Id’s wasteland shooter Rage misfired in many directions, but it also had a lot of influence
Early on in Rage, amidst the rusting metalwork and shabby stalls of the town-hub of Wellspring, a vendor is selling a vehicle sticker, bearing the legendary ‘Id’ logo. The description for the sticker reads: “One of the last reminders of a long-dead race of game developers.”
It was just a gag, of course, but also germane for a studio whose glory days of Dooms and Quakes—of vicious pace and tight level design in grimy settings that existed for the sole purpose of armed combat—seemed a wistful memory by 2011. Id was struggling to stay relevant in a changed FPS landscape, and the developer’s anxieties were palpable in Rage, in its dissonant stabs at open-world structure and RPG elements. But beneath the chaos there were glimmers of old-school excellence that anticipated Id’s resurgence five years later with Doom.
In 2007, Id began work on Doom 4, a project that would eventually descend into development hell. Then in 2008, Id revealed that it had recently stopped work on a secret survival horror project that had been in development for 18 months. So when Rage was announced in 2008, it inadvertently took Id’s legacy on its shoulders. Just like its great forebears, it was expected not just to shake s**t up, but take a chainsaw to s**t and leave it bouncing off the walls in big brown giblets. That didn’t quite happen. Rage crash-landed in 2011, sprawled across three discs on Xbox 360, and taking up an unfathomable 22GB of hard drive space. Set in a barren post-meteor-strike world, you’re cast as the only surviving super-soldier of a life-preservation pod. This being gaming, ‘supersoldier’ equates to ‘subservient dogsbody’ as you unquestioningly accept orders from every Tom, Dick, and disinterested John Goodman you meet to purge the wasteland of bandits, before being drafted into a resistance movement (called The Resistance) to single-handedly topple an oppressive authority organization (called The Authority).
It was placeholder narrative stuff, not that that ever hindered id in the past; few of us mulled over the political oppression of Quake’s grunts or thought to research the evolutionary history of Doom’s imps. Historically, this story-thin approach was always justified by the fact that Id was a master in the actual FPS business of shooting Nazis/mutants/ monsters in the face, and making it a blast to do so. But with Rage, Id was straining to do more, perhaps intimidated by the broad scope of its successful post-apocalyptic contemporaries, Fallout 3/New Vegas and Borderlands. And for a little while after you start playing, it looked like Id may just pull it off. Rage’s confident tone and meaty art design, bolstered by the technical splendor of the shiny new Id Tech 5 engine, teased a vision of the post-apocalypse that certainly had its own unique character.
That airship floating around near the beginning of the game, the chunky six-shooter design of the Settler Pistol, the vibrant, lively feel of Wellspring right up to its portly monocled Mayor; it was promising world-building, conjuring a Steampunky world of eccentric characters and strange, rickety machinations. But then it shifts, and suddenly you’re tearing your way through a dead city with unexplained masses of gore oozing out of every crack and crevice, then you’re being repeatedly car-ambushed in a desolate wasteland, then you pop into a sleazy neon-lit Subway city, and by the end you’re killing grey
techy soldiers in grey metal corridors using a grey Pulse Cannon. And then it ends, abruptly. Instead of sticking to a singular vision, Rage plays out like some kind of GPU benchmarking sequence that’s lovely to look at, but makes no sense whatsoever… but you’re kind of intrigued to keep at it anyway because just look at the crispness of those clouds in the sky.
Deriving from the Borderlands mould, Rage’s Wasteland was vaguely open-world, with a couple of small town-hubs inhabited by wonderfully designed but shallow characters who’d assign you side-missions and story missions. You could head out into the wasteland on foot, but the complete lack of encounters suggests it wasn’t designed for that. The preferable means of transport was a hulking Mad-Maxxed vehicle that you could upgrade by winning races.
The open world was more of an open space, with no strange sidequests or narrative rabbit-holes to get sucked into, nor points on the horizon that compelled you to drop what you were doing and go exploring. There was an impressive illusion of scale though, aided by the stunning visuals and skyboxes facilitated by Id Tech 5. The much-touted ‘Megatextures’ (or Virtual Texturing) helped too, essentially turning all the game’s textures into one seamlessly blended carpet, with textures self-generating according to the contours of the surface, what textures they were next to, and other technicalities that Id’s technical guru John Carmack could barely contain his excitement about. The result was that Rage had quite possibly the most natural, organiclooking world surface of its generation. But that’s all it was, a surface.
The races, the town-hub structure (and the crafting, while we’re at it) weren’t bad in themselves, they just felt like distractions from the core of Rage, the black beating heart with lead pipes for valves that was the actual shooting. And it was here, amidst Rage’s rotting ruins, groaning furnaces, and dusty warehouses filled with violent madmen of different flavors, Id showed that they were still masters of their craft.
Weapons felt crunchy and weighty, and none of them became obsolete as the game progressed (with a couple of Fatboy bullets and a monocle, even the Settler Pistol remained viable throughout). The requirement to reload staggered the action a bit (this was before Id realized that the biggest innovation to reloading in a shooter was to get rid of it), but this was compensated by off-hand weapons that you could use at any point; the ability to cancel a reload to throw a three-winged boomerang capable of swift, clean decapitation was a great flourish of flowing combat.
Enemies would run you down with animal rage, mutants would cling to ceilings and walls to pelt you with projectiles, while more sensible soldiers would stop-and-pop and retreat as necessary. The animations added to that sense of impact, with your assailants jolting and stumbling as you peppered them with machine guns, and flying operatically through the air when you despatched them with the ubiquitous Id shotgun.
It was good bloody carnage, taking place in glorified corridors that kept you rigidly on the critical path, ensuring you were never distracted from the immediate action in front of you, index finger glued to the trigger. These levels were largely functional and somewhat homogeneous, designed to engage through encounters, hands-on action
“Rage had quite possibly the most natural, organic-looking world surface of its generation. But that’s all it was, a surface”
and mechanics rather than cinematic spectacle. But there was one that stood out.
That level was Jackal Canyon, late in the game; a breathless sprint along the narrow ledges, zip-lines and rope-bridges of a furious wasteland tribe with possibly the best unintelligible blabbering heard in any game. The sky is filled with the burning trails of mortars as you get bombarded from afar, while up close the apoplectic locals endlessly charge you with clubs and shotguns. And there were bomb balloons floating up from the canyon floor, because why the hell not? This area not so much immersed as submerged you in the action, forcing you into swift turns, split-second planning, 360-degree awareness and electric reflexes to push through the assault. And it’s in the all-angles aggression and kineticism of this segment that we get the first glimmers of what Doom would eventually become.
On the other hand, Rage was fettered by the conservative conventions of its time. There were a lot of stop-and-pop shootouts, and a lot of retreating to cover as you waited for your bloodied vision to recede, when your body would presumably squeeze bullets out of your organs with the ease of eking chewing gum out of a packet. You could jump, but you never had reason to apart from reaching out for a zipline (which only meaningfully featured in Jackal Canyon), and sprinting was restricted to three-second bursts that left you panting similarly to how original Doomguy would after receiving a rocket to the skull. Rage’s hero—let’s call him Rageboy—just didn’t seem designed for the hyperactive action of an Id game.
Rage didn’t sell as well as publisher Zenimax had hoped, causing provisional plans for a sequel to be scrapped. But fate, it seemed, had a taste for an ironic twist. The Rage team was merged with the ailing Doom 4 team in 2012, part of a move which would tear Doom 4 away from its original spectacle-shooter vision (aka ‘Call of Doom’) and towards the beast we eventually got in 2016. Two years on from Doom’s success, and what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago has transpired: Rage 2 has been announced. The very chain of events that aborted Rage 2 has led to its reincarnation.
Untethered from the stodgy status quo of 2011, the Rage 2 gameplay trailer suggests that Id (working alongside Avalanche Studios) is taking cues from Doom—high-jumps, landing on enemy’s heads, and hulking guns that take up half the screen. It’s embracing the excess and, on the scant evidence, leaving behind those tired vestiges of realism from the original game.
Like its developer, Rage was a lost soul in 2011, lacking the kind of inspiration and dynamism that we’d later see in the likes of Wolfenstein: The New Order, Dishonored and, of course, Doom. It was a competent, by moments brilliant, shooter that suffered for trying to fit with the times, rather than looking for the spark to set it apart. Now that Id’s rediscovered its spark and teamed up with a developer skilled in open-world bombast, Rage 2 is primed to take us deeper into a post-apocalyptic world that we’d merely skimmed the surface of in its predecessor. At the very least, it was a damn good-looking surface...
Above Unless you want to enter a world of pain, you better do as John Goodman says.
Above Rage remains a visual showcase of the Id Tech 5 engine. It’s backwardscompatible on Xbo, but a 4k upgrade wouldn’t go amiss.
Top The Jackal Canyon level anticipated the ferocity we’d later see in 2016’s Doom. Above The Wingsticks were the best off-hand weapon in your arsenal, and the Rage 2 trailer suggests they’ll be coming back.