The difference between clever and cunning.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

RAGE Review

A History of Violence

Id Software has a well deserved reputation as an industry leading FPS developer. After all, these are the guys who brought us Doom and Quake, as the box of their latest offering is quick to remind us. RAGE takes the bold step of moving away from the established design of Id’s previous games and adding elements like a more open world, vehicles for racing and combat, and crafting. Let's take a look at how it comes together.

RAGE suffers from a weak beginning. There’s nothing wrong with the setup. Post-Apocalyptic is a gaming staple, and at least it’s not another nuclear war. A giant asteroid is about to hammer the earth and your character is one of the select elites stashed underground in cryogenic “Arks” to wait out the worst of the impact. 

The trains no longer run on time. Or at all really.

The problem is that the game never really gives you any sort of involvement or investment. Your character’s Ark is damaged somehow and so wakes you up early, but it’s never explained what did so or what killed everyone else inside. You stumble outside and are menaced by hobos bandits, who are in turn shot by a passing stranger. He then hands you a moderately dangerous pistol and asks you, a man he’s never seen before with no idea what’s going on, to please go kill more people he dislikes. That’s pretty much it. Taken individually the game’s missions are enjoyable, but they’re connected by the very flimsiest of narrative threads. 

After the Boom

On a macro level the game is looks good. The skyscapes and outdoor horizons are impressive, and stuff blows up real good when blowing up is called for. When seen from a reasonable distance objects and environments look convincingly battered and worn. My computer is mid-range these days, but performance was smooth and load times were reasonable.

Do comet strikes create mesas or are we in Utah? Good looking sky though.

Up close many textures have an unfortunate muddy appearance. By far the strangest graphical quirk is that RAGE seems to load in textures on a second by second basis, unloading them the moment you look away. Simply look to the side and you’ll watch textures fill in on the fly. Perhaps it was done for performance reasons, but it’s visually distracting at best and just plain weird given ID’s normally rock solid reputation for engine performance and graphical pizzazz.

This is a world with a lot of trash, rubble, and dust. Armor and vehicles have the cobbled together Mad Max look you would expect. There are a lot of guys wandering around looking for a matching shoulder-pad. Some of the junk art the various bandit tribes leave around to mark their territory is downright fascinating.

The "Talk to the hand" tribe is justly feared across the wasteland.
RAGE draws from the school of level design that builds an intact structure, and then knocks out enough walls and doors to force you to take a long winding path through the place. The levels are quite linear, but most manage to be visually interesting; especially the ones that take place outdoors. Even the usual run of underground subway tunnels and bunkers avoid looking sterile or dull.

Dangerous Toys

It’s fortunate that the environments aren’t dull, because you’ll want to comb them thoroughly for loot. There’s ammo and junk to sell, but more importantly you can find all sorts of components and spare parts that can be taped together into useful stuff. This just consists of going to the appropriate screen and hitting a button, but it’s the only reliable source of some of the most fun and powerful items. Crafting makes exploration and secret hunting worthwhile and adds some welcome character and a bit of depth. 

I'm just a boy and his murderbot. And his shotgun. I've love enough for both.

It’s entirely possible to slug through RAGE with just the stock shotgun/machine gun, but that would be a waste. The wealth of ammo types and auxiliary items mean you have some cool tactical options at your disposal. Many of these, like the signature head seeking boomerangs and remote control bomb cars, can end a fight in a hurry. Turrets and spider bots help even the odds in larger fights.  Some of the more exotic items, like the mind control and dynamite bolts for the crossbow, are just fun to play around with. 

Places to Go, People to Kill

RAGE’s missions are self-contained 20-30 minute shots of high quality FPS action, and definitely the game’s strongest point. Weapons feel solid and sound satisfyingly powerful. Enemies buckle and thrash when shot, losing helmets and limbs and falling back in panic when enough of them perish. Combat is generally forgiving, especially if you’re willing to make basic use of cover, but still a lot of fun. Shooter veterans should consider choosing hard for their first play-through. 

Health regenerates and you can always instantly heal yourself by slapping on a cheap and plentiful bandage. A bladed boomerang will handily decapitate the bulk of enemy types if you feel seriously threatened. For those moments when you do take too many bullets your character has a sort of high tech defibrillator that triggers a quicktime event. Success sees you springing back to your feet with full health and nearby enemies convulsing from electric shock. The defibrillator takes some time to recharge so you can’t be careless, but it’s still a lot more interesting than hammering the quick-load key. 

I have no idea what this is but I intend to punch it.

Human opponents mostly make use of cover nodes, popping out to take shots at you and flinging the odd grenade. Rare heavier troopers stomp relentlessly forward, trying to bring massive weapons to bear on you until you finally blast off enough of their armor to put them down for good. As mentioned before, enemies give a satisfying amount of feedback in combat. Better protected foes even sound different when shot with weaker ammo types, hinting the need to switch to something more armor piercing or explosive.

Humans are willing to fall back and give ground, but the swarming goblinoid mutants simply rush you in an ill tempered pack. They’re not particularly smart, but they are nicely animated and give you an excuse to break out the shotgun. Occasional bigger specimens provide more of a threat and serve as mini-boss fights.

While the individual maps and missions are fun the game gets a LOT of use out of them. Almost every optional mission sends you back to an area you’ve already cleared to do much the same thing all over again. Most of the co-op multiplayer levels are heavily recycled maps as well.  If you ignore all the extra racing and side missions and mini-games RAGE isn’t that long of a game. Perhaps five or six hours at most. A bit disconcerting for a game that takes three DVDs to install. 

For the Discerning Gunman

It’s worth noting that the special “Anarchy” edition includes some content that changes the early game. The damage upgrade to the basic fists makes them so effective that many encounters become another exciting tale in the Adventures of Doc Punchington and his Marvelous Fisticuffs. (Which would make a great game, but we’re veering off track.) RAGE isn’t a melee-centric game, but when a single blow to the face drops any mutant or unarmored bandit it’s hard to justify plinking around with the pistol. 

Mutant crawling out of the sewers. While already in the sewers.
There’s an armor upgrade that’s powerful and useful, but by its own superiority removes the single interesting character choice found in the game. Aside from a double barreled shotgun and a more durable car the Anarchy edition has a set of bonus missions located in that most scenic of FPS locations, post-apocalyptic sewers. These generally offer about ten minutes of uninspired mutant punching and some decent loot for compulsive scavengers and collectors. As bonus content goes it’s not actually bad, but you’re not missing anything particularly memorable. I did like the spiked knuckle fists though. 

Driving While Angry

Racing and vehicular combat is a major gameplay element, but feels sectioned off from the rest of RAGE. You need a vehicle to get from place to place as the distances between towns and missions are quite far. Facing bandit patrols on foot is suicide. There’s little reason to hop out of the car in any area where you can drive, and no way bring a car inside a mission. If you were hoping for a fluid combination of driving and fighting, a la Halo or Red Faction: Guerilla, you’ll be disappointed. Driving and FPS shooting are discrete experiences with very little crossover between them.

You need a vehicle to get around in post-apocalyptia.

You queue up for races inside major cities, and victory is the major source of vehicle upgrade currency. No items, ammo, or health carry over but the destruction of your vehicle just sets you back a few seconds. The vehicles themselves are forgiving and enjoyably arcady. Racing is an amusing enough diversion, though I found the “rally” mode where everyone races for checkpoints that appear all over the map frustratingly random. Out in the wasteland vehicular combat mostly boils down to firing off homing missiles while moving continuously and popping a shield or repair item when the enemy returns fire. 

Stuff to do When Everyone’s Dead

There’s a lot of peripheral content to be found here. The towns are crammed with mini-games and side missions. Most of its pretty simple luck or reflex based gambling, but I found the Magic-esc collectable card game surprisingly fun. The timed delivery missions were annoying, but the self contained sniper sequences that had you defending distant targets were a nice change of pace. The only reward for most of this is cash, which is certainly handy for kitting yourself out but not indispensable. If the extra content doesn’t interest you it’s entirely possible to get by with what you loot and scavenge during missions. 

Just to clear any possible confusion, RAGE isn’t an RPG like Fallout or Deus Ex. Anyone expecting an experience along those lines will be disappointed. RAGE is a nugget of pure FPS with a lot of garnish. You manage an inventory (with thankfully unlimited space) accept side missions and buy stuff at venders, but there are no character development choices, leveling up, or dialog trees. At one point you get to choose from a few different types of armor that offer various perks, but as mentioned the collector’s edition just says to heck with it and gives you a suit that has all the advantages combined.

Frothing at the Mouth

(This turns into a bit of a rant and a digression from actual gameplay, so feel free to jump ahead)

John Carmack, ID’s tech director and a man I have nothing but respect for, is famously quoted as saying: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” That’s fine, but even in pornography there’s usually what can loosely be termed a buildup and a climax to the action. (You in the back of the class, stop giggling.)   

This is the only real boss. You shoot him three times in the brain to win.

RAGE’s story has little direction, little buildup, and absolutely no payoff. You move from mission to mission with barely a hint of a central narrative and no real objective to guide you for most of the game. As I said before the individual missions are good, but you’re rarely given the sense that anything is at stake beyond the few hundred bucks you’ve been promised for killing this bunch of squatters or mutants. 

This problem extends to the game’s ending. There’s a bit of a buildup to an attack on the bad guy main base, but once you finally get there nothing actually happens. You fight a marginally interesting new enemy type, hit some switches, and the credits roll. I didn’t even realize I was in the middle of the final encounter until I’d completed it. There’s no showdown, no conclusion, and no sense of resolution.  The game just sputters to a halt.

Fear and Loathing

The characters play up the vaguely techo-fascist Authority, but they take a long time to actually make an appearance and don’t make much of an impression when they do. As much as the game tells you they’re a terrible threat you never really actually see them doing anything evil. We hear a lot about it, but we never actually see anything worth mentioning. When they finally make an appearance they come off more as moderately incompetent Fun Police, loitering around town warning you to keep your distance when you’ve just gotten back from blowing up their prison and murdering dozens of them. 

It’s not that hard to make entertaining villains, even if all you have to work with is yet another bunch of futuristic mooks/mercenaries/soldiers. At the very least they should be someone or something I can love to hate, especially if I’m going to be shooting them in the face for hours on end.  People muttering about folks going missing and complaining that the Authority wants to shut down racing and gambling isn’t going to cut it.


At the beginning of the game have the Authority break into my Ark and mow down the character who’s frantically trying to revive me from stasis while I watch helplessly. Have their little spy drones call in a deadly artillery barrage or dangerous patrol when they spot my car tooling around in the wastes. When I get back from a mission, show them executing people in the street, because the town was helping me. When one character tries to sell me out to save his friends and family have them shoot the poor bastard anyway. Make me feel like they, as the plot weakly hints, are out to get me personally. Make me want to hurt them.

Nothing of this nature happens. At least the different bandit clans have traces of personality, though most of it comes down to different silly costumes and accents. Even the little mutants manage a certain surly defiance as they rush you, clubs waving. For what are supposed to be primary antagonists and the driving force behind the plot the Authority couldn’t be more tepid and nonthreatening.

Least it seem like I’m laying into Id for what has never been their strength or the focus of their games, well, they’ve proven they can do better. DOOM 3, while hardly Shakespeare, had a gripping outbreak sequence, a constant level of tension, and a climax against an iconic and memorable foe. The story wasn’t deep or smart, but it managed to invest you in your own fight to not get eaten by demons if nothing else. 

Head to Head, Back to Back

Once you polish off the single player campaign you’re left with some very strange choices for multiplayer. There are a few vehicular racing and combat modes, which play like simplified versions of games like the Twisted Metal series. They’re fine for a bit of aracdy fun, but not really deep enough to hold interest for an extended time.  

On the FPS end of the spectrum there are about a dozen short two-player co-op missions. I’m a fan of co-op games myself, and enjoyed blasting through the missions, but they don’t have a lot of replay-value. It’s truly puzzling that the company that arguably put multiplayer PC gaming on the map didn’t include at least a basic deathmatch mode.

There's not really a stealth mechanic, but you can still catch people by surprise occasionally.

On one hand I feel like Id should be applauded for trying to broaden and deepen their stock gameplay. On the other it really shows when they try to step outside their core strengths, and not necessarily for the better. I can’t help but wonder what RAGE would have been like if they’d focused on the pure shooter aspects and at least taken another pass at the story and flow.

At the end of the day we’re forced to ask the all important question: Is this game worth $60? Well… no. There’s just not enough of RAGE’s strongest ingredient, the entertaining FPS missions, to justify that kind of a beefy price tag. If you’re a single player FPS fan with a powerful machine, and spot it for $30 or even $40, I’d say snap it up. Otherwise you may be disappointed.

Reasons to Play: Attractive landscapes and macro level graphics. Satisfying FPS shooting. Plenty of fun items and ammo types to play with. 

Reasons to Pass: Weak story and dull ending. Weird and distracting texture loading issue. Lack of a deathmatch option or Multiplayer mode with real longevity.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Core Design Concepts: Risk VS Reward

We’ve been doing a lot of reviews lately, so lets start the New Year by branching out a bit. Lets talk about basic gameplay mechanics. Not just “move” or “shoot”, but the bone and tissue of what makes games absorbing, compelling, and (in the best case scenario) actually Fun. Indeed it’s sometimes healthy to remind yourself that fun is the ultimate goal of gaming. If you're spending your limited time on this earth playing a game and not enjoying it, then its time to stop for a moment and at least ask why

One concept that pops up over and over in gaming is that of Risk VS Reward. This goes hand in hand with its close cousin, randomization. If a player knows exactly what will result from every action they take, its not going to make for compelling gameplay. Even in the most mechanically predicable games, like chess and solitaire, much of the fun comes from not knowing what will happen next. The opposing player could choose from a host of viable moves and the random shuffling of the deck means you could draw any card. 

Take a risk...
If a player can’t exactly predict the outcome of the choices they’re making then you, as the designer, are asking for them to take a risk. That creates tension, which is engaging for the player. It’s the same principle that makes gambling so compelling, for better or worse. 

...get a reward! (Note: Do not actually get in strange vans.)
One of the easiest places to see this relationship at work is with “high skill” FPS weapons. Weapons that have the potential to do tremendous damage or instantly kill opponents, but require high accuracy and skill with a low margin of error to be effective. More or less every sniper rifle ever coded would be the iconic example. After all, a single sniper head-shot is far more satisfying and challenging to pull off than peppering an enemy to death with full clip of SMG bullets.

High risk/high reward weapons and powers are more interesting and satisfying to use. DOOM 2’s signature double-barreled shotgun delivered a tremendous offensive punch, but you had to be at close range for it to be effective and the weapon’s lengthy reload left you vulnerable. The reward of inflicting heavy damage on the enemy was balanced by the risk required to get close enough and the skill needed to shoot straight enough to be effective.

 The result was a beloved weapon that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who played the game. Contrast this to say, the chain-gun. Low damage per individual bullet with a high rate of fire. Low risk/low reward. Not a bad weapon and at times tactically useful, just not particularly interesting to use. Certainly not the gun most people think of first when it comes to the DOOM series.

For those of you still playing Minecraft its new enchanting system is another perfect example of what we’re discussing. Killing creatures garners XP and levels, which can then be spent to enchant items for random useful effects. Better enchants cost more levels, levels become progressively harder to earn the more you have, and you lose all your levels if you die.

Minecraft enchanting table: A magic, highly pixelated slot machine.
As you’ve likely already picked up the gambling principle works perfectly here. The higher the player’s level, the greater the potential reward when they decide to “cash out” and spend those levels. Of course the higher the player’s level the more they have the potential to lose when they die. Deciding when, what, and if to enchant is a constant ongoing tactical choice, and a choice that makes the game that much more engaging.  

It’s important to understand that taking a risk should still be a choice that the player is empowered to take or not. If the only options available to the player are unreliable and unpredictable then the game can quickly become frustrating. There’s nothing wrong with using the reliable, dependable Assault Rifle/ Hydralisk army/ balanced mid-weight character, etc… The fact that the choice exists at all is what makes it meaningful and interesting to the player. 

A good Zerg rush can be fun if not original. Kekeke and all that.
Balance is tricky. Players will shy away from options with too much risk for not enough reward. You'll find those same players swarming around the rout that carries a high reward for little risk. (Just listen for the mewling cries of "Overpowered!") Balancing the risk/reward ratio can be time consuming and aggravating, but any game will be left the stronger and more playable for it.

Invite your player to take risks, but don’t force them too. The potential rewards for taking those risks, be they XP, loot, points, damage, kills, or whatever, should be all the prodding the player needs. 

We’ll periodically break from reviews and interviews in the future to discuss more game design theory and elements. Please feel free to share your own thoughts as well.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.