'RAGE' pretty to look at, but a little too empty inside

Id Software, creator of such games as "Doom" and "Quake," has a new first-person shooter on the market, "RAGE."

Oddly enough, it's a bit of a misfire -- one that both draws and repels me. For every positive I can identify in the game-play, I find an equally compelling negative.

I'd have to say the biggest of the latter is the storyline and storytelling. It's like the folks at id had a lot of great ideas but were for some reason constrained in expressing them. This results in a story that feels clipped and abrupt, full of interesting ideas that are never fleshed out and enough dangling plot threads to knit a scarf.

The world of "RAGE" is a fairly commonplace, post-apocalyptic Earth. Tiny enclaves of civilization struggle to survive amid a blighted wasteland, filled with murderous gangs and deadly mutants. You know, like the "Fallout" series. Or "Borderlands." Given "RAGE's" guns and buggies aesthetic, it feels incredibly derivative of "Borderlands."

The player's character is an anachronism in the game world. Cryogenically frozen during an earlier period in Earth's history, when high technology was commonplace enough that his body is filled with survival-improving nanites, he awakens from slumber in an "Ark" to find disaster has befallen the Earth.

OK, the disaster was expected. That's why the hero and a few hundred thousand other people were frozen in Arks in the first place. However, he's woken up much earlier than planned because of some kind of malfunction in his unit.

So he awakens, stumbles out into the wasteland, is attacked, is rescued -- and is given a pistol by his rescuer, then ordered to wipe out a nearby gang to show his gratitude. And, yes, events happen about that abruptly. And they continue to happen that abruptly.

It almost feels like a running gag as the player reaches new "safe" regions. "Howdy stranger. We don't know you or trust you. Earn our trust by going on this mission vital to our survival."

Most of the missions the player is sent on involve clashes with the gangs inhabiting the wasteland. And I've got to say, from a noncritical standpoint, I love these gangs. Each is distinct in mannerism and design. For example, the Ghost clan is a gang of punk rock, cannibalistic skin heads who tend to rush straight at the player using parkour. The Gearheads, on the other hand, are heavily armored, heavily armed Russians who've taken over the power industry.

The different behaviors they exhibit, as well as the different weapons they use, create endless opportunities for players to respond tactically to situations -- if they want to. Mostly it's a matter of picking the right weapon and ammo for the right job.

For instance, culling the hordes of clawing, scrabbling mutants that swarm straight at the player is often an ideal job for the shotgun. The assault rifle, machine gun and the sniper rifle, on the other hand, are a little more ideal when forced to engage in gunplay from a distance. Oddly enough, though, my most effective weapon against the most heavily armored of opponents -- for most of the game at least -- was the humble pistol, loaded with some truly powerful homemade bullets.

Frankly, all of the weapons have a good feel to them, with a nice sense of recoil where appropriate, as well as other forms of tangible feedback. The best example of that is the machine gun, which beeps loudly when its clip is almost dry.

As a critic, however, I have to nitpick a little, both about the gangs and the weapons and ammo players get to use.

On the enemy front: "RAGE" is technically set in America's wasteland, so why the Russian gang? Why is there also a British one, composed of motorheads? Why is there a gang whose sole reason for being is to make bomb-packed RC cars? No explanation is given, so it all feels more than a bit random. It's like id brainstormed a bunch of different ideas for gangs and stuck them all in the game, without considering if it formed a cohesive whole.

Similarly, it feels as if they let a few game-play ideas get away from them in the weapons and ammo department. For instance, one of the weapons the player automatically gets is a crossbow, and on a certain mission, he gets electrified bolts for that crossbow. This is seemingly meant to introduce the game-play mechanic of electrocuting a group of opponents gathered in water. But the only time the player will ever encounter groups of opponents standing in water?

That particular mission.

Why introduce the idea and do nothing more with it? I don't get it. (OK, there might be a few instances of water in the "Wasteland" DLC sewer missions, which you really have to hunt to find. But not in the main game.)

Another thing I don't get: the "RAGE" single-player campaign is unexpectedly short. And I say that because -- on Xbox 360, at least -- it takes up two discs. (The multiplayer aspect of the game is on the third.) With all that room to work with, how is that a game complete with side quests, racing and optional minigames only will take the average player 10 to 15 hours to beat?

There's a few real answers, actually. The one that puts "RAGE" in a positive light: Graphically, it's a jaw-dropper. In the outside world, players will be driving through chasms of crumbled rock, over rotting roadways and past the tumbled ruins of once-modern cities, every surface rich in texture and color. Bandit hideouts are decorated in brilliant graffiti, though each gang has its own visual style. For instance, the Ghosts squat in a dirty ruin of crumbling walls, rotting garbage and toppled, neglected furniture, while the Jackals dwell in a soaring city of corrugated metal criss-crossed by teetering bridges and slender zip lines.  

But all the visual styling eats up a lot of space on a disc. Thus, less space for game-play.

As for the main negative reasons the game can be beaten quickly, there are two.

First, the game world is tiny. When a player gets behind the wheel of a vehicle and drives around, he gets treated to an illusion that there's a lot of real estate to explore. However, every potential path dead-ends rather quickly.

Second, missions are depressingly linear. Trust me, when you've got only one possible path to follow -- one that closes up behind you as you go along -- the game goes by quickly.

Several activities help extend the potential game experience, including races in the all-terrain vehicles used to traverse the wasteland and a variety of minor minigames, including cards and five-finger filet.

The races, some combat-oriented, some not, are the meat of the extended experience. Vehicles handle remarkably well, and a variety of potential power-ups, including shields and mines, give the whole affair a very arcadelike flavor.

The races in the single-player mode are really pretty good. But in multiplayer, they're even better.

Yes, "RAGE's" multiplayer largely consists of competitive combat races. I'll admit, I never expected that from id.

However, these aren't classic, "first person across the finish line" races. Separated into three slightly different modes, all for four players, the basic theme of the competition is to capture checkpoints that appear and disappear on the battlefield before your opponents, while also doing one's best to blow the other guys up. Either action scores points, and the winner is the first person to beat the scoring goal.

There's also a first-person shooter aspect to the multiplayer game, but it isn't traditional. Don't pick up "RAGE" expecting to engage in deathmatches or team deathmatches. The online gunplay is limited to two-person cooperative missions. They're pretty action-packed, but because they actually require teamwork, they aren't really experiences I'd want to play with a stranger. With a friend, yes, they're fantastic.

I realize I've gone on way too long in this review, but I can't ignore the thing that bothers me most about "RAGE." The final mission in the game, the one that wraps up the storyline, is without a doubt the weakest final game mission I've ever played. The scenery is repetitive; the enemies are weak, few in number and occupy exposed positions; and it culminates without anything really having happened.

Overall, a disappointing ending for what's overall a disappointing game. Sure, "RAGE" has its charms -- in fact, it's not a bad game -- but it's so much less than what I was expecting.

P.S.: I forgot to mention that "RAGE's" save game mechanics might frustrate some players. The game will autosave when you transition between areas that require loading, such as entering a hideout or major metropolis. But other than that, there's no checkpointing during missions. The player has to remember to save on their own. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, but some people apparently have a problem with it.

"RAGE"
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: While "RAGE" is wonderful to look at, it's just not impressive in terms of story or action. In many ways, in fact, it's stuck in the past. It's worth renting, if only to see how beautiful graphics can be, but as a purchase, I don't see a lot of lasting value, unless you really, really like arcade-style car combat.
 

Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks
First: Gilly, a resident of the peaceful town of Wellspring, leans fetchingly against a wall. She's pretty meaningless in terms of game-play.
Second: Members of the Ghost clan attack in the one area of the game where enemies stand in water.
Third: The guys in the Wasted clan speak with British accents, and some of them like to paint themselves with the Union Jack.
Fourth: The buggy races get to be quite explosive.

 

(UPDATE: I decided I might be low-balling the game's length a little. But only a little, so I revised that.)

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