An Oldschool Experience Hidden Under A Pretty Graphical Veneer
It's easy to have misconceptions about what RAGE really is. Word on the internet has pegged the game as a sort of bastard child in an illicit three-way between Borderlands, Fallout, and Doom, but to go into this game expecting anything resembling a role playing experience is to prime yourself for disappointment. This is an id game after all, and it's easy to see the DNA of their older works shining through the pretty new graphics. This is a post-apocalyptic world, colloquially referred to as "The Wasteland" by its inhabitants, and mutants and oppressive government forces play large roles in the game's story, but the similarities between RAGE and something like Fallout end there. Despite the seemingly heavy focus on driving, this is about as pure as first person shooters get.
See, despite being marketed so heavily as an integral part of the game, the driving really only serves to get you from point A to point B so you can start your next mission. Sure, there are a few race missions, but many of these are optional, the only incentive for completing them being more upgrades for your car, which are mostly unnecessary unless you plan on doing more races in the future. It's a vicious cycle of ultimately useless mechanics. This puts the focus squarely on the shooting, and given the quality of RAGE's gunplay, that's exactly where the focus should be.
Id's been around the block when it comes to crafting a quality shooter, and it shows. There are no superflous guns in RAGE. Every weapon in the game serves a distinct purpose, their utilities multiplied by various ammunition types. When fighting at a distance, the sniper rifle is best. When corridor crawling, the shotgun is the clear choice. Trying to be stealthy? Pull out your crossbow and let the bolts fly. The various ammo types only serve to reinforce the purpose of each weapon, adding flexibility while still allowing for every gun to feel unique and purposeful. The crossbow, for example, has electric bolts which can take out multiple enemies at a time if they're standing in water, or stun an enemy before they can raise an alarm. These add another interesting layer to the stealth sections.
Sneaking is rarely a valid strategy in RAGE, though. The AI will almost immediately become attuned to your presence in most situations, and when they attack, they're serious. There has been a certain perception based on the promotional videos that the AI may not be very advanced, and that definitely holds true in a certain way. They'll aggressively rush you in most situations, and while their movements are often unpredictable and wild, that seems to stem less from great AI programming and more from the great animation. Couple that with the fact that many levels amount to a very linear corridor crawl, and playing RAGE can at moments feel like a trip back in time.
That's not necessarily a detriment to the game, though. I doubt it'll win any awards, but there's something about the very concentrated, very relentless way that the game goes about guiding you through its levels that's incredibly engrossing. Firefights flow together nicely, melee attacks blend smoothly with the gunplay, and moving and shooting through the levels feels entirely natural. Every weapon sounds and feels like it can do some real damage, and given the unrelenting assault of most enemies you'll definitely need to extract every last bit of that damage from each gun. This is far from new or innovative gameplay, but it can be intense to the point of becoming enrapturing. Then you die and have to replay the last 30 minutes because you forgot to manually save your game.
Yes, RAGE feels old in more ways than one, and its autosaving policy eventually becomes a huge detriment to the great flow that the gameplay works so hard to build. You see, the game will only autosave when you enter or exit a level. In the beginning of the game this is no big deal, as you can easily beat a level in ten or fifteen minutes without having to worry about dying and starting again. As the levels become longer and the difficulty level more trying, however, it's often necessary to pause the game after a firefight and hit save before moving on. Even worse than having to pause the game every few minutes to save your progress if forgetting to do so and paying the price later; as I mentioned earlier, it's easy to become enraptured in the action occurring onscreen and forget to save, leading to a frustrating surprise when you die and realize that you have to repeat the entire level over again.
It's additionally annoying because you'll have to go back and collect all of the random loot scattered about every level. Much of this loot serves little purpose but to be sold at one of the game's numerous venders. The rest of it can be combined within your inventory screen to create some pretty neat little gadgets. There's a lock grinder, which literally grinds violently away at locked doors until the burst open, a bladed boomerang device that can lop off enemy limbs if thrown precisely, RC cars that can be remotely detonated, and many more interesting devices to be crafted. Even though a lot of the loot you'll find lying around serves little purpose, it still feels essential to collect it all. Those boots may seem inessential now, but what if you find a blueprint for a shoe bomb or something around the next corner? Better hold on to them just in case. It helps that there's no encumbrance limit, so anything you see lying around you can carry. Collecting loot while blasting through the levels adds just enough depth to the game to keep it from feeling boring. There's a nice sense of progression to the blueprints that you unlock too, and given that most of the items you craft can be upgraded via side missions, there's a nice feeling of growing ever more powerful as the game progresses.
You'll need this power, as the villainous Authority throws everything it has your way to stop you from... well, to stop you from... shooting more of their dudes, I guess? There really isn't a clearly defined ultimate objective for a large portion of the game. Instead, you'll take on quests from numerous NPCs that'll make you a more powerful killing machine. The main impetus of most of these quests is either to help out the people of The Wasteland, or to grow more powerful to avoid the encroaching clutch of the Authority. The story, generic as it is, hardly matters because again, the gameplay is so smooth and urgent.
The fantastic shooting mechanics aren't even present in the game's multiplayer, which puts the focus squarely on the driving. It's nice to see a game try something different with its multiplayer modes, but it still feels odd that there's absolutely no option for a more traditional deathmatch. The driving mechanics are strong enough to support the multiplayer, at least for a little while. I doubt anybody will be playing RAGE online for long, as bigger and better things are slated to come out (and have in fact already come out) this year. The Mario Kart-esque physics and powerups make it feel far more like an arcade racer than perhaps you might expect, and it's fun enough for a few rounds. But there's very little longevity built in to the product, and without utilizing any of those fantastic shooting mechanics, I can't see RAGE competing with this year's other big releases in terms of multiplayer.
In terms of presentation, though, RAGE is easily a contender for one of the best of the year. Not wanting to wait for a patch addressing the PC version's graphical issues, I purchased the Xbox 360 version, and despite that system's comparatively inferior power the game still looks fantastic. The animations of every character have a gorgeous hand-crafted feel to them, and the vaunted "megatextures" look pretty nice as well. Certain parts, particularly on the consoles I'm assuming, aren't quite as impressive as you might expect. Look off the beaten path too much, and you'll find blurry, muddied textures on the walls and rocks and other miscellaneous objects. It's not an issue or anything, but I feel obliged to mention it given this game's much-hyped graphical quality.
RAGE is in many ways an odd game. Everything but the core shooting and looting feels completely extraneous, but I really didn't mind any of it. The driving is inoffensive, the multiplayer is completely unnecessary but enjoyable enough, and the open world, while really not that open or that big, gives a great sense of context to your actions. Despite some issues with lousy autosaving, RAGE remains smooth and intense enough to be great fun, even while feeling completely inessential in the greater landscape of the video game market.