Rage opens with a glimpse of a fictional future once considered possible.
Apophis, a very real 885-foot-in-diameter, planet-killing asteroid named after the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos, rumbles, like a collapsing mountain, slowly into view.
Dreadful in its approach, the planetoid lumbers, unstoppable, through Neptune's rings on its apocalyptic approach to Earth.
In the reality of 2004, the death-dealing asteroid caused concern as experts noted a rising probability that the planetoid would hit the Earth or Moon. The space body rose to the highest level on the Torino impact hazard scale in history before scientists decided in 2006 that the chance of a collision was just 1 in 250,000.
Not so in the fiction of Rage, the next big game from the creators of Doom and Quake. In id Software's fiction, that Manhattan-sized piece of space rock's Torino rating continues to rise until 2025 when scientists decide, privately, that a 2029 collision is a reality.
And so the game opens with our first view of a very real asteroid bearing down on our very real solar system in a course of events that could have come to be, but didn't, not yet. The planetoid crashes through Neptune's rings, first casts an ominous shadow across the moon's surface, then tears a terrible path across its surface.
As we witness what could have been, we hear the voices of humanity preparing for the inevitable. We see a man suiting up, hear a voice tell us that cryogenic life support is on line.
We watch as people lay back in chambers that close over them.
"Go for burial," a voice says. "Atlas control signing off, may we live to see another day."
And then the asteroid strikes, cutting through atmosphere and clouds, like a knife through butter, sliding into the earth's surface slowly, silently, a billowing ring of red spreading out from the impact site.
Over the next three hours I witness what Apophis, with the help of id Software, has wrought: An Earth turned wasteland of warring tribes of bandits, survivors, mutants and a faceless, seemingly omniscient government. In those three hours I learn to survive, earn my first gun, my first dune buggy, hobble together my first health pack with items found in the remnants of buildings. I survive a fly-infested kill room, pick off bandits that bound at me hanging from ceilings, leaping from tables and rolling across floors.
In those first three hours I learn to drive, learn to kill, learn to kill and drive. Most importantly, that first deep taste of id Software's Rage turns vague disinterest for another shooter, another role-playing gaming, into a longing to finish a great play, a great story.
My chamber opens 106 years after it closed. I'm in a round chamber, its walls filled with a half-dozen or so cryogenic chambers each holds a mummified body.
Climbing out of my chamber, I walk, looking at each of the bodies before finding a door in one of the walls, it leads to the white bright of the outside. The Arc, my Arc is surrounded by sloping concrete walls, stairs, steel girders. It appears to be some sort of processing plant. I look up and see a blue sky shining down on an earth, apparently not much changed.
But then I'm attacked. The person drops on my, filling my view with a glimpse of sagging flesh, bared teeth, insane eyes. But then he falls away dead. A man in a dune buggy, its hood decorated with a faded painting of a smiling, busty woman riding a bomb, calls to me. I run, hop into the ride and we drive off as he talks.
"Welcome to the future," he says amiably. "The authority pays for Arc survivors."
As we roll out of the plant, we come across a group of men leaning around a dune buggy. They stare us down.
My saviour, Dan Hagar, says they're bandits.
"It's pretty much their world out here," he says. "Too bad you're wearing your Arc suit."
But Dan doesn't ditch me, instead he loses the bandits, eventually rolling into a bit of high desert wasteland called Hagar Territory and finally into a small sheet-steel surrounded compound called the Hagar Settlement.
Dan looks a bit like Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski and sounds a bit like John Goodman. (He is voiced by Goodman.) We're inside a diner of sorts, his office it seems. The bandits we came across are going to be pissed, he tells me, once they find the body of the guy he killed. They're going to come for blood. But he's got a plan.
His plan: I should go find and kill them all. He slides a Settler Pistol toward me. The over-sized pistol breaks in half so you can switch out the entire cylinder with a new one loaded with ammo.
With a gun in hand, the screen now shows a map in the top right of the screen. The bottom left shows the weapon and that I have 52 rounds. Dan also loans me an ATV to get me over to the bandit encampment.
The ATV handles well. The driving doesn't feel tacked on, it's solid, something I can control easily. I tap the X button on my Xbox 360 controller and the off-roader's boost kicks in, the vehicle pulling away from the screen to give me a broader view of the terrain, and a bit more time to react. I tinker around with the gas and brake, play around with the emergency brake, as I navigate the hard sand and rock terrain of the road to the bandit hideout.
This first clan, the ones now out for my blood, are one of many that inhabit the charred earth. They are the Ghost Clan, more cult than tribe, brutal and animal-like in their combat. I don't know this when I finally arrive at their cave-like settlement and make my way inside. I expect I'll find bandits, or mutants, guarding and perhaps hiding as I approach.
Instead they come at me in bunches, simian like. One skitters side-to-side as he approaches, then jumps forward, rolls on the ground, popping up directly in front of me to attack. I take him down with three shots from my pistol. I waste ammo on others as they come at me, firing where they should be to find that they're running close to the ground, hands and feet scrambling, leaping to the ceiling and swinging off an exposed beam to attack me. It's unlike anything I'm used to in a shooter. I back away, despite the relatively low number of enemies I face. I try to track their movements, picking them off on the fly as they bound and leap. It's unnerving, tracking their approach, trying to pick them off before they attack.
Finally, I'm knocked into, attacked and laid out by the bandits.
One of them greets me, his eyes wide, insane. He's happy I'm awake to witness my own death. He takes me to the "kill room" and prepares to open me slowly with a knife, but then I learn a little something about the nanonites.
The nanonites are apparently one of the reasons why Arc survivors are considered so special in this new world. They're a sort of experimental science injected into all Arc folk prior to the impact. On the verge of death, my nanonites kick in and the world freezes. A diagram pops up on the screen. Players are expected to shift both the right and left thumbsticks into proper, ever-changing positions in a limited amount of time. The more matches you land, the better. Then a second diagram pops up showing two shifting targets floating over fixed points. Players need to pull both triggers when the targets and points match. Do it right and the world kicks back into motion, electrical charges branching out from your body to knock everyone near you to the ground. You also get a hefty health boost.
Freed from the sadist about to cut me from groin to chin, I pull my pistol, shooting the Ghosts armed with knives. One comes running at me, I pull my trigger just as he plants a foot on a desk and leaps over the shot, knocking into me before I can pull off a second shot. I back away and put him down.
I methodically work my way through the rest of the den, taking out ghosts, avoiding traps, and then make my way back to the Hagar Settlement.
Back with Dan I'm rewarded with a light set of armour. I also learn that a second clan has attacked the settlement while I was gone. Dan asks me to go to a nearby compound to pick up supplies.
I'm promised my own ride, a beat up dune buggy, if I come through this time. The ride to this second compound is relatively short, a ride through an open canyon of angular rocks, wind-blown sand and scrub.
The new compound doesn't look very different from the first. It's slightly bigger, more tall then wide. Inside I find people sitting around, guarding the entrance, a mechanic tinkering with a car and, finally, the person I've been sent to talk to.
He promises me medical supplies, but first send me to Janus, an older woman with a prosthetic arm that ends in a modular finger that looks like it can plug into something mechanical. She, in turn, has her own missions for me. She wants me to find out what happened to a missing member of their clan. She also sends me out to fix a malfunctioning bit of technology.
This is when Rage feels most like a role-playing game, when the game that typically so seamlessly blends so many different types of play, shows a troubling propensity to lean on the tropes of old gameplay. Fortunately, it's the only time in my three hours with the game that I feel a tinge of annoyance. It's minor, and it doesn't happen again during my time with the game.
I dutifully go out on these dual quests. I ride an ATV across the dirt path to a very nearby metal railing and stairs which lead me down into a stretched out setting of concrete, metal rooms and tiny hallways.
Here the bandits I face stay back, popping off shots at me with their guns. The take cover, work together, calling for back-up. The firefights take place in an assortment of indoor and outdoor maps. It feels very organic, moving from inside a building, to a clearing, back into a tunnel system, all while firing off at bad guys.
Later, I read that the game is meant to have a half dozen sorts of bandits, each with their own sort of apocalyptic reasoning, fighting style, look. I run across, perhaps, two of these types, and they feel very different from each other. Their movement, their fighting style, forces me to drastically change my approach in facing off against them.
I clear the area. I find the remains of the missing clan member. I fix the broken tech. I zipline down from the peak of the map I'm in, to a landing close to where I started.
Returning to Janus, she teaches me my first engineering recipe. Rage has it's own sort of crafting. To make healing health kits, I learn, I need to scavenge antiseptic and cloth rags during my battles. I can then combine them to create a health kit. There is a promise of future crafting items, lots of future crafting items. But for now, I'm content with my new health kits. The nanonites, while life saving, take a long time to recharge. So long that you don't want to rely on them too often.
I learn some other things during this mission as well. You can find new types of bullets for some weapons. Holding in one button allows you to shift quickly through your weapons, holding another allows you to shift through the available ammo for that weapon.
I also learn that while the game has autosaves, they're not very effective. Fortunately, you can save the game whenever you want, wherever you want.
While wandering through the compounds past its citizens, there are no outward signs of who might have something to tell you, or tasks to send you on. Instead, they'll call you over as you walk by.
"Hey, come over here," one calls to me as I walk by. He wants to warn me about the Ghosts I later clear from a lair. Another says "One word of advice," as I walk by.
This early land, so close to my Arc, feels like a full experience, like the entirety of the game. It is something that I could happily explore, and fight through for the length of the game. But it's just a sort of training ground.
It's in these first few missions, these battles that I play with the game's gunplay, testing the game's gentle auto-aim. I also discover that few things in this world are destructible. That what things I can shoot and move or break are the sorts of things I'll want to keep to later sell. There's a whole economy here that relies on the return and sale of bits of mechanical minutia, empty beer bottles and cat food. You can use the cash earned to buy new weapons, ammo and, later, upgrades for your vehicles.
Rage is very light in its approach to role-playing. instead of asking players to choose classes or skills it has a single choice, made early on in the game: The suit they wear. The three choices will impact whether you get a barter bonus, armour bonus or engineering bonus. It can't be changed.
While things aren't very breakable in Rage, people are.
You can, I discover, blow off body parts with the shotgun you earn after your third mission in the game. You can the game's version of boomerangs to lop off a head, or simply scalp an enemy.
These early missions, while mostly open, sometimes end with a sort of boss battle confrontation that forces you to lean more heavily on tactics then gunplay, but it's never forced.
After earning my first dune buggy, about an hour and a half to two hours into the game, I'm tasked with taking down a heavily armed barricade that blocks off these two tiny encampments from the rest of the world.
Breaking through the barricade gives me entry to Wellspring, the game's first real town, a place with a bar, gambling, car races, a sheriff, a mayor, a garage.
It is here that I make the first and apparently only choice that will impact the sort of person I become in this world. I trade in my Arc suit for a new sort of suit, not only to avoid detection but because these three other suits each offer a sort of benefit.
After flipping through the choices (wastelander, roughneck, fabricator). I settle on the wastelander outfit and the cash discount it gives you on all non-vehicle purchases. Roughneck's get added armour and Fabricator's get enhanced engineering abilities.
It's an important decision because once made you can never change it.
It's in Wellspring that the game begins to open up, giving me a glimpse of just how broad and eclectic this id shooter is.
I wander around the narrow, dirt streets of the two-story town. The buildings seem to lean toward, blocking out much of the sun and lending a cavernous feel to Wellspring.
It only takes a few minutes to wander from one side of town to the other, much of it remains shut down. But in a back cul-de-sac I discover an autoparts shop and racing track. Walking up to the track's pitchman, I'm told that I can earn auto certificates in the races which in turn will allow me to buy certain vehicle upgrades, like rocket launchers or mini-guns. There are also paint jobs for purchase as well as tires, suspensions, engines, and items like hover turrets, spikes, shields and mines.
I spend the next half an hour taking on the tracks races. Initially I only have access to the entry level races, which have me tearing around dirt roads in a time trial, and racing other cars without weapons. Eventually I unlock the ability to use mini-guns and rocket launchers in races. The races are fun, stand-out experiences that could easily be their own game.
The dune buggy handles well, more importantly though, I begin to learn the knack for taking tight turns with it, how to boost over sculpted-rock ramps, when to knock into an opponent to take it out.
After five races I take own earned certs over to the auto shop and trick out my buggy with rocket launchers and an id Software paint job. I head out of town, forgetting the mayor's request for a visit after I landed that new suit in town, hot to check out my newly rodded-up buggy.
The wastelands are filled with roaming groups of bandits in their own weaponised vehicles. I'm tearing between Wellspring and Hagar's Encampment when a group pops up on my radar. There are three of them. In the distance I see a steel tower, a bandit standing at its top manning a mini-gun. I hit the boost and zip by the tower, gunspray peppering my buggy as I hit the emergency brake, fishtail around a tight turn and head back toward the tower. I'm aiming straight for the tower, bullets pinging into my ride until I shift to the left and hit the boost. My buggy tears up a stone outcrop and takes flight, gliding across the sky, the motor cycling noisily as the wheels spin, free of the ground. The buggy drifts slightly in the air, it's nose dipping to the right and then slams into the tower, crashing through the mini-gun, the bandit and back into the ground.
I hit the boost again and slip between the three buggies coming at me. I tear around an outcrop and slam on the brakes. I hop out of the buggy and pull out my sniper rifle. Sliding to my left, I start popping off shots at the buggies as they slowly turn in the distance. As they approach I run back to my buggy, hop in and boost off the edge of the rise. Lock-ons pop up and I trigger the rocket launcher, sending rockets into the side of one buggy.
I spend the next few minutes circling with the remaining bandits, exchanging fire before taking them both out.
Test drive successful, I head back to Wellspring and my appointment with the Mayor. He gives me a message to deliver and access to the town's garage.
In the garage I can park all of the rides I earn and upgrade. I can also repair my ride and the mechanic on duty gives me an emergency radio to use to call for help if I ever break down.
Bethesda's Pete Hines tells me that the radio is also a great way to fast travel. Use it whenever you want and you'll be returned, with your ride, back to this garage. You can even use it if you're not in your ride. It's a great way to quickly get around in what is shaping up to be a mammoth land.
Next I head over to the town's sheriff. He wants me to go on a mission for him. But before I do I need a better ride, he says. I need a Cuprino. The only way to win a Cuprino, I discover, is to enter a sponsored race. The only way to enter the race is to get sponsorship and the only one offering is Mutant Bash TV.
Mutant Bash TV first is the first playable glimpse of Rage gamers ever had of the wasteland and its fiction. It came in the form of an iPhone and iPad game, but while the TV show is the same in both Rage and the app, the gameplay isn't.
I head over to the middle of nowhere, where I discover a door in a rock face, the entrance to Mutant Bash TV and its host, J.K. Stiles.
Stiles makes a deal with me:
"You want a sponsor and I need a contestant," he says. If I can survive a single show I'll get that sponsorship and big cash prizes.
I load up with ammo and then make my way in. Inside I find myself in a large round room. There are doors and chutes everywhere. Soon mutants start coming out of them to attack me. I manoeuvre around the room, taking out the mutants, avoiding the spikes that occasionally pop out of the floor and eventually take on the Kraken, a massive mutant that takes a massive amount of ammo to take down.
After reminding me that I can come back anytime I want to earn more cash, Stiles grants me the sponsorship and I make my way back to Wellspring and to the race waiting for me.
Winning it grants me the car, which looks a bit like a coupe ute, a blend of a pick-up truck and a car. But this one has both mini-guns and rocket launchers mounted on it.
It is a much more powerful, better armoured and armed vehicle, and I love it. I love it as much as I did that first buggy, which I sort of don't want to stop driving either. Fortunately, I can keep both in my garage.
When I finally make my way back to Dan, in the ute, he thanks me with the last weapon I discover in my time with the game: A Desert Striker Crossbow. It's a wicked-looking weapon that can fire twin bolts.
My three hours is running out, but I don't want to stop playing.
I ask Hines if I've experienced everything the game has to offer yet, if the rest of Rage is exploring the world with the weapons, skills and vehicles I've found.
"Have you run into the Authority yet," he asks.
And I could easily sit back down and continue playing, past my first meeting with the world's government, deep into the wasteland, until the game ends, but I don't have time.
It took three hours for me to understand how the game comes together to deliver an experience that captures the best of id's creative approach to shooters and brings with it action, racing, gambling, role-playing.
I'm enthralled with the motion of Rage's enemies, how they force you to rethink the way you attack, where you fire. I love that I can at any moment stop driving and get out to take on the world and everything it's throwing at me on foot. I like that the game immerses me in a world's fiction so effortlessly without making me feel like I'm an errand boy, or that I'm being fed the story piecemeal, one quest at a time. But what I love most about Rage is that despite three hours of play, I still feel like I haven't gotten a handle on the game.
Most games hit a point when you're on level ground, when you know the score, what you're expected to do and how you'll do it. I'm sure that Rage has that moment too, but three hours of play didn't seem to get me there.