About this time last year, I was sitting in a small hall in Earl's Court at the Eurogamer Expo. There had been a number of decent game developer talks preceding what we were waiting for, but the last talk of the day was the big one: id Software showing off a big chunk of their new project, Rage.
I remember coming away from it a little disappointed. Even knowing the background of id's open-world shooter, I think I and a lot of the audience were expecting a Doom-like experience showing off tight little rooms with challenging monsters and devastating weapons, all within a new engine which would blow us away. Maybe it was a matter of the games that were coming out at the time, or just a failure to really accept the new direction, but in that demo Rage came across as a mishmash hybrid of Fallout, Borderlands and BioShock. It was easy to spot the themes but difficult to see ingenuity.
One year later, and now in my hands the game provides an altogether different feeling, and it's that feeling of playing an id Software game. But more than that, the hybrid seems to work too. But I'm getting ahead of myself; the first and foremost feeling is being blown away by the engine.
I'm playing on a high-spec PC so the level of detail is always going to be high. Nonetheless, when I wake up out of cryogenic sleep and step out into the desert and desolation of the future, I'm more than impressed when I take in my surroundings. I'm not one for harping on about the fidelity of a game, but I have to with Rage. It's the texturing in the curves of the sand dunes around me, the complexity of the half-submerged tanker to my right, the layers of the red desert crags in the distance, and the shadows they all make across the fauna and sand of this futuristic open world.
Here's the thing, though: Rage isn't really an open-world game. It seems that way as I make my way to the Hagar Settlement as a passenger in a dune buggy, avoiding the shots of the bandits behind me. I only really discover how Rage isn't really an open-world game after I make my way to the Hagar Settlement, arguably the Megaton of Rage. It's a dilapidated gas station and cafe which Dan Hagar guards with a few other survivors. Dan, clad in golden armoured leather jacket with more belts, buckles, and pockets than seems necessary, has a brow too furrowed to seem pleased with my arrival. I learn through his hearty Jon Goodman vocals that a group called the Authority, the aptly-named domineering tyrants of this future, are in the business of finding people like me who come out of their stasis pods into this new world - apparently I'm an "Ark person." The long and short of all this is that there'll be more bandits coming Hagar's way, so it's up to me to take the fight to them by clearing out one of their nearby hideouts.
And it's in the hideout that I realize Rage isn't really an open-world game. It's an open-world game in the sense Fallout 3 and Borderlands are open-world game, but even more so thanks to the frantic speed of the vehicles which transport me across its open world - driving around Rage is its own big thing so more on that later. Beyond the occasional ambush, the vehicles strip me of any need to employ weaponry. Speedily reaching my destination loads me into a new area, the hideout, and suddenly what didn't much feel like an id Software game starts to really feel like an id game.
The hideout was formerly the Lutherford hotel, but now it is home to a makeshift fort complete with small sandbag walls and scaffolding platforms for vantage. The walls have depraved and bizarre markings on them. I can see Japanese symbols etched within the mess of a wrecked out wall, strangely marked out faces, and then indecipherable nonsense straight out of Stargate.
Then, an ambush; the bandits were waiting for me in a corridor and they come rushing at me. I shoot at one's side and he clutches at it, half-stumbling to the ground before quickly getting up before furiously running at me again. Not wanting to be on the end of the sharp-looking thing in his hands, I shoot again, this time forcing him into a trip and roll, but the last shot to the head clean takes him out. Their animation is superb; not just visually, but in how they react to where you shoot them, their dodges and ducks, and how all of that then flows seamlessly into their next movement. Later as the numbers increase and I'm unable to take them out with my first shots, I see a couple of bandits desperately try to drag themselves back into cover. As they start to get the better of me, I see how their attacks are even in this early stage of the game demanding too. Some of the bandits shoot at me with guns, others come at me with melee weapons, and one or two very spritely buggers try their luck with karate kicks. It is fast, it is furious, and it is all tight and challenging.
Of course, being an id game, I'm able to quickly build up a good stash of weaponry fairly quickly. There are traditional weapons, all of which can be upgraded and given different ammunition, and in the three hours I play I get my hands on pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and sniper rifles. More fun are the wing-sticks, sharp boomerang-type weapons that when dispatched into the air will bend their way round before slicing the heads off any unwitting foes. The zoom-enhanced crossbow is a lot of fun too - I didn't get to try it out in my demo, but it does have a mind-control bolt which sounds brilliant - while the rocket launcher is wonderfully destructive as one would expect.
Back to that opening hideout: specifically, the moment when the bandits successfully stop me in my tracks by catching me within a net trap. I'm knocked out, and wake up in a darkened room with the chief bandit more than happy to stab me clean to death - nice. This gives me the opportunity to use my handy and convenient self-defibrillator. The screen fades to an image of my heart with a little bar across it. Two shocks of energy come from either side of the bar, and it's up to me to time button presses to when they meet in the middle. If I time my press right enough, then not only do I revive my character but I create a physical shock wave that takes out all nearby enemies. I get first time lucky with it and sure enough I wake up to some rather static remains: bonus. The defibrillator charges up every 10 minutes or so, and it's a nice piece of design to give players a second chance without making them too empowered so that they're able to just die at each corner.
As I make my escape from the hideout, bandits cleared successfully, I see a spectacular view of the hotel's former resort. Set against the plains below and the huge remains of the hotel are a set of red blimps floating serenely in the sky. I've always maintained that all these post-apocalyptic games needed more blimps, even if it sounded a little oxymoronic, but here's Rage to back me up.
The blimps are just one sign of the game's intriguing personality. In different outposts I encounter a wonderful variety of characters, from an old female doctor with a cybernetic arm full of painful looking devices to a chubby, cheerful mayor complete with a top hat, cravat, monocle, and a collectable bobble-head on his desk that looks suspiciously like Vault Boy - nice little nod.
The mission-givers aren't the only characters, though. The missions in the Wasted Garage see me get face to face with a group of British hooligan-type bandits - we're always trouble abroad, even in post-apocalyptic futures. Clad in the colours of the union jack, and belting out in their best just-left-the-pub English accents things like "Farkin Hell!", "He's dead, the wanker!", and "Bastard!" while coming at me with their flaming baseball bats, as a Londoner I feel almost at home. The leader of the hideout charges at me in an armoured car only to crash it into a wall and practically take the whole place out with him. One hopes this international love is spread evenly throughout the game, although I do laugh when I exit the hideout only to find two more hooligans trying to nick my buggy.
Finally, then, the driving which is hardly an id Software staple, but I still had decent fun with it during my brief playthrough. The booster on vehicles provides a fantastic sense of speed to moving about the world. A little concerning were the extra objectives laid out around driving, like races to gain upgrades with or jumps to make to collect bonus items. These, at least in this early part of the game, seemed quite basic and contrastingly easy compared to the rest of the game - especially the auto-aim fire. I like that the vehicles do make the world so easily traversable, but I hope there's more to their inclusion as the game goes on. I expect there will be.
There's much more to touch on in Rage, from the tinges of RPG aspects in the crafting and upgrading of weaponry and tools to the hints of a greater context within the narrative, and then there's the multiplayer, of course, which I didn't get to try out. Still, there's no getting round the familiarity in terms of where Rage seems to sit in terms of structure: somewhere between the considered detail of a Fallout world and the smoothly designed missions and combat of a Borderlands. This is unfair on Rage, though, because even with those familiarities there's something about the game, specifically in the combat and how the engine enhances it, that to me seems to make it more of its own beast, and more defined as an id Software game. I think it might simply be that it's difficult to really ascertain, at least from my playthrough, an area the game is genuinely lacking in - except possibly the driving. I'll admit, I'm hoping Rage will suck the hours away from my life and I only put in a few, but those few hours leave me a very impressed and now impatient waiter for October 7 to arrive.