Game Review: Rage (PC version)

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My game review post series starts with the review of Rage, the last game from id software, released about 1 year ago and receiving criticism due to its technical problems on the PC.

Wikipedia’s Rage page makes a nice summary of my opinion on the game.

Rage has received generally positive reviews from critics according to the aggregate review site Metacritic. The game has received praise for its graphics and shooting mechanics, and criticism mostly aimed towards the game’s story and poor out-of-the-box PC compatibility.

But let’s dive into what in my view are the main aspects to discuss about this game.

Graphics

The game suffered from technical problems in its PC release due to, apparently, faults in id’s internal QA process and, more importantly, buggy graphic card drivers from AMD. id’s technical director John Carmack commented on this several times. See for example the last paragraphs on his post about static code analysis. These problems have been solved since the original release and the game is technically very solid in this regard.

Being my first game review I should tell you the kind of PC I play games on. When I bought it it was a middle-range gaming PC. The graphics card is an NVIDIA GTS250 (basically a rebranded 9800GTX+) and the CPU is an Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300 processor with 4 GB of RAM. The market has changed since then (summer 2010) and this box is now in the middle-low segment (and lower as time passes). Just to get you an idea, this system allows me to play many games in 1080p with medium and high settings but there are a few demanding games where settings have to be downgraded to medium quality and/or I need to play at a lower screen resolution. Some games do demand a lot of graphical power while not offering much in return, while others run happy and offer great visuals (Batmak: Arhkam City is one good example of these).

If the game is very demanding, I mostly resort to playing in 4:3 or 5:4 resolutions without scaling. This way, the game image fills the center of my widescreen monitor and is not blurry, while I get black bands to the left and right. 1280x1024 is usually nice as the 1024 pixels almost fill the vertical 1080 pixels of the native resolution, while the total number of pixels to fill goes down almost 37% from the native 1920x1080.

Rage is one of those demanding games and I ran it at 1280x1024. When run on appropriate hardware or with appropriate settings it offers very good graphics. The detail textures give the game a slightly noisy aspect that may remind you of Left 4 Dead. The Virtual texturing technology used by the game engine also does a very good job at keeping the framerate up at the cost of using less detailed textures if needed, but it can be a double-edged sword.

Some people may run the game with improper settings and find themselves into a blurry mess. As the game may be running with good framerates, they may think it’s the game’s fault. If you’re a PC gamer, however, you’re expected to fiddle with the graphics settings and you should do it in Rage. Due to the ability of the game engine to adapt to your PC, the options are not so extensive as we’re used from id software and other games in the market, even though the settings menu has been expanded since the original release. You’re expected to tweak a few basic settings and let the game do its job until you find the appropriate balance between screen resolution, antialiasing, texture details, etc.

The two screenshots below should give you a good idea of what I’m talking about. In both of them I was getting good framerates, but the lower resolution allows me to get better visuals.

It’s worth noting that I rarely notice texture popping in my PC even though the little benchmark from the settings menu rates my PC as "fair" in the texture streaming department (it goes like Bad, Fair, Good and two others). So I cannot stop saying this: fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.

The only thing I didn’t like about Rage’s graphics are the color filters that are applied in some game areas (either to desaturate the image, or give it a reddish, brownish or blueish appearance) and the sometimes not-so-smooth transitions from one filter to another. This is, however, a matter of opinion given the artistic aspect of those filters. There is no doubt, however, that Rage gives the Wasteland a much better look than Fallout 3 or New Vegas or Borderlands do. Also, in some specific parts of the game the textures of some elements are indeed a bit low, yet the global look and feel of the game is fantastic in general.

Gameplay and story

Gameplay wise, Rage is a shooter with a few driving and RPG elements, but does not get very far into RPG territory. It’s not equivalent to Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Fallout 3/NV or Borderlands, so don’t expect that.

RPG-wise it features a money system that helps you get ammo, weapon mods, miscelaneous items and vehicle parts (these last ones using their own currency). You also get a quasi-open world, multiple objectives and quests, etc.

The best parts of Rage are the shooting sections without a doubt. The game is responsive and plays very well. The weapons are varied and have different uses. The enemy AI is fine and shooting down enemies feels very satisfying. In other words, Rage is a solid shooter. We’ve recently read John Carmack being worried about input and ouput latency, and his aim for responsiveness while designing the engine for id’s games, among other features. I think you can really feel that attention to detail in input/output while playing the game. The only minor fault for me, regarding how the game feels, is the low height you reach when jumping.

The driving parts are also fine. They’ve been the target of some critics too, but I found the races fun and entertaining. Driving is integrated in the game and it’s the main way to get from one major place to another. The vehicle mods allow you travel faster and more easily, by making destroying enemy vehicles an easier task.

Still, id opted for the classic vehicle controls present in other games (Crysis comes to my mind) in which turning is controled by the arrow keys when playing with a keyboard, while the mouse controls the aiming direction for the vehicle weapons. This control scheme is more flexible, but I think Borderlands (to name a title) proved that controlling the direction and the aiming at the same time with your mouse is way easier and much more comfortable, in my humble opinion.

id did nail, I think, the few RPG elements they added to the game. The money system, for example, didn’t get out of their hands (I’m looking at you, Borderlands, and your inability to show me how much money I have and how much some weapons cost). Chances are that, due to the limited amount of ammunition and some items in the game maps, you’ll find yourself making use of the money you earn to buy ammo, recipes, weapon mods and other parts. Probably you will not become rich, but the game also provides a nice balance by including several methods and mini-games that allow you to make money more or less easily in small amounts, should you need to save a bit to buy that special item you didn’t account for. Really balanced.

Another good point is the order in which quests are offered to the player, be it main quests or side quests. Sides quests usually allow you to revisit a game area with a different objective and main quests usually force you to travel to new areas, slowly discovering the game world one step at a time, making it easier to remember for the future. Quests rarely force you to travel to a completely different location very far away, so the lack of a fast travel mechanism is not a problem at all.

Gameplay wise the low point of Rage is the game story and forgettable characters. In this regard, it’s obvious id tried much, much harder than what they’re used to and the game features a lot of conversations (even if you don’t say a word) that improve the storytelling. However, no character is mysterious, funny, sexy/smart (hint: sexy alone is not enough) or charismatic. You don’t establish long-term relationships with any characters (I can find tons of examples in Deus Ex, Half-Life, Fallout or Bioshock, to name a few) and they are underdeveloped.

In Rage, the best character is Antonin Kvasir, in my opinion, followed by Redstone and his minions, but the latter doesn’t last very long. There is also a general lack of dramatic or mysterious moments with the only approximation being when you are rescued from mutants in the beginning of the game, but not much more. Some characters give you a few opinions so you can get a better idea of their personality, and it’s simply not enough. Rage has a better story than many of id’s games, but it’s still far away from what people expect from an AAA title. The lack of a real challenge at the end of the game and the disappointing ending cinematic do not help either.

I can only encourage id to keep trying, but they are still not much ahead of Doom 3 and basically at the same level of, say, Crysis, to name a game, in storytelling.

Still, as a FPS the game is really fine and provides as much gaming hours as you would expect from this kind of title. It won’t last as long as Fallout New Vegas, which can easily give you 3 or 4 times more gaming hours if you care to explore slowly, but it will last definitely more than Doom 3 and maybe on par with Deus Ex (these figures can be wildly inaccurate depending on your gaming style and the fact that I’m talking off the top of my head).

Finally, Rage’s save system could also be improved. Nowadays, many games perform saves automatically in the background while you play. When done well, as it was done in Half-Life 2 (exempli gratia), autosaves improve the game immersion and allow you to quickly come back to any point in the game, as they usually do not overwrite previous saves. So when loading a game from the load menu you have a list of saved games clearly sorted by date, most recent first (Painkiller did this notoriously wrong, in my opinion). In the same vein, when you quicksave the game is not interrupted, and the last quicksave does not overwrite the previous quicksave. It’s simply added to the list of saved games. I don’t really know how "saving in the background" works in practice. I suppose it could take a snapshot of the game state in a given moment, quickly copies it in memory and a background thread writes the state to your hard drive in some form. In Rage, however, the game experiences a small pause when you save. I looks like saving in the background is not technically possible, because the game autosaves only happen when it loads a level or area. You were killed almost at the end of an area and forgot to quicksave? Tough luck. Furthermore, only the latest autosaved and quicksaved games are available. So you can’t go back to replay a given area unless you explicitly saved non-quickly. Did you quicksave just before being killed? Tough luck again. id could really improve this for future games.

Final words

With most of its technical problems solved, my final ratings would be:

  • Technical score: 9

  • Gameplay score: 7

  • Overall score: 8

I think Rage can be a solid single player shooter spiced up with some RPG elements and fun driving. The PC version is now available for 20 euros on Steam, and I got my copy during the summer sales for just 10 euros. With those price tags I think you could give it a try.

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