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Rage: The First Three Hours

Bethesda gives the press a chance to play through the first three hours of Rage. What did we discover? A first-person shooter, among about a dozen other things.

Remember when the apocalypse was awesome? I'm talking The Road Warrior, Terminator, Escape from New York, and yes, of course, Zardoz. I'm talking about when the sheer mechanics of a post-apocalyptic world seemed ludicrous, yet fascinating. I'm talking about a future where shit has completely gone to pot, and the rules of society that we take so much for granted simply don't apply anymore. There was a time when these elaborate fantasies of leather-clad, eye-patched, machine-gun-toting bad asses roaming the wastelands of the world we once knew seemed astonishing. There was creativity in these post-apocalyptic visions that, in a weird way, kind of made us wish for our own Armageddon, if only so that we, too, could have our own muscle car, complete with flamethrower and optional minigun to roam our own wasteland, hunting for mutants and searching for the last vestiges of humanity.

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That time seems a distant memory these days. That isn't to say there isn't compelling post-apocalyptic fiction out there, but it often seems as though, like so many other subgenres of sci-fi, the apocalypse is now just recycling itself. We're at the point where the apocalypse has gone from some magnificently ruinous world of startlingly weird possibility to just the same tragic stuff viewed through the same dusty, brown filter over and over again. As adored as video games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Fallout 3, Borderlands, and the Gears of War series are--and that's not even taking into account the roughly eight billion zombie permutations of the genre--there seems to be a growing unease with the state of apocalyptic games, especially in the realm of the shooter.

I chalk the reaction I get when talking to some people about id Software's Rage up to this feeling of apocalyptic malaise. Announced back in 2007, Rage seemed a fresh, exciting new thing when it debuted to the world, but in subsequent years, with title after title delivering one riff on the same inhospitable wastelands we've seen time and time again, Rage's promise of yet another spin through a dusty, irradiated back country full of bandits, mutants, and what have you, stopped seeming quite as fresh. In effect, the apocalypse was passing id by.

This cannot be a comfortable feeling for the studio. John Carmack and team have always prided themselves on being on the bleeding edge of technology, spending years developing hugely impressive engine technologies meant to push PC gaming--and, by proxy, the whole of gaming--forward into exciting new realms. So why is it when I talk to people about Rage, the reaction I encounter is one of, at best, cautious interest, and at worst, a dismissive shrug? Again, the response I typically get is the same: It's another apocalyptic shooter.

It's this dismissive notion that I think id and Bethesda are aiming to aggressively combat in the few months left before the game's release. So confident is Bethesda and id in what they have that they recently let the press come out and play Rage for a solid three hours, right from the beginning of the game on. No 20 minute demo levels, no closely guarded multiplayer sessions under optimal conditions. Just a monitor, a console, a build, a chair, and a few hours to discover whatever I may.

In those three hours, I discovered a first-person shooter. Also, a racing game. And a car combat game. And an open-world adventure. A collectible card came, too. Lastly, it's practically every piece of apocalyptic science fiction we have known to date tossed into a blender, set to puree, poured onto a disc, and spread evenly over a seemingly lengthy and elaborate single-player adventure.

In short, Rage is a kitchen sink kind of game, the kind so often labeled as "missed potential" due to a lack of focus on any one particular aspect. I don't think Rage will garner any such labels. If anything, I was shocked how well-put-together all those seemingly disparate aspects of the game seemed to be. Then again, after so many years in development, one does tend to hope for a certain level of polish. And that's certainly what I'd call those first few hours of Rage: polished, almost to a glistening sheen. While that gleaming quality might not jive with the filthy, destitute vibe the game aims to put on, it does perpetuate the notion that Rage really is a kind of labor of love for id--and not in that Duke Nukem Forever, "What the hell are we doing still working on this goddamn thing?" kind of way either.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention it's also pretty damned fun. That's probably an important detail.

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For those not up on the plot, Rage is about you, in silent protagonist form. In this case, you're one of the lucky ones chosen to dwell within an Ark--a sort of hyper-sleep/cryostasis chamber--as an asteroid comes crashing to earth to obliterate everything we hold dear. When you awake from your presumably lengthy sleep, it's apparent from the get-go that something has gone terribly wrong. The other stasis chambers in your Ark are powered off, and your colleagues are little more than shriveled up mummies. Wandering out into the blinding sunlight after listening to a little pre-recorded message from your former President, you find yourself in a barren desert canyon, and immediately attacked by ravenous, snarling, ghostly pale bandits. Fortunately, a fortuitous rescuer named Dan Hagar (voiced by, of all people, John Goodman) happens to be driving around nearby, and picks off the few bandits from the safety of his tricked out apocalyptobuggy (not the actual name of the vehicle).

All that is about five to ten minutes, tops, and already in there, I count about a half-dozen references to post-apocalyptic films and games of old. Perhaps some are purposeful, others purely coincidental, but it's emblematic of how much an apocalyptic melange Rage's world comes off as. I don't mean that insultingly, as there is a fully-realized world here, filled with strange and diverse characters. It's just that a lot of that world feels, at the very least, inspired by things you've likely seen before.

Without getting into a lengthy blow-by-blow of every plot point I encountered over a three-hour period, I'll simply say that upon your rescue, you may be shocked to learn that you, the silent protagonist, are Special. By that, I mean that you are like many other silent protagonists, in that you are uniquely equipped to deal with the various threats of this particular wasteland due to some manner of enhanced awesomeness. Though it's not spelled out in the early goings of the game, allusions are made to Ark survivors having nanotechnology swimming around inside their cells which gives them special abilities. Early on though, those special abilities mostly amount to a propensity toward killing angry, murderous mutants.

Unsurprisingly, Dan and his band of survivors (who are holed up in an abandoned gas station) need precisely that kind of help. Multiple factions exist in this world, including several groups of bandits that each have their own distinct ethos' and methodologies. Early in the game you're really only going up against the lower bandit groups, who, while rowdy and generally idiotic, are no less dangerous for it. You're also periodically running into mutants, more rabid versions of the bandits that don't really use weapons, but are perfectly capable of tearing your face off if you cross them. Apart from the bandits and the mutants, there is also The Authority, who are not seen at all in the initial goings, but is often spoken about in hushed tones. Their role in the game is as a sort of draconian force aimed at restoring law and order, though given the way other survivors speak of them, their idea of law is not one that coincides with that of those outside of the Authority's ranks.

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But before you can get to any of that, like a good fish-out-of-water-in-a-world-they-cannot-possibly-understand, you establish yourself by working as an errand boy. Dan, along with other survivors will give you tasks that help you get your feet wet within the world, and introduce you to both the game's combat system, as well as its driving system.

Combat is a mixture of gunplay and other, specialized weapons that can be especially useful in the right situations. The first one you get is a sort of bladed boomerang (The Feral Kid, anyone?) that's great for beheading mutants and bandits when they're caught unawares. Like the ammo for your guns, these special weapons do come in limited supply, so a balance of gunplay and special weapon attacks is the best recipe for success.

You start the game with a typically mediocre pistol that requires about a gajillion shots to down even the most useless enemy, but in a rare twist, that pistol actually becomes a welcome ally long before you even get your next gun. Each gun in Rage comes with multiple ammo types, and the second you get one of those upgraded bullets, that pistol instantly becomes one of your favorite weapons, as suddenly you're blowing away guys in one or two shots (provided they aren't heavy with armor) and sending them flying in the process. You can keep stashes of all the different ammo types on you at all times, but you'll need to manually switch to a different bullet type should you need to go to something heavier.

Gunplay in Rage is easily its most attractive feature. Between the pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle I picked up over the course of my few hours of play, not to mention the varying types of ammo for each, blasting away at the various nasty elements of the wasteland were easily the highlight of my playtime. By no means has id reinvented the first-person gun here, but each weapon has a strong, satisfying feel to it, and the enemies I encountered featured varying tactics that created a bit of dynamism to each gunfight. For instance, amid the bandits, you'll sometimes find yourself going up against grunts that use a bit of parkour to bounce off walls and duck underneath objects to avoid your gunfire, while wielding nasty swords and running straight toward you. Others, equipped with guns, tend to hang back. Shooting these guys a couple of times injures them gravely, but they don't immediately die. They'll start blind firing at you until you finally put them down for good. While I wouldn't call the enemy AI I encountered overly complex or brilliant, I felt like the few fights I engaged in were properly challenging and satisfying.

While you will encounter enemies throughout the various in-between zones of the wasteland (not to mention the underground sewer system, which everyone seemed pretty keen to warn me away from), mostly it seems you'll find them in specific zones, which you'll really only travel to when assigned to do so by one of the friendlies in the game's various safe havens. Over the course of my play time, I encountered two smaller settlements (including Dan's meager group), as well as the relatively huge town of Wellspring, full of gambling establishments, bars, shops, and anything else a traveler might need. All these different zones are full of NPC characters hot to task you with everything from repair missions to scout missions to straight up kill missions.

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The nice thing is that, like a role-playing game, you can take on multiple missions at once. You can only have one specifically active mission at a time, but you can swap between active missions on the fly. The story itself, despite its open world leanings, appears a fairly linear affair, but there are a good number of side missions and ventures to take on as well, some of which come directly from other characters, and others which are posted on a job board in the town of Wellspring.

Side ventures aren't relegated to non-stop shooting, either. There are ample things to do in the various towns to pass the time, should you want to take a break from the misery and death of the world outside the walls of human civilization, such as it is. In Wellspring, you can use loot plucked off the various bad guys to buy and sell new items and weapons (there are shops in other cities to do this, as well), engage in a bit of gambling with a collectible card game (with surprisingly fleshed-out rules and mechanics, I might add), take a job as a courier, if that strikes your fancy, and even spend a little time working on your vehicle, both to fight the bandits outside the walls, and rival racers within.

Vehicles play a huge part in Rage. They're your major mode of transportation through the wasteland, as well as your primary defense mechanism against attack. When driving around, bandits and other enemies will periodically pop up in rival vehicles, looking to kill you dead. Early on you start out with a relatively crappy ATV, but over time you'll be able to upgrade, outfitting your new vehicles with stronger shielding and weapons. By the time I dropped my controller, I had tricked out a dune buggy with some stronger parts and heat-seeking rockets, which made taking out the various baddies out to get me quite a bit easier.

In addition to being a method of transportation, vehicles are also required should you want to engage in a race. A carnival barker in Wellspring hosts a number of tournaments, which can earn you everything from cold, hard cash to new vehicles and upgrades. These run the gamut from simple time trials to straight up combat races, with blow up or get blown up type rules.

Of all the various aspects of Rage I experienced throughout my play time, the vehicular elements felt the least cohesive. That's not to say they're bad, but by and large, there was something about the cars that just felt...a little off. The developers at id are definitely going for a more arcadey feel to the vehicles, something akin to Burnout or MotorStorm, which is certainly reasonable for a game that's more about vehicular combat than tight racing mechanics. Still, both in races and when driving around the wasteland, the floaty, twitchy nature of the cars kept bugging me. On the plus side, there are few things more satisfying than launching a well timed rocket at some bandit bastard looking to take you out, and watching them explode in a massive fireball--and that does seem to happen reasonably often.

I suppose at some point I should talk about how gorgeous Rage looks, though I almost feel like that's unnecessary, in a way. An id game looking great is a ubiquitous notion. It is simply understood. Still, the world of Rage looks great. Fantastic lighting, richly detailed environments, and expressive, fully-realized characters exist within this world. Occasionally you may catch yourself staring into the dead soul of some blank-eyed automaton that seems plucked from some post-apocalyptic version of Oblivion, but more often, you're encountering characters full of expression and personality.

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It's worth noting that I was playing the Xbox 360 version of Rage. Obviously, id's primary focus is on the PC version of this title, and that's where you'll be seeing the greatest quantity of graphical bells and whistles. That said, the Xbox version is no slouch. It's top flight as graphics on this console system go, with only minimal framerate troubles or other hallmarks of console-oriented rejiggering noticeable at all. Straight up, it looks awesome.

I haven't even gotten into the multiplayer yet--specifically, because id wasn't showing it. An id shooter without a multiplayer experience might sound a bit like a meatless sandwich, but it's worth reiterating that Rage is, first and foremost, a single-player adventure. The multiplayer experience will be there for those who want it, and based on the feel of the shooting within the single-player world, I'm guessing it's going to be pretty fun, too. But with Rage, id is trying to create a fully realized world to explore and interact with, versus another corridor crawl full of monster closets and respawn points. The storytelling shows many trademark elements of an id game, but everything around that story appears a great deal more expansive than anything these guys have tried before.

I'm sure some will still balk at the notion of yet another first-person shooter set in yet another apocalyptic universe that tries yet again to do a few too many things. I know that, at various points in Rage's development cycle, I certainly did. That said, once you get your hands on Rage and begin to get a feel for its world and mechanics, all that pessimism pretty much flies out the window.

With only three hours of play under my belt, I can't say definitively if Rage is going to be a truly great shooter. All I can say is that I was pretty bummed when my time ran out. I wanted to keep playing, to experience more. In fact, a week later, I'm still anxious to do so. I'd take that as a positive sign. Wouldn't you?

Alex Navarro on Google+