenal. There’s a meaty combat shotgun that stops almost anything in its tracks, a silent crossbow with a handy zoom function, and a supply of wingsticks – bladed throwing weapons that happily decapitate anything they boomerang their way into at head height. Juggling your growing inventory of killing implements through some handy controller shortcuts, you feel pretty badass.
Rage’s levels are also packed with shiny objects that the magpie eyes of BioShock veterans will surely appreciate, and once you dig up a few blueprints – themselves found in locked rooms and other dark corners, or bought from traders – all these cogs, springs and bits of metal can be mashed together on the engineering screen to give you more combat items.
There’s the lockgrinder, for example, which breaks through specific door seals (usually giving you access to some more loot), and there’s a little spider bot who wanders around shooting people for you, while EMP grenades can be used to disable forcefields and automated sentry guns.
There are also alternative ammo types to master. The best of the ones we’ve used so far is probably a mind-control bolt for the crossbow. Fire it into an enemy in a crowd and you switch to a third-person view of him as he flails around with a bolt sticking out of his head. When you’re ready and he’s good and close to his friends, you hit the “detonate” button and watch the blood rain.
Rage isn’t really gratuitous in a nasty way, incidentally – it’s slightly cartoonish, full of mutants and fascistic special forces – but it isn’t shy about making mince and giblets out of anyone dumb enough to stand next to an explosion. The first time I take someone’s head off with the wingstick at close range I burst out laughing, and once I get my hands on the rocket launcher, it takes a force of will to save it for later and not just fire off every wonderful round.
After years of RPG tubes with two-second reloads, getting your hands on a fast and brutal id Software rocket launcher again is like that moment in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time when you first shimmied along a ledge without pausing between hand holds. And how nice to simply keep it in the tool bag with countless other weapons and gadgets rather than having to drop something.
The most surprising diversion from formula is actually rather welcome: there’s a recharging health system– take a few hits and the screen tints red and you need a moment to recover – but if you’re properly knocked down you can still come back using a defibrillation mini-game. On consoles this involves pushing analogue sticks in different directions to build a charge and then hitting the triggers together to jolt yourself back to life – with the added benefit of zapping nearby enemies to death.
Character design and animation is rather less futuristic – it’s perfectly serviceable, but those hoping for the subtlety and storytelling guile of an L.A. Noire or even Uncharted will probably find the regular sequences where you stand face to face with a sheriff or local tradesman listening to a monologue rather old-fashioned.
The rigidity of conversations and transparency of the quest structure are just as apparent in something like Fallout, of course, but the compensations there are an excitingly unpredictable ecosystem and the way you can feel the cumulative weight of your decision-making. Rage can’t offer those things.
It enjoys greater success blending the driving elements into exploration and competition. After a few starter missions, Hagar’s mechanic lets you loose on a proper dune buggy, and once you reach Wellspring you can enter races to earn weapons and upgrades. Decked out in a new livery – an id logo, obviously – and sporting a machinegun, you terrorise canyon floors and basins between missions, destroying bandit buggies in exchange for rewards from local merchants.
Buggies and ATVs are heavy but responsive, and the auto-aiming machineguns are a doddle to fire as you joust with and circle other vehicles. Early races are less exciting, but if the Smuggler’s Run-style objective-chasing gametypes we’ve seen for multiplayer also feature in the campaign, then we could be in for something a lot more complementary than just a colourful diversion. Vehicular combat may not be id’s heritage, but its gameplay principles are certainly transferrable.
The last I get to play of Rage before I’m booted out to make way for another eager customer is actually a level I’ve seen before – a prison break at a dilapidated Authority detention centre, around 6-8 hours into the game. By this stage your arsenal and inventory are overflowing with ammo types and blueprints, and for somebody who’s spent the first two hours of the campaign scratching toys together and cherishing every Fatboy pistol shell, it’s a giddy delight.
Up against Authority forces with translucent energy shields, automated sentry guns tied in to portable generators and turret guns, I get to bring electric bolts, pulse shells, little RC car bombs and more exotic weaponry. It’s a fitting send-off and whets the appetite for more blueprints, more ammo types, and more Rage.
There are plenty of old beats here – holding your ground while an ally hacks a wall terminal, shooting the turret gunner and then taking over his position – but if from time to time Rage feels like a bit of a dinosaur, at least it’s a roaring, stomping Tyrannosaurus Rex where it really matters.
The Sisyphean grind of Doom 3 has been replaced by a post-apocalyptic, quasi-openworld crust, and within that the immediacy of control, flying body parts and dense, corkscrewing level design – corridors galore – have been embellished with smart combat modifiers and, of course, some of the fastest, most detailed graphics you’ve ever seen, flooding out of your preferred buffer at 60 frames per second.
Is it a proper id Software game? I guess we’ll know for sure When It’s Done. I’ll be queuing up to make sure.