Sunday, February 1, 2015

RAGE: Not Worth a Clever Review Headline

By now I'm sure you're all aware of the colossal "ho hum" that is RAGE, id Software's first (and only) game since Doom 3, which came out way back in 2004. Seven years later, in 2011, they released Rage (as I'm stylizing it from here on out), boasting that it would feature a large world to explore, complete with vehicles, NPCs, towns, side missions, merchants, upgrades, and a crafting system -- a lot of "firsts" for the pioneers of the first-person shooter. The problem, you see, is that other games were already starting to do this at the time (and even a few years prior), and those other games not named Rage did the exact same thing, but better.

Rage is set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a meteor wipes out nearly all life on Earth and leaves much of the planet's surface a barren wasteland. Survivors have banded together in makeshift settlements to defend against bandits and mutants, while the Authority -- a group of technologically advanced soldiers -- attempts to govern the wasteland and restore unity with oppressive force. You play the role of an Ark survivor, a group of subjects put into cryogenic stasis deep underground, in order to repopulate Earth and rebuild civilization. When you emerge as the sole survivor of your Ark, over a hundred years after the meteor strike, you enter the wasteland on a mission to do .... something.

I really can't describe the story any better than that, because there's barely anything here to sink your teeth into. I had to struggle to come up with that one-paragraph synopsis, and even had to embellish a few details to make it seem like there was actually any depth in the story. There's nothing here.

Venturing into the Authority capital.

At the start of the game, I come out of the Ark pod thinking I'm part of some vague, unexplained science project that's supposed to be able to save humanity. I don't know how or why. Some dude in a dune buggy "rescues" me and takes me back to his settlement, and then sends me to kill an entire bandit outpost -- by myself, with nothing but a pistol. "What the f#$k," I say to myself. "I don't even know who I am or what's going on in this world, and you're sending me alone to fight a horde of bandits? If I'm supposed to be some kind of uber-important savior of humanity, shouldn't you be a little more concerned about sending me into danger? This is almost as dumb and cliche of a starting quest as killing rats in the cellar."

After killing the bandits, I'm sent alone, once again, to get help from someone in a nearby outpost, by delivering a message. Once there, I get the usual "help me and I'll help you" nonsense, sent on a dumb sub-quest to find one of their guys who went missing. "Why is no one else already on this job? Why do you wait until I -- an outsider who doesn't know who he is, where he is, or what's going on -- come along to start searching for your missing buddy? And why do you send me to do this job by myself?" I go find the dude, return to the outpost, and they send me back to the original settlement with medical supplies. Then the dude who "rescued" me sends me back to the outpost to get automotive parts, but conveniently, bandits have stolen the parts and they send me to go get them. Yawn.

The game continues for several hours at this pace, doing utterly pointless, trivial tasks for random people you don't care about, before some semblance of a plot actually starts to develop. Eventually, NPCs start talking about "The Resistance" and pointing you in the direction of their leaders because they need you to help stop the Authority .... for some reason. At this point in the game, more than halfway through it, you don't know anything about the Resistance and the game hasn't depicted the Authority at all. You have no personal stake in the game's central conflict due to a complete lack of interaction with either the Resistance or the Authority, and all you know about the Authority is that people don't like them. That doesn't motivate me to care, and just makes this look like a dumb, cliche story.

Zapping mutants with the electro bolts.

You spend the next half of the game (approximately) helping the Resistance with various tasks, and then finally they send you -- by yourself -- to infiltrate the Authority's capital to send a signal activating all of the other Arks. You realize that this is the game's final mission, the thing that the entire game has been building towards, and then you just wander in, kill a bunch of basic, ordinary dudes, press a few buttons, and watch a 10-second cutscene. There's no build-up, no exciting climax, no unique final boss, no fun new twists -- it's just mundane fights and mundane button-pressing with a new overpowered gun (a version of id's iconic "BFG") that makes everything a breeze.

The entire game is a string of FedEx errand-boy fetch quests. You play through 80% of the game, join the Resistance and set out to stop the Authority, and then you go to a new town where you have to "prove yourself" to the mayor by doing trivial tasks anyone else could be doing -- killing mutants, killing bandits, throwing a lever to restart the electricity. None of it has anything to do with the main story, and it all feels like pointless distractions and content padding. A lot of missions even recycle specific maps by having you re-clear places you'd already cleared. Normally, revisiting familiar locations would add some sense of continuity to the world, but these areas are designed to be so linear the first time through that visiting them a second time just feels like boring tedium doing the same thing all over again.

The game gives the semblance of a semi-open world to explore, in the sense that you're usually always free to wander off in the exact opposite direction of the "quest arrow," but there's never anything worthwhile to discover because everywhere else you can possibly go is sealed by locked doors that require a key from a mission, or that magically open once you've picked up the requisite mission. The large, semi-open world is really just a playground for vehicle combat, which is itself fairly superfluous since it never integrates with the main story -- vehicles are just a way of getting to the pointlessly spread out mission maps. You unlock three different types of vehicles over the course of the game, and they really don't feel that different from one another. I spent a lot of time in the optional races and challenges fully upgrading my vehicles, only to suddenly get a new one that I had to spend more time upgrading by doing all of the same races and challenges over again. By the third vehicle, I just said "f#&k it" and stopped caring.

Destroying a bandit car in vehicular combat.

Likewise, the game features a ton of unique gizmos, upgrades, components, and different types of ammunition for each weapon, complete with a crafting system to create a lot of these cool gadgets, which would normally set Rage apart from its competition, but none of them are really necessary, even in hard mode, and they're kind of a hassle to use, anyway. There's a ton of interesting stuff you can do in this game -- zapping enemies in water with electro bolts, possessing an enemy and exploding him, deploying a sentry turret or walking sentry bot, sending a remote-controlled bomb car out, using stimulants to boost your health, damage, and regeneration, etc -- but they're mostly situational, and it's really hard to juggle all of these different things to pull out what you need in any given situation. Most of the time, it's easier to just keep shooting, rather than fumble through the quick-use menu or pause the action entirely to use something from a menu. 

Combat is decent for a first-person shooter, which is where the emphasis should be in development. The weapons are satisfying to use, offering loud, booming sound effects and cool recoil animations, and enemies react reasonably well to taking damage. Enemy AI is decent, as well, knowing when to fall back when too many of their comrades die, and moving in an out of cover with enough unpredictability to keep the game from feeling like a whack-a-mole shooting gallery. Melee enemies, like the mutants, don't just come straight at you; they come at you in a circling arc attempting to flank you, which requires a lot more precise tracking to keep up with their fast movements, and can disorient you enough for another one to sneak up on your blind side. 

My problem with the combat is that it's just not that exciting; there are no unique twists on movement, no unique weapons (just a few unique types of ammo, which aren't that ground-breaking), and most levels stream forward in a linear series of halls with enemies that just come straight at you and hide behind cover. It's fairly straightforward; you just aim straight ahead and shoot at anything that pops out at you, taking cover long enough to regenerate health automatically if you take too much damage. It plays identically to virtually every other shooter -- walk forward to trigger enemies spawning from out of nowhere, backtrack to a safe spot behind cover, and shoot everything in front of you. 

Shooting mutants in "Dead City" with the assault rifle.

The combat goes back and forth between feeling like the slow, survivalistic crawl of Doom 3 and the fun, cathartic action of Doom 1 & 2, but never hits a strong stride in either direction. It's too slow and methodical to give you much excitement mowing down dozens of dudes, and it's too fast to let you feel tension worrying about what you'll encounter around the next corner. It doesn't offer the fun cranial stimulation of more tactical shooters like FEAR, STALKER, or Red Orchestra, and it doesn't offer the mindless stimulation of over-the-top shooters like Painkiller, Serious Sam, or Bulletstorm. It's kind of a standard, middle-of-the-road shooter that doesn't do a whole to make itself stand out. 

It doesn't help Rage's case that it was preempted by both Borderlands (in 2009) and Fallout: New Vegas (in 2010). All three of these games feature a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland setting, an emphasis on first-person shooting combat, semi-open worlds to explore, side-missions, towns and NPCs, and an inventory system. Borderlands even features vehicles. They're all the exact same game, on a basic level, but Borderlands has randomized loot and a class system with four different active skills, and Fallout has character-driven stats and role-playing systems in a truly open world. Going into Rage, after having already played both of these games, made it feel like Rage was lacking a certain flair, a certain je ne sais quoi. It's not a bad game by any means -- everything except the story and mission structure is at least competently done -- but there's nothing special about it, either.  


  1. Your relative ranking of RAGE compared to Borderlands is the first time ever I have to disagree with you :).
    While Rage is indeed not as fun as Quake or Painkiller, nor very tactical either, it's still leagues ahead of Borderlands 2 and Crysis 2 (which I mention because I'm playing it right now). In Rage all the side elements you mentioned remain just that and don't detract from the FPS experience, but rather add to it, which is great. It also doesn't focus on the story, because, as John Carmack is supposed to have said, 'stories in games are like stories in porn movies' - just there to provide a setting. While that's totally not true for RPGs, it seems to be normal for FPSs.
    BL 2, on the other hand, provides a terrible single-player experience. It gets the worst parts of Diablo, Oblivion and Quake and combines them into a Frankenstein monster of modern video games, leaving all the good parts behind in the process - there's tons of useless loot and weapons differing by tiny amounts of random stats; there are a plethora of boring, pointless side quests; and there's hardly any tactical element to all the shooting. To top all that, it doesn't have any better of a story than Rage, and it also outstayed its welcome and I had to uninstall it without even finishing the main quest.
    Apart from that, great reviews, I always look forward to them, so keep up the good work!

    1. As far as stories in shooters go, you certainly don't need one to make a good game. Doom had virtually no story at all but was (and remains to this day) fun as hell; PeopleCanFly put a lot of effort into the cinematic storytelling in Painkiller, but it was a wasted effort because all anyone cared about was the action.

      Rage, on the other hand, is not just a playground for shooting dudes -- it tries to be an actual world, with lore and backstory and civilization, with lightweight quasi-sandbox elements. A setting like this really needs to immerse the player for it to work, and the complete lack of worthwhile story and world-building (in terms of depicting the Authority and the Resistance and all), and the mindless excuses for missions take me almost completely out of it. If you don't want to tell an interesting story and don't want to put in the effort creating an interesting world, then don't half-ass it -- just make a linear action game like the first three Dooms. After all, the best parts of Rage are, hands down, the longer, linear action levels.

      As for BL2, I think we've had this conversation before, but BL2 satisfies the itch in me for level-grinding and seeing my character improve over the course of the game, as I custom-tailor my skills to my own unique preferences. The randomized loot may just be random statistical variations, but that at least offers the player choice -- do I want better damage, or better rate of fire? Better accuracy, or a bigger magazine? Rage does offer the player some choice in terms of what type of ammo or what types of gadgets to use, but like I said, I found it highly situational and too cumbersome to enjoy in its full extent.

      In addition, BL2 has multiple different types of weapons within the same category, with each manufacturer having its own unique properties. You're not just limited to one type of assault rifle -- Tediores are thrown as a grenade when you reload, with damage based on how much ammo was left in the magazine; Torgues shoot slow-moving explosive bullets; Dahls give you precision burst-fire; Hyperions are inaccurate as hell initially but improve to laser accuracy with sustained fire; Vladofs have insane ROF; Jakobs use high-damage semi-automatic fire; Maliwans do different types of elemental damage; Bandit weapons have huge magazines. This is all in addition to different unique properties that can be randomly applied to individual weapons.

      The story in BL1&2 may not be all that great, but at least BL2 features interesting characters and engaging dialogue. The story also makes sense as you go through it -- you understand why you're doing the things you're doing and what's at stake.

      I can understand liking Rage more than BL2, but for me, BL2 had a better story, better characters, better environments, better choices, better character progression, more interesting variety, and, quite simply, better combat. The technical qualities of Rage's combat are a lot more sophisticated, for sure, but I just had more fun with BL2's ridiculous, mindless action and special abilities.

    2. "It gets the worst parts of Diablo, Oblivion and Quake and combines them into a Frankenstein monster of modern video games."

      I always try (and fail) to sum up my thoughts on Borderlands, but hey! Someone's done it for me, rather perfectly I might add.

  2. Why haven't you done a review on Baldur's Gate or Fallout? Yes, I know there are plenty of other people to go to, but like so far I share all your views for pretty much every game. Except for Arcanum, I found it boring.

    1. I've never reviewed the original Fallout games because I played them long before I started writing reviews, or even running this blog. I would really need to replay one (or both) of them to get the details fresh enough in my mind to do the games proper justice, besides just making vague, generalized statements based on what I remember of them. And I just don't have the time and haven't had the desire to replay them, particularly since I have so many other games on my shelf and in my digital library I've still yet to play.

      As for Baldur's Gate, I started playing BG2 almost a year ago, but only put an hour or two in before getting distracted by life. Then my hard disk died and I lost my installation/patches/mods/saves and didn't feel like getting the game back up and running on the new drive. I'm currently playing through Arx Fatalis right now, which is kind of giving me a desire for a heavier, more traditional RPG, so I may put BG2 on my priority list as one of the next few games to play. Can't promise anything, though.

    2. Kinda a coincidence you mention this, as I'm playing FO1 for the first time right now. Really like the site, btw, Nick. Some really good articles/reviews on here.

    3. Ah, okay. Thanks for the reply. Oh, and ignore what I said about Arcanum. It's really good once you get used to it. So now I really do agree with all your reviews.

  3. I agree with almost everything said in this review. You pointed out everything that killed RAGE for me, yet I've played through it and even through the DLC missions. When I think back about RAGE now the only positive aspects of the game I remember are a) the very well done character models and b) the mobile spider-like sentry which is copied from Doom 3. Loved that one in Doom 3 already.

    I only disagree about the combat and this is my biggest complaint about the game in general. I don't want to hate about consoles here, but the combat is so 100% made to work with a gamepad I almost cried. You fight 80% melee enemies - in a shooter - from id software. Come on. This maybe works when you play with a gamepad and when it takes ages to turn 180° or to aim properly. But when you play m+kb this is just a boring shooting gallery even on Ultra Nightmare.

    Another thing that really pissed me off was how ridiculously bad they ported the game to PC. I had to read the steam forums on how to fix the texture loading times way way way after they released all the patches. This game just showcases that John Carmack has lost interest in (PC) gaming and doens't give a damn anymore.