For the uninformed, Rage is id Software's latest entry in the first-person shooter genre - the genre it more or less invented with the seminal titles Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. If you've enjoyed any FPS in the past 2 decades, especially ones that feature online deathmatch, you have to thank id Software - at least to some small degree - for making that a reality.
John Carmack is pretty much responsible for everything you love seeing in games - like polygons, textures, and lighting.
So with that kind of pedigree, why isn't Rage a bigger deal?
Well, part of it is timing. If your game comes out around the same time as Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrimthen you’re understandably going to get shafted for coverage. That’s totally understandable, and it really isn’t justifiable to pretend that the gaming press shouldn’t have been focusing their efforts on covering two of the biggest games of the year.
But the other big part of it is that id Software doesn’t really command the sort of show-stopping recognition that it used to. If you don’t know the name, it just means that you’re probably about 20 years old or younger. Id’s games defined entire generations of graphics technology and established the first-person shooter as a genre. (Fun fact: they weren’t always called “first-person shooters” - we used to call them “Doom clones.”)
After Quake 3 Arena (1999) id Software more or less fell off the map. The game was good enough, but the real star of the show was the Quake 3 engine (id Tech 3) and id Software’s attempts to license that engine to other companies to use in their games.
In the 11 years between Quake 3 Arena and Rage, id Software itself had only made one new game: Doom 3. I really don’t think I need to get into the pros and cons of Doom 3 but suffice it to say that the game wasn’t phenomenal and so you could certainly be forgiven for not waiting on the next id game with bated breath.
"Why won't you love me?"
It may seem like a bit of rambling here, but there’s a point. It’s that when id Software was at their best, games were very different from what they are today.
Sweet Sweet Nostalgia
Rage is old school, but not retro. It doesn’t look like an old game at all, but it certainly feels like one.
Sure, it’s a first-person shooter - but don’t go into this expecting to command a squad of plucky soldiers; to have your camera clamped down while you watch a beautiful animation of an exploding building; to jump from designated cover area A to designated cover area B in order to avoid getting shot; or to peer down the iron sights at yet another enemy soldier on the beaches at Normandy.
Likewise, it has RPG elements, but don’t expect to recruit and outfit a party; to make story-altering moral decisions; or to navigate detailed dialogue trees.
And it's a shame, because who doesn't want a guy named "Crazy Joe" watching their back?
Instead you should expect to run into a room and shot a bunch of things in the face until they’re all dead, or - when you have the right ammunition - just gibbing them outright.
Rage is paced a lot like Quake and Quake 2 - the maze is a winding track, you enter an area and clear out the enemies, and from time to time there are secret areas hidden along the way. The levels are longer this time around, and you get regenerative health instead of medkits, but it feels a lot like the games we loved back in the 1990s.
Like this but if they could afford enough polygons to make things look like stuff.
That’s definitely not the style of this era, but it’s not without its merits. Rage is faster-paced than most of its counterparts. You can run into situations, strafe around, and continue firing the entire time. You don’t get to make any moral decisions to influence the story, but it’s also never unclear who you should be backing and who you should be fighting.
But perhaps the largest merit here, and the reason I find the game compelling as I approach middle age, is that lately I’ve found that I have no patience for bullshit.
The Anti-bullshit First-person Shooter
"This is a bullshit-free zone, pal. Now move along."
Let’s face it, I just don’t have the spare time to play games that I used to when I was a teenager - and that’s how I end up defining bullshit in video games. Bullshit is when the game does something or makes you do something that’s there merely to make the process more convoluted and time-consuming.
In Forza 3 it took the visage of the career calendar - purposefully drawing out the game and keeping you from playing the races you actually wanted to race. Thankfully there was an alternate menu where you could just choose your event, but the calendar was pure BS and was thankfully stripped out for Forza 4.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker notoriously required you to have treasure maps translated by Tingle who charged huge amounts of money - which in turn meant going on a treasure hunt in between each section (whether you wanted to or not). Would it really have been so detrimental if Tingle just did the translation for you pro bono?
Bullshit is dumping all your ammo into an unkillable enemy because you didn’t know the story said that this was supposed to be an unwinable battle.
Bullshit is going halfway across the game map and back to talk to a character in a hut somewhere when that character could’ve just been placed in a closer hut.
Bullshit is sitting through a 20 minute unskippable, unpauseable cinematic when you really just want to use the bathroom.
"I'm happy for you and I'm a-gonna let you finish this game but let me tell you about the Patriots for the next half hour."
Bullshit is an instant-kill QTE in the middle of a sequence where you couldn’t possibly see it coming (forcing you to replay an entire sequence).
Rage is an anti-bullshit first-person shooter.
Sure the story is as shallow as a puddle, and the characters are little more than quest-givers, and the ending is Mirror’s Edge levels of anti-climactic. But Rage never wastes your time. Talk to a guy, get your mission, gear up, shoot things, report back to the quest-giver. Lather, rinse, repeat.
More important than that, though, is that it never tries to trip you up. You can save anywhere you want (and they encourage you to save often) and there are no surprise deaths. Id thankfully did away with the monster closets and lights-out jump scares (and super-bullshit "spawn behind you as soon as you open the door to the next room") nonsense of Doom 3 and replaced it with fast-moving legitimately challenging foes.
The game can get tough at times, and it's definitely possible to lose and have to go back to your last save. But if I were pressed to describe the difficulty in Rage I would have to characterize it as being adamantly fair.
Why You Should Play Rage
If you're reading this article - an article about a game on a site that puts out a 90 minute discussion about games every week - it's safe to say that you don't just play games and then walk away; you're also intersted in games and game making as topics. And from that point of view Rage is intensely interesting.
Rage is like a game from an alternate reality where game developers never flirted with Hollywood and Half Life became the paradigm for story telling in video games. It steps away from most of the modern game gimmicks and shows that you can have a damned good action game without them.
I can't say that Rage is worth the money - $60 is a tall order for what is, ultimately, a flawed game. While the premise is strong, the plot is absolutely asinine and has holes large enough to pass an extinction-level asteroid through.
"Well stranger, how about you hang out with us and never tell us your name even though you don't have amnesia and before you were put into cryogenic sleep you must've had some sort of identity and a post-revival plan of action that you seem to have abandoned."
I can say, however, that it's an experience worth having - one not quite like any other game you'll play this year. If you've got an X-Box 360 or a PS3 then definitely hit up the demo that came out earlier this week - there's at least one solid bandit mission in there and a little bit of in-town interaction. Otherwise keep an eye out for it in Steam sales and the bargain bin.
- Matt Pierce