Reviews

'Rage' Has the Barest Bones of an RPG

Rage is what happens what a developer that only knows how to make shooters tries to make an RPG.


Rage

Publisher: Bethesda
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
URL: www.rage.com/
Price: $59.99
Players: 1-2 players
Developer: id Software
Release Date: 2011-10-04

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.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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