RAGE-worthy (Part II)

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Where was I?

Right — Rage. I started off my… what I think is now long and self-indulgent enough to call an “essay”… about Rage by pointing out how confused it is as a whole. Of course, like a dope, I racked up a thousand and a half words talking pretty exclusively about the story, and that’s not where Rage is really confused. Dumb, maybe, but I think it embraces its dumbness. And who cares — I mean, really cares — about the story in an id game?

You could say the only mistake that was made there was in having one, or at least in propping it up on Front Street like it was something worth the player’s attention. But no, where the game really spills its Cheerios all over itself is in the gameplay department, which is, like I was saying back at the beginning, a confusing mess — of half-realized concepts and clashing philosophies. And that’s what you want to hear about, so let’s get into that, shall we?

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“Check it out!” they said. “We’re making a racing game!”

Uh… oh… okay. I thought you guys made shooters, but that’s cool I guess.

“That’s the beauty of it! We’re doing both — a great shooter and a great racing game — all in one package!”

The final package is actually three genres all wrapped into one, though, but who’s counting? A little shooter, a little racing, a little RPG… Emphasis on the “little,” because that part is important. (This will be on the test.) The problem isn’t even how many genres Rage tries to be; it’s the attention it gives to each and how it ties them all together (i.e. it doesn’t).

The racing was the big selling point id was hanging their hat on. By its very nature you sort of have to talk about it separately, because it’s separate in a very real sense from the rest of Rage‘s world. Sure, the driving goes on all over the place, and you’ll be driving to reach just about every mission, but the racing itself goes down in this weird netherworld — the same areas reused but detached from and outside of the world’s story and internal logic.

It’s fun, though. It really is. But there’s also no depth to it — and the game seems to know the racing sequences will quickly turn from fun distraction to I’m-done-with-this-nonsense, so rather than be sensible and expand upon the racing mechanics and marry them more effectively with the rest of the game (or excise the bloat entirely), they just force the races on you.

“You will play this content, and you will enjoy it!”

Aside from the two 100% mandatory quest-related races, since the circuit is one of only two ways to upgrade your car (and you probably don’t want to do it the other way — grinding bounties by blowing up bandit cars), you’re going to be racing a lot. Probably in long binges followed by totally ignoring the racetrack for half the game. Maybe if the racing was integrated better with the rest of the game… If you had to actually drive to the location of the race, if the story and world design put more of an emphasis on the racing as key to the plot. I don’t know — anything! As it stands, the races feel tacked-on at best.

So to get you through them faster, I’ve compiled my list of ProGamer Protips for each kind of match:

Protip: In no-weapon races, drive fast and don’t hit things.

Protip: In weapon races, stay behind everyone until the last lap. Then blow everyone to heck and claim first place. If they shoot at you after that, just pop your shields. You’ll have enough to last pretty much the whole lap, so there’s absolutely no way you can lose.

Protip: In rallies, memorize where and in which order the beacons appear so you can be there before everyone else.

Congrats. You’ve got first place in every race. Now you can get back to the good parts of the game!

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The driving!

No, seriously. I actually enjoy the non-race driving a lot. I liked it in Borderlands and I liked it in Far Cry 2 even though no one else did. Driving between objectives makes the world come alive for me. It makes it less confined and more believable; it makes it feel big, like a world should. And Rage‘s driving sequences are full of bandit cars to destroy and cool jumps to play around on, which very often reward you with loot if you can manage to launch yourself into the hovering Authority probes scattered across the wasteland. It’s sort of like the diamond-collecting in Far Cry 2, but on a much smaller scale.

But… that’s a running theme here. No matter which part of the game you’re talking about — good or bad — it feels underdeveloped. The racing could have been something neat if they’d given it some more love. The open-world driving stuff — what’s there, anyway — is great; I just wish there was more. But nowhere did I feel this unwelcome brevity more than in the first-person shooting.

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Ugh. I feel kind of sick. Did… did anyone playtest this? You didn’t notice that blurring the entire screen every time you get shot is about ten times worse than the wild head-flailing in Doom 3 that everyone already complained was overkill?

Okay, so aside from that, shooting in Rage is fantastic. As you might expect. It’s simple but satisfying, unencumbered by a cover system or weapon-limit, with cool enemies and cooler guns (aside from the utterly useless AK and Authority MG). Even the occasional rad boss. And maybe that’s the problem — not being “modern” — because Rage distracts the player from its shooting mechanics to the point of looking self-conscious about it. Aside from regenerating health (ugh), id is still stuck in the ’90s way of doing a first-person shooter. To me that’s awesome, but I wonder if the fact that they weren’t really experienced making the cinematic coverfests of the modern FPS scene was the reason id buried the shooting sequences under layers of minigames and racing and RPG mechanics and dialogue and more dialogue.

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And because so much focus that could have gone toward improving the shooting went to other areas, the shooting suffered, most notably in the form of How to Reuse Levels for Fun and Profit. Not only do the combat areas tend to be rather short, but unless I’m mistaken, all but two are shamelessly reused, usually once as part of the main quest and once in a side quest. Often, on the second run, you’ll have to traverse the same level but in reverse. Talk about variety!

I think there’s probably a reason a game like Borderlands focuses more on the combat mechanics than on racing. Or why it leaves out in-universe trading cards and guitar-playing minigames. When Rage throws these extra gameplay modes at you, it doesn’t come across as a game bursting with variety; it feels like a game that isn’t confident enough in its core mechanics and instead tries to keep you occupied with shiny distractions.

But… Rage, darling… you’re a good shooter. No — you’re a great shooter. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Just be yourself and if they don’t appreciate you, they weren’t worth your time anyway!

I actually get this (perhaps completely wrong) sense that a sizable contingent of the team just wanted to make Doom 4. A lot of the game feels like it could have been Doom 4, and it actually spends a lot of time looking like it is Doom 4. I mean, swap out the meteor for a portal to Hell and the mutants for demons, and poof — there you go. That’s probably not fair to say, though. For what it’s worth, I do think Rage works as its own thing, and it could have been a solid, cohesive whole if not for all its time spent adding fluff rather than substance.

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The most harebrained of those fluff-adding ideas has to be when someone on the team stood up and added, “There should be lots of crap to pick up!” And then someone else was like, “Yeah, and with all the stuff you find, there could be a crafting system!”

These two are especially offensive to me because even on paper they sound like bad ideas. I’m okay with the other RPG mechanics, whether it’s adding side quests for length, or an economy to reward players for doing those sidequests and looking for secrets and basically for spending more time engaging with the world.

What bugs me, though, is showstoppers like the loot and crafting systems. What happened to the days when I could just run over items and they’d be sucked into my inventory by the sheer magnitude of my winning personality? Now you have to stop every two minutes and comb over the room of dead guys you just deadified in order to pick each one of their pockets for loot. So the shooting proceeds in fits and starts: a moment of super-exciting blasty-blasting; a moment of looting drudgery; repeat. It could have fit if the gameplay was slower-paced, where visceral, kinetic combat is not the focus. If this was a Human Revolution or a Bioshock. But it’s not.

And the crafting? The only things I ever crafted were wingsticks and upgraded ammo. And the occasional lock grinder when I had to to get into a locked room. That’s it. Bandages? Useless with regenerating health. Those things that make you do more damage or regenerate faster? Why would I use those when the game is already too easy on Nightmare? Turrets and sentries? I want to shoot the bad guys, not let some robot do it for me! At the end of the day, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t just remove the afterthought of a crafting system and let us buy this stuff at a shop.

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So at this point I’ve been pretty hard on Rage, but that’s about to change. Hold onto your butts, because we’re going for a ride. Specifically, an airship ride — to Subway Town! And the transition from the first town to the second one marks the exact moment I transition from confused, conflicted amusement to genuine, totally-on-board enjoyment. We shift, with absolutely no warning, or reason really, from the generic Fallout/Borderlands desert wasteland to a wonderfully stylish alien landscape that could never and would never exist on Earth. But that’s okay because it’s awesome.

And from the moment I’m dropped into Subway Town, I’m enjoying myself ten times more. I can’t explain it. I’ve played through Rage twice now, and both times I’ve found myself extremely conflicted all through the first part of the game, and head over heels in love with the second part. The levels do feel more open, I guess, even if it’s just an illusion; and enemies swarm you from all directions rather than charging in from the front. And how awesome is that final bandit hideout — the Jackals? I mean, seriously.

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But the truth is I start loving the game before I even get to those parts. It happens the moment I step into Subway Town, and I’m not sure if it’s just that it’s got a ton more character than anything in the earlier areas or what. The stuff that follows only gets better from there, until you’re driving into the heart of the Authority’s territory to bring the fight to them. You’re finally given the most powerful gun in the game and let loose to wreak havoc, and havoc you will wreak. Whatever wreak means.

Maybe it’s just me, but the high-tech fortress here is the high point of the game. Mowing down soldiers with a pulse minigun gives you a sense of power you’ve never felt prior. At this point, you’ve long-since stopped caring about loot, so you’re blasting your way through the final area of the game, stepping over bodies, and giving exactly zero damns about pausing to search the dead. And that simple change in mindset takes the game to all new heights. The instinct now is to go forward and shoot everything that moves, like in a real first-person shooter.

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Now we’re cooking with gas. Up we go, higher and higher into the stronghold of the Authority. I don’t care about the whys anymore. I’m not wondering why the world makes no sense or the characters have no motivation. I’m just shootin’ dudes like in the good ol’ days. I’m having fun. I’m having fun, guys! This is it: the climax. Fight some mutants and push these buttons, right? What’ve you got in store for me, Rage? I’m ready for any final battle you can throw at me! Just le’me at ’em–

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WHAT? That’s it?

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