RAGE review: Anger management

RAGE isn't what you think it is.

In fact, it's easiest to tell you what RAGE isn't right away. It's nothing like Fallout 3. It's nothing like Borderlands. It's not an RPG, though Id and Bethesda have used RPG terminology in describing it. It's not much of an open world. It's not very big. It's not very long.

And unfortunately, it's not the return to prominence that Id fans have been hoping for.%Gallery-129768% If you've missed the steady thrum of RAGE's march toward release, the premise goes like this: an asteroid is on a course to collide with the Earth, and in an effort to plant the seeds of human survival, thousands of specially selected personnel are augmented with nano-technology, buried in cryogenic suspension under the planet's surface in Arks, and are set to re-emerge and rebuild when things are safe.

"RAGE isn't what you think it is."

This being a video game and all, things don't work out that way. Instead, your character regains consciousness 106 years later, finding your fellow Ark crew mummified, and the world a very different place.

Your first view of the Wasteland is impressive, but RAGE has a hard time maintaining that throughout its 9-10 hour campaign. The world looks huge, and there's quite a bit of texture variety due to Id's new tech – when everything is standing still, it's pretty as a (post-asteroid-apocalypse) picture. But characters animate stiffly - they move like solid pieces of plastic, rather than multi-layered beings. Texture pop-in is omnipresent, and the lack of dynamic lighting occasionally gives everything the appearance of a badly Photoshopped DVD cover. In a year of visual standouts, RAGE is late to the party, and the emphasis on 60 fps hasn't yielded the sorts of benefits you'd hope for.

Still, RAGE starts strong. The melancholy tones of the opening cinematic as the Apothis asteroid strikes, the soothing voice of John Goodman explaining a bit about the bandit plagued wasteland future, and a seemingly big, wide world waiting to be explored – all of these set a great stage for one of the biggest games of the year.

Then you're asked to go and kill some dudes, by driving through the area you just passed. I didn't know it then, but this was going to establish the bulk of RAGE's experience. RAGE is tied together by a cascading series of fetch-quests – at least, sort of. You'll be sent from place to place in the Wasteland by townsfolk who need you to do... whatever.

Those things aren't really important to RAGE. Dealing with people isn't a major focus. They stand in the same place more or less forever, waiting for you to walk up to them and hit a button once in a while to keep their dialogue moving. The story, such as it is, is threadbare, even by Id standards, relying more on a general "fear the government" vibe than any meaningful development. You show up. You kill things because other people ask, and they turn out to be the "right" people. There aren't dialogue trees, and there's no choices.

Which doesn't mean much, really, because it's all fleeting context to shoot things. Shooting is RAGE's reason for existence. There's driving in RAGE, sure. There are moments where you'll have to race in order to unlock further "story" progression, and some side missions involving courier jobs (which I finished in about 10 minutes, give or take - and I mean all of them). But there's a tangible disconnect between the cars and the world they're in, and it all feels like padding between the shooting portions of the game.

Initially, that shooting feels like classic Id: not rocket science, but fairly entertaining. It's fun at first, but the shooting never really evolves. Even with new weapons, encounters feel similar, vacillating between guns blazing charges forward and hold-out moments against fodder and a boss-type creature. RAGE also has difficulty balancing player power against the world they're in, which is bizarre, given Id's history of great, effective weaponry in the Doom and Quake games. Guns never do much damage, and even as you find better weapons and new ammo types, you run into enemies who outpace your killing ability - until the very end, that is.

The lack of any conventional multiplayer speaks volumes about RAGE's moment to moment shooting - it just doesn't work very well, and the controls aren't nearly as responsive as you'd expect, given RAGE's emphasis on sixty frames per second. The car combat that feels more like an afterthought than a fully-realized idea fills that competitive niche, and co-op is limited to short scenarios that suffer from the same boring level design that plagues the main campaign. It's not a travesty to be an A-to-B shooter, but tactical considerations are virtually non-existent in the main game, and firefights are often a total grind.

It's not always so frustrating though. When the enemy encounters veer occasionally into mutant killing excursions, RAGE can be fun. While no enemy in RAGE is particularly smart, mutants skip the foreplay and virtually always come directly at you (bro), in great numbers and from every crevasse. At these moments, the shotgun feels like the right hand of (a non-denominational) God as you gib mutants left and right, and I wondered what RAGE could have been. Then there's the Wingstick, which is a lot of fun to use, once you get the hang of it, but is often impractical, and expensive.

"The lack of any conventional multiplayer speaks volumes about RAGE's moment to moment shooting - it just doesn't work very well..."

Luckily, ammunition is the main thing you'll end up spending money on. The "loot" system in RAGE isn't, well, much of a loot system. You pick up garbage around the Wasteland and sell it to vendors, who... let you buy bullets, and supplies. Occasionally, you'll be able to buy upgrades to your armor, and there are a few weapon upgrades here and there, but these fail to make much of a practical difference. You can also build single use items, though it's hardly what you'd call crafting - there's nothing permanent involved, though it seems like the system is there for it.

There's just not a lot of "there" there - my first playthrough, which included every side-mission and several job board assignments, took me 9 hours and 15 minutes. My second, where I completed every side-mission, every job board assignment, every courier mission, and most of the races, took eight hours and 50 minutes. RAGE ends so abruptly that I didn't realize it was over until the final cutscene began. I was left wondering what had happened.

And that's the thing. The aspects of RAGE that seem interesting and different at first never grow or expand. The enemy reactions, the clutching, the begging for their lives, it's repeated identically so often over the course of the game that it loses any impact or meaning. The town that initially holds the promise of a big, wide, asteroid-murdered world is a facade for a few fetch quests down some of the most guided, narrow shooter levels this side of a Call of Duty title. RAGE is pretty at times, but it's not enough to paint over the truth - that Id's labor feels like a scaffolding for a game of bolder ideas, ideas which, for whatever reason, aren't realized. And the game that is there just isn't enough to compete with other, better shooters we've seen this year.

This review is based off retail code featured at a review event in San Francisco on September 19th and 20th, and a second, full playthrough on a 360 copy provided to the reviewer by Bethesda. The main campaign was completed twice, and multiplayer and cooperative modes were played at the specified review event.

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