I've been thinking a lot about Rage lately. Last week, I dove back in. Minutes became hours, and I soon realised I was having a blast. When I was finally done, I had to ask: why doesn't Rage get the love it deserves?
When Rage was released in 2011, it received mostly middling reviews. Some critics praised the overall combat, but many panned it for a weak story and overemphasis on vehicles. It seemed as though fans and critics expected the impossible — on one hand, they wanted a classic id shooter, which meant pitch-perfect gameplay and great graphics. On the other, they wanted something that could compete with the best that modern gaming had to offer: Open worlds, RPG elements, and a deep and engrossing story. It was a tall order, and, based on its reception, Rage didn't satisfy.
But Rage is not a bad game. At its best, it's a brilliant action shooter. At worst, it's a flawed gem, a game chock-full of great ideas that didn't quite make it.
First among those ideas that didn't quite make it: The story. Here's how it begins: An asteroid has turned the earth into a wasteland. You leave a vault where you had been living. You get attacked. You get saved. You ride through the wasteland while your saviour, played by John Goodman, tells you what the world is like, but not really. He explains, for instance, that The Authority are bad dudes who wish normal people harm. Then he's all, "Oh, I guess you don't know about them! You just got here!" This is true, but it doesn't make his exposition enjoyable.
Consider Half-Life 2: You wake up on a train. Weaponless, you witness the cruelty of the enemy Combine first hand. They talk like jerks, beat people, then make it personal by forcing you to clean up after their garbage. One particularly affecting moment has you watch a helpless man being mercilessly beaten, before a Combine soldier closes the door, blocking your view. You can't even watch.
Half-Life 2 has plenty of storytelling problems, but its first level sets up the conflict between you and the Combine perfectly. Rage simply has characters tell you how bad the Authority are. Several hours in, I'd done almost every quest available to me, and had yet to see any of the Authority's troops. The Authority is a non-entity in a game where they're supposed to be the big bad. Imagine playing Half-Life 2 and not encountering the Combine until after you leave Ravenholm. Rage is like that.
Rage seems distinctly conscious of Half-Life 2 throughout the experience. However, Half-Life 2 has stakes. Real, personal stakes. Take the ending: Eli and Alyx Vance are in jeopardy! The cowardly Doctor Breen is escaping! I still haven't forgotten that. The ending of Rage? Uh… honestly, I have no idea. I mean, I know I was sticking it to the Authority and that the final cutscene had me manually opening all the vault things, but where was the personal connection? Who was I really doing this for?
Pure gameplay is great, but because games are about taking action, most people require some motive to fuel the effort they expend. This is especially true as graphics become more lifelike. It's one thing to shoot a few pixels on the screen in 1997, but was another to shoot a realistic-looking human being in 2011. We need good reasons for taking action. Rage never really provided one beyond "people are attacking, so attack them back."
Fortunately, the core of Rage's genius lies in its combat.
Most modern shooters feature regenerating health, which pushes players into cover every time they take damage. That adds a rough, start-stop quality to play, limiting a player's tactical options. Enemies are often somewhat tanky, which only exacerbates the issue. Modern shooters also often suffer from a lack of weapon diversity — sure, you've got fifty different assault rifles to choose from, but they don't change the way you play, rendering the choice meaningless. Rage addresses both of those problems.
Doom's encounter design focused on a mix of players attacking unassuming enemies and the occasional ambush. Rage's core gunplay is a weird, modern version of that. The newer game stumbles slightly by using a regenerating health system and featuring certain enemies that can be a struggle to dodge, but the rest of the game works to cancel this out and offer the player more interesting tactical opportunities. It starts before you even see an enemy.
One way to engage players in a shooter's world is to have them look for resources. It's part of the reason games like Dead Space 3 failed — when your resources are universal, there's no need to explore. If there's no reason to explore, then you find yourself paying less attention to the level, which pulls you out of the moment. Attention is why games like Dark Souls are so compelling. It engrosses players in the game. Rage's use of items and the crafting system behind them ensures that the player is always paying attention to their environment.
So, even before we find ourselves face to face with enemy forces, Rage works hard to connect us deeply to the environments we occupy. The required attention to the environment primes us for what comes next, both in terms of headspace and arsenal.
Rage's enemies, especially the mutants, are a sight to behold, leaping out through cracks in the walls, bum-rushing you down tunnels, using pipes on a ceiling to climb towards you, legs awkwardly dangling in the air. Some will dodge your fire, running up the wall like Faith in Mirror's Edge. I've had mutants run up to me, sliding under my fire as they get close to deliver a quick melee strike. I've watched enemies leap into doorframes, providing them with a chance to pounce.
Never before in a game have I faced enemies who felt this acrobatic. It's unusual to go from a shooter like Killing Floor 2, where I'm nailing consistent headshots, to a game like Rage, with enemies who leap, swerve, and dodge in confounding ways. It's fun precisely because it's so demanding of my attention.
Rage features a bunch of different types of ammo, offering even more tactical choice to the player. Want to mind-control someone? You can do that! Feel like shooting grenades at your enemies? That's what the shotgun's pop-rocket ammo is for. Rage even has a callback to Doom's ultimate weapon, the BFG 9000. Modern shooters may suffer from a lack of weapon variety, but Rage does not.
Combat becomess not just about picking the right weapon for the job, but picking the right ammo. Every shooter has this to some degree, but Rage feels rich and full, a hearty combat stew. If you've got pop-rockets, you'll try to keep enemies at range and attack them when they're in groups, in order to maximise your ammo. Mind-control darts give you minions to perform your dirty work, while rebar spikes pin enemies to walls, and railgun rounds shoot right through them. Every weapon and ammo type drastically alters the way you play.
Wingsticks, sentry bots, different grenade types, sentry turrets, and other items influence your playstyle as well. Wingsticks — think boomerangs on steroids — are great for ambushes or for quickly reducing the enemy count while reloading. Bandages mean you can stay out of cover longer, spending more time running around. Grenades are good for clearing large mobs of enemies, but if you kill them, you won't be able to loot enemies for resources that might make combat easier in the long run. Sentry turrets and bots are great for drawing enemy fire, though the bots work best when you're on the move and the turrets are good for last stands.
The common through-line here is all about attention and decision making. The best shooters facilitate player creativity, and Rage does so by providing its players with dozens of tactical options at any given moment.
It's one of the reasons why I've never had an issue with returning to previously-explored locations, and why I think singling Rage out for being "repetitive" is a mistake. I think it's easy to place too much emphasis on the visual diversity, rather than mechanical diversity. Which makes sense: It's easier to notice two visually distinct arenas than it is to notice whether they play differently.
Rage maps may be reused, but the tools provided to you are different, and the enemies spawn in different ways. You might go through one fight using shotguns, then come back later and try with mind control darts and sentry bots. It's a different experience each time, even if the level looks the same; plus, all of the recycled content is optional to begin with.
Then there's the cars. Rage's focus on cars didn't do the game any favours. Car combat is usually fun but can get old quickly, and Rage's car combat was particularly shallow — you have two basic weapon types for the majority of the game, not counting the occasional consumable item like mines. That means that most encounters play out the same. It gets old fast.
Rage is a content-heavy game; my first playthrough took 20 hours. It has a wide variety of minigames, quest, car races, and the like, which is fantastic in theory, but they're all shallow. There's only one level of Mutant Bash TV, a combat minigame, for instance. The game lets you repeat it as many times as you want, but it's the same map each time. It's indicative of the game on the whole: lots of minigames, little variation. The only thing keeping the game diverse is its combat. You can play a shallow card game with two different people, for instance, or a minigame that consists of clicking one button to roll dice.
Many of the side missions are simply a repeat of missions you've already played, this time in reverse. It's not to say they aren't fun — because the combat is great — but asking "haven't I been here before?" can get a bit old.
When Rage was released, fans were hoping for a game that met the movement-focused, design of a classic id game while still feeling relevant in the modern age of sophisticated video game narrative and expanded player freedom. While it may have failed to live up to its contemporaries in the latter regards, at its heart, Rage is still an id game. Sure, it's not quite as strafe-heavy, nor does it have you search for health packs or facilitate a lot of jumping, but it's fast, it's creative, and it's interesting. The game lives and dies by its combat.
Rage wasn't what we expected four years ago, but that's no reason to resent its existence. Taken on its own merit, Rage is a fascinating experiment. It doesn't always work right, and it could definitely be better, but that near-perfect combat has given me some of the best time I've spent gaming in a good, long while.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.