RAGE Hands-on Preview: The First 150 Minutes
"You don't come to Quakecon without the PC version." This is something that I've personally heard id Software's creative director Tim Willits say at least three times in the past, yet for some reason I was still in Generic Trade Show mode when I walked up to go hands-on with RAGE, the upcoming game from the creators of the first person shooter. I figured I'd be on Xbox 360 or PS3 - usually because it's so much easier to bring consoles to game events - but nope, there were some modest, but still plenty capable gaming PCs for me to try out RAGE on. I was allotted two hours, but I snuck in an extra half-hour.
I sat down to see the RAGE title screen, and just like I would do with any game I'd just installed on my PC, I fiddled with the settings, configured the controls, played around with the pull-down command console for just a second - getting a grand total of zero things done in it - and then decided it was time to start playing. Our demo started right at the beginning of the game as a massive asteroid takes out a chunk of the moon and then squarely strikes Earth, creating what you'd assume is a huge extinction of all forms of life on the surface of the planet. After all, that's what Deep Impact taught us would happen, and President Morgan Freeman is never wrong, is he?
Your character is part of a contingency plan to put exceptional humans into stasis and bury them underground in an Ark. No, this is not Fallout; there are no wacky experiments going into vaults, no hundreds of years of trying to eke out a miserable waking life buried under the post-apocalyptic wastes. My character goes to sleep, wakes up, and suddenly we're in the future and the whole world is wrecked. Turns out that our Ark wasn't terribly well-built, as all the other guys in stasis pods are long dead. I'm the only one left, and it's not long before find out that President Freeman was wrong; not all life on the surface was wiped out. And most of what's left wants to kill me.
I pop outside - I'm only about thirty seconds into the game at this point - and get a firsthand look at the glorious eye candy RAGE delivers at 1920x1200 with 4x antialiasing. (But there was no Anisotropic filtering option in-game for some reason, and it was noticeable. Maybe it'll be added in the full version, or maybe we'll have to turn it on in our video cards' control panels.) The game is delivering impressive texture quality on a wide-open vista, and you won't see any repeated textures on the landscape here at all. I'll spare you the amateur attempt at a technical explanation this time around and just point to the Wikipedia article, but the important point here is that id Software's technical director, John Carmack, devised a new system that allows entirely unique textures to blanket huge areas without any repeats.
When moving around quickly, I start to notice this system at work. The game focuses on maximizing texture quality for whatever you're looking at, so it doesn't waste valuable memory resources on things that are behind you. You've seen texture pop-in issues in previous games, and it was most prevalent this generation in the earlier Unreal Engine 3 games like Mass Effect, where the problem was very obvious whenever a new area would load, then it wouldn't happen again until the next load. In RAGE, the engine is actually popping in textures all the time, but you'll have to do some super-fast spinning for it to be terribly noticeable. Just slowly turn around, though, and you'll notice that at the very far edges of your view, low-quality textures are being swapped out for high-quality ones all the time. It's only on those edges, though, and it's certainly worth this trade-off in outdoor areas when you're getting such an extremely high-detail world.
Indoors is a bit different. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of very low-detail texture work in a few of the early non-combat indoor areas, but it almost seemed like it was a bug or some other issue, as things became much more detailed once I got just a tad further into the game and hit places like Wellspring, Mutant Bash TV, and other bandit hideouts.
The one thing I want to mention before moving on is that I expected to be completely blown away by the id Tech 5 engine that powers RAGE, and admittedly it wasn't living up to my wildest dreams - but what did manage to exceed them was the design of the world and the quality of the art that was painted onto the landscape, the characters, and everything else. We're used to id Software games looking good on account of the technological wizardry that John Carmack is delivering; I'm happy to say that RAGE looks good because the artists did some damn fine work. Sure, I found myself a tad disappointed that the engine is not quite as amazing as I expected it to be, but the eye candy that's layered on top of the technology easily makes up for it.
Right. So, I leave the Ark, have a quick, violent encounter with a mutant, meet a new friend named Dan Hagar (voiced by Hollywood actor John Goodman) who manages to save my life, and I get whisked off to an isolated encampment with a few people eking out a living. Hagar's group knew I was from an Ark by way of my rather conspicuous clothing, but they decided not to collect the Authority's bounty on Ark survivors because they hate the Authority so much. My first mission, however, is to march right back to where I was picked up and take out the bandits that did see me, though - I must cover my tracks and make sure Hagar's group are kept safe. I borrow an old ATV and go rip-roaring through the wasteland to take them out.
Combat in RAGE, at least at first, might be just a bit too sparsely-placed for hardened FPS veterans, but it is incredibly violent and loud - just the way we like it. The game has to teach you a lot of things early on, like completing missions, navigating the wasteland, getting and using pieces and parts in recipes that you'll slowly learn, and in the mini-games, racing events, and other activities that make up RAGE. Eventually the fights become a little more common and last longer; also, if you only want FPS action and would rather skip most of the other stuff, the game lets you get fairly close to that goal; you will be forced to drive a pretty significant amount and participate in some vehicular combat, but most of the other side activities can be avoided entirely if you'd rather focus on running and gunning.
After dealing with the bandits in what looked like an abandoned mall and apartment complex, I went back to the Hagar encampment only to find out that they had been attacked. I raced off to a nearby station run by a group called the Outfitters to get some medical supplies, but was sent on another errand - yes, another violent one where I had to take on an altogether different type of bandits - to fix a radio tower and find the fate of a young member of the Outfitters. After more delicious violence, it was now time to get a buggy of my own. (The bandit ATV I'd hijacked, with the bullhorns on the front and spikes on the wheels, was fun - but it was time to get a little more serious.) I had to retrieve some parts from some bandits, stumbled my way into a large garage, and found my first boss fight, a crazed dude with a minigun mounted on a car's turret. Several well-placed headshots cleaned out him and his buddies, and secured me the parts for my own, real vehicle.
Then I was sent off to Wellspring, the first true town in the game, where I quickly got out of that Ark suit and into some real wastelander duds - I had the choice between three suits, one of which gave me discounts at stores, another gave me extra bonuses when crafting items, and the third would passively absorb a bit of all the damage I'd take. Apparently, whatever suit you choose stays with you throughout the game, although there are upgrades for your armor you can also buy eventually.
You can also work on your vehicle, too. I entered into some races, some with weapons and some without, and did a couple of three-lap time trial events to win race tickets that I could use to buy vehicle upgrades. Players will be able to improve their buggy's boost, suspension, tires, engine power, and weapons - including switching out the top-mounted miniguns for rockets and the like - all with a few clicks in an interface. There's even a garage where you'll spend a little cash to repair any damage taken out in the field, and tune your car with the upgrades you want. It's everything that Borderlands should have had for its vehicles.
While at Wellspring, I was sent off to find a sponsorship for a race, all because my current buggy was just too crappy to pull off some daring mission that the Sheriff had in mind for me. I had to head down to Mutant Bash TV to talk to JK Stiles, a rather crazy dude who gladly dumped me into arenas full of mutants so I could entertain the people that watched his twisted TV show. I got plenty of cash doing two "episodes" for him, and walked away with a sponsorship as well. I headed back to Wellspring, taking out a few bandit cars with my miniguns on the way (doing this gets you cash rewards), and tried this new sponsor-driven race. It wasn't terribly difficult, as I could run over boost pickups throughout the track and can keep boosting for most of the race once I learned how to handle the car at its top speed, so I managed to beat it in one try. (None of the racing seemed terribly difficult, and it does teach you how to drive your car quite a bit better. It was a great way to keep things fresh.)
I gambled with a rather strange dice rolling game, had some one-sided chat with several of the locals (as you'd expect, the main character doesn't ever speak), and started up a Magic the Gathering-style card game, complete with collectible cards that players find throughout the wasteland as part of my deck, and all of a sudden my two hours were up - plus an extra half hour on top of it. Damn!
One thing I want to point out is that while RAGE has a lot of non-FPS stuff in its first couple of hours, it is paced incredibly well. If you're going into it expecting a balls-out Doom-style fragfest from beginning to end, you might be a bit surprised at what you get. But there are games today that never let up - nearly every military shooter out there is trying to one-up the others and keeps things cranked to 11 for the maximum amount of time - and pretty soon, headshots are boring and multi-kills with a grenade launcher barely register a blip in your excitement-o-meter. Pacing is a vital element to any good book, movie, or game, and when it comes to the FPS market, not that many developers are doing it right. RAGE won't ever let you just pop from one "level" to the next to duke it out with mutants and bandits non-stop, but it does give you the choice of either forging on with the next mission or taking a ten-minute breather to explore the world, improve your character and gear, and better prepare for the next time that things are turned up to 11. Some may say that id Software shouldn't be the team doing this, but why not? It's not like there are that many other AAA shooter developers even trying to pace their game to make combat exciting instead of desensitizing.
Throughout my travels, I progressed through the following weapons: fists, a pistol, an assault rifle, a shotgun, a crossbow, a sniper rifle, and a minigun - unfortunately, I was kicked off the PC before I got a chance to fire the minigun. You'll be able to buy multiple upgrades for your weapons, but the biggest thing is the multiple ammo types. Each weapon has several types of rounds that you can build or buy, then load into your weapon with a quick key or button, and these do a great job serving as a wide range of alternate-fire functions. Your shotgun can be loaded with grenade rounds, the crossbow can change over from a sniper rifle to an explosive-tipped mid-range meat grinder quickly, and more; it helps make that crappy old pistol useful again, and it also means that any one type of ammo is just scarce enough that you'll have a tough job managing it.
A deep ammo system may seem like a pain at first, but it's a really smart way to add choice to an FPS; while RAGE might have a quest tracker and lots of almost RPG-seeming progression systems, it's not an actual RPG. You don't have armor pieces to upgrade or levels to gain, and your shotgun is always this powerful against these bandits and that weak against this other boss; unlike, say, Borderlands, there's never a situation where you're too weak (or just too low-level) to do some significant damage to an enemy.
Should you spend your cash on more Wingsticks instead of an assault rifle upgrade? Do you use a given set of looted parts to make expensive ammo for one gun, or more mundane but plentiful ammo for another? id Software has added a level of choice to something as simple as improving your guns and ammunition, as this becomes one of the more important things on which you'll be spending money, time, thought, and engineering materials.
id Software has a history of changing the game industry, and while I don't know that RAGE will do the same, I do have to say that even if it doesn't, the first two-plus hours have told me that this is still the best game they've made in a long time. The combat is intense yet properly paced, the additional activities fit in with the world nicely, and the addition of a sort of non-RPG type of choice gives first person shooters a level of depth that few have had. It looks beautiful, too, and yet once I got playing, I stopped caring about things like the engine and started enjoying the game for what it is. If RAGE can keep up the high quality of exploration, satisfying combat, and interesting characters, then it will be a big winner this fall and millions will remember (or learn for the first time!) what put id Software on the map in the first place. If not, and this seems highly unlikely at this point, then it's already much better than most FPS games I've played in the last year, so it's kind of tough to go wrong.
RAGE will be out for PC, PS3, and 360 on October 4th.