It must have been great to be a concept artist on Rage. Where their counterparts working on other games across the industry see their meticulously crafted visions slowly diluted over the course of a game’s development by the compromises necessitated by technology, they get to see their creations reproduced almost verbatim in-game here. That’s what Rage looks like – high-quality concept art. But it’s not concept art; it’s in-engine. And it looks gorgeous.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such a feat pulled off. Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow adopted a similar stance against repeated textures, and was a beautiful game as a result. But where Lords Of Shadow’s stunning scenery was a cinematically framed backdrop, in Rage you’re in among it in first-person, which takes the technical demands to a whole new level. It’s amazing that this can be done on a 360, but there are signs of the strain it puts the venerable machine under.
For a start, it can’t do all this without spreading the load across three DVDs packed with a total of 22 GB of data. And if you want Rage to run without a lot of detail and texture pop-up (greatly reduced by installing, but not totally eliminated) you’ll need to have at least one disc, that’s between 7 and 8 GB, installed at a time. You’re getting a hell of a detailed, not to mention huge game in return for this minor inconvenience (expect at least an hour of play per gigabyte), but it’s still worth pointing out that Rage is a notably less ‘plug in and play’ product than console owners might be used to.
Other compromises are evident in the game itself. While the overall visual effect is undoubtedly spectacular, playing a first-person game involves looking at a lot of things close-up, and you will occasionally come across surfaces and objects with blurry textures and jagged edges. Sacrifices clearly had to be made somewhere. These anomalies aren’t at all noticeable in the thick of the action though, and it’s only because you’re peering at everything in sheer wonder – particularly when you first start playing – that you really pick up on them at all. So in the ‘best graphics ever’ league table Rage falls short of Killzone 3 on a technical level, but has a dedication to artistry and visual craft that Guerrilla’s high-detail greyscale PS3 exclusive lacks.
But what of the game itself? Rage hasn’t solely been touted as the seventh great graphical wonder of the world; it’s also billed as the big comeback title for the creator of the FPS, id Software. So, can id still mix it up with the likes of Infinity Ward, Bungie and long-time rival Epic Games? Oh, you’d better believe it can.
It’s a while before Rage really starts to impress though. The first three hours or so are really far too slow, with only the graphics holding your interest as you yawn your way through a succession of missions involving more A to B treks and NPC chatter than combat. But eventually your patience is rewarded in a big way. Rage keeps pulling out stop after stop until you find yourself struggling to remember the last time you played an FPS this slick and this satisfying.
The closest point of reference is neither of the expected touchstones of Fallout and Borderlands, but BioShock. Rage echoes that game’s artful balance between straight-up gunplay and the sometimes planned, sometimes desperately improvised use of secondary skills, supplementary equipment and conveniently placed environmental hazards. Running as it was on the already dated Unreal Engine 3, BioShock often struggled to keep up with its own pace, and it could get rather choppy and haphazard during its most frantic spells. Not so Rage. Built on the intimidatingly powerful id Tech 5 engine, Rage handles complex, large-scale, extremely frantic encounters with ease. It really is breathtakingly slick, and if anything can’t hack the pace it’ll be your puny human brain and hands. Rage presents you with a wide range of specialised weapons, ammo types and equipment, and demands that you choose between and use them on the fly; just as in BioShock, it’s easy to muddle up your buttons in the heat of the moment. But one of the most rewarding things about the game is that, with careful logical planning and several hours of practice, you can train yourself to keep up with Rage’s blistering pace. A good job too, as the intensity only builds with time.
Rage’s combat is so good that it brings id’s decision to set the action in a series of semi-open hub worlds into question. While the various side-quests and diversions are all just as polished and well presented as everything else, they do tend to rely on the repeated use of ideas and locations, and don’t really add anything other than duration to a game that would still have measured 10-15 hours without all the filler. The freedom to tailor your character and vehicles to suit your own style of play in Rage is very welcome. The freedom to drive up and down the same canyons on the way to and from missions, not so much.
So as a whole it might be a little slower and flabbier than it need be, but the same cannot be said of the FPS combat at Rage’s heart and soul. Striding purposefully along the history of a genre it created, id has plucked the best ideas from four generations of first-person shooters and woven them into something not especially original, but truly exceptional nonetheless. You owe it to your trigger finger to buy this.