A day is a long time in politics, and a decade is a very long time in something as rapidly evolving as the video games industry. Still, it has been more than ten years since id Software last offered up a brand new IP - which makes Rage a very important game indeed for the once-indie champions recently purchased by Fallout 3 makers Bethesda in a shock deal. Still, if our early look at this new creation is anything to go by, Bethesda's deal could work out to be a very shrewd move indeed as Rage is nothing short of stunning.
John Carmack may be keen to off-load the business side of running id Software (hence in part the appeal of the sizeable Bethesda take-over) but the veteran game programmer has clearly lost none of his verve for crafting game engines that beyond being exemplars of his genius as a coder are also the stuff that game designers' dreams are made of. The Tech 5 engine that purrs beneath the hood of Rage is clearly a very special piece of middleware indeed, and the game's visual beauty and the flexible nature of the technology might well lure many third-parties away from the Unreal Engine - which has come to dominate the key middleware market.
While the Tech 5 powered visuals were always likely to wow given Carmack's involvement in the project, it is pleasing to note in our demonstration with id veteran Tim Willits that what powers the game is far more than just a pretty face - the technology a key enabler of what id Software hope will be top-notch gameplay. A non-linear game, with open-world elements is the order of the day then, first-person firefights moving into manic vehicular races across vast environments in a seamless and visceral manner more immersive than perhaps any game has ever managed before.
As Willits explains, Rage is a very big game indeed, id Software clearly making a conscious effort to break from the dark techno-gothic inspirations of past titles like Doom and Quake, to deliver something refreshingly bright and expansive, much of the game's action taking place in the great outdoors. Gone are the platforms, corridors and sci-fi bases of previous games; Rage is set in a future-world, post-apocalyptic Wild West, brought to life through some staggering draw distances and vivid environments that tread an interesting path between rich photo-realism and stylisation which makes some of the game's vistas look like a beautifully animated drawing. Needless to say, mere screenshots don't do Rage's aesthetics justice.
Fortunately, not everything changes. The game's premise is classic id Software. The Earth has been ravaged by a giant Asteroid strike, humanity only surviving through Arcs buried deep in the Earth, the inhabitants of one such past-future installation emerging to find the world scarred beyond recognition, facets of the past surviving only in twisted and misinterpreted forms. Humanity as we know it is dead, the player faced with a new, dangerous landscape - dominated by mutants, bandits and new settlers, who vie for control of this futuristic frontier.
Unusual weapons are used for the frequent battles which erupt amid this tumultuous dessert world, while buggies race across the landscape, doing battle for fame and wealth. The open-world we're shown by a clearly proud Willits appears to be closer to an RPG than it is to the usual first-person fodder. This vast, diverse world offering up a wealth of progression options for the adventurous player, who will explore and engage with the inhabitants of this strange world, progressing their character and the story by taking missions from the NPCs, of which there appears to be myriad.
Leaving behind the vast, dusty dessert we stroll into a frontier town, which immediately impresses with its smaller details, an impressive contrast from the plains which surround the settlement. NPCs comment on our character's bizarre dress, while touts compete to sell us useful items from beneath neon lit signs. NPC AI will be crucial to the success of Rage, but so far the omens appear good, these interactions seemingly pulled as fluidly and engagingly as anything in BioShock. Amazingly, on top of all this FPS-with-brains style action, there's also the racing mode which looks every bit as accomplished as an actual racing title - especially when the role of the environments and weapons is considered. The player will find the races are not only a way of earning currency for spending on weapons, items and better rides, but also play a big part in forwarding Rage's plot, too.
The plot is of course one area where id Software do perhaps lag slightly over competitors like BioShock and Half-Life, but this too is receiving a Twenty-First century make-over, the player set to uncover all kinds of unpalatable truths about the mysterious Authority which holds such sway over the game world. As you explore, you'll uncover new snippets of back story, while you'll also have the opportunity to collect blueprints, which can be used to build useful items. Indeed, you'll find yourself progressing in a most role-playing like fashion, working towards the ownership of a buggy, and upgrades for it.
The atmosphere in the game is tangible, not only because of the mighty visuals, but also because id Software have really gone to town on the voice acting and sound effects, while the world appears to be wonderfully cohesive in general - the setting sitting perfectly beside the structure of the gameplay. As I said, Tech 5 or not, Rage is more than just a pretty picture. Nice incidental touches also can't avoid comparisons with BioShock, sentry towers helping your cause in tighter firefights, while during one mission we see an RC car used to destroy some nasty foes.
Beyond the singleplayer campaign, id Software are also plotting an extra, race-focussed mode, similar in premise to The Running Man, players able to focus on this arcade-like element of the game should they wish to. Indeed, we're intrigued by the potential of the multiplayer action, an area Willits and co seem reluctant to expand upon at present.
So, Rage is impressive, and as a new id IP it needed to be. We'll be digging for more information on this potential corker as a 2010 release on PC, Mac, PS3 and Xbox 360 rolls around.