What is it about the end of the world that captures our collective imagination so easily? Is it the idea of a clean slate, where everyone is inherently equal because we are all trying to simply survive? Or is it the notion that from those dire circumstances we can rise up and be the hero for the downtrodden? Or do we just want the opportunity to shoot stuff from the comfort of our living rooms without the inconvenience of the apocalypse? id Software, the creators of Quake and Doom, attempts to once again answer this conundrum with Rage, another in a seemingly endless parade of post-apocalyptic, first-person shooters.
In the not-too-distant-future (it's 2029 by the way, mark your calendars) an asteroid hits the earth turning it into a veritable wasteland. It's a global killer... although something survives. You did, because you were in stasis when the asteroid hit, hidden underground in an "Ark." You emerge, blinking in the harsh sunlight, to see what the world has become... and that you aren't the only one who made it.
Thus begins the familiar refrain whereby your silent character takes on bandit gangs, mutants, and the "Authority," the de facto rulers at the end of days. Apparently, they will pay a lot for Ark survivors, but the question is why? Is there something special about those who were chosen to go into the Arks? Those mutants who are running all over the bloody place trying to eat you are bad enough, but you find more advanced versions who almost seem like they are kitted out to ruin your day. Is someone mutating the mutants? Such are the questions posed... but are never really adequately answered.
Without giving away too much, your character is important (duh), as are all Ark survivors. And as it is with most games like this, you seem to be the only one capable of doing anything. But what's head scratching is the story never really develops. You get the feeling they're trying to channel Mad Max or something similar, but there is nothing invested in the world's characters, the silent protagonist, or the evil Authority. There is virtually no character development at all. The silent protagonist, errand-boy syndrome is prevalent here to a fault. I'm getting tired of constantly hearing from every random NPC that "You're humanity's only hope! Now go do this, this, and this, before assaulting the enemy stronghold all on your lonesome! Get to it!" But what I really struggled with was having a faceless, nameless enemy who doesn't even have a figurehead left me feeling unmotivated. This folly is only compounded by the fact that side quests (that do little to flesh out the story or the characters and end up re-treading the same levels with the same enemies) can be distracting to the point that you lose the thread of an already threadbare tale. It's weird, almost like they had a proper narrative but realized the game was receiving positive press so decided to cut it short to leave plenty of room for a sequel without, you know, actually finishing this game first.
But hey, we are here to shoot stuff, right? The disappointing story aside, where Rage really shines is during the firefights. Considering id Software's history, we shouldn't be surprised. It's not just that the guns pack a punch and feel natural, it's the enemies you face are both fearless and cunning. They can be split into two categories: those who shoot at you and those who don't. Foes like bandits or the Authority troops make good use of cover and will even flank on occasion. But it's when you mix in mutants charging you, flipping off walls and rolling all over the place, that it becomes sweaty palms time as accuracy goes out the window. Considering you can't take much damage (even at the normal difficulty level) before you need to use your built-in defibrillator (complete with built-in mini-game), you need to be on your game to survive. Even if you consider yourself adept at shooters, Rage will test your skills.
Fortunately, you're not solely limited to your standard arsenal of machine guns/pistols/sniper rifles/shotguns etc. Wingsticks are boomerangs you can throw... with sharp edges to separate the heads of your foes from their torsos. You gotta be wary about using them though - they don't always come back. Still, they work well in a pinch, and decapitations are always satisfying. Once you get the right schematics and parts, you can make sentry turrets and bots that will follow you around, blasting the baddies and drawing their attention. You can even make a remote controlled RC car bomb that, if used correctly, will leave an awful mess....
The other big draw of Rage is the use of vehicles, and fortunately they handle better than most games that aren't focused solely on racing. You'll not only use your wheels to get to and from missions: there is a whole slew of varying race types you can participate in. It seems that this passes as the only form of entertainment for the poor survivors of the wasteland beyond a bizarre card game and Mutant Bash TV. Placing in races earn you racing certificates which you can then exchange for vehicle upgrades. These run the gamut from fierce looking cow-catchers and spiked wheels to improving your suspension, engine, and boost. Even though I'm not particularly into the racing genre, Rage handles it well with excellent controls and fun variations on your standard three-lap race to the finish. Rocket rally races are every bit as frantic as fighting off bandits and mutants at the same time!
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the graphics are, for the most part, absolutely stunning. The level of detail in the environments is among some of the best I've ever seen. The facial animations (when they are synced properly) are also impressive, lending at least some personality to the slightly cartoony NPCs despite the fact that most of the dialogue is drivel. That's nothing though when compared to the rest of the animation repertoire. The enemies move smoothly and react realistically when shot. Drill one in the leg and he will spin around in a realistic fashion, limping to cover. Catch a charging mutant with a wingstick at the right moment and the body will continue running sans head for a few steps. It's great!
Whenever a company strives for such graphical quality there are sure to be some technical issues from time to time and Rage is not immune. I wasted a good twenty rounds early on into what I thought was a break dancing bandit. It turns out he was already dead, but the "rag-doll" physics that are standard in these sorts of shooters glitched and he was flopping around like a fish out of water. Those stunning environments I just mentioned are truly impressive... from a distance. Up close they can be a bit pixelated at best, matted at worst. I'm not sure if these moments were simply texture loading issues that would pop up from time to time, but overall it looks stellar, so these minor peccadilloes are easy to ignore.
One thing that surprised me about Rage was the almost complete lack of RPG elements. While I understand wanting to keep things uncomplicated, it seems to me that a game like Rage is tailor-made for an upgrade system or even skill trees. Sure, you can upgrade your ride by winning racing certificates in races or taking out bandits, but that's pretty much it.
The other thing that left me with raised eyebrows was how linear Rage was. There aren't really random areas to speak of. The pseudo-open world only serves to give you a chance to drive your new wheels and shoot up some bandits as you go from point A to point B. There really isn't much as far as true exploration. Truth is, Rage is really more of a quest driven experience. It's the illusion of an open world that, again, makes me feel like Rage, despite everything it does right, missed the boat with some things that could have truly made it special.
While there isn't much as far as exploration, there are a fair number of collectibles to find if you're the thorough type. There is a collectible card game they play in the wasteland called Rage Frenzy. You find these cards hidden all over, and the game itself is a surprisingly addictive mix of luck and strategy. There is also a lot of junk to gather up including items you can gather to build new stuff once you get the blueprints. Scavenging can save your life, the game informs you, so basically grab up everything that isn't nailed down. If you're like me, you'll be checking every corner, scrounging everything you can. Here's a tip - focus your money on buying/making special ammo, it makes a huge difference as more difficult enemies can absorb a surprising amount of lead! There are also some cleverly hidden "easter egg" rooms that pay homage to the developers storied past. If you can find them, they are worth a laugh.
In the end, Rage reminds me a lot of Borderlands, another game that, while uniquely awesome in its own way, ultimately left me disappointed: same basic locale, same silent protagonist, same pseudo-open world, same focus on driving to missions, same side quest driven, bare-bones story. To be honest, the fact that Rage is a better shooter with much better vehicle controls is tempered by the lack of RPG elements that would allow you to invest in, or "own," your character. Instead, you're just sort of... there. Having a coherent story to drive the action is necessary, and while we certainly see a distinct lack of that in modern shooters, at least most have more than Rage offers in that regard. Don't get me wrong, Rage is a good game, and one that is certainly worth your time, but I couldn't help feeling like there were a string of missed opportunities to build on a solid foundation that left me not only wanting more, but wondering just how good it could have been.