RAGE is a videogame, and it wants you to know it. It wants you to know that it’s a videogame so badly that it continually finds new ways to tell you, over the course of its 10-12 hour running time. It says it so many times that you begin to suspect that it’s apologising for something: the flaws in its worldbuilding, perhaps, or the drudgery that its open-ended structure needlessly enforces. You find yourself inclined to forgive RAGE, in these moments, because that videogamey feel is exactly why its combat is worth celebrating. “Shhh, RAGE.” You’ll whisper, “please stop apologising. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for! And besides, you’re making it worse.”
It’s at that point that RAGE looks up at you, its mask of contrition replaced by a sneery trollface. “HA!”, it cries. “YOU SECRETLY CARE ABOUT ATMOSPHERE! I BET YOU’VE USED THE WORD ‘EMERGENCE’ WITHOUT IRONY! LOOOOSER! I. AM. A. VIDEOGAME!”
RAGE is a videogame, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it doesn’t need to be quite such a dick about it.
You are a nano-augmented future-soldier buried in the ground in anticipation of a post-apocalyptic future where hypercapable and infinitely suggestible mutes will be in short supply. Human civilization has been forcibly shunted Mad Maxwards by the advent of Apophis, the actual asteroid that might actually (actually!) hit Earth in 2036 and was genuinely named after the Stargate villain first and the Egyptian god second.
Emerging from your underground ark into the resulting desertpocalypse (as opposed to waterpocalypse, robopocalypse, or tropopocalypse), you’re rescued from a bandit attack by local petrol station owner-cum-patriarch Dan Hagar, voiced by the venerable John Goodman. He welcomes you in, and explains that your abilities make you a target for a new world order, the Authority. You’ll need to earn people’s trust in order to stay under the radar, and that means it’s time for a videogame!
To be fair to RAGE, its high concept does a fair job of taking the things people want and expect from an id shooter (brutalist sort-of-future spacemarinery) and finding a way to ground it in a world inhabited by other people. The implication that you were specifically engineered to thrive in this environment goes some way to justify your unlikely prowess – it’s not a wholly original device, but it is a welcome gesture. Dan is also the first of a series of well-designed, well-acted and tolerably-written characters who you’ll work for over the course of the game, and they inhabit a stunningly realised, if familiar, world. It’s also a game that on first impressions seems to be about teaming up with Mayor Haggar to fight Midnighter and Apollo. What’s not to like?
There are a few key reasons why RAGE’s worldbuilding fails despite the inarguable skill invested in it. The first, and most basic, is that sense of familiarity. There is simply nothing here that is not a generic trope: moreover, there is nothing here that hasn’t already been executed better, or even subverted, in other games. The Authority is an uncritical merger of the Combine and the Enclave; the Resistance a near-wholesale crib from Half-Life 2. Its bandits have arrived from Fallout and S.T.A.L.K.E.R and its mutants from Fallout and Borderlands. Only its weapon set feels distinctive, and that’s because it’s tribute to the id armories that have come before, a 1-to-9 ascent with everything where you’d expect it to be.
RAGE is by no means the only game guilty of this sort of thing. What causes it to become a perpetual, distracting annoyance is the suspicion that id knew exactly what they were doing. It’s as self-referential as games come, to an extraordinary, multi-layered degree. At the top are the many id/Bethesda in-jokes: that weapon set, the Doom-marine bobblehead on the dashboard of Dan Hagar’s buggy, the boxes of ‘Quayola’ crayons styled after a quad damage powerup. The achievement for finding a hiding room with a giant id logo in it.
These gags provide a context where it’s impossible not to see RAGE’s wholesale borrowing from other games as knowing references. The mid-game mission where you rescue a resistance leader from a pre-disaster prison that has been repurposed by an oppressive and technologically advanced occupying force by disabling energy gates is a charmless tribute to Half-Life 2′s Nova Prospekt; the super-powered final assault a nod to Gordon Freeman’s climactic attack on the Citadel. As I was playing through the game and forming this idea, I worried that I was reading too much intent into what could just be symptomatic of the limited range of reference endemic to action games in general. It was then that I encountered the Gearheads, an inexplicably Russian-accented bandit faction. Upon entering their lair, the first person I saw barked the following:
“Hey! This is just like Chernobyl!”
No, person. No it isn’t.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, RAGE is a little like getting tickets to a Rolling Stones concert only to find out that they’re going to be playing Killers covers all night. It’s fun at first, then it starts to drag: soon it’s disappointing. Then they play ‘When You Were Young’ for the third time and you decide to immolate yourself in the carpark.
Oh no my immersion, indeed.
It’s wrong to get a thousand words into an id review without mentioning gameplay, I know. It’s also wrong to make an id game that preoccupies itself with rote padding: fetch-quests and go-nowhere exposition, spectacle marred by minigames. When you get past all this, RAGE’s on-foot combat is excellent – it’s just not the focus.
Individual levels play out as a mixture of corridor shooting and arena battles to be tackled with the reasonably vast array of weapons and gadgets at your disposal. Ammo is rarely a concern, with the emphasis on player preference and light customisation. I generally opted for a mixture of vanilla shotgun and automated bots and turrets, switching up to armour-piercing machinegun rounds and explosive crossbow bolts for tougher foes, but I could just as easily have gone for a souped-up assault rifle and grenade rounds for my shotgun, or damage-enhancing stimpacks and a pistol that fires six bullets at once. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the game is never especially hard, even on the toughest setting: but the lack of challenge is compensated for by feel and variety.
Weapon feedback benefits from some very impressive animation. Enemies – particularly mutants – traverse environments with leaps and scrambles that, while scripted, frequently look extraordinarily natural. A twitch gutshot can send a charging foe stumbling past you, carried forward by their own weight and momentum: a classy, impactful improvement on id’s strong history of creating monsters that go ‘blargh!’ convincingly when shot. At its best, this stuff enhances the rhythm of the game: taking an enemy out of action with a careful shot allows you to focus on the next biggest threat, rather than insisting upon the one-guy-at-a-time process of arena shooter tradition.
A constant delight is the wingstick, a triple-bladed boomerang that you have access to regardless of your current weapon. It acts as both emergency holdout and stylish opening move: I defy you to ricochet one around a room full of enemies in cover before catching it without feeling like some kind of deadly outback ninja. At these moments, the game’s other problems fade away and it becomes enjoyable in exactly the way you’d hope from a modern id game: at these moments, it never occurs to you to wonder where ‘Mad Boomerang Skills’ were covered in pre-disaster survival training.
The problem, then, is that this is only a third of the experience: the other two being comprised of servicable kart-racing, lightweight crafting, exploration, and minigames.
The racing is an odd one. It’s fine, in that it works and it’s fair and the difficulty scales appropriately: but it’s hard to figure out exactly what purpose it serves. On a few occasions you’re pointed towards racing in order to win the vehicles and upgrades that you’ll need to traverse the wasteland: but the two are very different experiences, and the skills you develop in one don’t necessarily translate to the other. Wasteland skirmishes frequently devolve into an awkward dance of handbrake turns, more closely resembling a high-concept car advert than a thrilling chase sequence. The range of objectives in the competitive modes, however – straight-up racing, checkpoint battles – provide a direction to the action that’s a lot more enjoyable: yet it happens in an inexplicable arcade bubble outside of the main experience.
Continuing the theme of every area of the game beyond gunplay, there are no meaningful choices to be made: upgrades are a linear path, and there is absolutely a best vehicle and best loadout. Progression through each stage is therefore a question of time invested rather than any particular skill or approach.
This also applies to RAGE’s minigames, none of which contribute much to the mechanical or narrative thrust of the main experience. They range from disposable (if punishingly tough) games of five-finger fillet and dice to a full-fledged collectible card battling game. This latter also forms the basis of the mandatory hidden-item metagame, with powerful cards stashed in bafflingly inaccessible places. Even more strangely, each card represents a character or monster from the game – the game, not the world – adding another level of abstraction to what is already a fractured experience. There’s something really odd about hunting through somebody’s apartment to find the trading-card version of themselves that they invariably keep in an ornate box.
RAGE has the variety but not the integrity of an immersive sim: instead, it makes the inherent gameyness of its competing systems flatly transparent. In its vision of the future, humanity survives by building a videogame around themselves: a world where bandits inexplicably make way for rally-races, where the horrors beyond the edge of civilisation come with their own playing cards. The punchline, then, is that the one area where RAGE excels offers none of this.
Side-missions that see you revisit old areas in reverse hint at the score-attack shooter that could have been, but RAGE’s gunplay goes unremarked and unmeasured with the exception of a single, shallow repeatable stage. It’s absolutely crying out for a challenge mode where individual levels can be reloaded with a scoring system and leaderboards: with this, I’d have a much easier time recommending it. What’s worse is that co-op multiplayer offers exactly this, with a custom set of levels: the mechanic is there, and trying to figure out why it hasn’t been extended to solo play has left a forehead-shaped hole in my desk.
Instead, what we have is a great combat system buried under a bad immersive sim, a racing game, an anaemic narrative, some minigames, and a self-defeating attempt at worldbuilding. It’s a game that feels quite determinedly less than the sum of its well-crafted parts. It lacks any kind of unifying drive beyond the fact that its technology allows all of these things – vehicle combat, minigames, shooting, crafting – to exist in the same space. It’s a tech demo, of a comprehensive sort: a grab bag of bits and pieces from which a range of superb individual experiences could have been made, but haven’t. The bits that work leave you wanting a whole game built around those strengths.
With RAGE, id have opened the door to the kind of criticism they’ve never legitimately received before. RAGE ably and frustratingly demonstrates the technical and artistic skill at their disposal: it just doesn’t say anything with it. Doom and Quake were single-minded experiences at first by necessity and then by design, and they were rightly celebrated as a result. With technology no longer such a barrier to creative intent, the result is a game that tries many things and only bothers to fully execute a few of them. Its wry self-awareness isn’t enough, in the end: if you’re only a videogame, RAGE, then only be a videogame. Don’t pretend to be anything else. You’re inviting your players to imagine the game you could have made, to wish aloud for the things that this engine can clearly do and that you clearly didn’t.
“If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now, that would be interesting.”