I must confess, ever since id Software announced Rage, I’ve remained unimpressed. At every turn I’ve been skeptical. No amount of wonderful textures, unique gameplay features or anything shown over the past five years of development has changed my mind. Then my friend and colleague Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica cemented my expectations with a brief pre-review of Rage: a terrible game wrapped in wonderful packaging.

It’s times like this that I love being wrong.

Rage is the best game I’ve played this year, so far. With the recent releases of Battlefield 3 and Batman: Arkham City, and upcoming titles like Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Modern Warfare 3, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, et al, plenty of us will bankrupt ourselves into a frenzy of confusion. And while many of these games haven’t released yet , Rage is one I can’t recommend enough.

A cross between Mad Max and your choice of recent apocalyptic role playing games (RPG), Rage is an exemplary cinematic tale with a piss-poor plot but a brilliant world and exceptional gameplay. Rage is one of the few games to ever release that feels real. Things in the game world make sense, like they would in the real world. Driving is hard until cars are upgraded with better engines, better wheels and control. Objects in the world normally considered useless can be collected and sold, because after all, the world as we know it is gone. People actually need coffee cups and books. Even the level design, with massive landscapes that require no load time or buffering to get from one end to the other, immerse players so deeply that hours can, and will, fly off the clock.

id was able to do this because of the incredible technology of id Tech 5 and, more importantly, a deep understanding of how the real world operates. Like my colleague Ben Kuchera was belligerent about, missions can very easily go from simple one-objective treks to hour long adventures through hordes of mutants, wild races, or a hailstorm of bullets. And while I agree that it’s unsettling to be constantly taken for a ride by a needy mayor, a useless sheriff or just some stranger looking for help, that’s life. Every one of us has experienced it, where an easy five minute task turns into a three day ordeal. But you know what, games should mimic life, and even though sometimes it feels like players are given the run around, I couldn’t help but smile every time it happened. Because each time it did, there was always some excuse, some reason that characters in the game had to keep me on that leash.

In fact, Rage follows this sort of realism on several different levels. Graphically, for sure, though I’ll need to spend some time on the PC version to really appreciate it (not that the console version doesn’t look good, because it certainly does…but a solid PC will do it justice). The aspect of driving between destinations, similar to riding a horse in Red Dead Redemption, and staying on your toes because bandits come out of nowhere or keeping an eye open for treasures. Or even raving mutants dodging and weaving in an animal-like fashion instead of charging head-on, making them difficult to shoot.

These elements, and plenty more, combine into the most immersive FPS today. Not because of an interesting narrative, or fun characters, or even strong combat. No, Rage accomplishes immersion by making players feel at home. Because Rage isn’t about playing a game. It’s about being in the game. It’s about surviving.

Unfortunately, Rage fails to keep players fully immersed with a stupid narrative, intellectually bankrupt characters, and zero emotional investment. The tale of the post-apocalyptic world is just fine: governments cryogenically freeze people prior to an asteroid strike on Earth to help preserve mankind. But the second players are given control, all intelligence vanishes. The first major character, Dan Hagar, explains how valuable the player is as an Ark survivor…and does nothing about it! He describes how players are lucky this saint fount him, because Ark survivors are worth a fortune. Yet no one ever tries to turn players in. All game characters are honest and respectful. There is n double crossing, no cheating, and no poor manners. That is entirely inhuman.

Rage is by no means an RPG. It’s an exploratory open-world linear FPS with basic car mechanics and racing. There’s an  elementary engineering system to build items, the simplest form of weapons upgrades, and even the most rudimentary choice of character classes. But these all play into the larger FPS game, the larger complete-these-missions narrative. In that, Rage is exceptional, but with the sheer number of story oversights to the terribly slow beginning and an equally terrible abrupt ending, Rage falls into one of the same problems every id game before has: there is no plot.

As far as id Software is concerned, based on their past titles, that’s not important, and it really sucks to see that. I’ve been a huge fan of id, ever since Commander Keen, but after Doom 3 my faith in the company’s ability to make excellent games has faltered. Yes, they are all technically amazing and set industry standards. Yes, the combative gameplay is exciting and invigorating every time. But seriously, hire a damn staff of competent writers. Make a plot-driven title, or at least give meaning to the worlds you create. Is it really so difficult to make players interested in the plot, or give them a reason to want to talk to people? I trudged around the Wasteland and never once found anything to invest myself in emotionally. In the 90’s, that was fine. Today, it’s a travesty.

Furthermore, I do agree with Kuchera on one major point. Many of the reviews of Rage were written by so-called critics invited to play the game for two consecutive days. Rage isn’t the kind of game to restock the mini-fridge, bring in a microwave and lock the door for a few days. It’s a game made, properly, to enjoy over at least a week, if not longer. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was for me to pick up the game right where I left off, and have a simple mission and navigation system lead me where I want and need to go. But there’s only so much anyone can take in one sitting. You don’t eat a box of donuts all at once, or you’ll be praying to the porcelain god. Don’t try to gobble up this game either.

What may seem like a moot point by now is the fairly awful checkpoint system. Rage doesn’t save on it’s own, it relies on user-generated saves and an occasional checkpoint. That means if power goes out, you could be looking at around 30-minutes of playtime lost. If you die, if there’s a bug and your avatar gets stuck, or if your mom/girlfriend abruptly turns off the Xbox to get you to clear the damn laundry out, you’re SOL. Twice in one playthrough two separate bugs forced me to restart from a checkpoint. The first time, a bug in the physics engine wouldn’t let me get in my car and then it ran me over, and the second I jumped from an elevator and fell through the floor and under the level. Each death cost me another 20-30 minutes. The 13-14 hour campaign took about 16 hours because of this. id has included a defibrillator feature, so instead of just dying players get a second chance at life, which is an ingenious idea, but it doesn’t replace using a decent checkpoint system. Like, say, saving every time players enter a new major area or load screen.

Load times are also ridiculously slow. Not Mass Effect 1 elevator slow, but if you don’t install the game on your Xbox, then expect those 16 hours to be more like 18, especially if you’re a completionist like me. Just loading in and out of races takes 30 seconds a pop without an install, but only 8-12 seconds with it.

As for racing, I don’t know why id says Rage is an FPS and racing game. Races are such a small part of the experience and they earn nothing but more powerful vehicle parts. The races themselves are useful, especially early on, not only to improve vehicles but to get a strong sense of the wasteland for missions. Just like driving around in Grand Theft Auto IV builds familiarity with particular streets, the races in Rage ingrain those tracks through practice, and make the game both easier and more enjoyable.

Racing is also prominently featured as competitive multiplayer, where friends and strangers can compete in several different race types to see who’s the best. It’s fun, but frankly a poor substitute for a real multiplayer driving game. We haven’t seen a title recently like Twisted Metal. Rage, however, didn’t need to fill that void.

The cooperative online mode is more enticing, featuring ten slightly changed single-player parts of the game for two players. I had a lot of fun going through those missions. It’s very similar to playing Doom 3 with coop, though this time it’s focused on multiple players.

A few small tidbits as well: the Anarchy Edition, which includes two downloadables that includes four in-game items (a mostly useless car, a single-shot double-barreled sawed-off shotgun, spiked gloves and an all-encompassing body armor) and access to the world’s sewers (which act as bonus stages with lot’s of collectible items), was only available for pre-order. However, don’t fret. While the armor and gloves were helpful early on, everything else was excessive, and even on the hardest difficulty players won’t ever need to go into the sewers to find cash. It’s a nicety, not a necessity.

Rage is the type of game I normally avoid because of preposterously bad writing. Yet even with some horrible blunders, even with a lot of false allure and pretty pictures, Rage is an incredible experience. Every time I play I feel in the game. I live Rage. The fact that id could make a game this immersive without an engrossing narrative is remarkable. I recommend everyone play Rage, albeit with the above reservations in mind. Rage is one game that every game developer, without exception, can learn from, and it deserves a home in every household.

Editor’s Choice

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Pros:

  • Exceptionally immersive world with honest-to-goodness realism
  • Amazing graphics spanning from huge landscapes to tiny corridors
  • An excellent selection of weapons that almost never makes you feel too powerful or too weak
  • An inclusive world that has plenty of exploration, and plenty of basic RPG elements
  • Easy to pick up from where you left off, no matter when the last time you played was
  • Fun coop

Cons:

  • Without an installation, load times are treacherously slow
  • The overall plot has potential, which id completely squandered
  • The narrative is exceptionally weak on every level, down to emotionless characters
  • Checkpoint save system is seriously lacking
  • A slow beginning and abrupt end leaves a bad taste in the mouth

Bottom Line: As much as Rage gets wrong, there is so, so much right. It’s the kind of game everyone should play because it’s real. That’s one thing most games today just can’t do, and that one thing tips the scales so far in Rage’s favor, that I can’t help but recommend it to all players.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.