By using easily relatable experiences and a fantastical imagination, Bill Watterson's “Calvin and Hobbes” comics gained popular syndication for over a decade, allowing readers to laugh at his characters' childhood mischievousness, rebelliousness, and wild rationalizations of the world. His themes and comedy extend beyond a six-year-old's classroom and backyard however, as Watterson's genius can often be used to highlight more than growing pains or naivety. In fact, it's one of the comic's longer arcs that I find best exemplifies id Software's latest, Rage. It's not necessarily the entirety of the arc that sums up a single playthrough of Rage though; it's a few panels and couple of captions that illustrate what makes up id's post-apocalyptic FPS.
I'm talking about when Calvin prepares to submit a report proclaiming bats to be insidious, blood-sucking bugs. Without research or thought on his assigned topic he assures himself, and Hobbes, of a good grade by padding out his made-up fact saying, “By the time we add an introduction, a few illustrations, and a conclusion, it will look like a graduate thesis.” But it's his nail-in-the-coffin addition to the plan that really encapsulates Rage:
“Besides, I've got a secret weapon that will guarantee me a good grade! No teacher can resist this!”
Calvin reaches below the table.
Hobbes inquires, “What is it?”
“A clear plastic binder! Pretty professional looking, eh?” claims the youth.
At least that's how I make sense of what I felt after playing 13 hours of the game. That is to say, Rage comes off as a fairly hollow shooter, dolled up to present itself as something incredible. There aren't two ways about it—id have done a great job leveraging their own technology to create a visually impressive artifact. Their Wastelands made up of patchwork settlements, established townships and futuristic bases are painted with the right mix of colors, lighting and objects to create distinctly themed mazes to shoot through. Complementing the environment design are NPCs with believable gestures, reactive movements, and detailed layers of textures. Some pop-in is evident even when data is installed to a device's hard drive, but it's nothing overly detracting.
Once you really dive into the game however, you uncover there isn't anything beyond the window dressing. There might be plenty of exceptional art work on display, but playing a game shouldn't only feel like an artist's interactive demo reel. There should be a unique, evolving feature that draws you in to a shooter—a genre so over-populated, it takes evermore one-upmanship to grab a player's attention. You can't deny id's work in defining the genre, but their historic portfolio has spawned more creative and diverse experiences than what's produced here.
My 13 hours were mainly spent mindlessly going from one point to another, often with those points in close proximity to one another, to progress through what's supposedly a story. There might be a context to accepting a mission, driving to a Wasteland clan's hideout to raze it, and returning to the mission giver, but there isn't any thoughtful exposition. Your character doesn't even have a name—you're persona is usually referred to as the “guy”—or any real presence, much less a voice. He's just a hand holding a gun or tool. In a setup where your character awakens from hibernation in an underground “Ark” capable of withstanding the effects an asteroid collision, the only things that transpire are shootouts and rally races.
The game progresses from one linear shootout to another. You're never given any agency in the matter. You can't choose a course of action. There aren't any other ways to resolve a task without the use of expertly detailed and sounding weaponry. Sure you have to race the Wastelands in a buggy or truck to get to the next hub-world, but once there, the whole process unfolds nearly the same as before. Each clan hideout might look different, but it always involves going from point A to B through resistance, touching a goal, and using a shortcut to get back to the stage entrance (while a short-loop track plays in the background). Rarely are there even set pieces, interesting goal diversions or bosses to deviate from the repetitive assignments. Only a few gambling-style mini-games and contrived races create other things to do. Then again, once you've done the main deeds and conquered an area, you can always return to the same locales for bonus cash and do it all again, except with slightly different enemies in your way—oh, and don't forget about the “now do it all in reverse” fillers.
Hell, there isn't even a grand finale payoff. Rage features one of the biggest nonevent endings to a videogame in recent history. Without mega-boss or mini-boss, finishing Rage leaves you wondering who you were even fighting against and forces you to ask again: Why?
Without character identity, reason to assail complete strangers with various weapons (besides the behest of other strangers who meet you first), or varied exposition and design to the whole campaign, there's a dearth of motivation to step the reticule outside of the Ark from the get-go. All of that smoothly reactive and high-energy animation is so heavily weighed on everything I interacted with, after everything was shot at, I just wanted to be anything than the guy I was attached to. My enemies could scurry up walls, swing from the ceiling, take cover, shoot blindly, and jet pack in—why couldn't I. I was able to scavenge miscellaneous parts to construct inventory, like the effective and more-useful-than-a-grenade wingstick, but that quickly turned into routine.
Playing co-cooperatively or competitively doesn't offer much to wash away the boredom. Though Versus matches can be played in different styles of deathmatch rally races, on-field pickups are few and only serve to refill and replenish your vehicle's standard armaments. Even online, the colors and visuals are great, but the competitions try in vain to tie into the already superfluous and flat vehicular combat of the single-player portion. Better cars can be unlocked as you progress levels, but there isn't a solid enough foundation or fleshed out feature set to pull you away from other games.
If driving around in an FPS isn't your bag, don't look to the co-operative option to scratch any itch, as it only serves to provide two players with the chance of playing out the same ho-hum of the campaign missions, just set to side-story contexts. The tie-in attempts are again noted, but they're unnecessary and ineffectual with such listless, one-note gameplay.
Unfortunately, if you're playing on an Xbox 360, choosing to jump in multiplayer games takes a concerted effort since all of the matchmaking is handled via a third disc accompanying the two-disc campaign. You can't start off with Disc 3 in the tray however. All of the navigation has to first be initiated from Disc 1, so that's at least one swap needed to play with or against friends. If you happen to be on the second disc of the solo affair and get an invite, choosing to accept it forces you to put in Disc 1, then 3. So, if you tally it up, in this scenario, you would have to change the discs in and out of the tray four times to play a game with a friend. That's dedication—and unwelcomed exercise.
A failed, PC-ported checkpoint-less save system also adds grief for console players. Forgetting to manually navigate the Pause menu to save a game can revert your progress in a chunk-size portion until the last time you entered or exited a corridor.
When it comes down to it, Rage is a pretty-faced attempt at combining elements done better in other games. The Fallout series does the premise and overall design more interestingly; Borderlands gets crazier with its weaponry and allows for multiple people to complete a story simultaneously; Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave us a shooter with options; and The Orange Box puts an insane amount of quality content on a single disc. If this is id setting the stage for future iterations, there's plenty of room for Rage to grow and get better. Nevertheless, this introduction doesn't offer more than the stellar visual presentation of a tired and abused FPS.
Just like how Miss Wormwood wasn't floored by Calvin's use of a professional looking plastic binder to hide his lacking report, Rage's strong art can't hide its vapid gameplay.
Do you care about racing in first-person shooters, or is it all about the guns? Do you know how many virtual kills you've tallied by now? Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell