Editorial: Why RAGE suffers from an identity crisis

Everyone say hello to Mike, our new features guy. He’ll be furiously scribbling out his thoughts on the latest games and the state of the industry every Saturday. For his debut, he takes a look at why id Software’s latest, RAGE, failed to captivate him.

It’s one in the morning and I’ve cumulatively been playing id Software’s RAGE for roughly five hours. By this point, I usually have formed a first impression determining whether I want to play through the rest of a game or not. My thoughts aren’t forming into what I had hoped they would and I’m left in a peculiar place.

You see, I wanted to give RAGE a fair shake. I wanted to lend it some sort of credibility, it being being from id Software after all, the seasoned developer’s first game in a long time. But I couldn’t find it in me to continue after playing through a healthy portion of it. During those few hours, I sat through a lengthy install, viewed a flat introduction, shot rebels, did fetch quests, killed bandits in buggies, admired texture pop in, shot mutants, and did more fetch quests.

With some time to reflect, I’ve realized that RAGE suffers from an identity crisis. It’s the Frankenstein of post-apocalyptic games for this generation that unfortunately values style over substance. My frustration and lack of desire to play any further is justified and here’s why.

Mix mash of RPG, first-person shooter, and racing elements

RAGE’s development clearly was inspired by quite a few games we’ve seen since Doom 3 hit in 2004. We’ve got an open world like Borderlands and Fallout mixed with the visual style of the former without the distinct identity of the latter. The game has this unhealthy obsession with being an RPG, but acts on it half-heartedly.

We have the ability to “engineer” items, but the only thing they require is the permission to create them and finding the materials, which are plentiful. The inventory system isn’t intuitive and the looting process requires the pressing of one button, with no choice in what can be taken. This wouldn’t be a pressing concern if the experience sorting through everything was pleasant.

First-person shooting is standard fare not unlike id Software’s previous efforts, Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s Call of Duty,Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 and what have you. You shoot enemies and they keel over, get their heads chopped off, or explode in a fine red mist. We have the sniper rifle, the pistol, the rocket launcher, the grenades, the crossbow, the turrets, the gravity gun the shotgun, and blades thrown in for good measure.

We’re given the ability to make decisions. And by ability, I mean you can choose which upgrades you’d like to make to the standard issue weapons given. These upgrades do mix up the formulaic nature of the gun-play, and their presence is the saving grace that keeps killing enemies, which you’ll be  doing a lot of, somewhat varied.

The problem is, the weapons you receive get the job done as is, and there’s no need for these upgrades until the later stages of the game, unless you want to mix up the killing sprees early on. There are generally three enemy types and the only difference between them are whether they possess weapons, armor, or are just bare knuckling it. You can get by without ever needing anything more than the bare minimum. Furthermore, whether you’ll die or survive is often predicated on whether the developers wanted you to go that way or not, heavily dulling the sense of an open world.

And then there are the buggy mechanics, clearly influenced by such games as MotorStorm and Burnout without the understanding of the concept of fun. It’s shoe-horned as a way to get around the semi-open world and you can use it to participate in races… to earn weapons for the said vehicle… to kill more factions of rebels and soldiers and get you to dens… to murder mutants.

The game tries to tie all of these elements together and feels disjointed, as a result. The health system is a wonderful example of this. There are bandages or “health kits” players can collect and engineer on their own. This must mean that we don’t need to worry about having a love triangle between the iron sights of your weapon, cover, and the red that smears across the screen, right? No.

Regenerative health is present and the kits just instantly wipe the debris and red filter from your line of sight… Which eliminates the need for medical kits, when hiding behind cover does the exact same thing. There’s no reason for it, other than it’s what all of the “other” prominent first person-shooters are doing. And I dislike it. Immensely.

Fetch quest after fetch quest after fetch quest

One of the missions in RAGE requires you to leave the settlement that got you on your feet, but not without returning the favor by bringing them a round of supplies. Sounds simple enough, right?

“Very well, then,” I thought, “I’ll go grab your supplies and be back shortly.” So I walked over to my buggy and headed in the direction specified. I weaved through a clan of bandits and made it to the settlement. There, I was told to immediately go to the Mayor’s office and speak to him. I did so and was told to change my garb to something less conspicuous and meet the person who owns the garage because the supplies weren’t ready. After aimlessly wandering the settlement, I completed the two tasks and returned.

The Mayor, satisfied, suggested I go speak to the Sheriff of the town. After doing so I was informed that I will not be traveling with the supplies unless my vehicle is fitted with weaponry. I agreed to his demands and once again aimlessly wandered the town until I found the person who sold weapons for my buggy. I was then told that I must acquire “permission” to purchase these weapons and needed to compete in races to be given the privilege to buy them. I directed towards the fellow standing outside the arena, who then ushered me to talk to another party before I could even sign up for a race. I begrudgingly competed and easily won. So I purchases the weaponry… To finally go back and complete the original mission, which in case you’ve forgotten, was delivering the supplies.

All of the missions in RAGE involve collecting something and/or killing mutants/rebels, and later the game abandons all pretense and has you fight against armored soldiers. Everything is more or less a fetch quest  and the handful of side missions don’t differ from the primary objectives.

Rather than offer players a rich and lean meal, fodder is shoveled onto our plates, valuing quantity over quality. It’s unfortunate to say, but half of the game could have been left on the cutting room floor and nothing of value would have been lost.

A narrative that falls flat with forgettable characters

RAGE begins with a spiel about how significant people were placed into “Arks” of cryogenic pods in order to prepare to rebuild Earth for a better tomorrow. Asteroid strikes apparently wiped out most of humanity, with just a few pockets of survivors left to adapt and create small civilizations.

You wake up, the sole survivor of your Ark, and emerge from the chamber to a bright and mysterious post-apocalyptic worl– Yes, it sounds familiar. Yes, it’s reminiscent of Fallout 3 and I don’t think that’s an accident.

As you take your first steps, you find yourself over-run by a pack of mutants. Before you can be sodomized, a man by the name of Dan Hagar saves your amnesiac, voiceless self and offers you a ride into his settlement. We’re warned of a fascist, militaristic force called The Authority that will be looking for our hero. So we do a few chores, nab a a handful of weapons, and get a new suit of armor, which doesn’t change for the rest of the game. We’re constantly told about this looming threat, but a majority of the game is spent killing bandits, mutants, and more bandits.

The Authority finally do show up towards the later stages of the game and are more or less the heavily armored marines we’ve seen countless times before. We’re informed about their plans to (SPOILER ALERT) take over all of the wasteland settlements and presumably the world, because, why not? So like any mute character lacking characterization, we join The Resistance (brilliant names, eh?) to overthrow their rule.

To be honest, I don’t remember many of the characters and the entire string of events just blend together. It begins, meanders around, and then abruptly ends with little resolve. The primary objective is to form an army powerful enough to fight The Authority and we’re told that the Arks may be the best resource to mine. Because a bunch of people inflicted with amnesia is just what The Resistance needs to overthrow a tyrannical force, right?

A lack of identity but not functionality

RAGE, on a technical level, is impressive. Character animations are fluid (for the most part) and enemies often die in ways other than immediately hitting the ground like a rag doll. There’s variation in the voices you’ll hear and the acting is passable, if not exceptional, on occasions.

The game is visually commendable, what with it’s detailed textures and competent tech on the engine id Software created for RAGE. Although cracks in the foundation start to show when texture pop-in, glitches in the characters and terrain, and the like lay waste to your activities, depending on the platform you’re playing it on.

For all of my complaints, RAGE is functional. The problem is that the game lacks a sense of direction. Instead of making an exceptional first-person RPG, an excellent racing game, or a solid first-person shooter, the developer chose to stitch together a hodge-podge of elements it liked from its surrounding influences.

RAGE is a game that shows more of a focus was placed on its technical feats, when attention should have been paid to the story and consistent design direction. Yes, that terrain sure is impressive, id Software, but why do I not care about the narrative? Sure, those animations are fluid, but why do I have no desire to go through yet another fetch quest, murder spree, or  hybrid of the two? For all of its technical prowess, RAGE can’t decide what it wants to be. What it does has been done before and better. It’s valiant technical achievements are in vain when it lacks any notion of direction, which significantly cripples its entertainment value.

Fallout 3 is a game that has noticeably rigid character animation, questionable texture quality, and occasionally frustrating gunplay. Despite these flaws, I started playing it and found myself glancing at the clock and realizing in shock that several hours had passed. RAGE, on the other hand, had me glancing at the clock every ten minutes, hoping my system would spontaneously combust so I could have some variety to my evening.