Three days in Rage's wastelands


— 11:32 PM on October 6, 2011

It would have been impossible for me to sit down and play Rage without having lofty expectations for id Software's latest opus. I started playing id games with a copy of Commander Keen that came with an old Gravis joystick, and I've spent a lot of time with each new release since then. Some of those titles have been better than others, but one theme has remained constant: technical brilliance. While id may not be known for masterful storytelling or innovative gameplay (beyond, you know, inventing the multiplayer deathmatch), each new generation of its engine technology has set the standard by which all others at the time are judged.

Quake was the developer's first engine to offer truly 3D graphics, and I can still remember my jaw dropping when I circled a model and didn't see a 2D sprite switch. Although it was painfully overused at the outset, Quake II brought us colored lighting before anyone else. In Quake III, curved surfaces were added to what had otherwise been angular worlds, and textures got a layer of shader effects. Then Doom made a return with a gorgeous dynamic lighting model that made for convincing shadows, and bump-mapped surfaces that endowed textures with real texture.

With Rage, id programming deity John Carmack brings us virtual texturing, which allows artists to paint with brush strokes rather than repeating tiles. The engine is capable of dynamically streaming textures from your hard drive, enabling richer game worlds with more unique detail than has ever been seen before. Rage's 20GB install footprint is a testament to how much the art team went to town with this technology.

Imagine my disappointment when, after sitting down to play Rage minutes after a speedy, SSD-fueled decryption of my eager Steam pre-load, I saw part of the world bathed in modern-looking textures, while the rest looked like it was pulling from a texture pack optimized for Intel integrated graphics. I'm not one of those people who thinks graphics are everything, but it would be foolish to deny that they have a huge impact on how immersed in the game world we can become. Nothing disturbs that suspension of disbelief like graphical anomalies and inconsistency. When you've been teased with a steady stream of screenshots, trailers, and behind-the-scenes developer videos advertising a much better-looking game, you feel ripped off.

So, my time with Rage did not begin well. As you've probably heard, the game has an automatic load-balancing system that dynamically adjusts the texture detail to maintain a consistent 60 frames per second. On the PC, it's apparently broken. I've been playing on a pretty modern rig with a Core i7-870, 8GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 470 with 1280MB of dedicated graphics memory. Before applying Nvidia's suggested tweaking options, the game was filled with painfully low-resolution textures that would noticeably adjust their level of detail. Nvidia's tweaks force higher-resolution textures with a config file, which is necessary because the in-game graphics options are pretty much nonexistent. Make no mistake: Rage feels like it was designed for consoles first and PCs second.

Intent on writing about Rage this week, I soldiered on through two evening sessions before Nvidia published the secret to high-res textures. Man, what a difference a config file makes. There is still some pop-in at the edges of the screen with really fast horizontal mouse movements, perhaps an artifact of tuning the auto-balancer for the slower tracking of console controllers. Forcing V-sync through the Nvidia driver hasn't completely eliminated tearing for me, either. For the most part, though, Rage now looks like a modern game.

At times, it's even a beautiful one. The scale of the world is truly grand, with towering structures that look far more detailed than anything I've seen in a distant skybox—and these buildings I can walk up to and explore. On more than a few occasions, sometimes even with enemies charging, I've caught my eyes wandering from the crosshairs to take in a particularly stunning view. The engine's texturing technology deserves much of the credit, not so much because it makes individual textures look better, but because it frees the artists to change whichever ones they please. There's a density to the world that I've never experienced before, and it makes the environments feel more lived-in and real.

Some elements of the visuals feel overdone, though. The high-dynamic range lighting is a little exaggerated for my tastes, and the layer of post-processing has too much of a chromatic tint. At least the tint changes with the environment, whose post-apocalyptic landscape draws from a more diverse palette of colors than I've seen from any id game.

The setting isn't a terribly original one, and it immediately invites comparisons to Borderlands, which explored a similar theme with a much different visual style and nowhere near the environmental richness of Rage. Both games feature RPG elements, but Rage plays more like a straight-up shooter. There's much less traveling between missions, inventory management is never a chore, and I can count the number of guns I've collected on two hands. I stopped playing Borderlands because it started feeling like work to me. So far, Rage has been all fun and games without the grinding.

There are, of course, multiple games. Rage has vehicles that not only provide transportation to various mission strewn across the wastelands but also engage in Twisted Metal-style carnage versus similarly equipped bandits. When you're done with that, you can take your ride to the track and compete in a series of race events to win upgrades and new vehicles.

Don't want to drive? Head to the bar and sit down for a combative playing-card game—and don't forget to scour the world for new additions to your deck. If that sounds a little too much like Pokémon, channel Bishop from Aliens and thread a knife through your fingertips for money.

Although these other elements add depth and distraction, Rage remains a first-person shooter at its core. For me, that's the most satisfying part of the game. Even when the textures were all wonky, I found the action instantly engaging. The controls are responsive, the pacing is good, and the combat is satisfying all the way from long-range sniping to close-quarters shotgun blasts. The guttural, metallic clank of the shotgun firing is my new favorite sound, especially when it's accompanied by an exploding head.

What the enemies lack in variety and intelligence they make up with aggression, acrobatics, and firepower. I've yet to be flanked or outsmarted, but the encounters are generally intense and exciting—and they're always brutally violent. More importantly, they're a lot of fun. Even when id resorts to having monsters jump out of cracks in the walls and floor, it at least has the courtesy to let you watch them hide there in the first place.

Rage's wastelands can be explored on foot or behind the wheel, as part of quests or of your own volition. Despite this open world, the individual missions are entirely linear in nature. Thankfully, Rage's arsenal of weapons, ammunition types, and engineering items like remote-control bombs, turrets, and robot escorts provide players with different strategies to pursue. A crafting system allows items to be built from junk that you pick up around the world, adding purpose to looting that goes beyond merely padding your wallet for the next shopping spree.

I don't want to say too much about the narrative without experiencing its climax, but I will say that I haven't been particularly drawn in by the story. The characters, on the other hand, exude much more personality than I'm used to seeing in what is ostensibly an action-oriented shooter. Honestly, I'm more interested in them than I am in the over-arching storyline. Plus, I'm developing a bit of a crush on Jani from the supply shop in Subway Town.

The cast of characters that populates Rage's cities and settlements imparts a layer of emotional depth to a world that's already a visual masterpiece. With an effective musical score that combines with haunting ambient sounds to add tension where appropriate, Rage has been more immersive than any other game I've played before. I type that line with bags under my eyes and a hint of pain in my left hand, both remnants of three consecutive nights of telling myself I'd only play one more mission, complete one more race, or explore one more corner of the world.

Frankly inexcusable graphics issues have tainted Rage's release on the PC, and that's a shame. The technology behind the game is impressive, and when it works, the visual payoff is astounding. I'm also glad id didn't stray too far from its roots. Rage's additional complexities could have easily been a burden, but instead, they nicely complement solid shooter mechanics that have been refined for decades. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go visit Jani to, uh, stock up for my next mission.

   
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