Graphically, Rage is the most impressive game of this generation. Thus far, anyway.

Id Software is trying to get back into the swing of things with a new IP that has been in development for a quite a while. Sometimes superficially and sometimes not, Rage resembles both the newest iterations of Fallout courtesy of Bethesda and Obsidian as well as Gearbox’s fun, zany Borderlands. Even though it may be the case that Rage was in development long enough that these are coincidental similarities, they still work against this game as all the easily comparable titles are superior in almost every way to it.

This isn’t to say that Rage is a bad game and I’ll get into what works about it after I’ve dished on how disappointing it is overall.

Rage is about the world a couple of hundred years after an asteroid hits and fucks everything up. It features your standard post-apocalyptic wasteland and tries to throw in a few twists we’ve already seen, such as mutants and futuristic authoritarian factions with crazy technology. You play as a dude from the old world, frozen in stasis and shot full of nanomachines so as to awaken in the aftermath and rebuild society. Apparently pod people like yourself are a commodity so various factions want to use you, kill you, etc. Somehow, as I’ll get into, the drama of all this never connects or amounts to much of anything. It’s just a backstory infodump, exactly like it sounds.

The game does have the best graphics I’ve seen on an Xbox 360. This is no surprise since Id are just as known for crafting new engines as they are for their games. Unfortunately, the engine is easily the most impressive part here. Other than that, Rage is a fairly standard shooter with a fuck-and-chuck attitude toward the RPG elements popularized in other similar games (and this is where the “coincidence” shit starts to run a bit thin) .

As is the style of the times, Rage also incorporates a lot of vehicular bits. These bits are fucking boring as they exist mostly to get you around with arbitrary and bland fights with enemy bandit cars to “spice it up”. This causes the driving elements to feel utterly tacked on. It should be said, though, that the races are fun and the driving does give you a chance to really get into the scenery in the background of the game. The cloudy apocalyptic skies alone will have you staring in amazement.

I do have to say that Rage captures the Mad Max vehicle mayhem better than most other games, including Borderlands where the driving was way worse but way less relied on as a transitional device.

In terms of its structure, Rage feels like a game that would have benefited from a linear approach more like Bioshock than Fallout. As it is, the “freedom” granted the player to explore the world and tackle side missions in whatever order feels like window dressing. Anyone who has played games with deeper options in the same vein will recognize Rage for the charlatan “me too” that it is. In short, Id isn’t fooling anyone with this and it’s hard not to feel a bit insulted. I mean, there is probably a limited group of people more likely to interact with elements like these in this simplified form than they would be to engage whole-heartedly with something like Fallout. I get that but it’s not exactly a praise-worthy move for Id to make, especially given that they talked up the freedom so much in the marketing.

It’s almost like they started out on the drawing board with an idea much closer to Fallout or Borderlands and scrapped it for whatever reason. This leaves them with a watered down game mechanics that are as shallow as the graphics are pretty. Which says something. Rage feels like a throwback to days where the market didn’t punish games for over-emphasizing gameplay in favor of graphics. That is less true now than it is at the beginning of any new console generation, but Id seems to have missed that memo. As it stands, Rage is a game I regret buying for $60. It is exactly the kind of game that I love to pick up for $20 or less and enjoy without feeling like I overpaid for one bright diamond in a bluff of disgusting brown shit. Games like The Saboteur, or Singularity or Enslaved are all ones I’ve happily shelled out $20 or less for because they had something going for them whether it was art design, some zany concept, or whatever. Rage has a few more things than just its graphics going for it, sure, but it isn’t worth $60 nowadays. Not by a long shot.

Which brings us to those positive attributes. Rage has great level design. Especially for a shooter. Though it repeats levels, sending you back on sidequests, this is optional and Id went out of their way to keep the experience fresh by changing the environment. This means that where you would take a certain path through a level in the first pass, the second will offer alternate routes, different enemies or at least encounter points, and different nooks and crannies to pick up goodies. This is great, really, and I hope becomes a trend in single-player campaigns that give you the option to retread old ground. It also mitigates what would have been a serious complaint had they not done this. I hate when games shamelessly repeats environments to pad out the content or completion time (which is a hot button issue for shooters, it seems).

Rage also has a great selection of weapons with all different ammo types. Knowing which to use when is a matter of some strategy. The battles themselves are completely dependent on the tone set by your tactics as there is a surprisingly large diversity of enemy types, all of which employ different tactics and weapons of their own and must be dealt with creatively. This is where the game really shines, where the concept wins through the chaff that accompanies it. It also meant, however, that I was skipping content to get to the story missions and sidequests that would let me get into the action.

The character models are very diverting, great mocap is used in combination with slightly exaggerated art design to create believable, attractive animations.

This brings me to the last point I want to make about the game. Rage has a story that is so shallow and ridiculously bland that it defies sense. It feels so lazy and effortless that I thought it was some kind of joke. Not only is the silent protagonist simply Shanghai’d automatically into various activities on some kind of slapped-together narrative continuum, the major players in these affairs have silly names like The Resistance and The Authority. It’s like they just couldn’t be fucked doing any world-building beyond the visual and this poses a serious problem for Rage as it becomes a parody of itself and other post-apocalyptic games with Star Warsian rebellion against oppression narratives. Not to mention that there is never a clear through-line for your character to even care about any of this, he is simply told to care and told that this or that faction is this or that moral character.

This bollocks could have been helped if there were any NPC characters with meaningful storylines of their own. Other games feature silent, passive protagonists but manage to suck the player in through investment in NPCs. Rage doesn’t even try. It’s just a rotating cast of pixel-people that are there in utter servitude to the game’s non-plot. The closest thing to a real character is Hagar and this is only because John Goodman didn’t completely sleep through the voice work. Other than that, there’s just nothing to these people. Sometimes they are visually interesting or represent interesting ideas about the world.

Then there’s that ending. The game has no 3rd act, really, so there’s no sense of escalation leading to an ending. Instead, you’re dumped into a final mission that could easily be just another one and the game just ends. Bullshit.

The NPC’s and RPG elements and driving mechanics and so on all act as workable metaphors for the game as a whole: a thin and shallow advertisement for a robust and powerful new software engine upon which many better games will be based. In that sense, Rage functions more as a demo for the new engine than it does as an actual game. Which is a shame, because you can tell some truly creative people were involved with this and tried to make it something exciting and interesting. Too bad they were failed by the overall project direction and whichever programming intern they tapped to write the ludicrous “story”.