Never has the noble intention of reducing the size of my Steam backlog gone so horribly awry.
Rage (or RAGE, if I’m doing this the way the developers want me to) is an exercise in calculated mediocrity. Made by id software, nothing could quite so effectively have demonstrated their technology-driven approach to design is utterly irrelevant in the modern gaming age if you don’t pair it with a polished gameplay concept. Rage seems to think it’s enough that it can render some very nice rocks and skyboxes, and it assumes that people will buy the game just to see those rocks, which are admittedly the prettiest rocks in gaming. Unfortunately for id we’re no longer in the 1990s; pretty rocks don’t have the immediate, visceral impact of the faux-3D of Doom, or the actual 3D of Quake, or the accelerated 3D of Quake 2. These days good looks can only enhance what’s already there; unless the visuals of a given game are particularly unusual or avant-garde it’s not a good enough reason to buy and play without there being something decent under that attractive hood, and after forcing myself to slog all the way through to the end of the game Rage has turned out to be an astonishing mess.
The premise is that a giant space rock has crashed into Earth and you’re one of a select few who survived this castastrophe by sheltering inside an Ark1, emerging a hundred-odd years afterwards into a generic post-apocalyptic world that inexplicably has less character than those damned subway tunnels in Fallout 3. This one-sentence description is actually more detailed than the incredibly sparse information the game deigns to give you during the intro sequence, which consists of a CGI video of the asteroid impact followed by your (nameless) character awakening and stumbling outside. You get attacked by bandits in a cutscene and are saved by a random passerby, who drives you to his settlement and starts giving you fetch quests. This is literally all the setup Rage bothers with; it would be a massive understatement to say that Rage has some issues with world-building and promoting a sense of place, and the game is curiously reluctant to even tell you who you are or why you’re listening to this guy who is asking you to go and murder a bunch of people for him. You just have to do it, and woe betide you if you get it in your head to ignore him and go off and explore the wasteland because Rage will just straight-up murder you if you have the temerity to disobey the tutorial.
Now, in other games this would be because it would break the narrative; it wouldn’t be any more acceptable but there’d at least be a mechanical reason for why your character suffers a brain aneurysm as soon as they wander away from the well-greased plot rails that have been laid down for them. In Rage, though, there is no narrative, no overarching plot that ties everything together. It’s just a series of make-work quests where you’re told to go to a place and kill some things for the latest nobody you’re working for, and then when you’re done with that they pass you off to somebody else, like the one thing the apocalypse was really missing was a good odd-job man/bandit exterminator for hire before you came along. Sure, there’s work aplenty, but for the first half of the game that’s exactly what Rage’s quests feel like: work. They don’t feel like I’m playing a game, they’re certainly not any fun, and the worst thing about them is that they don’t give the player even the illusion of having any agency. Even the Call of Duty games usually succeed in providing an emotional reason to carry on down those plot rails2, but Rage just can’t be bothered to give the player any motivation at all.
This means that all Rage has to fall back on is its gameplay, which consists of a weird hybrid of conventional linear shooter levels interspersed with “open” world exploration where you drive a car around the wasteland. There’s quotation marks around the word open there because it’s not really open at all — you just drive down a series of linear roads fenced in on either side by barriers or chasm walls until you reach your destination – and technically there should also be quotation marks around exploration as well because there’s precious little to explore. I think I found precisely one short optional dungeon (it was, appropriately, a sewer level) during the nine hours I spent battering my way through the single-player campaign. Occasionally you get attacked by bandit cars but the vehicle combat in Rage is totally braindead and consists solely of keeping them in front of you while you fire your auto-aiming weapons at them, and all these segments really add to the game is a couple of minutes of tedious driving every time you get a new quest. They don’t even promote that sense of place that is so sorely lacking because of the lack of optional areas and the fact that every settlement and bandit lair in the wasteland is within a minute’s drive of the next one. Mostly they appear to be there to show off the rocks, because holy crap do you spend a lot of time looking at those rocks while you’re driving around. It’s a colossal waste of time and resources that wasn’t exactly nailed by Borderlands a year earlier, but Rage makes Borderlands’ vehicles and world look like a masterpiece by comparison.
What about those shooter levels, though? This is what id are known for; it’s what they built their reputation on; and it’s why I’m very surprised that Rage did not capitalise on its major strength – the ability to carry around up to ten weapons at once rather than the more conventional two – until about halfway through the game. Ten weapons may be unrealistic but it allows options in a gunfight. It ensures you use all of them. It adds variety. Unfortunately Rage is just as stingy with its explanation of how to get the various ammo types and auxiliary items as it is with the rest of its exposition; it wasn’t until that halfway point that I noticed blueprints for constructing gun drones and a type of shotgun ammo called a Pop Rocket had become available in one of the shops, and if I hadn’t gone there on a random shopping trip I might not have realised these things existed at all. Before this the shooter parts of the game were dull in spite of the weapon variety, consisting of the usual “run along linear path while sniping enemies leaning conspicuously out of cover” tedium that was only occasionally broken up by more entertaining fights with bigger armoured baddies. Afterwards, though, I admit I did start to enjoy myself. Pop Rockets turn the shotgun into a grenade launcher and I’ve always had fun with those, while watching the spider drones maul a succession of high-tech goons to death was rather endearing. There’s other items like static sentry guns, EMP grenades and a sort of smart boomerang called a Wingstick, but unless it’s explicitly needed to get through a mission Rage won’t tell you these things exist.
And this is a shame, because when the level designers manage to lift themselves out of their CoD-induced funk and the shooter segments are firing on all cylinders Rage can actually be fairly entertaining. As ever in modern shooters the more interesting enemy types show up towards the end of the campaign, which means the last half of the game is a lot better than the dreary and depressing opening. It’s also where Rage’s artists discover colours other than brown and grey; I don’t know about you, but the dusty ramshackle look all these post-apocalyptic settlements have got old roughly two hours into Fallout 3 and hasn’t gotten any fresher in the intervening years, and the town in the first half of Rage is a confusing sprawl of cobbled-together blah that’s awful to navigate because they take away your minimap and force you to memorise the layout of twisty turny back passages. The town in the second half is much more visually interesting since it’s set in a converted metro station with colourful neon signs everywhere, but it takes about five hours of play to get there.
I think that’s what gets me about Rage: while there is certainly some fun to be had here the game makes you work far too hard for it, as if id were so jealous of their good ideas they felt the need to bury them under so much generic bullshit they’d never be discovered except by the most persistent of players. It’s an absolute car-crash of an entry into an oversubscribed setting (just in the last three or four years we’ve had the Metro games, Borderlands and Bulletstorm doing the same thing in a far more entertaining fashion, even though most of those games were themselves rather flawed) that actively tries to put the player off from enjoying it by withholding information and forcing them to find everything out the hard way. At the end of the game I was still none the wiser as to what the hell was going on plot-wise. Apparently I’d just engineered the downfall of some oppressive regime, but they could have been the Red Cross for all I knew. I was repeatedly told that they were evil by the people working to bring them down, but I was never shown exactly why they were so bad. I was also repeatedly told that they were hunting for me specifically as an Ark survivor, but they never made any attempt to capture me and in fact the only times we came into conflict was when I attacked them – again, because I’d been told to do so by a bunch of suspicious-looking revolutionaries. Its an approach to narrative that puts me in mind of the infamous backstory to Quake that was supposedly whipped up in ten minutes as an afterthought to tie together the disparate array of level styles that had made it through Quake’s troubled development process. Rage is just as much of a mess, but where Quake was groundbreaking in spite of its woes Rage merely compounds its core problem of being as dull as fuck, with the decent-ish shootery bits being too few and far between to save it. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount out of Rage – but even so, for the only standalone product id have released in the last decade it’s a hell of a disappointment.