Rage preview: On the road again

There are some very important things I want you to know right away about id Software's long-in-development id Tech 5 showcase, Rage.

  1. It is, unequivocally, a first-person shooter first, everything else second. The car handling is fine, as is the RPG-esque quest delivery. But it's clear that the shooting is top priority.
  2. It's absolutely gorgeous, but not in the Sherilyn Fenn kinda way. The destroyed landscape is rich with detail, strewn with settlements and towns that look appropriately lived in, full of weather-beaten characters that show more life than those found in other Bethesda-published games.
  3. The combat and RPG elements come across in an engaging mixture. I was excited to explore each "dungeon" for loot, carefully making sure not to alert any dangerous gangs while killing strays with my silent blade.
In short, despite being another first-person shooter -- named "Rage," no less -- and despite the post-apocalyptic setting, I'd describe the three hours I spent venturing through this version of "The Wasteland" as a breath of fresh air.%Gallery-129768% Where so many shooters before it have added a light RPG affectation, Rage fully embraces the concept. Missions are doled out by quest givers, each gun is upgradeable with various ammo types, and gang dens are rife with loot (which can be sold in towns and settlements) and secret locations. Regardless of my three-hour time limit, I found myself dutifully exploring each area and carefully saving, as if my experience would somehow continue after leaving the preview event.

This is not a nice gentleman

As I was playing the game from the jump, I should probably start there. Rage kicks off with a bang. As in, a giant rock smashes into the Earth, and the only folks who survive are held in some form of stasis in a space station known as "Project Eden." You awaken inside a space pod that's crashed back to the Earth, as the only man left in a group of people seemingly intended for a longer slumber.

After crawling from my pod and wandering into the blinding sunlight (to quite a nice effect), I hobble down the only path available. Two ghoulish humanoids leap on me unexpectedly and would have assured my quick death, had a kindly stranger known as Dan Hagar not gunned them down. After some light introductions, I realize Hagar is being voiced by John Goodman, prompting me to imagine this as reprisal of his "Walter" from The Big Lebowski. Wouldn't you do the same?

Hagar explains that I'm now in the future, after the apocalypse, and that there's a hefty price on heads like mine. Soon, I'm handed a gun and a four-wheeler with the expectation that I'll gun down some local thugs. And that's when I discover Rage's one main flaw: the driving isn't that great. For one, there's almost no sense of speed. The world doesn't seem prepared for me to be whizzing past it quite so fast.

I spend the next several missions disposing of gang members and discovering the finer points of Rage's combat system. Crouching and sneaking around allows you to get the jump on upcoming foes, while various buffs temporarily increase your health or firepower, if you're more of a run-in-guns-blazing type. In both scenarios, enemies respond in surprisingly human ways, with weak links often running for their lives, or regrouping with backup in the next room.

Several gang "dungeons" and dozens of bodies later, I carefully snipe some trigger-happy gang members guarding a gate, and outrun some gearheads hankering to take my life. And then I move into one of Rage's focal points: Wellspring. The first town you encounter, Wellspring is quite a lively place for such a dead world. Each person has something to say, and it's clear that the game's story will derive heavily from time spent there. Bethesda head of PR and marketing Pete Hines says, "In terms of a town or city, Wellspring and Subwaytown are the two big ones." I didn't quite make it to the latter city within my time limit, but Hines assures me it's similar in size to that of Wellspring. "Wellspring and Subwaytown are the two main ones as you move through the game, that kind of act like hubs," he adds.

Wellspring's colorful mayor is quite the snappy dresser

Wellspring's saloon has a card game that easily confounds me (and takes my hard-earned post-apocalypse bucks), its garage hosts races, and its people have stories to tell. As if the game's graphical prowess weren't notable enough, the city has almost no loading, making the experience that much more genuine (and fluid) from area to area. And when I finally leave Wellspring to head back into the wastes, its visual diversity and immediate car combat action feel like a welcome change. Bizarre as it may sound for a somewhat open-world game, Rage's first few hours are very well-paced, with a new element picking up the slack every time things feel less than fresh.

From what I played, Rage is a seemingly strange mix of ingredients that comes together well enough to remind you why first-person shooters can be so exciting.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.