The Essential Games: Rage (2011)

The Essential Games highlights selections from throughout gaming history that I would recommend almost anyone play. For more entires, Check out the Index!

Rage is finally available as a digital purchase on Xbox platforms today, and so to celebrate I thought I’d write about it. Originally released in 2011, it’s available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, PS3, and Mac. It’s the last iD Software game to use graphics technology birthed out of the controversial genius of John Carmack. Back in the mid 2000’s, Carmack thought that graphics were going in the direction of massive textures and pre-baked effects, prioritizing a movie-like feel over true dynamism.

He was wrong, but the resulting game is a beautiful, blazing fast thing that still kind of feels like it’s from the future.

The actual game doesn’t feature a big city shaped like the logo…but that would have been cool.

Rage casts players as a nameless silent dude. Said dude got shoved into an underground shelter before an asteroid hit Earth. He wakes up out of cryosleep years later in a post-apocalyptic society, and must shoot things, collect stuff, and drive some buggies. A big evil corporation/government is doing some things, and John Goodman is there. The ending is sudden and abrupt and feels like they ran out of money, but the preceding 20 hours is great.

If the basic premise sounds a little like Fallout to you, yes, you’re right. It’s almost exactly like the setup for the Fallout games, and like those games, draws a lot of visual and design inspiration from George Miller’s Mad Max movies. Unlike Fallout, which balances a number of gameplay styles under the umbrella of RPG mechanics…Rage is a pure, fast-paced, run-and-gun shooter for most of its lengthy runtime.

The shooting is fast, brutal, and fun. The enemy AI is a particular highlight. They can leap, flip, and bound around obstacles with a plethora of detailed animations, and there’s a much bigger vertical component to the combat here than most other shooters. The combat encounters feel endlessly replayable thanks to this dynamic AI.

Weapons are punchy and ludicrous. Loot abounds…though most of it is junk you’ll end up selling. There’s a fun glaive weapon. The action never slows down…except for between the main missions. Here, you’ll be traversing the wasteland briefly, mostly in cars. While the sights are neat to behold, the driving seems like kind of an afterthought. There’s a short driving bit in the middle of the game you have to complete, but other than that all vehicle challenges are optional. The game is very much made of linear levels stitched together with huge areas you’ll drive through.

The characters are expressive and animate with impressive fidelity…though they mostly exist for you to click on them and get missions or rewards. John Goodman should be in more video games. He’s a brilliant presence in the first few hours of the game, and does his darndest to introduce you to the world and make the nonsense story seem convincing.

Enivornments are vast and detailed, and the game runs at a solid 60 frames per second, even on the 360 and PS3. The speed of the graphics and the consistency of their details is alarming. This is achieved in large part through “MegaTextures,” giant texture maps that are wrapped around the geometry like a big blanket and streamed dynamically in and out of video RAM. These files are huge, and as a result Rage shipped on multiple disks at launch.

The only area where the detail falters is when you get up close. You can see some image compression artifacting on certain surfaces in the game. Also, most objects in the world are not dynamic, which means they just kind of sit there and can’t be tipped over or sent flying in gun battles. Later games based on this engine, like the newer Wolfenstein games and Doom (2015) worked at fixing these issues…but the large file sizes still remained. Most of the shadows in the game are baked into these large texture images too, so that rendering power can be saved for the characters and certain key real-time lights.

Because of all this trickery, at times Rage looks like a pre-rendered CG movie, with scads of detail moving at an alarmingly smooth speed. The compression and lack of dynamism do often stand out, but it’s a fascinating look at what game graphics might have looked like in an alternate world, and the game has aged exceptionally as a result. These graphics, combined with the incredibly fun and engaging combat are what make Rage a must-play today. If you liked the most recent Doom, you’ll feel right at home with this game, and it might be just the thing you need if you wanted that game to last longer.

Plus it has John Goodman.