It's rare when a game I'm hardly interested in skyrockets to the top of my most-anticipated list. But following an impressive, though hands-off demo, RAGE has gone from a faint blip on my radar to lighting it up like a Christmas tree. I was certainly familiar with id Software's next project and I'd even skimmed the Game Informer cover story from many months ago. But despite some slick screen-shots and id's Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein pedigree, I felt I'd seen enough wasteland-wandering, mutant-blasting, post-apocalyptic shooters to last me a lifetime. With an Xbox 360 gamepad in hand, Tim Willits, RAGE's lead designer and id co-owner, quickly proved me wrong.
Oh sure, the Mad Max vibe is in full effect, as are the Fallout 3 and Borderlands similarities. However, fueled by id's desire to truly do something they've never done with the genre they invented, RAGE is far from another me-too entry. Of course, passion alone isn't powering RAGE; their smokin' id Tech 5 engine is also doing plenty of heavy lifting. Even running on the 360, the game looked like something only a high-end PC rig could handle. Unbelievably crisp visuals are delivered through a breathtaking blend of photorealism and stylized design that you could be tricked into thinking were coming from the next next-gen hardware. And while still screens evoke the same "wow" factor we experienced the first time we saw Doom 3's eye-pleasing teaser shots, RAGE really raises the bar when it's in motion. But before we get to the visually stunning scene that instinctively had our trigger fingers flexing, lets get up to speed a bit on id's “next big thing.”
As the story goes—and as Hollywood's special effects-laden blockbusters keep reminding us—sooner or later, an Earth-crushing asteroid is coming. In RAGE, you play a survivor of such a forewarned catastrophe, who's been buried underground in an Ark built to protect the the best and brightest; the idea being, when all the useless people have been obliterated by the big, mean space rock, you and your fellow Ark-dwellers will rebuild civilization. Obviously, the plan doesn't quite work out that way, and you enter a world crawling with mutants, bandits, and beasties.
RAGE, as described by Willits, is “open, but directed”. So while it's a far cry from the corridor crawls they're famous for, it'll never leave you lost or clueless about your next objective. It also won't force you to rely on a Doom 3-like flashlight to illuminate your path. On the contrary, Wellspring, the desert town shown during our demo, was baked in natural light. Thankfully, id's new exploration-encouraging, sun-soaked world is also filled with customizable vehicles, so getting around and seeing the sights isn't a problem. Traveling to his first mission, our nameless gunslinger got to tool around in a dune buggy-like ride equipped, of course, with hot lead-spraying turrets. He didn't spend much time in the vehicle, but just long enough to shred a few road-blocking bandits with the mounted cannons. With the sand freshly moistened by mutant blood, he then headed into his first mission.
Some sewer-dwelling miscreants were messing with the town's water supply, so we followed the crossbow-equipped protagonist underground. This gave us our first taste of RAGE's customizable ammo and weapon system; as with the vehicles, guns and gadgets can be outfitted with a variety of pieces you collect or purchase on your journey, adding some welcome RPG flavor to id's bullet-flying formula. In this case, the crossbow was armed with electricity-powered bolts. It didn't take long for us to see the effectiveness of this weapon in an underground area filled with ankle-deep water—you can always count on a clueless bandit to stand in a puddle.
After frying some bad guy flesh, we were then led through a series of more claustrophobic corridors—familiar level design territory for id—as uglies poured out of the woodwork. Here we got to see another customizable toy at work; in fact, the tiny RC car literally was a toy, well, a highly explosive one. The lethal little vehicle was directed down the hall, then detonated just in time to cover the walls in crimson life juice. After witnessing this brief display of mutant innards being spilled by RAGE's arsenal of creative killers, we got to see the enemies get the upper hand. And this is where the game really impressed, while also making our index fingers ache for some hands-on action.
Preparing to keep the next group of baddies at bay, our hero tossed out a handful of spider turrets. The metallic menaces looked like a decent defensive strategy, but the crazies rounding the corner were not like the others we'd seen; acrobatic and super-fast, they came screaming down the hall, pin-balling off the walls and swinging from the rafters. Within seconds they'd made quick work out of the sentries, and had our guy reaching for a hand cannon, better suited for the up-close threat. A few ear-rattling blasts later and we were looking at another corpse-cluttered hallway, but the image of those monkey-like baddies, animated with such realism, still had us pitched forward in our seats.
They also fed right into the development team's philosophy for the enemy A.I.; earlier in the presentation, Willits had stressed that the threats players face won't only be highly intelligent, but also diversified. The game will feature several enemy factions, and id wants each one to be more memorable than the usual bullet fodder that populates most shooters. And although our time was spent exclusively in the dusty town of Wellspring, they promised the same sort of variety for the rest of the environments that make up RAGE's ravaged world.
We got a promising peek at RAGE's vehicular combat and customizable weapons, but we came away most impressed by its engrossing visuals and seamless animations. Further complementing the stunning graphical presentation were shading and lighting techniques that looked almost too good to be true; leveraging the diversity between the world's light and dark areas seems like something the team is definitely having fun with. Subtle touches, like a sun-baked vending machine that looked hot to the touch, are contrasted against more gripping displays, such as silhouettes of club-swinging mutants dancing on walls as they come in for the kill.
In typical id fashion, RAGE will be released “when it's done”, but it's already brimming with detail and gleaming with the sort of polish we'd expect—but don't always get—from a finished product. Without getting behind the gamepad, it's impossible to know how well it plays, but if its mechanics can match its visual ambitions, then shooter fans are in for a fragging good time when RAGE hits, hopefully, in 2011.