Martin Mathers goes hands-on with id Software’s essentially finished’ new shooter. Impressions and new screens are below.
In development at Texas-based id Software alongside DOOM 4.
id’s first new IP in 15 years following Quake in 1996.
Announced at Quakecon 2007 in Dallas.
Was originally due to be published by EA Partners, but Zenimax and Bethesda took over publishing rights in December 2009, five months after buying the developer.
Releases on October 4 in the US and October 7 elsewhere for PS3, 360 and PC
Five minutes in an extensive playtest of RAGE, id Software’s long-awaited new first-person shooter, and I’m already dead.
That’s not because I’ve spent that time failing to hit the side of the proverbial barn, even though I did for much of it. No, it’s more to do with the fact that my hands are tied and a wailing nutcase with piercings all over his face has just plunged a hunting knife into my chest.
Of course, I’m not actually dead – that’d be a dreadful anti-climax after four years of game development. Instead, it’s simply an organic tutorial, one of many spread throughout the first two hours of the game according to id’s own creative director, Tim Willits. This one’s for the Defibrillator; if the Nanobots in your body are charged enough upon death, you get a shot at coming back from the brink. Providing you’re fast enough with the analogue sticks and trigger buttons, anyway.
And so sure enough, I’m alive again and watching said nutcase fry from the static discharge of my success. Another five minutes later and I’m standing tall over the dead bodies of his remaining Ghost gang members, who’ve all acrobatically rushed me – swinging from rafters, somersaulting off ledges – and tasted the business end of my pistol. And why? Because some guy told me to go and kill them, that’s why.
Certainly, RAGE’s crux is built on people telling you to do stuff: this gang is threatening us, that guy’s gone missing, these people need supplies or whatever. Standard fetch quest stuff, for sure, at least in the beginning. And I, as a recently awakened member of the Arc project (something that’s regularly referenced but never fully explained during the playtest) seem to be the only man capable of doing all of it. Even though everyone else seems to have better guns and vehicles than I do.
Must be those nanobots, I guess. Well, that and the fact that I’ll blindly do what I’m told if there’s a paycheque in it.
About an hour into the playtest though, opinions are already forming about what Rage is. It’s very pretty, that’s for sure, with rock-strewn canyons stretching as far as the eye can see and immense amounts of detail packed into it (although there’s a lack of fidelity up-close on the 360 version I’m playing that might make PC players grind their teeth). It also feels very much like an id game, because everything’s just a touch too shiny, just as it was in DOOM 3. And just like id’s other games, the graphical detail belies the truth: aside from what you’re meant to touch, there’s very little to actually interact with.
As for the gameplay, it might seem something of a generalisation to say that RAGE feels like Borderlands with the cel-shading, levelling up and sense of humour stripped out, but it’s nigh-on impossible not to make the comparison.
As for the gameplay, it might seem something of a generalisation to say that RAGE feels like Borderlands with the cel-shading, levelling up and sense of humour stripped out. But as someone who’s played Gearbox’s FPS/RPG/MMO outing on and off for well over a year – blame schedule clashes with co-op buddies for that – it’s nigh-on impossible not to make the comparison. From the patchwork range of gruff characters, Mad Max-style vehicles and threatening graffiti (Turn Back Now! Get Ready 2 Die!) to the ‘go here, do this, come back’ mission structure, the similarities are somewhat remarkable. Or unremarkable, if you want to be slightly negative.
Thankfully, RAGE’s darker and more threatening atmosphere, not to mention some subtle differences, provide extra flavour to the otherwise familiar meal. Again, the slow-burn tutorials mentioned by Willits help pick out the key factors. Next up on the path to Wellspring – where Willits says the game ‘really opens up’ – it’s engineering, the process of gathering smaller elements and then combining them into other useful items using recipes. This leads to me learning how to create Lock Grinders, which can be used to open sealed doors. Doors just like the one I spotted just before I was stabbed in the chest. And so back I go, just because my OCD will get the better of me if I don’t.
Some two hours in and I’ve become a bit of a bad-ass: not only have I got the number of those swinging, jumping, running enemies, but I’ve now got a monocular (read: zoom sight) for my pistol, a shotgun and some Fatboys. Not surprisingly, getting those led to another tutorial teaching me how to customise my weapons – rather than the guns coming in many randomly-modded forms, it’s the ammo that can be swapped out for varying effect with each weapon allowing for four types of bullet.
In the case of Fatboys, they’re simply pistol bullets with a bigger bang – handy for making bad men go boom. They’re also a timely addition though, as shooting enemies in the head repeatedly to little effect gets more than a little tiresome early on. Imagine it: I’m behind you, you’re unaware of my presence, I shoot you in the back of the skull and the result is you turning around and yelling ‘Hey, he’s here!’? Bah. And if that’s annoying, imagine when you’re trying headshots against a rapidly advancing cluster of mutant nasties that pop up from time to time.
Once the big guns (a shotgun, an assault rifle, a sniper rifle) and even bigger ammo arrive though, such problems appear to melt away and entering the territory of The Wasted offers opportunity for much slaughter and satisfaction. Tagged enemies fall to the ground, then struggle to lean around cover to continue their assault; others see their comrades fall and declare a retreat in a comedy cockney accent that matches their punk haircuts and Union Jacks painted on their faces. I think I’m even called a bastard at one stage for shooting someone in the arm. Although that could just as easily have been one of id’s PR reps standing behind me.
Is the linearity of it all starting to get to me though? Maybe a little; there’s only so many times you can yo-yo back and forth from the same location, after all. And then, the magic word appears: Wellspring. Seems Dan Hagar (my initial saviour, voiced by a particularly gruff John Goodman) has had enough of me, so it’s time to move on. Time to see somewhere new. Time for the game to finally open up, if Willits’ words are to be believed.
And naturally, he’s right. At least in the sense that where there was previously one path for me to follow, now there are several. Even better, Wellspring’s a thriving metropolis compared to the likes of Hagar or Outrigger territory (well, kind of). Run by Mayor Clayton, a steampunk gentleman packing a mean top hat/monocle combo, there are plenty more things to do here and plenty more Borderlands comparisons to be had. Hell, might as well rename the place New Haven and be done with it.
Still, at least more gameplay quirks make themselves apparent once I start wandering round. My newly-acquired dune buggy’s pretty rubbish due to a complete lack of everything (speed, armour, guns), but the local racetrack can provide me with racing certificates with which to upgrade it – If I win, that is. There’s a job board with miscellaneous missions to be had, while the local bar seems a good spot to pick up on-the-sly work through the owner, Sally. There’s even an tailor with a twist, since picking a new outfit to mask my distinctive Arc suit lets me choose one of three permanent bonuses: cheaper goods, better armour or improved engineering skill. Nifty.
As apparent as the Borderlands similarities are then, there’s no denying that at the three-hour mark, the Wasteland just got a whole lot more interesting. I’m counting no less than five paths to go down now – not including the various gambling opportunities spread around town – and as pleased as I am that I finally get to do some decision-making, it’s not something I want to rush into. I get a couple of races under my belt and snag a gatling gun for the buggy; I have a chat to Sally and see what she wants doing; I see there’s a missing person request on the job board; I even play dice on a holographic board and lose several times, cursing my luck.
Dabbling done then, I guess it’s time to move on again. But to where? Looking at the options, I’m about to head off.
And then the lights come up. Controllers are downed, pleasantries are exchanged, feet shuffle towards lifts. Back in the stark and very real evening light of London’s Soho, I’ve got mixed feelings. After all, I can’t say that RAGE has turned my gaming world upside down; it’s familiar, perhaps a little too familiar given my previously extensive visits to Pandora. But equally, the thought dwells in my head of what might have been given another ten, twenty, sixty minutes in the Wasteland. And considering Willits himself gauges the game at the 18-20 hour mark, it’s probably worth me going back at some point.
You know, just to see who’s going to tell me to do something next.
RAGE launches on October 4 in the US and October 7 in the UK and rest of the world on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC