Posted by John on October 10, 2011

Rage review [Xbox 360/PS3/PC]

Posted October 10, 2011 by Martin Wharmby.

It’s been seven years since id Software released Doom 3, and RAGE is almost the antithesis of corridor shooter: it’s got shooting, driving and some RPG mixed in for good measure. But after so long out, have they got the formula right? Read our huge review to find out…

It’s not that Rage is a bad game. There’s nothing dreadful about any one element, bar occasional wonky body physics, animation glitches or any of the the well-publicised glitches that reared their heads on launch. No, it’s the fact that Rage simply doesn’t know how to become what it wanted to be. What starts out as an incredibly promising open world of adventure quickly turns into a drab, dry and shallow pseudo-RPG with an undersold dusting of truly amazing FPS combat.

id Software’s hodgepodge of ideas is never more evident than in the game’s opening, with Earth devastated by asteroid Apophis when it impacts in 2029. More than a century later, your voiceless, opinion-free cipher awakens inside his Ark, only to find the world outside inhospitable thanks to an abundance of mutants and whisperings about the shadowy “Authority”. Guess what? They’re the real bad guys, if you couldn’t already tell from their not-at-all-ominous name.

Rescued by John Goodman’s character, Dan Hagar, you’re introduced to the three things you need to survive: guns, cars and an eye for scavenging. Comparisons to Fallout don’t really do either game any favours: Rage plays more like a Borderlands light. You travel between hub locations to take on quests, selling crap and buying bits, indulging in a handful of mini-games to boost your cash, before driving around the surprisingly compact roadways to go from combat dungeon to combat dungeon.

Only a few minutes into the game, fresh from your rescue, you get your first taste of id’s astounding gunplay. Sent to slaughter a clan hideout by Hagar, you enter the deep, richly detailed lair to the game’s signature 60 frames-per-second silky smooth performance. The gorgeous design isn’t just in the artwork and crafting of the environment, it’s in the hideous enemies too. Their gnarled, abused forms don’t just hide behind cover or charge at you: they roll around, stagger humanly under fire and keep themselves moving acrobatically to make things so much tougher for you.

B.Y.O.B.F.G.

Mutants and melee-focused enemies are the best example of just how smartly the AI works. They veer around your aim, never blindly rushing you but rolling and jumping away, forcing you to backpedal and strafe your way towards clear shots. With the game’s performance utterly flawless on consoles, enemy onslaughts are breathtakingly fierce and never simple run-and-gun affairs. They’re mad scrambles, enlivened by the astounding reactive animations and your homebrew utilities.

Like any good RPG, you spend as much time scavenging the environment as you do peppering it with bullets. When you’re not picking up ammo, collectable art cards for the Magic-like card game or vendor trash, you’re picking up craftable scrap. Over time you gain access to a small library of items to help you, from sentry bots, turrets and RC car bombs, to explosive crossbow bolts, EMP grenades and bandages (for those times ducking behind cover doesn’t heal you quickly enough). Deploying your tools in battle becomes an integral part of the action, giving you more firepower, while utilising alternative ammos becomes a must when dealing with heavily-armed units.

In its finest moments, the action reminds you why id was once the master of the FPS. They may still not be up to much when it comes to storytelling and characterisation, but they can make you dance across a battlefield, and nothing is as beautiful a sight as spreading clan blood across a trashed hospital, seeing a wingstick lop off a mutant head in an abandoned underground station, or desperately fighting off hordes in a spike-trap room for the entertainment of the masses on Mutant Bash TV. It reminds you why everyone who moaned about the flashlight switching in Doom 3 was a spineless coward, and how much better Rage plays without monster closets.

But then you leave the action-oriented dungeons, get in your combat buggy and drive back to town. You don’t need to worry about getting lost, because the paths are so short and tight you won’t be taking a wrong turn any time soon. Enemy vehicles spawn at random in certain areas, introducing you to Rage’s weakest action mechanic: car combat. The vehicles themselves have robust enough handling and can be upgraded with race winnings, but the fighting is about stale lock-on rockets, bullets and eventually pulse cannon face-offs, with a side-order of shop-bought one-use defensive and offensive items.

While not broken, the vehicular combat lacks any spark of invention or excitement, and quickly becomes a tiring chore as you navigate what turns out to be a very small wasteland. Thankfully very little of the core campaign revolves around actual race events, as the optional races in the two main hub locations are particularly drab affairs. Racing environments are cribbed straight from the world map, and cut up into circuits and opened up for rally events, but the sole interesting moment is finding a huge ramp as part of one circuit. The races add to the overall diversity, but Rage shows that variety is not always the spice of life.

Borderline

The further into Rage you get, the narrowness of its focus begins to show. As intricately detailed and jaw-dropping as its environments look – particularly the labyrinthine neon hell of Subway City – the broken world outside looks smaller and more thoughtless. Side-quests are limited to the odd static shooting event, a couple of speed delivery tasks and the ‘Sewers’ dungeon DLC included in all new copies, but all are ridiculously short-lived blasts and in the second half of the game they dry up. Even the more substantial side-quests just send you back to story dungeons, some even giving you the same objective as last time, only making you take a different path.

Not that the questing ever really does anything for you. With no levelling system or upgrading beyond the odd schematic to purchase or a few weapon add-ons, it’s hard not to realise that the only purpose of deviating from the storyline is just grinding out your time with busywork. This is nothing new for RPGs, but at least most of them have character and give you a purpose to adventure on. Rage doesn’t give you any incentive bar money and the hope of something finding something bigger and better that never comes along. The only activity with an kind of depth is the collectable card game, where you battle decks of characters and items against each other in surprisingly engrossing fights.

Despite how good the combat is, id has taken the utterly bizarre choice to not create first-person competitive multiplayer. There’s two-player co-op, either locally or online, in the form of Legends of the Wasteland action dungeons, but the four-player action consists of car combat arenas and modes. Although tweaked slightly to be more action- and power-up-oriented than car combat within the campaign, compared to the prospect of FPS action among the gloriously detail of repurposed dungeons, it’s a bit like finding out on Christmas Eve that tomorrow’s been replaced by a Bank Holiday, and all the presents have to go back and the decorations need to come down.

No matter how beautiful the game looks or how much fun it is blasting mutants into chunks with the shotgun’s pop rocket grenades or slicing through Authority armour, Rage’s hollow depth spoils the rest of the package. As much as it tries to bring more to the first-person shooter than just corridor turkey-shoots, it plays like the worst counter-point to Doom 3?s linearity: it’s open because it feels it has to be, but it’s not as expansive as it needs to be or as closed as it could have been to be perfectly formed.

The game lives in a limbo, unable to be a sprawling masterpiece or a tightly knit tour-de-force. The paper-thin storyline belies the sheer amount of artistic detail lavished on the game world, and more than anything it begs to have been explored deeper than it has been. Weighing in between ten and 15 hours with all side-missions, mini-games and races mastered, Rage’s depth really is as skin-deep as its beauty: look around the environment quickly enough, and you’ll see the mega-texture streaming falling over itself as it tries to paper over the emptiness.

Rage is an accomplished shooter, but it leaves the bitterest of aftertastes: wasted potential. It takes a lazy, haphazard approach to depth, with one of the most lifeless and uninspiring worlds, and flimsy RPG elements that distract from a great FPS.

RAGE, from id Software and Bethesda, is out now for Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3 and PC.

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