Tuesday, August 2, 2011

RAGE: Hands-On In The Wasteland

Thanks to the fine folks at Bethesda Softworks and id Software, last Wednesday, I got to spend a good two and a half or so hours with a complete Xbox 360 version of id's latest shooter (and one of 2011's most anticipated games) AND got to see a stunning live presentation of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim afterwards. No, I'm not going to compare them in this preview, silly rabbits. However, I will point out that both are completely different experiences that no gamer worth his or her salt should miss out on. Unlike many other events I've attended, RAGE was set up to play from the beginning from a new profile. While there were a few PR reps and a Bethsoft (or was it id?) employees floating by on occasion to see if things were going OK, I got to play a small chunk of the single player game the very same way you'll dive into it come this October 4. Note: Spoilers below the jump, but given that my progress was limited to what I could do in a few hours, I'm sure none of them are MAJOR reveals.

The game starts off with an eye-catching dramatic cinema that shows a group of humans being prepared for some sort of suspended animation while out in space, a huge meteor is headed for a collision with Earth. Your character wakes up from a long sleep in his cryogenic chamber and after a quick bit of control re-orientation, he steps outside into a ruined wasteland only to be set upon by a pair of mutant bandits. Just as he's about to get a knife in the face for stepping out for some not so fresh air, the bandits are shot down by a stranger in a dune buggy. Our newly saved avatar gets called over and told to get in before more mutants arrive. There's a brief nod to the Grand Theft Auto games as you're driven to safety and given a very quick tour of the area as well as a simple rundown on what's going on. It seems that you're a survivor from a buried Ark and that Ark Suit you're wearing makes you a huge walking target for bandits looking to scavenge your corpse (and a few other folks you'll find out about as the game progresses).

After the drive to a small outpost with a handful of residents, you're asked to help out by eliminating the rest of the bandits that attacked you by raiding their camp. You're given a pistol, some ammo and access to a cool quad bike with some nice speed and excellent handling. While running straight to the mission point is a good idea, a much better one would be to explore the little outpost and chat up the locals. Doing so unlocks the first of many mini-games, a timed target practice that allows you to carry and use Wingsticks, a deadly boomerang-like weapon. A bit of shopping for grenades and healing items and then it was off to the races. Dutifully following the excellent onscreen map, the bandit camp was reached and breached with ease. Along the way, some sort of floating robots were spotted - a trip to one menu screen noted that smashing into them with a vehicle was an optional task.

Once inside the camp, it was clear that this wasn't yet another basic corridor shooter with pop-up enemies at all. These initial mutants are a pretty nimble lot, leaping from point to point using the walls and getting quite stabby up close or shooting from cover. Going spastic with the handgun was a bad idea, as limited ammo and letting enemies get in too close don't mix well. Melee attacks plus some careful grenade and Wingstick use whittled down the pack, but there was a bit of a shock moment where things suddenly took a turn for the worse. This brought up one of the game's unique features - a mini-game where you get to reactivate yourself by using a defibrillator located inside your chest. By pushing the analog sticks in certain directions then pressing in both triggers as they slide along a bar, you're able to boost yourself back to life with a certain percentage of health depending on your stick shifting success.

After jump-starting that heart, a bit more killing needed to be (and was) done. After one hectic firefight where enemies used cover and screamed for reinforcements, there was a great opportunity to ambush some creeps from above, decapitating two and blowing up the third before he could dash for cover. By now, the gamer grin should be going full force and within a few minutes, the camp can be cleared out successfully. Swiping every item I saw from corners and corpses, the only thing left to do was zip line out of the camp and head back to claim my reward, which happened to be updated armor that disguised the Ark Suit a bit. Oh yea, - that buggy stationed outside the bandit camp can't be stolen or driven, as it's part of a side mission series of package delivery mini-game goodness.

Unfortunately, the camp had been attacked while I was taking out the trash, and some medicine was needed a wounded citizen. A new task to boogie on over to a nearby settlement was given and this time out I discovered that sticking to the given path was a smart idea at this point in the game. I decided to take a quick detour left instead of right and made it about 5 or so yards into a new area when a warning appeared onscreen followed by a targeting reticule. Despite a super-quick turn and a turbo boost, my character ended up dead by a sniper's bullet. Ouch. Fortunately, I'd saved my progress before setting out. RAGE auto-saves at certain points, but it's up to you to manually save when you like. Of course, this comes in handy when entering new areas or after tough firefights. Or before making a wrong turn and getting one's head blown off.

After reloading and restocking (sell off scrap, restock grenades and Wingsticks, buy scope for pistol), I took the right path and found the second settlement. Getting the medicine required assisting the camp leader with a problem of her own and there were a few optional requests to take on that were too tempting to turn down. There was a lost technician to find and a radio tower of sorts to activate along with another group of well-armed bandit types to dispose of. Although the wasteland map is free roaming and massive. the interiors in these early sections are fairly straightforward in terms of navigation. There are hidden passages and locked doors here and there, but as far as I got to see, you can't fall off a high ledge and die as you're limited to jumping a certain height and maps have debris or other obstacles blocking any falling off points. For the super directionally challenged gamers out there, a note: there were no indoor maps, but you really don't need them if you simply pay attention to the level layouts and take out enemies as you come across them.

After dealing with the thugs, locating the lost tech and getting the power back on, it was back to the settlement to claim the medicine and learn how to whip up bandages. The game allows for a bit of item crafting and uses an infinite inventory system, meaning you can and absolutely should grab everything you can carry. Items are listed in a few categories from useful upgrades to junk you can sell off for cash. One of the rewards from a guard's request was a shotgun which came in VERY handy when tackling a request to launch some flares for another settler. New mutant types popped up here, nasty, knife-swinging jerks that dissolved into black smoky dust after being blasted. Taking a few safe detours on the way back revealed a few sewer covers that could only be accessed through DLC. One has to imagine that id has major plans for these underground maps, as the cranky old guy nested near one noted that they were filled with mutants guarding all sorts of rare items.

As far as the presentation goes, it's stellar in my book. The game looks and sounds spectacular on the 360, but of course, the PC die-hards will hate it with all the bile in their bellies for the usual stuff (no keyboard/mouse control and an inability to fiddle with graphics settings). idTech 5 does some amazing new things with textures and the game runs at a blazing fast frame rate with zero hitches from what I was able to see. Although there are some occasionally blurry textures on inanimate world objects like vending machines (I'll need to run the game on an SD as well as HD setup to compare notes), overall, it's hard not to be impressed with the detailed character models and gorgeous environments. Controls are solid using the 360 pad - you can swap weapons and/or usable items quite easily in the middle of a fight, which comes in handy when you want to toss a Wingstick to lop off a head, then switch to a grenade to cook up and toss at an enemy diving for a cover point.

Another mission opened up, but by this time, the Skyrim presentation was ready to go, so I saved the game and went off to be floored fora nice chunk of time by Bethesda's absolute stunner of a RPG. Once that was over and done, I headed back and played about a half hour or so more while the team was packing up TV's consoles and gear for the trip back home. By the time they had to practically drag me out the door, I'd completed the next mission and gotten a nice beat-up buggy to blast around in. I won't say anything more except the game definitely starts ramping up the challenge and introduces some cool weapons and ammo options.

As fun as my time with the game was, there are going to be those out there who haven't played the game who will make immediate comparisons to Borderlands, Fallout 3 and yes, even GTA, but RAGE seems to be mixing elements from all of these while shooting for its own post-apocalyptic niche in the crowded FPS genre. There's an addictive pace to the combat and driving, but you need to earn your stripes in the early part of the game in order to take full advantage of the massive game world. As I happen to love single player games, what's intriguing for me is how RAGE's story will play out. I've been deliberately avoiding reading anything about the game because I like coming in fresh and discovering every bit of a new game on my own at my own pace. This seems to be something too many jaded gamers avoid to their (and the games they constantly pore over the Internet for info on) detriment.

In other words, I really liked what I saw, heard and played quite a lot and I think you will too... provided you realize that the game isn't the same type of experience as a DOOM or Quake. John Carmack and the team at id are in fact, treading over old ground you've had a blast with previously but by using some amazing tech that makes much of it feel fresh, the game manages to amaze where it counts. Back with more on RAGE as the October 4, 2011 release date approaches... stay tuned...

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