Review: Rage (Xbox 360)

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id Software isn’t known for strong, single player storytelling. They usually leave that to others such as Raven Software. Anyone that has played their games knows that they’re more about eye candy and blistered trigger fingers replacing favorite fictional moments with tales of narrowly avoiding your best friend’s missile punch.

But Rage is different. At the very least, it’s very different for id.

A sumptuous CG opening cinema sets the story moving with an apocalyptic asteroid strike that nearly extinguishes life on Earth. Except for those in special bunkers called “Arks” who represent that last of humanity and the best hope for the future a century later. But the bigger surprise is that life did survive and it’s been chewing on what has been left of civilization since you were put under.

Waking up, you’re nearly killed by what passes as humanity until a more civilized version comes to save you and give you a ride to safety because they happened to be in the neighborhood. Afterwards, you’re asked to kill a whole lot of bad people and this becomes something of a theme for the rest of the game. Okay, maybe it’s not the best story ever, but for id, it’s a quantum leap over anything else that they tried to tell themselves. And the surprising thing is that it’s not entirely bad.

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What is bad is having to press the “A” button every time a mission-giver ends their train of thought. You have to complete missions, at least the main ones, to move on in the game and it’s mystifying why these NPCs simply don’t tell you everything when you get their attention. It’s not as if you have anything better to do after waking up from a century-long nap. You can also forget about fancy things like characterization, deeper motives, or meaningful choices. At its heart, Rage is still a game about shooting stuff.

John Carmack’s technical thuggery beats new life into id’s stable of engines with id Tech 5 which underlies Rage. There’s no doubt that it’s one of the most beautiful games ever seen on the Xbox 360. The problem is that it looks good at a distance and only when you’re somewhat standing still. Panning around, closer objects tend to blur for a few seconds before sharpening themselves into better detail and this happens everywhere. Some areas, like certain views from within the Dead City, simply look terrible with blurred polygon shapes and chunks of what is supposed to be rock resembling plump marshmallows instead. But staring at the characters to soak in some of the detail easily provides HD televisions with another powerful argument.

Places such as Wellspring and the Subway City will also blister eyeballs with the amount of detail hanging off of every neon sign or flatscreen display. In many ways, it almost feels as if this is what Gearbox Software’s Borderlands might have looked like before it was given its cel shaded makeover. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to do in these places other than find people who will tell you to shoot things. It’s sad in a way to see such settings used for little more than pretty backdrops when the rusted steel and crumbling concrete nearly call out for Oblivion-sized questing.

Another big change is that you won’t do all of your shooting on foot. Players will eventually get their own ride, starting with a basic buggy, that they can later arm up with rockets and a minigun. Races held in places like Wellspring also provide racing certificates that can be used to purchase other enhancements to improve their ride with shocks, performance tires, and toughened armor. Rage is all about road rage with heavy weapons.

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Players even have an inventory system, cash that they can spend on upgrades and ammo, and an engineering talent that they can use to build deadly toys like stationary turrets and mind controlling crossbow bolts that also make their victims explode. Doing side quests and picking up everything that isn’t nailed down contribute to your own personal workbench of death while giving back something to sell later for extra green. Even in this wasteland of the future, money still has a use.

As for the shooting – it’s pretty basic stuff. You aim, you shoot, and enemies die though only after getting filled with gratuitous amounts of lead. Headshots don’t exactly kill enemies outright unless its with a weapon like a sniper rifle or the crossbow. An assault rifle can empty a small handful of bullets into a bandit’s mug before they actually go down which ignores everything else that has happened in the field since the nineties which is perfectly fine if you don’t mind that kind of thing. Until later when you’re a walking arsenal of options, the action can make Rage feel partly like a throwback to ye olde shooter days following Doom and the like.

The enemies themselves, however, show quite a bit of character though there’s no real reason why some of them are the way they are. British-inspired gangbangers to Russian thugs wearing armor plate are some of the denizens that you’ll be shooting through. One of the interesting things about the game is how armor works on NPCs – shooting armor off of an arm or a leg can expose it to greater damage and is something that is used quite a bit later on by even tougher beasts. Again, this is just one of those cases where the “why” isn’t as important as finding out if that corpse has some ammo you can use.

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The vehicle based MP is fast fun reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Mario Kart with on-field power ups and fast action between eight players. Upgrades based on XP earned during games adds an incentive to trick out your buggy with a new chassis, weapons, and color schemes though it does feel slightly unbalanced when you face off against veteran players that have enough weapons to turn you into dust in seconds.

Legends is an interesting, co-op mode taking players through backstories told by characters from the game. There’s scoring, there’s story, and it’s actually a nice addition to the game especially if you can’t get enough of the title’s action or actually want more color out of Rage’s backdrop. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many players out there with open games in this mode limiting its appeal. Unless you have a friend who has Rage, you might have to wait awhile before you find a stranger willing to tear themselves away from the buggy-based part of multiplayer.

Rage isn’t Borderlands, though it doesn’t really try to be. Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty direct in what it sets out to do with little apology despite being rough around the edges. The story isn’t much to talk about, the ending jumps out from the game to just finish things, and there’s really not much to look forward to or seek out despite the crazy, twisting details worked into many areas. The gameplay doesn’t quite match up to the visuals. Yet Rage is still fun. It might not be all about the quests, but it certainly doesn’t lack for targets.

Rage
Bethesda Softworks / id Software
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature