Three Hours With id’s RAGE

Judging by everyone I talked to at QuakeCon, I was not alone in almost wholeheartedly writing off id Software‘s upcoming post-apocalyptic first-person shooter Rage. Also judging by everyone I talked to at QuakeCon, I am now not alone in feeling like a damn fool for having done so.

Rage is very much an id game when you look at it in the grand scheme of things. It’s certainly hard to quantify why I say that (though it’s also a sentiment John Carmack shared in his keynote this year), but you definitely get that sensation. Perhaps it’s the quick movement, or certain “kitchen sink” design choices that harkens to shooters of old, but it’s definitely hard to miss.

It says something that after spending three hours with the game last Friday, though, that I still can’t nail down what made the demo stand out so much. Yes, Rage is yet another post-apocalyptic shooter; yes, Rage is very brown; and yes to a dozen other things that you may have niggling doubts about over the game, but trust me, the sum is (thus far) much greater than its individual parts.

This preview will contain some specific information from the game, including spoilers.  Consider yourself warned.

The demo opens with a rather striking cinematic. Despite being very sparse in the narrative department, you can get the whole story, and even experience a tinge of emotion, as the exceptional orchestral music awakens something very dramatic deep inside of you. In short, the world is ending. 99942 Apophis is a very real and very large asteroid that has a one in 250,000 chance of colliding with Earth on April 13, 2036, but in the world of Rage, Apophis hits Earth in the most spectacularly catastrophic of ways on August 23, 2038, and it’s all downhill from there.

You play as the silent protagonist who turns out to be one of (if not the only) survivor of the Ark, a specially built housing chamber for those selected to carry on the human legacy. On both sides of the fortune spectrum, however, you are not alone. Following your awakening from your presumably long sleep, you stumble out into the Wasteland and are almost immediately attacked by a mutant, a moment that actually almost had me jump out of my seat. Fortunately for you, a non-Ark survivor named Dan Hagar (played by John Goodman) comes to your rescue and takes you away to Hagar Settlement, your first safe haven from the numerous hostiles he points out to you as you ride in his buggy.

The drive is pretty lengthy, so I get to looking around the world a fair bit, and it is gorgeous. True to many things Carmack said during his keynote/rant, it does look like a “moving painting,” and the expansive landscapes are rather impressive. Also true to his words, things get…”muddy” upon closer inspection. This is due to the MegaTexture (called Virtual Texturing with Rage and Doom 4′s advancements) technology’s limitation on how it wraps 4096×4096 pages of textures across all models and sprites, opting for impressive vistas and improved RAM usage over minute details and more easily created textures.

Hagar says a lot of things during the drive and upon your arrival at his settlement, but some key parts stand out: 1) you, like other Ark survivors, are special, 2) there is something called the Authority that seems to rule much of the world, and 3) it’s dangerous out there.

Throughout the demo, a lot of other characters and factions (and there seem to be a fair number of those hanging around) talk about the Authority. They track down and reward others who bring in Ark survivors, something Hagar mentions when he points out that your Ark suit is going to draw a lot of attention, but not much more is known about them. They might be experimenting on mutants, and they might also be attempting some martial law, but I never found out for sure what was true and what wasn’t.

It seems though that they, and many others, are looking for Ark survivors because of their “specialness,” the degree of which you begin to discover on your first mission for Dan Hagar. He loads you up with a pistol and a loaner ATV, and tells you to clear out the mutants that might have seen you two kill their buddies during your rescue.

The ATV handles pretty nicely. At first I felt like it was a bit sluggish with extremely tight handling, but there is a boost button and, boy howdy, do you haul ass with that boost. There’s a nice zoom out effect when you speed up, giving you that extra sense of seriously trucking across the terrain. It almost feels like the ATV handles analogously to the player in that you can change speeds and directions fairly quickly. When you hit the hand brake, you stop. Hard.

And for the record, if you hit something hard enough, you will go flying and probably die.

Upon reaching the enemy hideout, you start clearing them out. The pistol you are given is weak, fires slowly and, honestly, gave me almost immediate doubt as to whether or not id had already lost my interest in this game. But, I pressed on.

I should mention at this point, though, that I encountered a few bugs that involved enemies shooting through solid walls, and getting stuck on geometry, but those are fairly minor. I have total confidence those are simply affectations of being a preview build.

Eventually the mutants captured me and sent me to the “kill room.” Lo and behold, they actually did kill me, but here is where you get your first taste of being a special Ark survivor; all Ark survivors have nanotechnology floating around inside of them, and in this particular case, you can revive yourself when you die. It occurs through a little minigame where you have to match the analog sticks (I was playing on Xbox 360, though a PS3 and PC build were also available) with what is shown on screen and simultaneously pull both triggers. If I had to compare it something I’ve never actually done but imagine being somewhat similar in sensation, it’s kind of like using a defibrillator. Depending on how you manage the final defibrillation, you get some portion of your health back and cause an explosion of sorts that knocks down—if not kills—all of the nearby enemies.

Supposedly, there will be other Ark powers to discover, but that was the only one I was given in my time with the game.

While it seems that it was a predetermined action that you are captured by the mutants, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were just sneaky enough to pull it off regardless. Once they catch sight of you, the mutants will immediately start running towards you, and bounding off the walls and ceiling to avoid your fire. It actually gets quite tense. At some point I was backed all the way into a corner, and at the last second managed to pop my pursuer in the noggin.

Of course, I could have also used my melee attack, which turns out to be fairly powerful. Once I got the feel for the game, I started capping runners in the knee and then using a melee to finish them off. This is not a criticism for being yet another FPS where the melee is an instant kill, last ditch effort sort of attack but rather how well the game plays. Things move fluidly and quickly enough to where I can shoot a runner or two in the leg, unload a couple more rounds in those behind cover with guns, and then come back to finish those on the ground before they recover. It all feels amazingly satisfying.

It gets even better once you ditch the useless pistol. Or rather, once you ditch the useless pistol ammo. Some weapons have multiple ammo types, and the pistol upgrades to fat rounds that turn it more into a traditional magnum-class revolver, rather than a starter handgun. It usually killed enemies in one shot, though that particular ammo was somewhat scarce. Of course, there were also the crossbow, sniper rifle, assault rifle, shotgun, and a bladed boomerang to use.

The boomerang was earned through a shooting gallery minigame with Hagar’s daughter, and it was hardly the last side game I encountered in Rage. There is also a whole bunch of racing, car combat with buggy upgrades to boot, collectible cards which in turn become its own game, and more. Now you know why I said it had a “kitchen sink” sort of feel to it.

I guess that’s why Rage actually kind of reminds me of Borderlands. It’s not just the art style (though I’m sure that has something to do with it), but rather how the game is tied together. You chat people up in the open world environment, they tell you to go places and what they’ll give you upon your return, and then you shoot someone, collect something, or flip a switch. When you’re not doing that, there are plenty of job boards hanging around where you can pick up and complete different side quests, such as the one that continually rewards you for killing bandits in particular areas of the map. There’s also a battle arena that is very much Mad Moxxi.

Unfortunately, the vehicles are pretty subpar compared to Borderlands’ or any other game’s vehicles. Aside from the ATV, for some reason the rest of the whip sets all handle in an excessively floaty fashion. If you go any faster than walking speed, you instantly lose any semblance of turning radius and traction. This isn’t a problem on some of the early race tracks, where they are wide and the turns are soft, but when you’re combating multiple bandit vehicles, or attempting to finesse around Hagar’s garage, it definitely gets a bit annoying.

However, that’s really all I can put on my cons list after three hours with Rage. Given that I’ve really only explored a small fraction of the game, I can’t say for sure if it stays that engaging or fun or varied the whole time, but I can definitely say I liked those three hours a whole lot. Like, a lot a lot.

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