I doesn't really hit me until about half way through the game. I've been spending so much time worrying over the trick of staying alive that I haven't notice just how insignificant I am.
It's not until I'm sent on another armed errand, off to save a general from a federal prison, that I realise that I'm risking my virtual life not to be the hero, but to save the hero.
It's a subtle mindf**k. One that I think some people might not pick up on initially. Who would blame them? Rage is a distracting video game.
By far my favourite distractions in Rage are the people of the game's desiccated Earth. The friendly ones, the ones that cluster like tribes in run down gas stations and subways, are a plentiful mix of personalities and attitude. There's the grandmotherly doctor with the steel, two-pronged robotic arm and reading glasses hacked together from bits and pieces of other glasses. The cute girl hanging out in Subway Town who's only purpose seems to be telling me who terrible things are going to get. The mayors, the racers, the shop owners, the survivors.
The unfriendly people, the enemies, are a wild variety of mutant, gearhead, Eastern Bloc militant, high-tech enforcers and hooting, wild-eyed outlanders. These are the guys (I don't think I ever saw a female enemy in the game.) who provide the grist in this mostly-shooter. What separates them isn't just the look of their faction, the flavour of their insanity, but the way they come at you, literally. Early on in the game, you'll come up against people who jump, scramble, roll and swing at you, ping-ponging off the walls and clutter of their dens to attack you. It forces you back, as you try to pick them off along their unpredictable advance. Later the game sends enemies at you who use traps, strategy, flanking tactics, bots and armour to take you out.
These ever-changing enemy types don't just keep you on your toes, they keep the game from feeling old. 10 hours into my 12-hour or so play-through of Rage, I came across a group of enemies that grumbled about how terrible their lot in life was. They seemed the most human of the game's bad guys. When you shoot at them, they turn and run, sometimes tripping over their own feet, scrambling to get back up as they shoot at you or covering their face or body with a waving hand as they seek cover.
And enemies don't all come at you on foot. You'll also have to do a bit of driving getting from the safe zones of those few settlements to the hang-outs of this world's bandits. On the road, in an armed buggy, ATV or car, you can face-off against other drivers, blasting away at them with mini-guns, rockets and pulse canons, or just try to outdrive them to your destination.
The driving is deliberately loose, the physics completely unbelievable, but in a good way.
Survival in Rage isn't just a matter of skilled aiming and shooting, on foot and in car, it's also about weapon and ammo selection. The first weapon you're handed in the game is the worst, a bulky Settler's Pistol that can hold a variety of ammo, each in cylinders that snap in and out of the gun. While better, more interesting weapons come along as you make your way through the game, assault rifles, machine guns, shotguns, crossbows, sniper rifles and rocket launchers; the game's real shooting innovation comes with those weapons many ammo types.
Most weapons have a variety of bullet types you can load up in a gun. The pistol, for instance has bullets called Fat Mammas that tear through targets as if they're made of paper. It also has an ammo pack that turns the weapon into a machine pistol.
Other weapons have far more interesting ammo types, though. The shotgun can shoot off grenades or EMP charges. The crossbow can shoot electrified bolts that kill and electrocute, taking out groups of clustered enemies if they happen to be standing in water. The mindcontrol bolt turns your target into a staggering, jittering zombie that you can force to walk toward other enemies for a few seconds before they explode.
While you can buy most of this ammo, it's not cheap. There are two ways to deal with the cost of the game's few general stores. You can earn money through side-quests, or by competing on foot or in car. The game's two big towns have racetracks where you can drive in a variety of races to earn a special cash used only for upgrading your vehicles. You can also head over to Mutant Bash TV, a post-apocalyptic television show that pits you against rooms full of mutants for cash prizes. You can also sell off the bits and pieces of clutter you collect on your wanderings through the world. Empty beer bottles, old Doom coffee mugs, radios, bits of scrap metal, can all be picked up and later sold. You can even gamble, trying your hand at the game's many mini and not so mini-games, like finger fillet, Strum, and that amazing collectible trading card game.
But it won't take long for you to realise the best method for getting the high end ammo is to make it yourself. The game's engineering system is pretty straight forward. First you need to purchase or find schematics for the ammo or item you want to build, then you need to find the required bits and pieces to build them. Some items, like quick healing bandages, only require two items to build. Other items, like games AI-controlled, spider-like sentry bot, requires a half-dozen or so items.
Once you have the ingredients, you can engineer anywhere: Just hop into your inventory screen, choose what you want to build and press a button.
Items, like the weapon selection and ammo types, offer another neat twist on just running and gunning. These buildable objects include grenades, decapitating Wingsticks you can whip at enemies, gun turrets, lockgrinders and those nearly sentient sentry bots. The sentry bots, when set loose, drop down at your feet and then scramble around an area looking for enemies to unloose machine gun spray at. Once they clear an area through gun fire, or the occasional pouncing attack, they scramble back to your side to walk through an area with you until they're blown to bits. It's almost like having a sidekick, though they rarely last very long.
Having someone by your side, even if it's only a dog-like spider bot, helps to give you a bit of companionship in your wanderings across the game's surprisingly broad settings.
The Xbox 360 version of the game comes on three discs. The first two contain the campaign, the third the game's multiplayer. The first disc of the two is the half of the world that includes Wellspring, the second includes the world of Subway Town. Both areas feature one major town, a wide mix of hang-outs and enemy dens and plenty of places to drive around and explore. Rage does an amazing job of delivering an eclectic mix of settings that provide gamers a chance to shoot their way through a variety of crumbling set pieces.
You will fight through collapsing hospitals and malls, shoot it out in an old garage, in bunkers, through a future military fort and an old prison. Most of my favourite backdrops, though, are on that second disc. My favourite of the lot is one of the end-game settings, a place that stretches its route through the teetering tin structures of cliff dwellings. It's one of the only places where you'll feel like you're not pushing your way through nearly always claustrophobic settings.
While id typically does a solid job of obscuring the required invisible walls found in these sorts of games, channeling players down set paths filled with enemies and objectives, they never really make use of their expansive world.
The game's biggest missed opportunity is that while there are massive outdoor settings packed with hostile vehicles and intricately detailed interior levels loaded with scrambling enemies, the two rarely meet.
When you're sent on a mission you nearly always find yourself driving to a door, getting out of your car and then entering a level. I would have loved to experience a more seamless transition from outdoor to indoor, one that allowed me to hop in and out of my vehicle, pick off enemies, approach the objective the way I wanted to.
It's one of the few design decisions I'm unhappy about in Rage, though overall I relished the experience of separately shooting and driving my way through this new id world.
The game also does have some technical issues, problems that may or may not bother you depending both on your willingness to put up with visual imperfections and which platform you're playing the game on.
Played on PC, the launch version of Rage was plagued with issues for some. Many of those problems are fixed or are being fixed, but even fully repaired, the computer version of id's latest title will be, at its best, the equal of the console version.
I was hoping for a game that would push my gaming rig to its full potential, but instead found a game that took some odd shortcuts in arriving on the computer.
The game's defibrillator is a the most obvious example of this. In Rage, when you die you get a second chance: A defibrillator hard-wired into your character kicks in, shocking you back to life and killing or stunning nearby enemies. On console the percentage of health restored and the amount of damage inflicted is determined by how well you match up thumbstick movements on your controller with what's on screen and then the timing of twin trigger pulls. On PC you just have to press a single button at the right time. It's a watered down equivalent, one that could be used as a metaphor for id's approach to the PC version of the game. The graphics and settings all seem like echoes of what you experience on the console.
Initially, I would have put the game's multiplayer in that category too. I was surprised and disappointed after wrapping up the game to be reminded that it doesn't include the sort of multiplayer I like to play most: Deathmatch.
It seemed a weird choice for the people who pioneered the mode, who coined the term, to not include it in their latest game. But after talking with some of the id folk about why they decided to bypass the typical multiplayer modes for a different take on multiplayer, I decided to spend a chunk of the day checking it out.
There are two types of multiplayer in Rage. Wasteland Legends is a batch of cooperative missions apart from Rage's single-player campaign that can be played and replayed locally and with folks online for high scores and leaderboard placement. They're solid, challenging shooter fare that have you working your way through a level with a buddy, shooting up everyone in sight.
Road Rage drops players is the game's only competitive multiplayer and, as the name implies, it takes place completely behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Initially, I wasn't a fan of the game's armed races and chases. But then I started playing around with the game's fourth mode, Carnage. Carnage is essentially deathmatch in cars. Once you get used to the peculiarities of the game's physics and odd assortment of gadgets and weapons, I loved it.
I discovered, while levelling up and unlocking new armour, cars, skins and weapons, that you can drastically alter the course of your airborne vehicle with a turbo boost simply by swivelling your car about in midair and hitting the thrusters. Suddenly, I found myself boosting through in-air bootleg turns, bunny-hopping over approaching enemies, blasting away at dune buggies with in-car nailguns. It's a much more nuanced car combat game then I'm used to, and also a much more rewarding one.
The fact that there's just the one weapons-centric mode may start to tax my interest, but Road Rage is no throw-away addition, it's an engaging, different sort of online experience, exactly what id seemed to be aiming for when they decided to skip traditional deathmatch.
What I wasn't as happy with was the game's conclusion. Rage's story isn't bad, it's just light. It feels like the prelude to something much bigger, a table-setter for future games set in a world with a rich fiction and eclectic environments. You are, as I mentioned earlier, not the hero of this game.
That doesn't bother me that much, just like the sometimes rough finish of the game's technical presentation doesn't bother me. Sure there are issues, but there is so much to fall into and examine that the fact that the game isn't constantly stroking my ego isn't a big deal.
In Rage you are a guy, one of many people, buried in the ground in preparation for a world-ending comet strike. When you pop free of the stasis you've been placed in for years, you're not the only one to make it out alive, just the only one who survived in your particular pod.
Early on, the survivors of Rage's world make it clear that you have special powers, but they also almost immediately get busy taking advantage of you and those powers.
It's a vastly different experience than what you'll normally find in a shooter. There are several times in Rage when you show up to play the role of the hero only to discover your just the latest hero, sent in to fix a problem. More than once, I found myself searching through the pockets of the last hero, hoping to find a little extra cash or ammo.
The game's first mission makes it clear you're just the new guy, not "the guy." If you die, things don't end, they just find a new person to send. And that message never wavers. When it finally sinks in that I'm just an armed messenger, it didn't really bother me.
But the developers could have done so much more with that decision. While it frees them from the need to build up a story around you as world saver, it shouldn't preclude any sort of character development. Not being a hero doesn't also mean not having a backstory or motivation to do anything other than be a messenger boy.
The ending, while a perfect fit for the notion of player as useful tool, misses a wonderful opportunity to highlight id's interesting narrative decision. They could have used the ending to shock a player into the realisation that they're a nobody in a dying world, ultimately expendable now that things are nicely in motion.
It's not a terrible misstep, just a missed opportunity that could have nicely strengthened the game's final moments.
That said, I loved Rage. It's rare when I set aside a bit of time in my hectic schedule to relish the final moments of a game I've spent a dozen hours playing through.