The patriarchs of the first-person shooter genre, id Software, aren't known so much for the frequency of their releases as the inherent attention to technical detail likely to be found embedded in each one.
Much like the ageing figure of an esteemed relative ensconced snugly in a reclining chair, perhaps protected from a barely-detectable draft by a chequered blanket, emissions of the vocal type are few and far between. Yet when prompted, perhaps by a curmudgeonly tap of a time-worn cane on a wooden floor, the collective attention of all within distance can usually be summoned for what is likely to be an insight of profound significance.
At the risk of stretching this metaphor well beyond the tolerance of its elasticity, id Software have traditionally excelled at relaying incredible corridor combat mechanics – that much is a given – yet their storytelling often falls flat, with an inability to meaningfully integrate their undeniable technical prowess with the inhabitants of the world they create. There's no shortage of literary potential, but it's forever locked away behind a door guarded by enemies; the slaughter of which forms the primary objective.
Rage is no different in this regard. From the outset, id ensure that combat remains the singular focus, with scant appreciation to any real character development. The story is founded on the unlikely chance that Apophis – a near-earth asteroid consisting of a rocky core surrounded by bad news – happens to make landfall on earth at some point in the near future. After preserving specimens of our species in underground Arks to avoid an event that would fortuitously cause the cancellation of Country Calendar (but in all other respects would be entirely disagreeable) the player emerges as a survivor 106 years later.
Without even so much as the opportunity to visit a restroom after a sleeping session that makes Rip Van Winkle look like a talentless hack, the player is thrust into the glare of a post-apocalyptic world very much resembling a shanty town in Arizona, albeit with a finer attention to external aesthetics. But whilst Rage may be covering ground previously stamped over by publisher Bethesda's other sensation Fallout 3, the wasteland reveal is a more tepid affair, in no small part tempered by a seriously worrying amount of texture pop-in.
The idTech 5 engine so lovingly nourished by legendary developer John Carmack is more than impressive. Texture quality, even on mid-range machines, shows an attention to detail that must be experienced to be believed. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, spinning in an arc causes a brief delay while the display applies another layer of filtering to bring the textures to maximum. It's extremely noticeable, and sadly, affects any suspension of disbelief required to navigate around the decidedly incongruous story.
Within five minutes, the player is expected to cope with the realisation that the world is now barely more appealing than a holiday in Detroit, everyone he has ever known is likely dead, and it's necessary to run endless Fed-Ex quests for NPC's dressed like trick-or-treating children going for the Game of Thrones look. It's not that these missions are dull in any way – almost all consist of making way to a location and eradicating a particular collection of designated foes – nor are they ever laborious or too brief, it's just that it's all been seen before; with more humour and style in Borderlands, and more character development in Fallout 3, two titles that Rage will endlessly be compared to despite vast differences in gameplay execution.
Adding frustration to the mix is the utterly unforgivable saved game system. There's no autosave to speak of, and checkpoints are placed largely at the instant a mission is completed. It's therefore possible to complete a mission, hand it in and be three-quarters of the way through another mission before dying. Respawning to the realisation that the last time manual saving was widespread AGP slots were considered an up-and-coming technology, then appearing 45 minutes back in the story are likely to induce the sort of symptoms hinted at in the title of the game.
It's therefore necessary to approach Rage with a set of expectations that holds true to all id games: shooting is paramount, deaths are frequent and gibs are messy.
Fortunately, id doesn't disappoint. Combat, while essentially linear and nowhere near as open-world as may have previously been suggested during the development phase, is a thoroughly satisfying affair. Forever lauded with accusations that id generally make games as technological demonstrations before considering other padding, they've certainly excelled themselves when it comes to fast-paced frag-fests. Mutants appear from all quarters, maniacally taunting before scurrying over ruined terrain to attack. Using an array of weapons that start at the mundane and eventually stray towards the utterly ridiculous, enormous entertainment can be had by emptying clip after clip into enemies, blowing vast sprays of blood from their ruined bodies as they rail around attempting to retaliate.
Indeed, the AI is remarkably adept at positioning itself in areas to cause maximum damage. Despite a relatively short list of monster variants, each appear well equipped to use whatever weapons they have at hand to prevent player progress. Weapons, incidentally, that can't be looted. Still, despite having fairly repetitive catch phrases, and accents lifted from a Guy Ritchie movie where half the actors have been redubbed in Russian, at least they're no pushover.
On top of the combat staples that id effortlessly excel in, the general gameplay environment carries with it a large number of component items that can be picked up, or looted from fallen enemies. These, along with associated schematics, can be used to craft new items and ammunition, which can then be added to a quick-switch menu for speedy access, or bound to a number key for a more old-school approach. Progression reveals increasingly powerful items with a solid upgrade curve, even allowing mind-control bolts for crossbows, spider robots and all manner of exploding projectiles. The lethal wingstick boomerang is a crowd-pleaser, with a satisfying capacity to cause maximum damage and hilarious decapitations.
There's no fear of a clumsy console port here either, mouse targeting is swift and precise, as is the in-game inventory and associated game menus.
Two multiplayer options exist. Either by creating a private match or teaming up with randoms, it's possible to form a four-member killing machine online and race upgradable vehicles around a designated race track in the wilderness. Vehicles are a new addition to the id catalogue of games; their inclusion is welcome, and comprehensively handled. Piloting these Mad Max-inspired jalopies around the rugged terrain shows a solid attention to vehicular physics, and any suggestion that id can't turn their considerable talents to a new method of locomotion are entirely unfounded. Buggies can be upgraded and decked out with all manner of projectiles that many only dream of in gridlocked traffic, making for a fast-paced, well co-ordinated racing mode that many will gravitate to once the campaign grows stale. Leaderboards are a nice, if somewhat compulsory inclusion.
Two-player co-op entitled Legends of the Wasteland provides sub-missions deviating from the original story arc, and allow private and public participation in closed instances. There's plenty of challenge here, as well as opportunities to try out weapons and strategies not in play in the campaign. It is possible to complete these missions solo, but not recommended as the difficulty can be extreme without able assistance.
Rage is most definitely and demonstratively an id Software title; the combat alone pushes it to the top of the current crop of first-person shooters, and the visual splendour will likely keep it there for some time. It may lack the open-world versatility of S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Fallout 3, the weapon diversity and sheer madness of Borderlands, yet it manages to provide thrilling corridor action and surprisingly well crafted racing that reasserts id's lofty position in the studio charts.
Developers once looked to id to glean an insight into the future of gaming, particularly from a technical standpoint. This still rings true, but the data is clearly flowing in one direction. The only real failings in Rage are indicative of a studio that hasn't looked closely enough at the structure of other titles that include storytelling and NPC interaction at a far more comprehensive level.