This is a tale of exhilaration and crushing disappointment, of awe and anger. This is my story of Rage, the simultaneously inspiring and infuriating new game from id Software.
So once upon a time there was a game studio called id Software. It changed interactive entertainment forever in 1992, when it invented the modern first-person shooter with the computer game Wolfenstein 3D. Being able to “look” through a human character’s eyes and explore a quasi-realistic three-dimensional environment had not been feasible before Wolfenstein 3D. The company went on to define the shooter concept in the 1990s with the cornerstone Doom and Quake franchises.
Then id essentially faded from view. The shooter genre, led by Activision’s Call of Duty series, is as popular as ever, but id has become an afterthought.
Photo courtesy of ID software
For years, however, gamers have been hearing about id’s big new project, a postapocalyptic shooter called Rage. The key figure at id has always been John Carmack, the programming genius who made the shooter possible in the first place, and we’ve been hearing about how he built a new graphics engine for Rage called id Tech 5. Carmack was not only designing a new engine, but he was also creating it for mass consoles like the popular Xbox 360, not just for high-end PCs.
That’s a bit like hearing that, say, Madonna is working on an important album meant to put today’s divas like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez in their proper place. The expectations have been, in a word, big.
At first those expectations seemed to have been met, even exceeded.
Photo courtesy of ID software
Recently I wrote that Gears of War 3 never made me sit up straight and say something unprintable. Played on the Xbox 360, Rage made me do just that about 90 seconds into it.
As the game begins, you wake up in a small pod that has maintained you in stasis for about a century since an asteroid struck Earth in 2029. You then step out of the “ark” into a wasteland so beautifully rendered that no expletive seems sufficient.
The first word in my handwritten notes is “Carmack!” After a few minutes I wrote: “The forms, lines and light are crisp and detailed, not occluded in some haze. It’s like PC-level realism and rendering come to consoles. Stunning.”
Photo courtesy of ID software
On the Xbox 360, Rage is a technical (if not necessarily a creative) triumph. The controls are tight and responsive, and the graphics are faster and better — meaning more realistic — than anything I have seen on that machine. In fairness, some games are coming along this fall that could challenge that, but we will have to see. At times I could not believe I was beholding full-motion rendering of Rage’s quality and speed on what is, after all, a six-year-old system. You have mutants and gangsters coming at you from all angles, and you’re blowing them away with assault rifles and shotguns. Life is good, if you like this sort of thing.
“Well,” I thought, “if it looks this good on the 360, it’s going to look just over-the-top spectacular on the PC, right?” After all, modern, top-end gaming PCs are far more powerful than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. And we’re talking about id here, the company that invented the first-person shooter on the PC.
I was wrong. Catastrophically wrong. The Windows version of Rage, which should be a crown jewel for id itself and for PC gaming generally, looks horrible. The textures are blocky and crude. To use the vernacular, the rendering is just messed up. You spin around quickly, and you can perceive the shapes and textures filling in around the edges. (And I am playing on a monster system from Nvidia, the graphics card company. I don’t even want to think about what the game looks like on less powerful machines.)
Compared with games that feature truly top-flight PC graphics, like Crysis 2, Rage is embarrassingly deficient. Rage insults PC gamers by not even giving us the simple options to tweak the graphics that we are accustomed to.
Frankly, I don’t understand how id could do this. Is the opportunity on consoles so lucrative that it is worth antagonizing your most loyal customers? In emphasizing the console version of Rage so heavily, to the detriment of the PC version, id may have made a major mistake. You see, in the face of coming juggernauts like Battlefield 3 and the new Call of Duty, id and its publisher, Bethesda Softworks, needed PC gamers to promote Rage evangelically to their console-playing buddies. Instead we are fuming.
It is possible to improve Rage’s PC performance by copying some arcane commands into text files deep in your computer, but even after you do that, the overall impression is still just about decent, which is to say, not great. Id has acknowledged that the introduction of the PC version of the game has been a disaster. The company has leveled some blame for the problems at Nvidia and ATI, the other main graphics card company, which to me seems like at least a partial abdication of responsibility.
Careful readers will note that in this tale I’ve spent a rare amount of time discussing graphics. With an id game, that’s warranted. The other elements of Rage — storytelling, mission design, character development — are all pretty rote.
The missions are the same over and over: Someone in a town tells you to clear out some bandits/mutants, so you do. The world is fairly open, but there is almost nothing to do in it except the assigned missions. The characters are forgettable. It is also inexplicable that id would ship a game without a competitive multiplayer experience. (This is the company that essentially invented the term deathmatch.)
That all said, Rage can still be an enjoyable 10- to 20-hour combat romp. The core shooting and fighting mechanics are predictably solid. The ruins you fight through are thoughtfully designed. And at least on the Xbox 360, it looks glorious.
But Rage could, and should, have been so much more.
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