It's not in telling the story again; it's in telling it well.
Sentiment that echoes loudly some hours into Rage. Post-apocalyptic desert wastelands pocketed with hives of scum and villainy eager to maim, murder, pillage or sell you, while grass-root movements rise up against fascist dictators are a dime a dozen these days. Yet through stunning visuals, intense gunfights and a story with an hour count generously in the double figures, id Software makes its return to the FPS genre a distinctive, memorable sci-fi adventure that pays homage to nothing but its own illustrious development past.
The story - Gears of War in reverse, in a strange fashion - has you emerging from a time capsule of sorts after your containment ark breaches the earth's surface years after the planet was hit by an asteroid. You're there to start the world anew, only to find society has carried on without you - a desolate wasteland crawling with mutants and small communities of desperate survivors greeting your awakening.
Talk is cheap here, barter and might the only language most listen to. As such your role in the world and your trajectory through it are defined immediately; proving your usefulness through completing jobs, ones that start and end with the trigger of a gun being pulled.
Missions are punchy firefights through devastated cities and buildings rebuilt as squats, never overlong and despite repeating the same combat tricks - tight corridors, the occasional open area with enemy waves, mini-boss, escape - feel different enough from each other to avoid cliche, and while there's an uncomfortable trend of retreads through areas for multiple missions, locations are heavily scarred by your last run-through, and you're often sent through different routes and new sections.
How much the story attracts is how far you're willing to meet the developer half-way. The narrative might appear rigid to begin, and the constant couriering for peoples may grate. Your choices are limited to ignoring side-quests or putting off main story missions, and you might feel unwilling participant in yet another resistance movement - the first mention of which may have you groaning, such then is the heavy signposting of where the story's going - but invest in the characters and situation and you'll be rewarded.
Because the studio has went to great pains in fashioning the world you find yourself thrust into. Thanks to the tech behind the game, settlements, back-streets, even the most minor character has personality. Wonderfully etched and beautifully-flawed character designs, fashioned over realistic body language - even if its but a shrug, head turn or brief smile - makes every individual stand out.
Numbers in each settlement low enough that you recognise faces on repeat returns, and while their snippets of speech may be strongly RPG in flavour - new chatter for each seismic change you bring upon the world with your efforts - id's carefully cultivated a sense of genuine interaction with them that'll you check in with them because you want to, rather than need to. Though the studio build story elements and embellish backstory through these conversational snippets. Listen, and you'll notice id slowly teases the Authority - a unseen but heavily-felt presence in the Wastelands, both bogeyman and fascist government alike, long before your first encounter.
Investment also offers validity for most of your combat engagements. Defence and protection, proactive attacks to negate further death, only seems justified because of genuine care for the well-being of communities that welcome you in. Too often distrust and betrayal, one-note and shallow character arcs, go hand-in-hand with these situations; id remembers humanity. If the studio hadn't crafted such a compelling world, we wouldn't be thinking in terms long disassociated with the immediacy and death associated with the genre.
But combat is the heart of Rage. Settlements, bunkers, hideouts, Authority prisons might be all interconnected with miles of dusty trials that need to be driven through, and rightly so, there's no option of fast travel here, but the vehicle sections, which we'll get to in a moment, are truly secondary to the tried and tested gunfights that are id's speciality.
You can tell the developer is a gun enthusiast, conveying it in such a way you can't help but appreciate the work its put in. Weapons might be atypical, despite the future setting, with shotguns, pistols, rifles, rocket launchers all picked up in the first few hours, but each is treated with reverence, the studio making sure you appreciate the work put in to each.
Hence slow pans of every new pick-up, as your character turns it in his hands, taking stock of its weight and feel. You've seen these weapon types before; With Rage's lot, you'll remember every curve, colour, scratch.
Gunplay is a joy, not just because of the ferocity of the gun blasts - like its fore-bearers, the shotgun's got a chunky discharge and a wide arc of fire - but due to the ammo types. Some of these, like the mind-control crossbow bolts, are introduced naturally through story elements, and offer extra variety and stratagem in battle. The bolts let you take limited control over a shot victim and explode them while near comrades. Pierce armour with upgraded rounds for the rifles, turn water into weapon with electro bolts, or blend skulls into red mist with the shotgun's pulse shot.
Aiding these are the support weapons, assigned to and selectable through the D-Pad, offering stealth, scouting or long-range attack options. Alongside grenades - in both explosive and EMP variety - you've got remote-controlled bomb cars, sentry turrets or mini-gun-totting spider-bots to fight alongside you, expanding your attack tactics further.
Best of the selection though is the humble Wingstick, a three-bladed boomerang variant used for silent and violent takedowns, the lopping heads or embedding into skulls of which remain tirelessly entertaining.
Most of the support weapons, as well as health regenerators, can be engineered through junk littered throughout the Wastelands once you've found or been awarded design schematics, and gives you reason to pillage bunkers and hideouts as you progress - though you can buy parts, as well as ammo and upgrades, from vendors.
Weaponry is then staggeringly comprehensive. Baffling then the studio's decision not to offer an in-game pause when navigating the on-screen quick-select weapon menus. The system of holding RB, then tapping left stick to select ammo type, right stick for weapon is unresponsive enough to negate it as an option to alternate strategies mid-fight, and instead we found ourselves pausing on the threshold of new areas to customise our load-out based on what we thought we'd be facing.
That issue aside, engagements are feisty. Bandit gangs, Authority and mutants have specific attack patterns and strengths unique to each, variation peppering the battlefield enough to keep you on edge. Mutants sweep in low or leap, Authority flank and use energy shields and grenades, Ghosts pounce along walls and ceilings; animations are a wonderful sight to behold, while limb-specific shots cause realistic responses. Yet there's a conflict as a result; most enemies are bullet sponges, and there's a cheap few seconds of invulnerability in the animation as they pick themselves up after falling over. It's a case of real life opponents, old-school rules.
Also each bandit group seems to bring out the same old mini-gun heavy as a mini-boss; we can excuse identical enemies through tribal outfits, but the introduction of heavies cheapens what for the most part, is fantastically varied enemy set. Mutants and Authority each bring something different to the idea of tougher enemies, and while there's a lack of multi-group battles you'd expect from the field these days, its tidily excused away by virtue of clearly defined territories across the wastelands.
Tracking through the world is only possible by car; and thankfully the experience becomes more rewarding the more you put into it. Driving was worriedly drawing the majority of our preview's disappointment, but invest the time, and it gains personality as vehicles are upgraded, handling is sharpened, weapon capabilities are increased.
For those resistant to such an inclusion, id is aware, and has made concessions to make driving as brief as possible. You can race from settlement to settlement without engaging in scraps with bandit racers, while upgrades essential to the story are factored into races that are criminally easy, and offer alternatives in earning race certificates - the in-game currency for car upgrades - other than heading out onto the racetrack. Even with heavy tinkering, Rage will never reach the heights of the indispensable arcade racer, but the gameplay has been designed with enough vigour to make it an amusing diversion from the main missions.
There's plenty of diversions in Rage. We haven't seen an FPS like this in a while, chock-full of mini-games that are both brief and all-too involving. Time-hoggers such as the race track and job boards, offering stand-along missions, sit side by side with shorter but no less intriguing board games, card games (the Magic The Gathering Lite-style Rage Frenzy could stand to be an iOS release in itself), timing-based dagger-dodging games, or even a nod to Guitar Hero. Enough all to lose yourself in if needing a break from the road.
Visually the game is truly stunning; we've talked about the characters, but the vistas and smaller graphical tricks are something to marvel as well. The tech uses the unrelenting heat for some brilliant sun-flare moments, as you disgorge yourself from underground ruins onto the topside.
However - and this is said after installing the game to our Xbox 360 HDD, there are issues with partial texture loads - while we're used to a second or two of texture load in new areas, the likes of the Dead City with its numerous skyscrapers, has blurred architecture in the middle-distance. It's as if the engine's on a proximity-only setting, which sadly breaks the tension and the illusion as we sneak through hellish environments. We also noticed the very occasional glitch were characters' lip-syncing was out of place with the audio, causing dialogues to cut out prematurely.
Music is something to be applauded here; an ascending wail of strings as you explore a mutant-infested city awaiting attack ratcheting up tension, lazy guitar plucking conveying the laid-back nature of communes, or a sweeping epic score galvanising you into almost-superhuman feats of bravery as you wipe out a nest of bandits. The musical soundscape offers perfect counterpart to the roar of gunfire.
The multiplayer modes - not available to test at the time of writing - offer a couple of options. Racing, as stated, becomes more bearable once upgrades are in place, and Legends of Wasteland, singular points in the new world's history, are mini-missions in themselves. We'll be looking at these in length shortly after the game's retail release.
Arguably aside from Achievement and stat completionists, there'd be little to draw people back to the game once the campaign finished. But then, Rage is a lengthy title; the studio has publicly stated that the game would be over in twelve hours for those rushing through, but closer to twenty for those taking their time and enjoying the side-quests. After sitting through it ourselves, we can tell you this is no false claim, and means Rage offers one of the more robust single player experiences this winter.
It has its flaws and faults - as we said, you've got to invest the time and belief in both characters and world to get the most enjoyment out if it - but id's success is in making a memorable and distinct shooter in an environment that has been heavily retread by many this past generation.
Do so and you've a memorable campaign that'll you'll want to see through. The studio's strength and defining ability to make shooting someone in the face as enjoyable in the tenth hour as it was in the first stands it in good stead here. Id has learnt some new tricks that embellish the experience; but it still kills the old way. In today's world, that's almost a unique proposition.
8 / 10
Unique world despite familiarity in setting, gunplay mechanics fascinating, compelling campaign moments.
Rarely deviates from the fetch/job mission structure, racing isn't as refined as it could be.