Note: This review is for the PC version, although all comments except those regarding multiplayer apply to the Mac version, RAGE: Campaign Edition.
There used to be a time when every gamer knew who id Software were. The makers of Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM and Quake - the people who defined the first person shooter – were revered by developers and players alike for their addictive gameplay and impressive technology. But they've been a bit off the radar in recent years, allowing the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield to become the prominent proponents of the genre id used to control. Aside from their great work on the online free-to-play service that is Quake Live, and an XBLA remake of Quake III Arena, we haven't had a new game from them since 2004's Doom III, but now, we not only have a new game, but a brand new franchise with brand new technology.
Since their last game, id Software have been bought by Bethesda's owner ZeniMax, although it's actually a coincidence that RAGE seems to fit in alongside the publisher's range of post-apocalyptic first-person games, including Brink and the Fallout series. RAGE is set in a future where the planet has been ravished by a meteorite impact but a chosen few were sent underground, cryogenically frozen in pods called 'arks', ready to form a new society centuries later when the dust has settled. Of course, things don't proceed quite as smoothly as that, as the surface of Earth isn't completely lifeless. There are mutants who band together and attack pretty much anything. There is the Authority who are imposing direct rule to achieve their own goals without a care for the implication on others. And then there are the human survivors, forming communities to protect themselves from the mutants, trade, race, and avoid the Authority where they can.
Even the wasteland looks fantastic
Unexpectedly emerging from an ark, you find yourself alongside different groups of survivors throughout the game, acting as a sort of gun-for-hire. This is where RAGE opens up to adopt RPG elements, such as collecting objects, buying and selling goods, crafting weapons and other items, and picking and choosing which missions to take and when. It's markedly different from the pure FPS of old, where missions go simply from one to the next, and weapons and ammo are just picked up off the ground – although you can find these in RAGE by looting downed foes. However, it's also in contrast to the overly-linear nature of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaigns where you get little choice over what weapon to use, and no choice about how the action will proceed. RAGE's campaign may be a single track of story progression, but at least you don't feel like you're simply watching the action proceed in front of you.
Aside from the opening and the ending, the story is told via the in-game engine through conversations with characters, and while I was curious to see how things progressed, and what the Authority were up to, it wasn't compelling me to play more. It seemed to be a fairly underwhelming affair with mostly predictable events, but I did find the characters themselves to be somewhat interesting, if a little underdeveloped. You pass from person to person at quite a pace, and it's only at the game’s final chapter, do you end up with a bunch of people you plan to stick around with – only for the story to suddenly end, presumably setting us up for RAGE 2.
This is Wellspring, a safe community... for now.
While the story may not be enough to keep you playing, the gunplay most certainly is. In true id Software style, it's meaty and satisfying, with weapons feeling like they carry real weight. The shotgun was a particular favourite of mine, alongside the bolt launcher and the trusty rocket launcher. And the best part is you don't have to choose between them; in a refreshing return to the past, you aren't restricted to carrying two weapons. There's no need to decide whether it's really worth carrying that sniper rifle instead of a pistol – why not bring them both along, with all the ammo you want. In fact, while RAGE follows the RPG idea of picking up various bits and bobs you find during your missions, it never bothers you with inventory management – horde as much you as you like. This is particularly useful for the crafting mode, where you can choose pre-defined blueprints which you discover, earn or buy, to construct objects such as bandages and wingsticks, from the items you've picked up.
Wingsticks are a life-saver in tight spots. These three-bladed objects are essentially deadly boomerangs which are especially gifted at beheading foes. If you're reloading, or simply running out of ammo, fire off a wingstick and you'll be safe for a few seconds more. If they don't get destroyed by the surroundings or your opponent then they'll fly right back for you to use again. Between these, grenades, remote control bomb cars, and your full range of weapons, you have quite an arsenal at your disposal. And that's what makes RAGE so enjoyable; you can go into a situation and attack in the way that suits you, and even do it differently each time. Very rarely are you forced to use any particular weapon or item, and when you do it always makes sense – a pistol is never going to take down the beast that stomps through the deserted city.
The city scenes are stunning
The A.I. has taken a leap forward from previous id Software games. Gone is the opportunity to take your time to line up the perfect shot – you'll need to be quicker and more reactive now. Enemies will dodgy and dive about the place, and are pretty good at sneaking up at you, sometimes from above, crawling and climbing across ceilings. You'll also find yourself under constant fire if you're exposed, with snipers, grenades, and other nasties keeping you on your toes. It all adds up to plenty of exciting battles across the wide range of missions you'll take part in.
An interesting break from the past is the absence of a health bar or medikits. The fade-to-red-then-health-in-cover approach is adopted here, although you can use bandages to heal instantly. It makes sense for the pace of the action, but I do miss magically healing by picking up arbitrary boxes. If you do succumb to death, then it may not be game over. It seems all those who went into the arks were fitted with their own personal defibrillator, so if you die while it is charged up then you have the ability to bring yourself back to life. On the console this involves careful use of the thumb-sticks, but unfortunately on the PC it's just a tap of a button at the right moment. Still, it's nice to be able to jump straight back into the action after making the rather foolish mistake of running directly into enemy fire. Although if you do go all the way to dying properly, then at least you probably won't have to trek too far thanks to the inclusion of quick saving, going against the checkpoint-driven games of today.
It's not all dust - this is an underground city
The id Tech 5 engine at the heart of RAGE is one of the main reasons it's taken so long for their new game to show up. It's a fantastic piece of engineering, but it has taken a while to get it right, and unfortunately some issues have arisen. You may have heard about them around the game's PC launch, but it seems I'm rather lucky when it comes to these problems, in the same way that Fallout: New Vegas worked perfectly for me, but it also was said to have had a rocky start. There was a couple of minor glitches and a slight bit of texture pop-in that were fixed by both id Software's patch and AMD's new driver within a couple of days of launch, but neither of these were issues which distracted me from the fun I was having.
The visuals themselves, however, can be a bit distracting, but only because they are so stunning. If you can crank the settings right up then you'll be treated to some amazing vistas, and even the dusty surroundings of the wasteland look great. The textures could have been of a higher quality but were probably reduced to get the game down to an already-massive 21GB. Character animation is also great, from their faces to the way characters walk and run about. The engine also does a fantastic job of producing the wide-open spaces of the wasteland, although it's probably a fair observation that quite a lot of the actual battles seem to take place in the smaller, tighter environments – dare I say corridors? - that id Software are more familiar with. Of course, they are some of the prettiest and most exciting corridors you'll come across, so that's not necessarily a bad thing, and there are definitely some great moments in wide open spaces.
Vehicles work surprisingly well for a first-person shooter
If you're wondering how you'll get around these wide open spaces, then don't worry, as the engine has another trick up its sleeve; driving. Vehicles in RAGE are not something which has been tacked on to the shooter mechanics as a sub-standard action sequences; instead they are an integral part of getting about the wasteland and feature probably the best handling of vehicles I've seen in a PC first-person shooter. There are a few different vehicles to unlock, and you can get upgrades for these by taking part in time trials, races and rallies. These are generally enjoyable romps through custom tracks, with races often involving weapons, and the rallies where you must drive through markers which move across the track. There are a good range of them, although sometimes the tracks are a little overused. If driving is not your thing, then you can skip the recreational side of it (but lose out on upgrades such as improved armour), but you'll still need to use a buggy or car to get between missions; unless you like walking for a long time. You'll have to watch out for bandits in vehicles of their own in the wasteland, so you'll be much better off taking a well-equipped car.
The vehicles also cross over into RAGE's multiplayer mode. There's a few different gametypes, but the whole multiplayer component is built around driving – or at least shooting in a vehicle. It seems to be quite enjoyable, and I had some lag-free matches, but with the arrivals of Battlefield 3 and the upcoming Modern Warfare 3 it seems to be struggling to maintain numbers. Especially as it lacks a standard deathmatch mode, a particularly curious omission from the developer who coined the phrase in the first place. With such satisfying shooting mechanics it's a pity this hasn't turned into some compelling multiplayer matches, even it was nothing more than classic capture the flag.
It's a game worth upgrading your PC for
There's also some co-operative missions available which are separate from the main story, and provide some of the online shooting I desired, but it's still not the same as human-versus-human with rocket launchers. These both bolster a campaign mode that should last you around 10 hours, maybe more or less depending on how brave you are. Without a compelling story, it can be harder to justifying going back for a second playthrough, but when you can just enjoy shooting lots of things in amazing locations, it's hard to say no to another go.
RAGE may not quite be the revolution some were hoping for after years of waiting, but maybe their expectations were wrong. For me it delivers exactly what I hoped it would; a fun, exciting, first-person shooter with some new ideas and surprisingly good driving. I do like the modern military shooters, but their campaigns leave me feeling cold inside compared to the more lively (but not over-the-top) action in RAGE. And best of it, it looks absolutely stunning, setting a new visual benchmark for PC gaming.