A Beautiful Waste
HIGH The Dead City section is a varied high point in the campaign.
LOW The end of the final mission is a turpid joke.
WTF Who races a "time trial" once the Apocalypse has gone down?
id Software owes us nothing. That's what they're saying to us with the release of their newest, Rage. They may have invented the first-person shooter video game as we know it, but it seems that recently, they're averse to going above and beyond the core functions of the genre aside from eye-melting graphics. Rage fights an all-out battle on draw distance and crappy textures, and the unfortunate and bloodied bystanders are Joe Gamer and I.
All promises to be well when the game boots up and begins its story. A minimalist and nicely artful cut-scene lets us in on the sad fact that hundreds of years ago, a meteorite headed straight for Earth convinced its populace to shack-up underground in hundreds of high-tech "arks." The player wakes inside an ark gone haywire and is jettisoned into an unfriendly, post-apocalyptic wasteland (called "The Wasteland") where survival is, of course, quite questionable, and thriving even more so.
While this is certainly some great dramatic fodder, id would rather we not see it this way. The player can forget about discovering their past identity or making their own circuitous way through the world, 'cause it's all about shootin' dudes. Yep, that's the first (and really only) type of action the player is going to take throughout the entire game. Yes, there are a few tiny fetch quests here and there, but those are punctuated by shooting dudes and then shooting a few more.
It was unnerving how quickly the game fell into this predictable groove. The personal story of the player character is thrown right out the window in favor of raucous, plentiful gunfighting. Soon after, players are given their own vehicle in which they make their way around the Wasteland, yet soon they're blasting away at fools with that just the same.
For what it is, I will say that it works. id's engineering has always been a strong point, and they've done a great job with the mechanics here. The shooting gameplay is butter-smooth and varied, and visually it holds steady at around 60 frames per second. Driving has a certain crunchy oomph that resonates, though its combat aspects (in the campaign) wear a little thin.
The graphics of the game, though, are clearly where the meat and potatoes are. The environments of the Wasteland are well-done, with lots of rocky vistas stretching for miles. Indoors, the game is no slouch either, with areas that artfully portray differentiated and ruined locales (even though the majority of the battle segments are quite linear). The game's big innovation, its use of id's vaunted "megatextures" is actually pretty stunning. There is so much detail in every surface, people included, that when I popped in a new big-budget game on my PS3 recently, it looked flat in comparison.
Sadly, it's the cumulative experience that comes off as flat in Rage. While initial impressions might give off the suggestion of a large open-world type of game that links shooting missions via driving, it's actually pretty contained. The world itself is divided into two walled-off areas (one on each disc of the Xbox version—which it was optimized for) that are not exactly expansive. The first area is much bigger than the second, yet even there, there are only two "hub" type locations. Shooting missions are then cordoned off from the world map with their own entrances. It all serves to make the game feel less connected than it should be.
Add to that the fact that the game's tone feels less intense than it should, and it starts to be even less singular. While it's certainly fun to blast dudes with various weapons and engineering doodads, the idea of an apocalyptic "world without" isn't felt here. Various characters do talk about the hardships of the world, but the inclusions of things like a racing circuit (with time trials!) and the old trope of carrying fourteen weapons at once push the game much further into "game-y" territory than it needs to be. Unlike publisher Bethesda's own recent Fallout 3, Rage feels like playing in a post-disaster theme park than it does surviving inside the inhospitable death zone it could have been.
Finally, the game's story is a complete joke by the end of the player's journey. While fighting alongside the "Resistance" against the cleverly-named "Authority," there are zero personal elements uncovered regarding this shadowy organization. Suffice it to say that the player will continue on into the central city and thwart their nefarious plans, yet they'll never see a human face put on the opposition, nor any face at all. There are rumblings in the world of an "evil General Cross," yet this person is never revealed. This was profoundly curious to me, as an FPS is the pinnacle of personal gaming. The player IS the hero. By leaving out such basic storytelling and world-building elements, it never even gives the player the chance to care about their own ends. Similarly, I'd be remiss not to mention that the last moments of the final mission are completely without any tension, surprise, or even a boss fight. I have not had such an acute "rush-job" feeling with a game's ending in years. Throw in a short and completely flat end-game cut-scene, and it adds up to one of the most unsatisfying finales in recent memory.
The game's multiplayer component might give the average gamer a few more hours of enjoyment, but there's not much new that's worth a look. Players can either tackle slightly altered single-player missions in a co-op mode, or get their fill of car combat free-for-alls. The car combat is certainly the bigger draw here, as gamers are rewarded for leveling-up with a nifty perks system ala Call of Duty. Be warned, though, that a level mismatch can cause a pretty extreme imbalance due to the piddly load-outs in the early levels.
Rage is a beautiful, totally decent first-person shooter with some driving elements thrown in to spice it up a bit. Based on it's developer's pedigree, the fact that it's not more than that is exceedingly confusing. There's really no obvious attempt at innovation here minus the marrying of Doom to Twisted Metal. Then again, perhaps the developer is simply living up to its name. I mean, could they be as easy on themselves if they were called "ego"?
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed one time) and 3 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M for Mature and contains blood and gore, intense violence and strong language. There is excessive and bloody violence throughout, including decapitations, etc. The game has lots of foul language, to boot.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are offered for all of the in-game speech. Certain audio cues related to combat will provide a bit of inconvenience, but not by much.
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