US: 4 Oct 2011
Rage is a weird game: Part shooter, part racer, part RPG, it should be no surprise that it suffers a bit of an identity crisis.
Rage is structured like an open world RPG. You drive around a big map visiting towns and getting quests, but there’s no persistence to your character: no levels, no experience points, and no stats to increase. Your avatar remains a total blank slate throughout the game. Despite the world being open, there’s little reason to explore. Any interesting buildings you might find will be locked until a quest deems it’s time to go there; you’re literally locked out of most of the world. There’s also no world map, so it’s hard to get a sense of the setting’s size and shape, though there is a mini map in the corner of your screen that displays a breadcrumb trail leading to your quest destination. While helpful, that kind of detailed direction coupled with the lack of a world map trains the player to depend wholly on the game for guidance. Rage trains you to ignore its open world, not that it was very open to begin with.
The save system doesn’t help any. There are precious few checkpoints; the game would prefer you use its “save anywhere” feature, but navigating the menu to save takes a few seconds too long. It’s a minor annoyance, but it stacks over time. This lack of checkpoints would be forgivable if Rage was a truly open world game like anything developed by Bethesda, but since Rage is structured so linearly it lulls you into a false sense of security instead. You’ll trust the game to checkpoint your progress because that’s what all shooters do, right? Well, not in this case. You’ll stop trusting the game and learn to save yourself once you lose an hour or more of progress.
ID is supposedly known for pushing graphical boundaries, but you wouldn’t think that looking at Rage. While the character models are always impressive, both in their visual detail and animations, the environments are a completely different story. Some, like the overworlds and final level, look genuinely great. But everything else ranges from merely good to awful. One little puzzle involving a fuse box was tricky only because the fuse box looked so flat you’d never guess it was interactive. It’s not an issue of texture pop-in, it’s an issue of detail; things looks blurry even at medium distance. At one point a super detailed character was talking next to a road sign that was so pixelated I could barely read it. That’s Rage’s graphics in a nutshell: great looking characters and crappy signs.
But Rage isn’t all bad. While it fails as an RPG, it succeeds as a shooter, and sort of succeeds as a racer. It’s a rare shooter that doesn’t follow the Call of Duty template but instead feels very much like a classic PC shooter. You don’t have to spend all your time hiding behind cover, waiting for guys to stick their head out; you can rush an enemy and not get cut to pieces even on the hard difficulty. Iron sights are practically pointless, circle strafing is key, and the shotgun will become your best friend. Later enemies are just bullet sponges, able to soak up an entire clip of rifle ammo before dying, but you’re no different, and you’ll get plenty of extra toys to level the playing field. The Wingsticks are my personal favorite, as they’re boomerangs that can decapitate your opponents. After playing so many shooters that emphasize cover and regenerating health (which Rage does have), this kind of free-flowing, open combat is a breath of fresh air.
The driving is also surprisingly fun, despite the lack of a tutorial (it took me 10 hours to realize I could power slide around corners and perform tight 180 degree spins). In the open world, driving is just a means of getting from quest giver A to destination B, which is another waste of the world. The real fun is in the official races you sign up for in town. These range from time trials, to rocket races, and since damage doesn’t carry over into the main game, you’re free shoot and crash to your heart’s content. Upgrades feel significant: you can feel the better traction from new tires, and armor lets you take more missile hits before blowing up. These races feel like a classic vehicular beat-em-up, like a simplified Twisted Metal. They’re a throwback to a more arcade-y era of gaming. And that’s good. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of them in the game. There’s enough in each town to keep you busy for an hour, but then it’s back to shooting.
Rage does include some multiplayer, but it feels tacked on with little thought put into it. The multiplayer consists of several racing modes, but they’re nearly indistinguishable from one another. They’re all some variation of a demolition derby: drive over three rally points in a row to score X points, drive over rally points in a row to increase your score multiplier, drive over meteorite pieces and bring them to a rally point to deposit your score, or just blow people up. Strangely, there aren’t even any actual races! When choosing a car can you can choose what look like classes, but then you can customize that class to the exact specifications as the other classes, so what exactly did you just choose? You do rank up, but since your progression isn’t obvious it’s hard to tell how you earn points, how much you’ve earned, and how close you are to unlocking something else. ID really isn’t good with this whole character persistence thing.
It’s hard not to feel like you’re missing something in Rage: Maybe there’s a door unlocked somewhere in that open world, maybe there’s another multiplayer mode you haven’t seen, maybe there are more races hidden in another town, maybe there really is more to this game than just lots of shooting—there’s not. Rage is a big game (took me about 17 hours to beat it, side quests included) but it’s also a sparse game. It’s got the barest bones of an RPG, a nonexistent story, and too little vehicle combat. Its one saving grace is its shooting, namely the fact that it’s so fun and there’s so much of it. But while it’s a genuinely fun game despite its self-imposed limitations, Rage is filled with woefully untapped potential.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.