In some ways, it seems like RAGE from id Software, the creators of the first person shooter genre, has arrived years too late. We are likely nearing the end of a console generation that could have used this game at the beginning of the cycle, rather than this far in. In other ways, it feels like RAGE is right on time, as we welcome a glorious return to the raw, pulse-pounding action of an FPS without all of those level-ups, perks, or military commanders constantly yammering in your ear. And in still other ways, RAGE feels like it's ahead of its time, a glimpse of what content creators can do when the next generation of hardware comes around.
The setup is one you'll be familiar with, as it's been pretty closely cribbed from a few popular sci-fi works (including games). When a massive meteor threatened all life on Earth, exceptional young people were recruited into the Eden Project, underwent some crazy experiments, and were placed in stasis and set to be woken up long after the dust subsided. You play as one of these subjects and start off waking up in an Ark, one of the high-tech facilities designed to keep its subjects safe, but you're the only one to survive in this particular installation. As you stumble out into the light, you see the rather mind-blowing technology that id Software's been working on for so long, but quickly you're thrust away from the tech and into the game world as a bandit tackles you only seconds after leaving the vault. Dan Hagar, voiced by veteran Hollywood actor John Goodman, manages to save your butt and gets you to safety. You see, the meteor didn't do quite as much damage as projected and life on the surface is still kicking, but mutants and bandits roam the wastes, small pockets of peaceful humanity are constantly fighting to survive, and an ominous and powerful group called the Authority threaten anyone who stumbles out of an Ark alive.
From here, RAGE follows a free-roaming, FPS-fueled style of gameplay pioneered in STALKER and refined with the use of vehicles in Borderlands. You'll roam (and drive) around the wasteland to fight the natives, pick up quests, and complete a wide range of objectives for rewards that help you in the next bit of combat. It's important to point out that while RAGE includes plenty of car combat, racing missions, item crafting, buying and selling, and even a collectible card game, players can often skip these activities - to a degree - and just get onto the shooter action. This is not an RPG with level-ups, ranks to attain, or millions of guns, nor will the game ever use an RPG leveling system to make your weapons too weak for the next area full of bad guys; a shotgun blast to the face of any grunt-level foe is nearly always going to shake your subwoofer and splatter the unlucky enemy's brains all over your little window into this post-apocalyptic world.
This isn't all just gunplay and driving: you're going to have to manage your money and make use of the crafting system here and there to get by, but one thing that helps spice up RAGE's otherwise-stereotypical arsenal is the variety of ammo types you can stuff into each weapon. You can turn your shotgun into a grenade launcher, your crossbow into an explosive sniper rifle, and make lowly weapons like the starting pistol very powerful if you craft (or buy) the right ammo for them.
Of course, this is an id Software game so RAGE does the shooting part pretty damn well, both on PC and on consoles, and your battles with bandits and other enemies can go many ways depending on how you approach each gunfight. You'll find that your foes use cover, toss grenades, communicate, react appropriately when hit in various areas of the body, and even retreat to go find their buddies elsewhere in the level. To counter, Ark survivors have both regenerating health and an auto-defibrillator that allows them to revive themselves even after getting killed. It does need some time to recharge after it's been deployed, though, so it's still very possible to die and have to load a save game.
You might be disappointed at first with the weakness of some of your weapons, but if you have the Anarchy version of the game, you'll get a good early preview of the eventual power of guns by running right up to a bandit and pulling the trigger on the sawed-off shotgun that the Anarchy version includes right from the start. The mess of blood and brains that spews forth is the direction that most of your guns will be going in as you get further into the game and get more powerful ammo.
No matter what, you're going to be doing a lot of driving in RAGE's large and (eventually) open world. The game forces you into some Mad Max-meets-Mario Kart action through races both with and without mounted weapons, and you'll have plenty of enemy vehicles to blow up while getting from Point A to Point B out in the wasteland, too. You'll have to carefully watch your buggy's damage level and even pay for both ammo restocks and repairs out-of-pocket, and while this does add depth, for me it also added unnecessary worry to every damaging collision and wasted rocket - each of which was costing me cash - that makes driving sometimes an arbitrary chore rather than just a fun diversion. You'll find upgrades for your guns, armor, and yes, your vehicles and its own weaponry, and you're going to have to pay in-game cash for nearly all of it.
RAGE takes a hell of a lot of liberties with how its world works, and while some will complain, I do think it's for the better. id Software may have created a more believable world this time around, but we're still playing a protagonist that's inexplicably mute once again, even as the developers wound up having characters actually try and ask the player questions. The game's most interesting denizens are often stuck behind desks or kiosks, never to leave or move, and it does seem a little iffy that the wasteland's newest Ark survivor becomes acclimated to this rather strange future so quickly. Still, the liberties that are taken in RAGE are similar to those taken in other great FPS games - and fans have gotten used to them so much that they expect this kind of streamlined style of gameplay. Simply put, if the developers had tried solve all of these quirks built up over the last two decades, we'd get a vastly different, altogether more dull and slow game, and that's definitely not what id Software's fans want. Sure, the point of going out into the wasteland and fighting off evil bandits, mutants, and eventually the Authority does seem shaky at times, but I can think of better games peppered with even bigger plot holes.
There are a few annoyances I've found with RAGE that keep the game from greatness. First, the game uses automatic checkpoints and they're very sparsely placed. A tap of the F5 key on PC fixes this, as quicksave is alive and well, but console users are left having to dive into the menu to make manual save games if they really want them. Also, the enemy AI can sometimes freak out and do strange things, and while this is far from the first time we've seen weird AI behavior in a video game, it's the realism with which everything else is depicted that really makes it stand out.
Beyond that, while RAGE pulls elements from RPGs to try and make a more interesting and deep world, they managed to pick up on a lot of the more frustrating and tedious RPG bits and pieces I'd rather not have to deal with in a shooter. For example, players have to run around and search a room for loot after each firefight, manage their inventory to sell off junk items, deal with quest logs and side quests, poke around with crafting in the menus, and fiddle with weapon selection and ammo type menus - all while the game continues un-paused in the background, making mid-fight ammo switches a real pain.
Finally, you'll uncover plenty of optional quests and objectives to complete, but none of them offer any real kind of choice; they're just added content for those who want to spend more time playing before getting to the same ending. (Yes, this includes those sewer missions that buyers of used copies on consoles will have to spend extra money to see. And wait, are we really going to have to put up with sewer levels, one of our least-favorite FPS stereotypes, as premium content?) Whether it's right or wrong to include story-based choices in a high-octane first person shooter, one thing that's missing in RAGE is longevity: optional quests or no, there's just not a hell of a lot to keep you coming back after you complete it.
RAGE includes a both cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes, but they're just not terribly interesting, unfortunately. The coop play contains only snippets of the full single player game to go through together, and the competitive vehicle-based modes can't hold a candle to the team-based action going into this fall's bigger, more online-oriented shooters. These modes serve as a decent little alternative distraction from the single player mode when you just want to goof around online, but this is certainly not the competitive game that Call of Duty players (or Quake 3 fans, for that matter) were hoping to see. One day we may once again see an id Software game that's as much fun to play online as it is offline, but it is not this day.
From a technical perspective, id Software has accomplished something huge in creating an engine that accesses the system memory differently than everything else. In today's HD games, most of the memory is devoted to delivering the sharpest textures for the best possible visual quality, but id has revolutionized this with a system that only focuses on the surfaces in the player's view (unlike most games which are still devoting large amounts of RAM towards things that are outside the viewable area). Not only does this allow for much higher detail, but it also means that the phenomenon of "tiled" textures, much like you can see in many otherwise great-looking games in recent years, has been eliminated entirely in RAGE. You can see this system constantly working as you slowly turn to view your environment; lower quality textures are swapped out in favor of higher quality versions as these areas are slid into view, and the game's constantly shifting in and out these textures to optimize whatever you're looking at. It's a bit weird to see in practice, especially on the PC where a quick 180-degree spin causes the game to scramble to put higher-res textures in place, but it does do the job well enough and the end result is generally a huge improvement over other games' visuals, with the possible exception of what you can squeeze out of minimum-spec PCs.
There are still some serious limitations, though, no matter how you play RAGE. Because there are so many high-resolution textures blanketing this game, the low-res ones manage to stand out like a sore thumb. On consoles, RAGE still looks leaps and bounds better than nearly everything else, and the 60fps game engine is just icing on the cake. My guess is that id couldn't get any more texture quality into the console versions without dropping the frame rate, but that wouldn't be a problem for a very high-end PC, and the problem is that id Software seemed to be unwilling to add any more detail, considering that the game is already a rather massive 20GB. What that means is that some ultra-high texture quality that could have gone into the PC version likely went by the wayside, even though it probably didn't have to. That being said, the PC version of RAGE is still the absolute best-looking version with the most control options - as long as you've got a PC that can handle it. While some of the more hardcore gamers with high-end PCs will be demanding that id Software release texture packs to fill out every single surface with mega-high-res artwork, I'm a little skeptical as to whether that will ever happen.
Generally you'll find that RAGE runs at very smooth frame rates on nearly any PC that can play modern games, but the lack of nearly anything in the way of detail settings (beyond choosing resolution and antialiasing settings - no vsync, no overall texture quality choices) means that the game gets to choose how to run things, and you may not quite like the decisions that get made. For example, my desktop PC with a Core i7 950 CPU and two nVidia GTX 460s in SLI ran the game with 8X antialiasing at an easy 60fps, but on my Alienware M11X R1 (Core 2 Duo at 1.6GHz, nVidia 335M GT, 4GB DDR3), the best it could manage was 25-30fps outdoors and 40-50fps in indoor combat areas. The game didn't seem to even try to lower detail to run at 60fps in large outdoor areas, and there are no video settings in the menus to allow players to try and override that choice. Plus, in the process, the game was constantly making very jarring texture swaps, which would otherwise be minimized on a very fast PC (or on the 360 or PS3, for that matter). But to put it into perspective, this is on an 11" laptop that weighs just over 4 pounds, and RAGE still ran fairly well on it - considering that Battlefield: Bad Company 2 only runs at about 20fps on the M11X R1 when playing online, that's pretty damn good anyway. On any gaming PC capable of running today's games at high resolutions and super-fast speeds, RAGE does exceedingly well at 60fps pretty much all of the time. Update: We've heard plenty of reports that there's something wrong with AMD video cards and this game, even on updated drivers. Even if you're running the latest generation of Radeon hardware, you might be best holding off to see how id handles this issue.
id Software deserves heaps of credit for breaking through technical barriers and pushing themselves to make a AAA shooter that can hang with today's biggest names. Not everything seems to have come out quite as intended, though, as the RPG elements and non-combat portions of the game often drag down the experience more than they lift it up - and coming from a huge fan of Western RPGs like myself, I think that's saying something. All that said, RAGE still offers a ridiculously fun FPS adventure that is exhilarating, satisfying, and capable of living up to the id Software name in nearly everything that it does.