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The best games aren't always the best-looking. MineCraft attracted a cult following with crude, grainy graphics. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a title like RAGE. It's one of the most beautiful games you'll lay eyes on but it's also short on fun.
RAGE starts on a promising note. A brief cinematic shows an asteroid floating through our solar system and then finally hitting Earth. A select few, including the player, avoided the devastation by hiding in cryogenic pods called Arks that burrowed underground for years. The game starts with the player's Ark surfacing. He awakes to find that everyone else in his pod perished due to a technical failure.
You emerge from the pod, blinded by sunlight, and find yourself at the edge of a vast canyon. Once the textures pop in, it's a gorgeous view. This moment reminded me of the first time I stepped out of the Vault in Fallout 3, or the first time I stole a car in Grand Theft Auto. There was this feeling of immense possibility, like I was standing at the threshold of a massive gaming experience.
The thing is, RAGE's open world is a lie. You're not going to find anything of note by wandering through the wasteland. Any of the structures you'll find (like a bandit lair) are pointless to enter until it's time to do a story mission there. All the missions originate at the hub city you're whisked to at the start of each Act. The game's "open world" is merely a series of desolate roads you breeze through to get to your current mission.
Early on, you'll get a vehicle to make this commute easier. You can slap weapons on your rig, upgrade the performance, and so on. There's little reason to bother, though. Your car's quality only matters in optional content, such as the bland, short races against A.I. drivers or the generic "kill 5 bandits outside town" quests that the local bartenders give you. If you're just sticking to the story missions, your car will simply be a means for you to speed through the game world.
The open-world fumblings of RAGE could've been overlooked if the missions - taking place in buildings separated from the overworld by loading screens - were solid. The first five minutes of each mission is fun, at least. RAGE's enemies look amazing. They move convincingly, too. Mutants, for example, will climb up walls and leap over obstacles. They stagger, collapse, and even crawl upon taking damage.
The problem, though, is that the missions don't change at all. The entire half-hour or so is the same as those initial five minutes. You'll fight the same one or two types of enemies over and over as you proceed through the level. Killing them becomes a chore, and you start to realize that they take way too many bullets to kill. The environments get repetitive as well. While the overworld of RAGE looks great, the interiors of these missions are dank corridors with recycled visuals.
Even the more inspired segments of the game fall flat. At one point, you're forced to participate in a deadly game show. While making your way through this bizarre funhouse, you find yourself in a room with spikes that pop out of the ground in random places. The challenge, then, is to fight off enemies while avoiding these spikes. It sounds kinda fun...until you realize that you're completely safe from the spikes by staying on the large platform you started the event on.
The player's arsenal is the only source of variety in the game. The weapons are all pretty much Shooter 101 fare: pistol, shotgun, crossbow, rocket launcher, assault rifle, etc. Still, what seems them apart a bit are the different types of ammo they can use. For example, the crossbow can use a mind-control dart that lets you take over an enemy, walk him over to his friends, and blow him up. These special types of ammo, along with items like sentry bots or explosive remote-control cars, can be crafted using items you find throughout the game. It's not enough to save the bland campaign experience, though.
The campaign's not even worth playing through for the story. For at least two-thirds of the game, you're simply doing odd-jobs for the game's characters. The story missions feel like side missions. You'll deliver a letter to a settlement, find a missing settler, and so on - tasks that are important to the game's characters but which have no relevance to the main plot. The plot only comes back into view for the last third of the nine-hour campaign, and at that point it's too late to deliver a meaningful story. It feels like the first part of a much larger game, rather than a complete game.
RAGE's multiplayer is surprisingly thin, considering it was made by the same developer that brought us Quake. The only competitive mode it offers is Road Rage. Up to four players race around an arena trying to collect randomized checkpoints before their opponents. You get one point per checkpoint, but you get 30 points by hitting three checkpoints in a row. You can end an opponent's streak and also steal his points by killing him.
It's not a terrible mode but it can't carry the game's competitive multiplayer on its own. Vehicle combat is pretty thin; your guns auto-aim so it's just a matter of getting behind an enemy and spamming your fire button over and over. The four-player cap means the fights are pretty tame. You can experience long stretches where you never see another opponent. You earn experience points through these matches that let you unlock new cars and weapons, but upgrades aren't enough to keep the mode exciting.
A two-player cooperative mode called Legends of the Wasteland is also included. It's a series of standalone missions with limp connections to the main storyline. Wanna know how Dan Hagar got that sniper rifle he gave you in the campaign? Well, um, two of his friends shoot up a bunch of bandits and found it. True story. The only positive thing I can say about Legends is that it extends the length of RAGE a bit and throws co-op fans a bone. Still, fighting through a corridor of identical enemies doesn't suddenly become fun when you bring another player in.
RAGE very likely won't live up to the grand hopes you had the first time you saw a screenshot or trailer. It's an impressive piece of technology but that's the only compliment it deserves. The incredible visuals simply mask a very average shooter.
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks