This week, Zero Punctuation gives some fashion advice for the post-apocalypse.
If the various representatives of Shooter Season 2011 went to war against the JRPGs, then the developers of this week's subject would get to sit in the big general's tent ordering Insomniac Games to polish their boots and sending the developers of Hard Reset to engage in ground-level skirmishing with the developers of Eternal Sonata. Yes, it's id Software, the creators of Doom and Quake (as the front cover of Rage is quick to remind us), the widely respected veteran of the shooter genre who lives in constant terror that anyone will notice that their stripes and medals are made of aluminium foil and milk bottle tops. The two games given as evidence of their skill are both so old that they could probably be run on a sheet of corrugated cardboard with holes punched in it, and you'll note that Rage's box art makes no reference to anything they developed more recently like Doom 3 or Quake III, respectively a flashlight with a Halloween mask taped to it and a load of old wank. Will Rage renew their status as a current-generation developer, or will the only rage be my plumber's when I expect him to clean all the bits of broken DVD out of my disposal unit?
So in preparation for upcoming global disaster, the Earth authorities seal you and various other individuals underground so that you might one day pop out like happy little radishes and retake the world once all that disaster business has cleared up, but a century later you emerge to find that certain demographics of humanity survived and there is now a thriving post-apocalyptic- hey, get the fuck out of here, Fallout 3, I'm trying to talk about Rage. Oh, this is Rage. How awkward.
It's yet another game in Shooter Season 2011 where humanity starts off fucked and all that's left to do is apply sympathetic words and soothing cream before it gets any worse. And you know, just once I'd like to see a post-apocalyptic setting where people wear jeans and t-shirts. It doesn't seem like it'd be hard to loot a few factory outlet shops after society crumbles, but it seems the first thing everyone does after the bomb hits is strap every random animal skull and piece of kitchenware they can find to their leather singlets.
Rage certainly does look very nice. This is what we call, "damning with fine praise", but it does. Some of the environments could take the breath away from even the most jaded mountain goat. Character animations are pretty amazing. Characters emote and gesture while talking in ways we haven't seen since Half-Life 2 - funny how innovation in today's industry basically means catching up to Valve. But then there's enemy animations, too. While Half-Life 2 's soldiers immediately ragdollize when they run out of health like some impish Star Trek engineer teleported all their bones away, Rage 's enemies have an incredible range of reaction animations: staggering, clutching wounded limbs and even continuing to charge for a few seconds before the message that they've been killed reaches their brains.
All of which is very lovely set dressing that utterly failed to distract me from thinking, "this seems a lot like Borderlands". Wastelands, hub-based mission gameplay, gang members with saucepans strapped to their heads, drivable buggies - all that's missing is the co-op focus and a horrible interface. One might argue that just being Borderlands but better might give it reason to exist, but I imagine that would be small comfort for Gearbox. Still, at least in Borderlands you had an idea of what you were in there for: you were looking for a treasure. As motivation goes, you weren't exactly the Count of Monte Cristo, but at least it was something. In Rage, you wake up after a century of cryo-sleep, pop your head out the door, and some random passer-by pulls you out by the scruff of your neck and says you have to go shoot some bandits. Jesus fellow, at least give me time to have a coffee! The first time you get the slightest hint of a plot is several hours later, when someone finally mentions that the post-apocalyptic community is under the oppressive heel of a technocratic authority and that the people are waiting for a hero like you to free them from its tyrannical grasp. Call me a cynic - please, it's my only sense of identity - but when some resistance movement shows up demanding I dress in a sheep costume and jump through some hoops making suggestive baaa-ing noises before they'll let me fight the evil government who I have yet to actually fucking see, there's only one organization I feel I'm being oppressed by here. Especially when they all seem content to sit around in the base eating pancakes while I'm sent off alone to slaughter saucepan-wearing bandits du jour.
Yeah, any governing body that calls itself "The Authority" - presumably the Crackdown naming committee were also cryonically preserved at some point - probably aren't distributing free t-shirts to war widows, but I wish the game would establish that rather than just ask me to assume it. At least have them give me a speeding ticket while I'm ramping off mountains in my dune buggy, make me think it's my problem. Here's a pacing master class for you: the first time we hear about the ultimate plan to bring down the authority is moments before the final mission to enact it, and that plan is to awaken all your cryonically preserved mates at once. I'm sure the world will be much harder to oppress when the percentage of clueless gadabouts has sharply increased.
But rather than fill in plot holes, Rage seems bent on simply distracting you from them at every opportunity. It's one of those games that tries to make itself a sprawling toybox rather than stay focused. There's the free-roaming driving death matches, the racing tournaments, and a cluster of minigames in the Red Dead Redemption model. And I must say, there's a certain amount of respect that should be afforded to any post-apocalyptic drinking establishment in which you can play knify finger at one table and Magic: The Gathering at the next. As much as an impromptu wasteland buggy rocket launcher duel livens up the commute back to town, it makes more sense to me to play separate games that focus on being either a good racer or a good shooter, rather than one that forces them to awkwardly spoon so there isn't room for enough sweet jumps or giant spider boss fights respectively.
Despite the game being mechanically well-balanced, it feels a bit anaemic. Despite coming on three discs on the Xbox, there are only two hub towns and a paltry handful of sidequests. Rage puts so much effort into looking nice that it sacrifices the overall experience, and what scares me is that this will set the example. It seems increasingly true that AAA games have been skipping meals so they can buy the most glittery dresses, and now it looks like they've started sticking their fingers down their throats. How does it make sense that a three-CD game on the PlayStation could last you for weeks but a three-DVD game two generations later could be fired off in a weekend?
id Software are certainly world-class engine programmers, but engage, they cannot. Don't see myself ever being thrilled to my very soul by particularly good volumetric lighting.
Still just a rat in a cage: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
What I want to know is why everyone's wearing pauldrons in a society that mainly uses guns
It's pronounced 'Idd Software', not 'Eye Dee Software'