ret­ro­spec­tive: rage

Id’s waste­land shooter Rage mis­fired in many di­rec­tions, but it also had a lot of in­flu­ence

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - ROBERT ZAK

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.

Id-en­tity cri­sis

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.

Straight shootin’

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.

Bul­let time

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.

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