Each comes with a boost capability. It’s designed to give you the edge in races or let you outrun bandits, but I found a tertiary use for it while at the handlebars of the game’s first ride. Fresh out of the Ark – the game’s space-bunker equivalent of Fallout’s Vaults – I was given the keys to a little quadbike runaround. It wasn’t the most intimidating machine I’d drive in the game: by the end, I’d unlocked another three vehicles of increasing power. But while they let me shred enemies in a few salvos, they didn’t allow me to hurtle into an immovable bollard at 100mph, launch my screaming marine 30 feet through the air, smash my spine against a wall, then flit back to consciousness next to my bike as if I’d not just reduced my skeleton to slurry.
This pulse of mischievous fun beat a little weaker in later driving sections. At the wheel of the final Monarch car, I was so overpowered in comparison with my bandit peers that battles were dull dominations.
Races – organised by the bored NPCs at each hub – provide a secondary reason to drive. They don’t affect the main story directly – but success in the ranks wins you racing credits, which can be pumped into the upkeep and outfit of the car you use in the wasteland. Races fall into three types: time trial, rocket race and rocket rally. Time trials are about perfectionism, where you hit boost refill power-ups to keep yourself travelling at just sub-mach speeds. The rocket brothers are more brutal, asking players either to complete a course in first place or to pass through an ever changing series of checkpoints while three enemies pepper their car-arse with rockets. The first is too easy – just boost to get ahead on the first lap and you won’t be touched. The second is often screamingly too hard.
I played Rage in a room with other people playing Rage. Once, just after passing through the final checkpoint on my fifth attempt at a rocket rally, I looked up to see someone shooting a mutant in the face. For a second, confusion flickered in my mind. What game were they playing? That moment is the greatest compliment I can pay to Rage’s driving sections: although oddly divorced from the main game, the base mechanics behind car control are surprisingly solid for the work of a shooter studio.
And the shooting itself? It feels good: each weapon is blessed with a distinctive bark and kick. id have jettisoned the modern shooter’s neurotic arsenal restrictions, letting players carry nine weapons around on their travels, each safely secreted on a number key. Most have two or more ammunition types, their rarity roughly concomitant with either their usefulness or ridiculousness. The functional secondary ammo for the Authority machinegun, for example, simply rips through armour faster. The pistol’s third ammunition type typifies the other approach: it fires an entire eight round clip in one go, and the bullets are shaped like Pez dispensers made of human bones.
Sadly, there’s some artlessly wedged-in console crossover nonsense when it comes to controlling the shooting. Creative director Tim Willits argues that Rage plays better on a pad, and so for hot-swapping between ammo and weapon types, we sensible mouse-and-keyboardnauts are lumbered with a strange setup that forces us to assign weapons to one of four slots. Ammo can still be switched by cycling, but it adds a user-unfriendly sheen to fights, and makes precise control trickier.
That control is important. The game’s enemies are tricksy bastards, juking and jiving away from your ironsights. I’m used to my FPS opponents sprinting directly toward me, pointing at their foreheads and screaming “AIM HERE!” Rage’s mutants and bandits duck as they close on you, hop out of bullet volleys, and use walls and railings to get the purchase necessary for an attacking leap. It’s almost as if they don’t want their brains emptied onto the floor, and it’s both infuriating and admirable: the former for a millisecond as you waste the ammo, the latter for longer because scraps are kept fresh and tense. Only later in the game, as the enemies slather on thicker armour and keep their feet on the ground, do firefights descend into cover leapfrog.
But by that point, I wasn’t doing much of my own shooting anyway. Rage comes with a crafting system, fed by a mini economy. Every surface is littered with bric-a-brac to sell or use – it’s a dream game for compulsive tidiers. Recipes can be purchased for various battlefield gadgets. The humble wingstick – a razor sharp boomerang that removes heads at 20 paces – is the most useful, but I fell in love with the spiderbot. I spent the game’s anticlimactic final level letting my robo-chums do my annihilation for me, stepping into fire only when I wanted to try out the BFG rounds for my chaingun. Both approaches – dirtying your hands and standing back – feel satisfying.
Rage isn’t a complicated game. Despite what the developers might have suggested and we might have assumed, it’s still set in a corridor. Fortunately, id still make some of the finest corridors in the world.
id haven’t strayed far from their roots, but they still know how to make a top-quality shooter. Simple, satisfying fun.