To older gamers, the release of id Software’s “Rage” is a bit like the arrival of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, before we knew how horrible it would be. Id pretty much defined, then refined first-person shooters with “Wolfenstein 3D,” “Doom” and “Quake” back in the 1990s, and “Rage” is its first new franchise in more than a decade. To say that id fans have been waiting a while is an understatement.
Now that it’s finally here, “Rage” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) is a mixed success, but given id’s pedigree, it’s hard not to be disappointed and wonder what might have been.
“Rage” is set in the distant future, after an asteroid has wiped out most life on Earth. Before the asteroid hit, the main character, an unnamed man whose eyes you see through for most of the game, was placed into a sort of hibernation with the idea that he’d be awakened years later to help with the restoration of order.
That’s not what happens, though. Instead, you awake a century later and discover your Ark-mates have long since died. Alarms are going off, and when you stumble out into a harsh desert world populated by mutants, you find a new world order already established, led by a police state known as the Authority.
On consoles, “Rage” is a technical triumph. Despite some occasionally slow-to-load textures, the visuals rendered by the new id Tech 5 engine breathe new life into Microsoft’s 6-year-old Xbox 360 and show that developers are still learning new tricks to extract more power from the hardware. During a console generation virtually defined by Epic Games’ Unreal 3 engine, “Rage” is immediately and gloriously distinct. The game ends up looking like a more realistic take on Gearbox Software’s cartoony, cell-shaded “Borderlands.”
Gameplay revolves around shooting, as you’d expect, and driving, a surprise success. From Bungie’s “Halo” on down to DICE’s “Battlefield” and the aforementioned “Borderlands,” driving in first-person shooters is nearly always awkward and not immediately intuitive. Not so with “Rage.” The game’s ATVs and buggies handle like vehicles in arcade-style racing games like “Motorstorm.” After “Rage,” I’d happily play an id-developed car-combat game, something I didn’t even know I wanted.
The gunplay is, as befits id, well-tuned. Though “Rage” doesn’t have a signature weapon, the usual staples (pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, assault rifle) are present, and all control smoothly and are satisfying to use. They all perform well enough that I generally swap among them with ease without really having a favorite.
“Rage’s” problems lie with its structure and storytelling. The backstory that id has created is lively and interesting, but the promising narrative never really takes shape and the game ends abruptly. Initially, “Rage” is a little deceptive. It’s easy to play through its early missions thinking that you’re going through some kind of tutorial and introduction to the world, and that the game will become a true-open world experience, where you’ll use its towns as bases and explore the gorgeous wilderness at your own pace, uncovering secrets and getting sucked into side dramas the way you would in a game like “Fallout 3.”
Instead, though, “Rage” ends up being a relatively short, linear action game set in a mostly empty open world, much like “Mafia II” or “L.A. Noire.” A typical mission looks like this: Get a quest, drive to the mission site, enter a level on foot, kill everything, drive back to quest giver. Most of the levels in “Rage” look like what you’d find in the corridor-shooters that made id famous. You’ll be spending a lot of time in caves, science labs, hospitals and the like, which can make it feel like id’s work in making the outdoor environments look stunning was wasted.
As satisfying as driving is, it’s used mainly to get you from one mission to the other. Short of running in some races for the sake of souping up your car, there aren’t any missions that actually revolve around vehicles.
Even worse is “Rage’s” reuse of levels. Too many times, you’ll clear an area, only to be asked later in the game to re-enter it and kill everyone all over again.
Bizarrely, “Rage” recycles levels even when their re-use directly conflicts with the story id is trying to tell. In one early mission, a character named Dan Hagar (voiced expertly by John Goodman) emphasized the importance of clearing out the hideout of a local gang called the Ghosts. These people knew that Hagar had killed some of their gang while rescuing me, and they’d be out for vengeance. They needed to be eliminated before they attacked Hagar’s settlement, or turned my character in to the Authority. So I did what any good gamer would do: I drove to their hideout and murdered them all.
A couple of hours later, a side mission sends you back to the Ghosts’ lair in search of a missing person. The entire level is repopulated with gang members. Who were these new gang members and where did they come from? Why hadn’t they attacked the Hagar settlement, or turned my character in to the Authority? Sadly, this wasn’t the only moment like this.
“Rage’s” co-op and multiplayer experiences add a little replay value. The co-op repurposes some of the single-player levels to tell stories that exist on the periphery of the main campaign. In one, for example, you and a buddy return to the set of “Mutant Bash TV,” one of the story missions. The co-op experience is portrayed as the show’s pilot and features a few malfunctions and glitches.
In a surprising move, id’s multiplayer modes for the game revolve around vehicular combat. I’m all for this. In a world in which nearly every shooter ships with variations on the same deathmatch, king-of-the-hill and capture-the-flag modes, “Rage’s” car combat is an example of zigging when everyone expected id to zag. That said, some gamers will no doubt find it odd that the studio who developed and popularized a lot of the multiplayer modes we now take for granted decided to sit this one out.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that players of “Rage” on PC have been reporting all sorts of problems. I played an Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by publisher Bethesda Softworks, so this should very much be seen as a review of the console experience. It’s disheartening that a studio with such a rich pedigree on PC would release a game with a subpar PC experience, however.