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PREVIEW

RAGE

"Talk is cheap in this world, action is needed."

A single simple statement, but one you feel is expressed with either knowing wink or middle finger raised at Bethesda's Fallout series, yet whose intent is unmistakable. In id Software's post-apocalyptic world, gun is king.

Rage is a rollicking, no-holds barred return for a developer too long gone from a genre it is legend in. And with well over two hours clocked in the wastelands fighting bandits, escaping mutants and trading jobs for cash, we can confidently say the studio has lost none of it's vigour. Rage is of the same prime stock of DOOM and Quake. It's cooked just the same, drenched in bullet-cascades, dank buildings, and barren landscapes more DOOM Mars than future earth.

It captures the imagination from the off. For a game so focused on violence the opening cut-scene is all the more shocking for the calm beauty in its depiction of mass extinction.

The camera tracks a meteor through space, music sweeping yet calm, a cruel contrast to the garbled messages blasting through the speakers; mention of something called Eden Project and protecting the future. All become static as the camera pans behind the meteor and we see it come crashing into Earth, distant and objective observer to our own extinction event.

Fast forward an unknown number of years and Eden Project is revealed as a government project to protect key personnel in underground pods and thereby ensure the continuation of a politically-agreed version of civilisation.

You awake from a stasis sleep, other capsules of your bunker room, some miles below the earth's surface, failing to preserve their now decayed cargo. You're on your own, both relic and last hope for continuing society.

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Stumbling to the surface you're greeted by the garbage dump that is the new world. Like a Mormon on a doorstep, your message and values are clearly unwanted by the new world order - their only eagerness in your return is to see how much they can fleece from your body. You quickly find you're not the only Eden Project survivor attacked upon breaching the surface, government pods acting as giant Pez dispensers for some years now.

You're rescued from the clutches of what's later revealed to be the new mutant population, animalistic killers intent on butchery for survival, and driven to a nearby populace centre where new society is outlined and realities explained. Talk and promises are cheap, action is everything.

Yet while the template may be Mad Max - the desert wilderness goes hand-in-hand with death, there's a warmness here that suggests basic tribal instincts, and a more optimistic take on the human condition when survival becomes a daily worry.

Rage is just as surprising in its quieter moments too, that are healthily expanded past basic exposition to shuttle you from one gunfight to the next. Characters offer brief conversation but a lifetime of personality in their tone and body language. There's a glow and ruggedness to weathered faces that's more Half Life than Gears of War, and as such engagement with these individuals is more invigorating and honest as a result.

It's no less helped by some quality voice-work. A generation's worth of character betrayals in the genre would make you think we'd be wary of an honest stranger in a heartless land, yet thanks to the sure tones of John Goodman whose voice partly portrays Dan Hagar, your rescuer and teacher of this society for the game's first hour, you see nothing more than an truthful man trying to make a living and doing right by those under his protection.

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Hagar's the leader of a small outpost, more reconverted petrol station than rough-shod military base. It's one of two in the region, linked by a mile or so of dirt track that meanders through hilly terrain and past an old military checkpoint. The enforced short distance between the two more concession to keeping things easily reachable to begin with rather than an inability of the developer to project the sense of isolation that's conveyed in conversation within the camps.

The other has a similar setup, a close knit community of NPCs living as best they can, with each holding containing characters with specific roles; engineer, shopkeep, combat trainer, medic and the like. Missions stem from conversation, a good number of side-quests branching out from the main spine of the story, but keeping you to exploring roughly the same areas. For instance, a discovery of a disappeared worker half-consumed by mutants will find you in the shadow of a radio shack, that, if you talked to the right person, will earn you cash for clambering up and fixing it.

Between two camps' worth of favours you'll be chewing up the miles for the majority of the first two hours. Driving is a huge part of Rage; with bandit groups carving up territories across the wastelands and patrolling in weapon-heavy rides, walking is not an option. Rage expands on this by the time you reach your first town of Wellspring, letting you compete in races to earn certificates, which in turn let you upgrade your ride.

You start with a simple quad bike and move on to a buggy. For being such a big hook of Rage, its the one portion of the game that disappoints. Handling is bare basic arcade, letting you do boosts and handbrake turns that feel far too unforgiving on the tight corners of the racetracks to feel useful, and there's no give to suggest its more a matter of learning.

We understand the dilemma, as you need to create something that's enjoyable but not alienating to the FPS populace who didn't spend money to sink hours learning how to drive a car. However, the memory encroaches of Beyond Good & Evil's hovercraft. Racing there was just one part of a vast variety of gameplay options, and the craft did the job for travelling between areas - the buggy's easy control over the wide open plains of the wastelands in Rage do much the same thing.

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And Rage is buried under variation. A check of the stats menu offers plenty of suggestion of what is to come and even before we hit Wellspring we note mail boxes with package quests dotted through the wastelands, suggesting the profession of postman is for thrill-seekers only.

Wellspring is beautifully rendered. Dusty courtyards, scowling strangers sitting at corners, dank streets, dripping pipes. The basic labyrinth of pedestrian walkways and multi-floored buildings suggest Mos Eisley or Deadwood; there's sin, danger and opportunity round every corner.

There's a job board that offers quick and easy side-quests - one we glance at is a missing persons poster. In the Second Chance bar (which is a cracking name for a pub) you can play cards, explaining away the character-emblazoned decks you've picked up on your travels. On one street corner we see two players hunched over an Augmented Reality game board, and hear mention of entertainment show Bash TV somewhere else. There's a poor man's casino, a thrift store, garage...and this all from the first town. An expectation and excitement grows at seeing what passes as proper cities in this place.

But variation really is key to combat. There's no gentle introduction here, no tutorial to test aim, learn the moves. Other than the brief choice of sticking with inverting camera or not on cracking out of your pod, your tactics are born in the heat of battle. It'll come as a relief to players there's no hand-holding, and it fits the brutality of the new world: adapt or die.

At first, you're loaned a trusty pistol, as if id Software consciously wants to reacquaint you with the weapon that most FPS games nowadays even bypass as default. You rediscover your respect for it, as the studio leave you with it longer than you'd think comfortable - the entire first mission to be exact. It's a genocidal-sweep through a disused 5-star hotel, clearing it of bandits.

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These first engagements are brilliantly frightening. The bandits ducking from around cover, or lying prone on the floor underneath to fire at you. On charging they affect a loping run that makes it hard to pinpoint for a headshot, and their natural athleticism has them swinging and bounding along ceilings, skittering upside down like they're possessed. Some fling blades while others flank. They're not AI perfection but they give a good illusion of being smarter than they are.

Rage has an interesting approach to death and resurrection. There's a nice story-driven reason in the nanotrites in your body that fight to keep you alive. Get killed and you enter a brief mini-game in which you have to match stick directions to those on the screen before time runs out, each adding an extra bit of health for which you return with, and a last timed defibrillator charge to kickstart your heart with the triggers acting as paddles. The charge will have the side-effect of electrocuting any enemies nearby, giving you a few seconds leeway.

If you chat to Loosum Hagar before heading out for the second bandit hideout, you'll have access to wingsticks - four blades tacked together that work as deadly boomerangs. They're limited in number, more either bought or made once you got the right parts - creating useful items from crap littering the world a good reason to loot bodies - but will kill an enemy in one silent hit.

It offers a massive advantage at this point in the game when tackling larger groups, because while you can crouch and sneak up on enemies, rarely can you get within melee distance. As an aside, the second mission will be familiar to any who've played Rage HD on iOS, with one of the levels there lifted wholesale from this, giving us an edge by knowing the layout of the place.

We think we've got ourselves a nice rounded selection of weapons, and combat is intense and punchy - later bandits are decked out in body armour and helmets requiring one perfect shot or a bunch of average ones. Then we're skipped ahead some four hours into the story, and we're pretty sure we're playing a different game.

As we said: variation. We're given an all-too brief run down of the suddenly overflowing weaponry menu and the new threat. We're entering the base of the big bad, a (what else?) shadowy group known only as the Authority.

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They're super-soldiers by look, kitted out in all-body power armour with helmets that need multiple shots to dislodge, like cracking an oyster shell to get to the meat underneath. They're fast, roll out of the way when you iron-sight, and seem to generally get a sense of your tactics faster than Einstein on a maths equation.

The building we're in has been reconverted for their purpose, a prison with high-tech facilities dropped in. Energy gates bar progression, turrets churn you into tuna, and power cores of each need to be found and deactivated with EMP grenades to make some headway. As for kill choice for the Authority? Entirely up to you.

Firstly, weapons have multiple bullet types. We saw the start of this escalating murder menu with our pistol getting heavy-damage Fat Boy bullets in our second bandit battle in the game.

Holding LB and/or RB will bring up a diamond selection menu for bullet and gun respectively. Four hours in and the Stinger Crossbow, which we were handed by Dan as reward for missions mere seconds before we did our own Quantum Leap forward into game time, now has electro-bolts and Mind Control bolts alongside standard steel-tipped jobs. We got a stolen Authority Rifle with MG rounds, and a combat shotgun with Pulse shots.

There's a hint of combat diversity here akin to BioShock, an exciting proposition that has us trading damage happily for the chance to try out each choice in turn. Electro-bolts are great for frying the armour of the Authority, while the Mind Control shots let you take limited time possession of a foe to use as a human grenade.

Secondary attack items are mapped to the D-pad, the quick selection assigned and organised through a sub-menu. Where we had wingsticks and med packs before, we now have Sentry Bots, Spider Bots, controllable RC Bomb Cars...all built from an extended engineering menu section that allows you to combine spare parts into killing machines or health packs, or lock grinders that get you into special rooms usually loaded with ammo. The bots will draw enemy fire, letting you flank if needed.

It's the type of game that demands you retrace your steps post-play, or convey the simple safety of bursting back into the sunlight after those terrifying minutes stumbling in the dark in your first bandit hideout. Discuss the reason for your outfit choice that will dictate your buffs for the rest of the game. A world that feels lived in, and one you want to return to as soon as possible, if just to explore, and see how big those wastelands are.

We know we've only seen a small chunk thus far, but, racing aside, the separate gameplay factors alone are enough to excite, and together form a stunning FPS that we hope lives up to our renewed expectations. The linking of quests mightn't be masked quite as subtly as we'd like, but then we were rushing through the game to see what was around the next bend.

The studio could prove it's possible to bolt Bioshock's diversity and world design to Fallout's wide landscapes and ever-expanding quests, while retaining an engaging combat system that offers depth alongside the immediate satisfaction only possible from pure reaction time and precision rather than hidden dice and buffed-stats.

An FPS with the scope of an action-RPG, from the makers of the most iconic series in the genre? Reason enough for id Software to raise middle finger - or crafty wink - to its competitors. Game on.

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