The question begged by Rage, a long-gestating sci-fi shooter from fabled development house id Software — makers of such seminal first-person shooters as Doom and Quake — is whether a competently made but highly derivative gaming experience can be truly satisfying.
Veteran players will find familiar virtually all of Rage's constituent parts. Its tale about a man emerging from cryogenic suspension to a dystopian world overrun by mutants and bandits is shades of Fallout – another post-apocalypse franchise that shares the same publisher, Bethesda Softworks. Its free-to-roam, Western-themed wasteland, which players can explore via piecemeal "jobs," strongly recalls the futuristic role-playing game Borderlands. And its many racing sequences involving Mad Max-style buggies battling each other with rockets, machine guns and shields, could be viewed as the bastard spawn of a secret union between Nintendo's Mario Kart games and Sony's Motorstorm series.
Id also draws heavily from its own oeuvre, filling the narrow corridors of many levels with Wolfenstein-like "monster closets" (hidden doors from which enemies spring) and offering up the occasional ultra-gory, crimson-coated room reminiscent of Doom's Hell-on-Mars milieu.
Labelling these derivations homage is too kind. Worse, with just a couple of exceptions, the game rarely acknowledges its muses.
The ambition here is obvious: id clearly hopes that this will be the first entry in a new mega-hit franchise, a new monosyllabic synonym for first-person shooter.
- Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
- The good: Refined firefights can be great fun. Flying frame-rate makes for lag-free action. Pretty graphics, including one of the most believable blue skies ever seen in a game.
- The bad: Derivative design leaves players parched for innovative action. Surprisingly short campaign ends just as it seems to be getting interesting. Buggy races are fun to start, but grow repetitive in a hurry.
- The verdict: Id Software's new sci-fi shooter is competent and mostly entertaining, but lacks the originality and zest that define the genre's great games.
To its credit, it possesses one very important ingredient for this sort of greatness: Refined firefights. Given id's experience in the genre, it should come as no surprise that shooting stuff in Rage is usually a blast. Razor-sharp controls and no shortage of wicked weapons – one can't help but love the wingstick, which vaguely resembles the glaive from 1983's sci-fi schlocker Krull – make for great times with guns.
But things have changed since id's heyday nearly two decades ago. Modern masterpieces of interactive entertainment deliver on more fronts than just action. They provide distinguishing characteristics – shocking narrative revelations, inventive play mechanics, spectacular set-piece battles – that leave an indelible imprint on players' minds and become hallmarks of the experience. I'm at a loss to think of a single such element in Rage.
In fact, I'm more inclined to consider its mildly disappointing aspects, including a surprisingly short campaign, the tendency of side missions to force players to re-explore locations they've already visited, and a lack of conventional competitive multiplayer modes (players can go head-to-head in buggies or play through cooperative missions, but there are no classic "deathmatch" shooter modes). In the absence of any category-redefining innovations, players are left to stew on these niggling issues.
I don't regret my time with Rage. Its frenetic action thrills in much the same way as a summer movie and delivers in-the-moment gratification. Still, the only thing I'm likely to remember about it in the months and years ahead is how much it made me recall the greater works that inspired it.