id Software has been perfecting the first person shooter since the days of pixelated sci-fi horror with Doom in 1993. The pixels have shrunk dramatically, but the gore still packs the same punch today with their latest shooter adventure fusion, Rage. But those looking for a deep, multi-layered RPG with vast environs to explore, settlements to pillage or stats to rampart will be sorely disappointed.
Stylistically and in vague story terms (Rage does the vague story deal very well), Rage comes in as a mesh of Borderlands and Fallout 3. It drops Borderlands' extensive online play and cell-shading for high quality, dynamic textures and more refined gameplay (an altogether sexier package), but follows the tacked-on, forgettable storyline feature.
|The beautifully broken world of Rage|
As for Fallout 3, Rage is like the cuter child in the Bethesda family who's unfortunately destined to fail in the long run. It follows the similar post-apocalyptic storyline of a voiceless protagonist waking up from a sealed vault into a mutant-filled, scavenger-happy dystopia, though with none of the trimmings of a vast open world and deep, immersive plot. A comic tone that underpins the entire game drains the story of much drama, and the generic evil that is 'The Authority' is thrown at you early on with no development, so that as bits of the story develop you already know what to think and meet it with a resounding, 'meh, give me more guys to shoot.'
|The Authority - the generic, authoritarian evil - that's why they're all wearing red, see?|
While the Bethesda association may give you the idea that you're jumping into an RPG, don't be fooled - this one is a pretty straight-laced shooter, just with a little bit more freedom to the typically linear run-and-gun. And it's a refined one at that. Enemies are savvy to your lead pointer and will duck, dive and dodge you with often infuriating agility. While the monstrous, towering mini-bosses will test you, it's the hordes of rapacious little ghouls coming at you with razors and clubs, scaling the walls as you try to pick them off one by one, that will really push your stamina. When you shoot them, there is a weight you feel behind the bullet and the impact that makes landing pot shots feel that little more satisfying, though the lack of any one-shot kill headshots is a little irritating. In fact, it doesn't feel like any shot, whether it be a body shot or a graze of the toe, makes much more of a difference on enemy damage much of the time.
An upgradable barrage of weaponry, ammunition and extras will keep you scavenging and playing the tactician without being overloaded by too many useless options. Picking up schematics and the right bits of junk around the wasteland (or picking them up from town merchants) will open up a world of inventive instruments of death, from sentry bots to the head-lopping wingsticks (basically boomerangs with a lethal flavour and by far my favourite weapon of the game). Browsing through a selection of fancy bullets makes the simple selection of weapons all the more entertaining. Mind-control crossbow bolts will have you using enemies as walking landmines while the same crossbow with an added electric tinge will have every mutant unfortunate enough to be standing in a pool of water riding the lightning.
|Go point blank and your screen will be smeared with wastelander blood|
While it isn't really an RPG, it follows the great tradition of the greatest RPGs by creating lively, involving, articulated towns as safe-havens in the wasteland. There are only two major towns (with a few smaller settlements scattered around the wasteland) which are littered with expressive characters whose personalities are accentuated by their facial expressions and expressive hand gestures. But when you put these animated personas into the context of Rage's lacklustre story that simply follows the numbers, their lasting appeal doesn't stand up.
|The friendly, spaghetti-Western town of Wellspring|
The mini-games and side quests you'll find in these oases keep the gameplay dynamic and act as a healthy break from some of the monotony of 'go there and kill everything then come back' main missions. A quick buck can be made from a bit of gambling, whether it be the dystopian world's version of a Guitar Hero memory game, a hand of violent cards, a spin on the race track or a punt on the future version of a pokie. The racing is tied into the game cleverly enough by making you run the track to get credit points to update your vehicles - and since you'll be spending most of your time to and from missions in the driver's seat (otherwise taking one hell of a long walk), you'll be wanting to beef up your cars. The physics from the cockpit feel sloppy and almost tacked-on. The vehicles never really feel drawn down to the road, instead weightlessly bouncing around on the surface. It makes the racing feel a bit bland, but it does add to the haste of the game that lets you power through the wasteland without getting bored on the quick drive.
The gameplay is fast, fluid and mostly bug-free (at one point, a downed scavenger carcass decided to inadvertently breakdance around the room early on in the game, but this rare fit of post-mortem twitchery is far from a game-killer). The environment is built tightly together in combat sections so that the thrills of the corridor shooter remain indoors, with eerie vibes followed by a dramatic soundtrack setting the scene in any of the various sewers or powerplants. The sound will have to set these tones though, since the lack of dynamic lighting won't do too much to create the scene. The wasteland is tied together more-or-less by corridors but it still offers a bit of exploration and the open-world feel that keeps the game fresh as you plod along.
But all-round, Rage is still one fun romp, even if it will only last you up to 10 hours if you're lucky (six if you fly through on an average difficulty). The multiplayer campaign options add a little extra to the life of the game, though it doesn't match up to the Borderlands multiplayer gameplay. It looks like they threw a lot of effort at Rage, but left a big space for expansion. Does somebody smell a bit of DLC flogging to come?
It'd be unfair to judge this game next to other Bethesda titles since it's in a whole different ballpark - so as a shooter with RPG elements, it's quick-paced fun that lacks originality but still serves up something appetising for those craving a new shooter, and you're guaranteed to pull some genuine excitement out of this one. Id Software has made some great titles over time, and while Rage is gorgeously polished and refined, it still leaves much to be desired. So now, less than 20 years since Doom, you can go up on a steep hill on the Rage terrain and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark id Software left with the legacy of Wolfenstein, Quake and Doom - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.