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Rage preview: Doomed down


Despite sporting the enhancements of id Tech 5, Rage seemed to be lagging behind at Bethesda's BFG 2011 media event last week. Its generic, post-apocalyptic wasteland setting has become a familiar one in recent years, but it's the simplistic and overly linear shootfest within that's the most dated element of the game. Nonetheless, the team at id Software seems to be aware that a glossy throwback shooter isn't going to cut it in today's over-saturated FPS market and has challenged itself to set Rage apart.

The most obvious sign of id stepping out of its comfort zone is in the game's multiplayer design. Believe it or not, there's no deathmatch in the classic Doom sense. In its place is a fine-tuned vehicle-based mode, implementing the game's dune buggies. Multiplayer is expected to be a fairly compact experience, with up to six players able to take part in a few gametypes on a sparse offering of five maps. "If you add game variations just to add game variations it confuses people," said one of the designers during the hands-off multiplayer presentation. "People don't know what to play."

Gallery: Rage (BFG 2011) | 6 Photos

The multiplayer ranges from racing around and shooting opponents to more rally point–oriented gametypes that require a delightful amount of strategy. The buggies have a similar look and feel to those in Borderlands. I was disappointed that the only vehicles I saw -- in the presentation and later in my single-player demo -- were equipped with yawn-inspiring machineguns; however, vehicle upgrading will play into the mode, despite id not showing off anything specific at the event.

The flip side to Rage's competitive multiplayer is the cooperative mode, "Legends of the Wasteland," which supports both online and local split-screen play. The co-op is complimentary to the single-player campaign, which is pretty cool from a storyline perspective, even if the two don't actually affect each other. For example, if an NPC in the main game mentions a team going into a town to kill someone, you and a buddy might actually play out that scenario in a co-op mission, in turn providing you with a different perspective on that part of the story. The missions are set up much like those in Modern Warfare 2's "Specs Ops" mode and function as standalone experiences. This lends the mode to quick co-op games but, just like in MW2, you have to complete a mission to unlock the subsequent one.

Of course, the meat of Rage will take place in the single-player campaign, which id describes as "not a short game" by any means. Seeing as how the storied developer created the term deathmatch (!), it's doubly novel in this day and age to see a shooter's multiplayer scaled back to a secondary feature and the focus placed squarely on a really deep single-player experience. But Rage shouldn't be confused for an overly complex, genre-bending FPS.

id has forgone most of the RPG elements found in similar-looking games like Borderlands and Bethesda's own Fallout series. Weapons, gadgets and gear will all be upgradeable to some extent but, as for a character leveling system -- forget about it. While I was initially excited by the prospect of id sticking to its guns (har har) and designing more of a basic FPS, instead of trying to have it all and delivering a complicated mess, I began to have some doubts after playing a bit of the campaign.

"It's an action shooter, not a driving game." - Jason Kim, sr. producer

The selected levels I played were very linear and seemed to follow the same formula: shoot through some pretty landscapes, buildings, etc, find the boss and dispatch it. This isn't to say this process wasn't entertaining for a few missions, but if this is the format of most of them, I can only imagine the gameplay will get old. The bosses I encountered were nothing more than bullet sponges. I simply circled around them shooting and praying I didn't run out of ammo. While one of them did shoot some blinding goo at me, I didn't find it necessary to come up with a strategy to dodge it and simply just kept firing blindly. Overall, I was unimpressed with the enemy AI. I would often find myself unintentionally sneaking up behind enemies in cover who wouldn't shoot at me (or even turn to look at me, for that matter) even as I stood over them. The AI for the raving ghouls, er "mutants" in the game doesn't perform much better, as all they do is run mindlessly at the player.

I did have fun playing around with some of the gadgets, including the explosive RC car and easily deployable sentry guns. All of them are constructible from miscellaneous parts found lying around the environments. Find enough wheels and gears, and you could create another RC car bomb. Need a lock-picking tool? Keep an eye out for the right bits. These tools are helpful in a fix and blast to use. Even though the RC car can be a bit frustrating to control and is vulnerable to enemy fire, it's still great for surveillance and some wicked funny deaths. The "wingstick," a sort of lethal batarang, is pretty damn fun to use, too, delivering some satisfying kills. Another useful toy is the mechanical spider that crawls aggressively toward enemies, shooting and distracting them, which opens up flanking opportunities for the player.

Most of the weapons I got to use, however, were standard fare. The shotgun, assault rifle and pistol are all what we've come to expect in every FPS since Doom onward. They handled well and sounded great and, of course, killed things, but I'm holding out hope for some more unique weapons in the game. This is, after all, the studio that brought us the BFG 9000.

What did impress me was how slick Rage looks and runs. The entire world is uniquely textured, which means you don't keep seeing the same pile-of-trash asset in every corner of the game. Plus, the refresh rate doesn't struggle from the size or amount of things going on. Even when I had three turrets down, a spider frenzying about and a dozen mutants rushing me, the game performed admirably.

Still, the open-world elements of the gameworld seem limited, and intentionally so -- "exploration is not what defines Rage," explains senior producer Jason Kim. The player visits a city-hub to acquire a mission, and then drives to a location to initiate the (extremely) scripted event. Without an addictive progression system to urge the player onward and into what appeared to be a pretty barren wasteland, this oversimplification of the "open world" shooter seems to be in danger of becoming a series of chores.

Thankfully, there will be a mix of vehicular missions and optional races to give some or even a lot of respite to the straightforward shooting. "You could race in all the races in the wasteland and that would actually take up as much time as it would to move halfway through the campaign," says Kim. But above all, "it's an action shooter, not a driving game," he clarifies. "In part, [the driving] is a means to an end to get from Point A to Point B, but that's not the core of what the game is about."

The narrative backdrop, too, seems just as nonessential. Replace "nuclear apocalypse" with "asteroid strike," and you can easily fill in the missing pieces of the story by borrowing from another game plot. Select people were placed into stasis underground in anticipation of an imminent disaster (sound familiar?), and your character emerges from a damaged Vault -- oops! -- "Ark," only to face the harsh wastelands. He soon encounters small factions of survivors and the technologically superior Enclave, er, "Authority," which pesters any Ark-dweller with persistent dropship attacks.

Of course, a great-playing game can easily overcome a generic setting, but Rage seems to be lacking the creative risks necessary to achieve the standards of greatness in today's competitive market. id Tech 5 is mighty impressive, sure, but I'm still waiting for Rage to "wow" me.

Nationally acclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been covering video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history, and, of course, anything with buttons.

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