What are you, Rage?
What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life? Really, that’s the question, and I can’t answer it for you.
Truth is — I’m not sure anyone at id agreed on what Rage was supposed to be either. If there’s anyone who’s more confused about what it’s getting into than the people who played this game in its first few months — it’s Rage itself.
I suspect a lot gamers were looking forward to a typical id shooter. Those who weren’t familiar with id were probably expecting a solid modern shooter with a post-apoc slant. A prettier Borderlands, maybe. Those who knew id for their engines were looking for the next huge leap in technology, or — you know — an engine that at least worked the way it was supposed to. But Rage isn’t any of those things; not really.
What it is is a mess. Let’s not mince words. It’s a mess, though not for the reasons everyone seemed to call it out on. The heart of the problem isn’t engine issues. It isn’t texture pop-in, or an overused setting either; or a lack of “innovation,” or an inability to embrace “advances” in the genre. It isn’t even bad writing (though I will complain at length about that one anyway). No, the heart of the problem is an identity crisis — the growing pains of a company that’s been left behind by the genre it created and so is stabbing out in new and uncertain directions — and the product of that crisis is a game that tries to answer the questions id has been asking of itself.
“Who am I? And where am I going?”
Rage‘s resounding answer: “Dude, can I have a few more months to think about that one?”
In short, this game is me in high school (and, I’ll admit, a few years after high school too). Rage has the bones and the soul of a first-person shooter. That’s what it knows; that’s what it is. But it wants desperately to be a racing game. And on the side it wants to dabble in what’s trendy: in RPG mechanics — here and there a little sidequesting, a little crafting, a little free-roaming world-mappery. Every one of those things it tries so hard to be, and there I am, wanting so badly for it to be good at them — but it’s just not meant to be. It spends all its time panickedly trying everything, to the point that it never has a chance to figure itself out. Instead, it decides to put off college for a while in favor of finding itself. Which turns out to be a really bad plan because the months become years and then the years become more years and then suddenly it’s still in school at 25 and looking at a couple more years before it’s done.
But — and brace yourself here — I love this game. I love it because it’s so confused, and it still tries its best. Because it’s an underdog and I can’t help rooting for the underdog. Because it’s a huge mess, but underneath all that, it’s really kind of beautiful. I love it because on some level, we understand each other. And Rage — I’m here for you, man.
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…
It all begins with a guy doing a bad John Goodman impression. What’s that?…oh, wow, really? That’s actually John Goodman? Oh, okay. In that case —
It all begins with John Goodman hamming it up super hard. Wait, wait. Sorry, I’m forgetting something. Probably because it feels utterly disconnected from the rest of the experience and has no earthly place in this game. I’m talking about this haunting, oddly touching, beautifully simple intro cutscene. After which, if you’re expecting some emotional impact from the rest of the game, get ready! (And when I say get ready, I mean because Rage doesn’t understand your silly human emotions, unless “fun” and “shenanigans” are emotions.)
Back to the plot, though. So you’re from the past and yadda yadda stasis chamber okay cool bandits attack and yeah whatever.
“I have a plan,” says Dan Hagar aka John Goodman, “and it’s going to fix everything for you and me.”
“Cool. Whatcha thinkin’?”
“You go to the bandit hideout by yourself and wipe them out.”
“…great plan, Dan.”
“Shut up and do it. I promise the game gets better after this.”
You just emerged, bleary-eyed, from one of the “arks” buried in the earth a hundred years ago, and you’re already being instructed to go murder thirty dudes for no reason. (You do it, of course, because you have no choice.) The writing, if you’re wondering, doesn’t improve.
Which I’d be okay with, but the story is center stage here, and the NPCs really really want to tell you all about it. This is some of the new ground id is treading here — having a detailed backstory — and this from the studio headed by John “videogames are just like porn; the story only distracts from the action” Carmack. There’s nothing wrong with focusing more on story more, but when your story is as dumb and predictable as this, devoid of any memorable characters… well, id may have benefited from listening to Carmack’s advice in this case.
Even Doom 3’s story is more compelling, and most of that story is told through e-mails and audio logs. Rage, for some reason, puts more focus and time and effort into what is a less interesting story than its predecessor.
And the world is such a dopey mess where nothing makes sense. What do the citizens of Wellspring eat? They’re not growing any crops that I can see. There’s a store with meat in the window, but… where did it come from? What do the bandits eat? — people? Is that why they’re so invested in killing the people of Wellspring? That’s the only motivation I can see a reason for it — but no… they try to do it with poison. I doubt they’d have much interest in poison-laced people-meat.
Also, how can my car explode five times in a race but still exist in pristine condition afterward? How can I still exist in pristine condition afterward? Why are we staging races in what you just told me was extremely dangerous bandit territory, with spectators just chilling on the sidelines? If (late in the story, after much ado) the Authority has put a ban on driving in the wasteland, why can I still drive in the wasteland? And when I return to town, and they’re looking for the guy causing them a bunch of trouble (i.e. me), why don’t they interrogate the guy who just violated the ban on driving in the wasteland?
There’s more story and gameplay segregation than you can shake a stick at.
“You need to blow a bunch of stuff up and get into this outpost and kill lots of dudes and then raise this bridge, and then we can finally access the Eastern Lands. It’ll be an ordeal; let me tell you.”
“But it can’t be that hard to get over there… We have races there all the time.”
“Shut up; no we don’t. That’s not canon.”
And then there’s these idiots:
The heads of the “Resistance,” whose master plan involves — you guessed it! — sending you on a bunch of quests to murder hundreds of people, and then for you to assault the Authority’s base of operations by yourself. They also deliver this gem of a plot device:
“We’ve just discovered that the mutants aren’t the result of radiation from the asteroid!”
“They were created by the Authority!”
“Because we couldn’t think of any other way to paint the Authority as TOTALLY EVIL.”
“No, seriously — why? Why would they need an army of mutants when they have technology 200 years more advanced than anything we have?”
But… I feel I’m being too harsh on poor Rage. Sure, the writing is brainless and the plot overdone and the characters characterless. Sure, the world makes no sense, but I really like being in that world just the same. When you get right down to it, it’s genuinely, stunningly beautiful. And even if the designers weren’t really sure what to do with the world (and even if they do plaster obnoxious color filters all over it sometimes), it’s rather charming as a place, if you can let all the story drapings and other nonsense fall by the wayside while you take a leisurely drive through the ruined landscape.
To say nothing of the gameplay, which I’ll say is as hit-and-miss as the setting — though more hit than miss if you ask me. And besides — who am I kidding? If you played Rage, it was the gameplay you cared about, not any of the other nonsense I’ve talked about, so let’s dive into the meat and potatoes of–
Huh? 1500 words already? Geez, that sure is a lot of words. I really am bad at keeping things concise. Okay, change of plans! Forward, comrades, to Part III!
(Here’s Part II!)