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Rage 360 doesn't break any new ground in videogame storytelling, but its linear and predictable narrative is saved by fantastic pacing and some great atmospheric touches.
Stop me if you've heard it before...
there was this guy, and he was new in town. Maybe he'd just stepped off a bus, or woken from hibernation, or had amnesia from a shot to the head, but he needed everything about the world explaining to him.
And it was a bad world, a post apocalyptic mess of small, civilised communities ravaged by feral gangs and warring factions. And this guy, this stranger, in spite of only just having arrived, managed to get into a shooting match with all of them, starting out with the local bandits and escalating until he was taking on mutants and heavily armoured future fascists and blah blah blah...
You probably have heard it before I know. For all of developer id's excitable talk about Rage being a new intellectual property for them, an entirely new world with great depth and history and a potential for rich storylines, the story of Rage is very, very familiar, a typical videogame yarn of a nameless stranger making his way in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. If you've played a Fallout game, or Borderlands, then you'll be very comfortable here.
In this case, your player character is a soldier cryogenically frozen in one of many Arks seeded across the Earth in preparation for a cataclysmic meteor strike. Waking up from your long sleep, you stumble out into a devastated landscape patrolled by marauding bandits. Fortunately, a nice man gives you a car ride and offers to set you up in this brave new world, providing you do him the favour of killing a few bad men.
He is the first person to make such an offer. He is far from the last.
The story of Rage is very, very familiar, a typical videogame yarn of a nameless stranger making his way in a post-apocalyptic wilderness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a game developed by shooter legends id, the plot of Rage almost entirely breaks down into reasons why you need to go and shoot a load of bad men or, in a few exceptional cases, some bad mutants instead.
You may have heard of the concept of a MacGuffin, a plot element that drives the story along as the protagonists chase after it. Rage uses Macguffins shamelessly and frequently, driving its slim plot along by presenting scenarios where you're told that you need a certain item either for yourself or to give to some powerful person, and you have to go somewhere dangerous and shoot the place up to get it.
Want an armour upgrade, a new vehicle to tour the wastelands, or even just a quote for your household insurance? Then please drive across the wasteland to this self-contained location which can only be entered on foot, run around killing everyone in there, and we'll see what we can do.
It's a very simple, action movie approach to storytelling, and it does keep events motoring along as you're nudged from settlement to settlement, diving out into the wilderness to confront gangs in their lairs and seize the latest important plot doodah from them.
If Rage has any kind of theme to its story, it's one of survival. Virtually every mission is couched in terms of keeping your character alive by updating their kit or moving them to a safer location, which is kind of ridiculous considering every mission you undertake is an insanely dangerous journey into a nest of killers, but there you go.
Rage's story feels lightweight and generic.
While survival is a good motivator in-game, it doesn't really provide any interesting wider context to the action, or help to engage the player with the world they're entering. There's no moral or character impetus to the events in Rage, at least until a final act where your character rather abruptly gets an opportunity to change the wider world.
As such, Rage's story feels lightweight and generic, and it doesn't help that it has at its centre one of those silent protagonists who, presumably, is supposed to be a blank slate on whom the player can project their own personality, but just feels like a void where some much needed personality should be added. There's a subplot about digging into your character's personal data, but - spoiler! - this doesn't lead to any kind of twist. You are exactly who you think you are - some bloke with a gun.
The non-player characters don't add much quirk to the game either, being well-envisioned and acted but mostly stereotypes: the bluff mayor, the threatening gang lord, the shrewd trader, the grizzled general. There are a couple who are a little more memorable, like the cybernetically-assisted scientist with his squabbling robot arms, but mostly the supporting cast are entirely forgettable.
So, a generic setting, storyline and characters. Doesn't sound very gripping, does it?
In fact, Rage is highly enjoyable and compulsively playable, because what it lacks in originality it makes up for in execution, especially in terms of the game's pacing.
Good pacing, the drip feed of events and rewards, is a hard thing to quantify, but you certainly know when a game or story gets it exceptionally right or wrong. Too hectic, too slow, too incoherent, too patronising - if the delivery and timing is off, involvement can be ruined.
Individual levels are almost ghost-train linear.
The pacing of Rage is absolutely superb. While the over-arcing narrative is overly familiar, the moment-to-moment gameplay, and the progression from one task to another, is a steady and addictive feed of satisfying and dramatic moments.
Individual levels are almost ghost-train linear, with enemies jumping out at set points in a way that's barely acceptable in a big budget game in 2011, but are nonetheless enjoyable, twisty-turny shootouts that are just the right length to make serious progress in an hour or two of play. Within each level there's always a new corner to turn or door to open, and it's hard to defeat one set of enemies and not push on to the next.
Across the game as a whole Rage steadily delivers challenges and rewards in a way that is extremely satisfying, and I felt a constant curiosity to see what came next, to reach the next objective. The hierarchy of gangs and factions make for a coherent progression up the violent food chain of post apocalyptic Earth, from the stripped-down savagery and cockney bruisers of the early enemies, all the way up to heavily armoured tech-heads and professional military in later stages.
There's also a very light RPG element running through the game, with advances in weapons, armour, vehicles and other kit. Some of these are optional, while others are firmly built into the plot. The options for weapons-tuning are limited to basic things like additional scopes and stocks, but frankly this is an id game and the weapons are as chunkily satisfying as that implies: the shotgun in particular is as grin-inducingly bombastic as you'd hope for in a game from the creators of Doom.
Individual levels are almost ghost-train linear.
There's also a lot of gadgets to play with, including support turrets and various types of explosive. These can be built from items found around the environments and available to buy from traders, but thankfully the crafting system is blissfully simple, simply showing which items are needed and allowing the gadgets to be assembled with one button press. It's a much cleaner mechanic than the fiddle and faff of, say, Fallout: New Vegas' item crafting.
All these choices are distinctly peripheral to the main action, and certainly on the lower difficulty levels it will suffice to just stock up with ammo every now and again before piling into the next shootout. Any sense of freedom and choice is largely illusory - the core of Rage is highly linear, with side-quests mainly consisting of variations on the main missions, weaving through the same environments by a different route.
Although the wasteland is an open world, there's not much to do if you drift off the path, and that sense of openness is largely a trick, the game directing you to criss-cross a relatively contained world via different routes.
While it may not be that big, Rage's world is, however, an absolutely beautiful one. If Borderlands or the recent Fallout games went for sheer scale at the expense of artistry, then Rage swings in entirely the opposite direction, creating a narrow but fantastically executed post-apocalyptic landscape. The vistas you can see from the higher points of the wasteland may be unreachable backdrops, but they're stunningly rendered backdrops nonetheless.
Urban destruction has never been quite this well portrayed
The game arguable peaks a few missions in, when you're sent into the ominous sounding Dead City to find the latest MacGuffin, although there are later highlights like a pitched mutant battle in the main hall of a ruined subway station. Urban destruction has never been quite this well portrayed, and both these missions have some real stand-out set-pieces that lodge in the memory.
After these peaks, the final infiltration of a more high-tech environment can't quite live up to these gorgeous ruins, and the final threats unleashed upon the player are nowhere near as interesting or surprising as the story expected me to find them. By the end the game is firmly in traditional, almost cliched id territory, but doesn't outstay its welcome.
Anyone looking for the super-smart nuances of Bioshock or the strategic complexities of the more thoughtful modern shooters will find Rage a bit of a disappointment, and it certainly doesn't give the player the exploratory freedom and wealth of options that other post-apocalyptic games do.
Rage is a highly polished slice of post-apocalyptic mayhem.
However, as an old fashioned linear shooter, one which is finely tuned to deliver threats, victories and memorable moments at a satisfyingly regular pace, Rage is a highly polished slice of post-apocalyptic mayhem.
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