Rage Hands-On Preview - Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Written Tuesday, August 02, 2011 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
It’s not often you walk away from a hands-on preview session feeling unsatisfied. Disappointed maybe, underwhelmed, overjoyed or even thrilled. These emotions are normal. But unsatisfied? Not so much. Yet that’s exactly how I felt emerging from Bethesda’s swanky London offices a couple of weeks ago.
I had just experienced around two and a half hours of Rage, a big old chunk of it, from the opening cinematic, through the tutorials, to the early missions and races. I would have expected to have got a decent taste of what the game will offer when it’s finally released this October. Perhaps I did. But a cloud of doubt lingers regardless.
The opening couple of hours provide a great introduction to Rage’s mechanics, but nevertheless fail to reach the moment where it all comes together, where everything dovetails and the driving and shooting and exploration truly sing. It’s all a little rote, early on. Hence the lack of satisfaction. There’s greatness lurking within Rage, but whether it fully hits its stride remains to be seen.
The game opens with the story of Earth’s destruction. In 2038 an asteroid strikes the planet, leaving just a handful of survivors to create a new civilisation from the dust. Communities emerge, as do rivalries, bandits and mysterious, feral mutants. Trying to keep all of these disparate factions under their control are The Authority, a technologically sophisticated army with somewhat dubious intentions. They’re not especially friendly.
The player-character is clueless about all this stuff. Emerging from an Ark, a cryogenic sleep facility that has kept him safe from the carnage and savagery above ground, he stumbles into a world he doesn’t understand. Quickly set upon by bandits and saved at the last minute by one of the local townsfolk, the wheels are set in motion for an adventure that will see him weave between the surface’s various factions and attempt to find out what the hell is going on.
Once into the game itself, you’ll see that Rage follows a kind of bare bones RPG structure. Ramshackle mission-hub towns built from the rusty remains of pre-apocalyptic Earth borrow from the likes of the current-gen Fallout games and Borderlands, both in their look and purpose. This is another game where the burgeoning civilisation takes its visual cues from the iconography of the Western. So, you may have to run an errand for the Sheriff or the Mayor, or the owner of the local bar, as plinky-plonky country music echoes softly in the background. It’s not exactly inspired.
Neither does it ever really get going. This is because the early mission design is lifted straight from the Questing for Dummies rulebook. Go here, shoot these people, get a new gun. Drive there, deliver this thing, shoot a few more people. Maybe pick some loot up along the way. Return back and collect your reward, perhaps a new weapon, an upgrade for your buggy, or some cash. The early section lacks that spark of creativity that truly engages.
The mark of a great game is to mask the bare bones of the design, to cloud the fact that you are essentially repeating the same pattern over and over. This is usually achieved by way of distraction. Think of the amount of open games with large environments that send you off in one direction only to sidetrack you with other business, before getting you wrapped up in another battle or story. Once you finally make it back into town, MacGuffin in hand, you feel like you’ve earned something. You feel like you’ve been on an adventure. After battling my way through the first town’s missions and making it some way into those offered by the second town, I never experienced that elation.
The compact nature of the world doesn’t help. Scooting around on your buggy, it’s alarming just how close everything is. In one early mission I was given a sniper rifle and sent to take out a bandit encampment that was blocking access to another part of the map. Free up the route and a new town and new objectives would open up. So I loaded up on ammo and supplies and jumped on my buggy with sweaty-palmed anticipation.
But the encampment was literally around the corner. Perhaps 100 yards. Almost as soon as I pulled out of the garage I came under RPG fire and was turned to toast. The bandits live right on top of the settlement. Now, we’ve all moaned about open-world games and their long, dull driving sections, so perhaps it’s unfair to highlight issues like this. It’s what we always ask for, right? But the effect it has shatters the believability of the world. Geographically, the opening section of Rage is unconvincing.
All of which may sound overly harsh. But Rage arrives with a considerable weight of expectation on its shoulders. This is a game from legends of the development scene, a studio with a huge legacy in the FPS genre. When you claim to have redefined what the FPS can do, you have to deal with a degree of expectation.
But then the world in which id produced Doom is far removed from the one in which we live now. All of the missions and RPG elements and the open world are relatively new developments, far from the simplicity of Doom. Compared to something like Borderlands, from which it broadly borrows, what I’ve seen of Rage doesn’t quite hold up. Yet it gets some things spectacularly right. Strip away the structure, and the mechanics of Rage are really quite brilliant. In isolation, the technical wizardry of the graphics, the heft of the gunplay, the zippiness of the movement and the arcade accessibility of the driving are all top notch. When id play to their strengths you can see they are at the top of their game.
Let's start with those visuals. While the Western art design may be a little familiar, in purely technical terms, Rage is a beauty. Right down from the still blue skies and their wispy white clouds, to the dusty, debris-littered ground, it packs a distinct visual punch. It’s also worth noting that the character models are fantastically expressive. You’ll encounter a touch of texture pop-in, but it’s not much of an issue. There are not many better looking games on console. The combat too is ultra-satisfying. Even your first weapon, a relatively puny pistol, feels powerful. Scooting around from bandit encampment to mutant stronghold, blasting as you go, it has a meaty heft to it that never disappoints. Just like the other weapons you can augment it too, through acquiring different ammunition and attachments. Combine the pistol with some binoculars and some more powerful bullets and you have an acceptable makeshift sniper rifle.
So there is a kind of on-the-fly improvisation to the combat, all of which will help in the battles you encounter in the game. I faced off against bandits and mutants in the demo, the latter of which come charging towards you with an athletic prowess, cartwheeling and jumping around at speed, making them quite difficult to pin down. It makes for some great fights, especially in the more confined areas. It’s also aided by action that unfolds at a truly scintillating speed. At 60fps Rage is like iced lightening, slipping and zipping along at a fantastically brisk pace. This is id returning to the breakneck speed of their early games.
Health is dealt with in an interesting way too. Rather than bog-standard regeneration, the player-character is fitted with a kind of self-defibrillation kit. What this means is that if you are entirely depleted of energy you are quickly shifted to a mini-game in which you have to match thumbstick movements to the icons on-screen. Once you’ve made it through a set number of these against the clock, you are charged with hitting the left and right triggers just as a slider reaches a specific spot. The closer you get, the more health you will be rewarded with. It’s a novel approach.
And then there’s the driving. Tearing through the dusty wasteland on your buggy is great fun, thanks largely to the speed and accessibility of the handling. This is the kind of racing where slamming down on the brake stops you within a second, regardless of the pace at which you are travelling. This is racing where you can execute hairpin turns with little regard to boring, dull things like physics. You can chuck your buggy around this way and that with complete abandon. And it’s brilliant.
It’s also worth noting that you can drive your buggy into a wall at speed and be flung high up into the sky, flapping along the horizon like a man fired from a canon, before landing with a crunch. Perhaps I missed it, but this doesn’t seem to affect your health. Expect numerous amusing YouTube videos to pop up once the game hits. It’s great fun.
Anyway, Rage’s driving is more than just a way of getting from A to B (or chucking yourself through the air like a rocket-propelled penguin). Once you’ve earned your own buggy - a tattered, rusty old thing - you can earn upgrades for it by competing missions and competing in races. These races come in various different flavours, from straight-up point-to-point time trials to multi-buggy battles. More than just a throwaway addition, these races are at the centre of the experience, a nice diversion from the grind of face-shooting.
So with all these elements of the game present and correct, you can forgive me for waiting patiently for everything to come together in a truly exciting way. I felt it was there, just around the corner. Another thirty minutes maybe, or perhaps another hour and the disparate elements that constitute Rage would suddenly have gelled and a gloriously varied, nuanced game fuelled by a powerfully compelling narrative would emerge. But that never quite happened. Not in the first two and a half hours anyway.
Let’s hope the finished game delivers on Rage’s promise.