Tuesday, November 1

The RAGE Letters - A Review Post-Mortem

I find a second opinion to be essential when it comes to videogames. I'm obviously not alone here, as Metacritic - a website which aggregates critics' qualitative evaluations of movies, music, television progams and games - is a powerfully-popular choice for obtaining that second, third or seventy-ninth opinion on a recent release.

The numbers on that website used to have a lot of weight in regards to my purchase decisions, as a limited budget meant that I could only enjoy so much gaming without impacting on my social life. With my studies completed, and a steady flow of income, I can now indulge in pretty much anything that catches my eye. For that reason I'm now lacking the time to play all of the lastest releases, rather than the means to purchase them.

That's where some of my friends come in. Instead of spending hours looking at my collection indecisively, I sometimes put my ears (read: eyes) to the ground (read: Facebook, Twitter, Steam Chat) for suggestions on how to best use my time.

In this case, my good friend Alex was screaming RAGE. 

It's not like I hadn't thought to play it myself, it's just that with Gears of War 3, Batman: Arkham City and a - to be frank - frighteningly-long list of  upcoming AAA releases on the way, I was going to pass on id's post-apocalyptic shooter. This man, whom I would argue would be the game's greatest advocate, just wouldn't let me pass it up. He has such a way with words, that he is able to render the thoughts of the "peanut gallery" obsolete. No matter how many indifferent reviews rolled in, Alex kept fighting for this game.

 Anything you want to tell us?

These emails - for the sake of drama, we'll call them letters - chronicle our experiences with the game from beginning to end. I've decided not to edit them either (except when full names are used), so please forgive any errors in spelling or punctuation. Please be warned, that there may be minor spoilers.

Letter 1: Alex to me, after a quick Twitter conversation. 

Okay, the Rage thing. For me, it's simply the culmination of id's attention to mechanics and 'feel' for this generation. But yeah, flaws?

- Characters are nothing but quest devices, as nice as they look and as well voice-acted as they are.
- The pop-in can be distracting for console owners.
- The overland aspects could be utilised more or removed completely

Now...for me, I counter the first and last flaws by simply stating their are/it is some of the finest world-building I've seen in a long time. The attention to visual detail is terrific. Can I interact with it? No, probably not. Do I NEED to? No. If I wanted that, I would have gone with Deus Ex, and even then, if I want tepid gunplay I certainly would play Deus Ex. The architectural designwork of Rage is brilliant, I reckon. There's a real physicality to everything, a hand-crafted sense of place. The characters? I like 'em. Coming off of what I played of Deus Ex, with it's horrible character models and wonky animation...Rage is bliss.

I dunno. Because outside of those issues, the gunplay and combat animation for enemies is second to none. The ammo types really mix things up and the economy of special weapons like the wingsticks, RC car, Sentry turret/gun...it's so damn tight. There's nothing flaccid in the gameplay department.

I do recommend going into the options and turning the difficulty up, though. Put it on Nightmare. With the defib option, Rage is a little easier than I thought and Nightmare is a good challenge.

Also, you NEED to play the Legends of the Wasteland co-op. Seriously. It's Rage's best-kept secret. Played it with ol' Ben the other night and it's the best co-op I've played in recent memory. Specially designed levels with a great scoring mechanic and perfect length.

That's my take on it. In Dead City at the moment and it's balls-out ridiculous. Definitely a contender for me this year in the action game category. I dunno, I never went into Rage looking for a story, but I found atmosphere as potent as STALKER's. Just me, though.
Now I hardly encountered any pop-in, but his observations regarding characters and the overworld were right on the money. He did emphasise the game's strength however: the varied and satisfying gunplay. On his endorsement, I strongly wanted to play the co-op levels; if you read my review, you should know how that panned out.  

Letter 2: My retort. Just for the record, Alex is far more eloquent than I am in terms of both published work and written conversation. You should also know that I have been known to use salty language when amongst friends.

I'm sorry man, but world-building? The wasteland is the size of a Brisbane suburb! Agreed: the NPCs are animated much better in Rage, but do I give a flying fuck as to what they have to say? Nooooo. You can't even skip the conversations unless they're giving a quest.

Gunplay is another area where we'll need to disagree. The hit detection is downright laughable.. Headshots do not drop a man... in some cases, three or four don't help either. Plus, the enemies equipped with guns are pretty stupid. I'm gonna take cover..... and then rush him! The melee enemies are cool, moving with frightening speed; otherwise, meh. The ammo types that I've picked up don't really add much.... one is more powerful than the other. Plus the enemies are so freaking stupid that you don't need them.

I'll get through the campaign before I play co-op, but rest-assured, I'll give it a go.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The whole car combat and driving mess. I've never felt more indifferent to a whole mechanic in recent memory. It is the embodiment of meh. I found that in the races particularly, the walls can get very sticky.

I might take on the difficulty suggestion; won't go to Nightmare, but will consider hard.

Sorry to troll another of your favourites, bro.

Brisbane suburbs are quite large, and some do have wasteland-like characteristics, but an open world game should have a larger area to play around in. You'll also see that I wasn't a huge fan of the gunplay in the early stages of my playthrough (this was written after five hours of play); that situation did improve though.  I didn't up the difficulty either, just for interest's sake.

Letter 3: Alex responds and he also brings another friend's insight for great effect.

Cheers for your thoughts. Contentious! No, it's all very interesting. When I say world-building, I mean the holistic artistic creation of a place, as it were. There's a mission you've probably done...taking supplies to an outpost? Take for example the outpost itself...the architectural assemblage is breathtaking. The concrete and steel construction, its lines and form...everything feels so thoughtful with NOTHING coming across as 'coder visuals', ala, conventional and lacking character. The 'world', or overland, whatever you want to call it, is small - sure - but every part feels distinctly carved. Borderlands? Yeah, another decent game with impressive art style, but that was far from the detailed composition Rage is, both overland, in the hubs and in the 'dungeons'/mission areas.

Ben and I have been having this discussion about Rage's two camp-reception, and in the spirit of friendly discussion, I conveyed your eloquent thoughts to him for further musings. His response?

"...I'm not overly surprised, because a lot of people seem to feel the same way as Tristan. The wasteland area is too small, the games focus too narrow, enemies take too many bullets and they're not sold on the driving.

I think a lot of it is due to expectations. What a lot of people expect from a game featuring a wasteland (large, RPGish, explorable). But very rarely can you have it both ways- the large environments of games like Fallout come across as soulless, lacking the personalized detail that can be seen everywhere in Rage. I remember The Darkness getting similar complaints for the size of its "suburb", but I was engrossed because of the small details. When I play an id game I don't expect an open world RPG, I expect a polished shooter experience. Anything else is just icing on the cake. And unlike some other games, I don't find the NPCs a chore. They're finely detailed, well animated, well voiced, and even though they usually don't have much of consequence to say there's a nice sense of humour bubbling under the surface. They also don't launch into massive diatribes about the nature of man or similar silliness. They are there to provide a breather between the shooting, and flesh the world out a little more. That's all, and for me that's all that's needed with a game like this.

The combat.... again, expectations are the issue. This isn't some hyper real military shooter. The hit detection is just fine. I think it's pretty great really! Have a look at the impact points when bullets hit an enemy, and the way their bodies react. Shoot an enemy wearing a helmet in the head and the helmet goes flying off. It takes more than one headshot to down an enemy, so you unload a whole clip in his face! It's an "action film" mentality. Bullet sponge enemies piss me off, but here you really get a sense of the impact of every shot, even if the damage level isn't as high as you'd expect. It's a lot more satisfying then say Gears, where an enemy simply lumbers towards you until you unload enough bullets into it. Playing something like Halo, nobody expects a single headshot from a pistol to down most enemies. Are the expectations for Rage different because they are human enemies? I like not needing to be stingy with my ammo and really unloading into a group of fools. I like not needing to pull up iron sights every 5 seconds. I like the meaty blast of the grenades, or a satisfying wingstick decapitation.

The AI in general isn't amazing, but few games are. I like how aggressive the enemies are, particularly those that charge at you. And really, I think they are smart enough for this game. A game where you can bust into a room with your shotgun and take down half a dozen of the bastards. Satisying. They don't have mystical pin point grenade throwing skills, or the ability to see through walls. They don't respawn continuously until you reach an invisible checkpoint. You can't cheese them out by hiding around a corner until they are no longer "alert". The enemy behaviour is certainly better than most!

Naturally with the vehicles opinions will vary. That aspect has been really growing on me. The walls are a little sticky, and it doesn't feel quite as finely tunes as say a Halo. But there's a very appealing sense of speed, and the handling is a whole lot better then something like Borderlands which was an absolute mess in that regard.

Ultimately, whenever I'm engaged in combat in Rage there's a huge grin on my face. That's really what I'm looking for from a shooter, and this game delivers it in spades."

It's not a question of swaying votes or opinions, but it's quite interesting that certain aspects that are otherwise very clear cut in other games on whether they're good or bad tend to be an either-or in Rage.

In regards to the difficulty thing, I do recommend - due to being able to switch difficulty on the fly in the options - at least trying out both hard and nightmare. Hard feels like playing on normal, Nightmare on hard...

...which brings me to my next pondering...

Ramping up difficulty: can it be used to inflect/affect an opinion/experience of a game and is that legitimate? Space Marine is a walk in the park on normal, but a savage challenge on hard. Should reviewers attempt - at least in part - various difficulties to see if their experience changes? Rage is a much tighter game for me on nightmare due to it invoking a lot of the good ol' days. I'm no pro-gamer or have ever claimed to be, but damn if it isn't nice to have challenge (that isn't Dark Souls-level punitive).

Anyway, my further musings!

Keep up the good work.


I could never be sold on RAGE's overworld: It is the very definition of bland. I should also clarify that I didn't go exploring much after hitting the town of Wellspring. I took a few missions from the board and cleaned a few sewers, but it would be false for me to say I knew the Wastelands like the back of my hand. Alex and Ben weren't swaying my opinion; if anything their observations were confirming my opinion of the game as a whole.

Take it back!

Letter 4: With the game completed and my opinions consolidated, I respond to both my friends with a written salvo.

I didn't get a notification for this message, so please excuse the slow reply.

As far as the architecture, I did appreciate certain areas (such as the Jackal hideout and it's tribal music), but the amount of invisible walls and general restrictions caused great pain.

As for Ben's observations, I have a few musings to send back.

With Rage I didn't have much in the way of expectations: FPS set in a wasteland isn't going to win any points for originality. I was intrigued by id Tech 5 and that did not disappoint. I think that Rage was the one that lacked soul; sure Fallout 3 looked like shit, but it felt lived-in. You could talk with any neutral and allied NPCs and they offered a response. Rage's NPCs just stare at you dead-eyed or repeat the same phrase after giving a quest. The transaction was finished, so there's nothing to consume outside of that. The voicework in Rage was so dull, and the fact that it couldn't be skipped annoyed to no end; particularly when you had to sit through the same spiel from vendors like Sparky. I did love the Darkness, and the suburb size meant that there was no filler in terms of travel. Fallout 3 and Oblivion offer a fast travel option which also cuts out the crap.

As far as combat goes, yep: a human enemy shouldn't be able to take more than one bullet to the head. I also liked the freedom from iron sights and had a lot of fun once I got some sentries and the alternate ammo for the crossbow. While I agree in terms of a shot's impact, these guys are still bullet sponges. You can't run on a leg that's had six bullets in it!

With regards to AI, yeah, the charging bugged the shit out of me. And again I agree, not having to battle an inifinite horde of enemies until I crawled to a checkpoint was appreciated.

As far as difficulty goes, Normal difficulty is progressively becoming easier (with the exception of Killzone 2/3). I can remember in terms of the PS2, Normal for Devil May Cry was a ball breaker; normal on Rage and Space Marine was a joke. For me, I'll always go through on Normal when reviewing a title because that's what I assume most people will engage with (I know it's wrong to assume, but I am trying to appeal to the largest amount of people here). Rage never ramped it up. The first mission was as hard as it got.

Thanks for this, bro. Finished it today, and yeah, I don't think I could ever be sold. Except for maybe the sound.... how brutal does the Authority MG sound?


Mike Minotti was right: Highlighting sound design as a game's best attribute is a rarely a good sign, but it was particularly amazing in RAGE. I'm reasonably satisfied that my two friends didn't impinge on my assessment, but they did help confirm some of those grating issues and strengths that the game offered.

Letter 5: Not one to push, but definitely one to share, Alex shares his final thoughts.
Round 2, sir! Or should I say, home and slouched in the chair with a coffee. So, I'll just throw down my summary.

I can understand all the points you've made against Rage. Bullet sponge enemies, yep. Charging enemies? I love them, but I can get people's disdain or frustration with them. Boring characters? Yeah, set against RPGs like Fallout, sure.

I think difficulty is something that needs to be addressed and blame should be directed at the inevitable gamer market expanding and at the same time, growing older. But that's another story.

Okay, for me, Rage is simply an uncomplicated feast that allows me to do my thing. No conceits, no cheese fondue narrative or characterisation. I came, I saw, I shot. And that honestly isn't enough for people these days, I think. Maybe there's not enough on-screen bar-filling or constant extrinsic pats of the back - not to say that's your position.

id Software don't make great games when it comes to story. They simply don't have the chops...sorta like Crytek, I'd say - although, that's another limb, as I've never played either of the Crysis games. In any case, maybe it's a case of the industry having moved on and id simply can't rest on their relatively simplistic "guns first, everything else after" direction.

But at the same time, as much as you found the unskippable character dialogue deplorable, it's only once at the beginning, once at the end. Between that, it's cars and guns. I dig that.

I dunno, I suppose I've said all I can about Rage and it really is the strangest game in terms of reception. I can't think of a similar title. People's complaints are legitimate, but I feel like the triumphs some folks speak of are just as valid.

So that's Rage. 
There you go. I may have had a few negative observations to share on RAGE, but Alex kept me in check. I think he's right about the dangerous direction that the industry is heading in with reference to difficulty and expectations of the consumer, but that's a discussion for another time.

 Pull up a chair. Tell us what you think!

Do you agree with any our observations about RAGE? Would you like to see reviewers share notes more often?

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