Rage is: a slick, meaty, great-looking first person shooter with optional distractions to purse at your leisure in between its primarily linear action.
Sorry, just had to clear that up. After a half decade of hype, some people had begun to expect that Doom-makers id, godfathers of first-person shooters, had gone and made something in the vein of Fallout 3. There’s not only one way to skin a post-apocalyptic cat, however – just because Rage is set in sci-fi wasteland doesn’t mean it can’t be a straight-up shooter.
Except it isn’t a straight-up shooter, not quite. For the first time in id’s chequered history, they’ve gone somewhere other than corridors full of monsters. This age-old staple does feature highly, and engaging in this most vintage of 3D gaming activities is the only way to meaningfully progress through the game, but it’s chopped into small chunks, between which you’re free to do what you want. Rage’s post-disaster Earth features a number of human settlements which you can wander around, gun resolutely holstered, picking up side-quests, buying ammo and upgrades or trying your luck at racing, gambling or a Running Man-esque survival TV show.
Alternatively, just explore the town, marvelling at the work id have put into their non-combat characters. You can’t have much of a conversation with them, nor will you be mulling over their hidden depths, but the sheer level of detail in their appearance and their animations is genuinely remarkable – plus they’ve got some really top-notch voice actors behind them. There are several reasons to sneer at anyone who dismisses Rage as just another shooter, but the characterwork is by far the greatest of them.
And while it is, ultimately, a game about shooting things in a very similar way to which things have always been shot in id’s assorted Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein games, Rage doesn’t lock you into doing this at its pace. You only go into a mission when you’re ready, and en route to it you’ll be in your increasingly souped-up buggy, free to shoot/ram bandit vehicles you encounter, try and pull of stunt jumps or divert to a side-mission. There’s an easy, good-natured flow to Rage – it gives you most of the standard tropes of this oft-unchanging genre (and a few more besides) but you assemble them in your own preferred order.
Even once you are in a mission, treading highly linear corridors, shooting blatantly pop-up monsters and watching the game overtly unlock doors and remove obstacles once certain scripts are triggered, occasionally feeling insulted by how obvious it all is, that customisable inventory confidently saves Rage’s action from becoming humdrum. Instead of locking you into weapon collection routines – now here’s the rocket launcher bit, now here’s the shotgun bit, now we’re not giving you anymore ammo for this gun because we’ve decided you should be using that gun – Rage leaves you free to kill with the stuff you want to kill with. Ammo can be bought or, in some cases, constructed using a simple crafting screen and assorted junk you find in your travels, so if you run out of bullets/shells/rockets/bolts for your preferred death-tool, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
Added to that is a bunch of alternate, more costly but far more deadly ammunition – such as grenade shells for your shotgun, mind control bolts for your crossbow or armour-piercing rounds for your machinegun – that, remarkably, the game doesn’t churlishly limit your access too. It knows what it is, how stupid it is in a way, and it wants you to make the very best of it. It’s a simple thing, an inventory, but it makes such a difference because it hands so much control and choice back to you, even within the simple confines of shooting things in the face.
These two pillars of choice – when you play what and how you go about your violent business – transform Rage, and put it head and shoulders above pretty much any other straight-up first-person shooter released in 2011. Of course, you could argue that it’s been a fairly underwhelming year for shooters, but that would be to understate just how much Rage gets right. It’s a shame it defaults to generic monster-shooting in tunnels so often, but what’s interwoven with that is smart, characterful and ambitious.
Id’s first game in years is a classic shooter paired with amazing visuals (though be aware that to achieve Rage at its beautiful best on PC, an unforgivably messy and poorly-supported launch means you’ll have to add some third party tweaks first – see here for details), agreeably silly action-driving and just enough choice to stand it apart from the hyperlinear competition. Manage to stomach the pop-up monsters, and you probably won’t find a better shooter this year.