Bethesda Game Studios has been one of the critical darlings of the gaming industry, with landmark franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls under their belt, however I have never been particularly fond of their offerings. Save for the recently released Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, their games have not moved or engrossed me in any meaningful way and I have often considered them to be overrated. Rage treads familiar territory with it's combination of first-person shooter mechanics and RPG questing and exploration, and despite a few noticeable drawbacks, it has enough strengths to appeal to fans of both gameplay styles.
Rage takes place in a world that has been ravaged by an asteroid blast, rendering the terrain a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which pockets of survivors have formed factions in order to survive and control the flow of scarce resources. You play as someone known only as The Ark Survivor who, after emerging from an underground settlement, is rescued from a bandit attack by a friendly settler and then the game begins in earnest. After a few simple fetch quests, you learn that a hostile faction called The Authority is looking for you and they are known for performing a variety of bizarre experiments on other survivors. The plot goes into further detail as the game progresses, however your sense of purpose comes in the missions you do for various people in towns and the surrounding wastelands. The plot goes into further detail with conspiracies and weird science, but the "meat" of the story is really resisting factions fighting back against The Authority. The plot is neither deep or original, but in the context of a game like this, it's serviceable. All told, you should expect about 20 hours from the main single-player campaign and variable mileage in the multiplayer.
Given the focus on questing and helping others out, you might expect Rage to be an RPG in the style of Fallout, however the focus is on first-person corridor shooting and vehicle combat. The core weapons are the usual assortment of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and explosives, however there is some variety in the unique weapons you are given. You have a crossbow that allows for stealth kills, remote controlled RC cars that explode, and my personal favorite, the Wingstick. This boomerang-like blade propeller deals instant death to all but the toughest enemies and is easily one of the best weapons in the game. The combat experience is characterized by waves of enemies and the occasional boss battle, both of which provide only fleeting challenges. Since the wastelands are expansive and patrolled by roaming bandits, vehicles play an important part in your travels and they can be customized with better parts and more powerful weapons. In addition to combat, your vehicles are used for winning races and completing challenges scattered throughout the game. The controls in both the shooting and vehicle handling are as tight and responsive as you would expect, however the game's default sensitivity is extremely high and some tweaking may be required depending on your preferences.
Despite the post-apocalyptic setting and emphasis on questing, Rage has very little in common with the Fallout series. Character customization and levelling up is virtually non-existent and the linear path the game follows inhibits any meaningful exploration. As such, the first-person shooter and vehicular combat hybrid puts Rage more in line with games like Bioshock and Borderlands. Rewards come in the form of money and new missions being unlocked, the former being used to buying new weapons and supplies and the latter progressing the plot. Those who enjoy levelling, customization and assorted perks will probably find Rage to be a shallow experience, especially by Bethesda's standards, however I feel the action and thrilling combat makes up for these shortcomings.
In addition to the single-player experience, there are two multiplayer modes that may feel limited to most FPS fans, however I found them to be enjoyable for the time spent. The better of the two is called Road Rage, which is a vehicle-based and offers a few different modes that include checkpoint-races, demolition races and an area battle that functions as a team deathmatch of sorts. You earn points and level up based your skill and accuracy, and this levelling unlocks perks such as vehicle upgrades and more powerful weapons. The second is called Legends of the Wastelands, a surprisingly fun two player co-op experience that has you playing through missions similar to those found in the single-player campaign. The focus is achieving high scores and completing challenges with a limited arsenal of weapons,which provides some of the more frantic and intense moments in the game. Both multiplayer are fun, however they lack the variety and lasting appeal of other games in the genre, therefore it is doubtful that it will sustain an active online community. Having said that, Bethesda is usually generous with the DLC and the experience may be expanded in the future.
The Xbox 360 version is spread over a whopping three discs, two for the main game and the third being exclusively for the multiplayer. Given the smooth framerate and polished graphics, it is clear that Rage is more than the aging console can handle at times. However, the game looks fantastic, from the detailed wastelands to the unsettling indoor environments, and the framerate never stutters even during the most hectic of battles. Unlike the muddy and murky environments in Fallout, the wastelands you frequent are more along the lines of the arid deserts and rocky terrain of Borderlands. Having said that, Rage is not exactly a best-in-class shooter since other games like Crysis 2 look far better. The sound in Rage is also decent but unexceptional, with a practically muted soundtrack undermining the intense action. However, the sound during battles, from the gunshots to the squishy sounds of enemy limbs being severed, are particularly well done.
As with most of Bethesda's titles, the problems with the game become apparent early on and some are definitely more of a hindrance than others. By far the biggest issue is the broken save system, which makes auto-saving infrequent and manual saving an absolutely necessity, lest you lost significant progress when you die. The manual save does allow you to save wherever you like and pick up from exactly that point, however this is still unacceptable when regular auto-saving is the standard in most other games. The technical demands of the game also incur lengthy load times that will test your patience after a while, and there is even an in-game prompt that recommends installing the game on your hard drive for the "optimum experience". However, I did not deem it worth the aggravation given the amount of space the game takes up and the length of time it would take to install it. The third issue is more of an all-round lack of investment that you will feel in the story. There are few memorable characters, the plot is convoluted and the missions rarely rise above area-clearing and fetch quests. Even the more dramatic story missions fail to make you feel that you're accomplishing something great, and the boss battles are unchallenging and more a test of patience than skill. Having said all of that, these are not issues that entirely killed the experience for me, however they might for you depending on what kind of experience you hope to get out of the game.
When all is said and done, the main indicator of a game's quality is how much fun the player has with it. I certainly did. Rage is a solid action game that combines some of the best elements of the first-person shooter and vehicular combat genres, however it doesn't prove to be a landmark for either due to a lackluster plot and a lack of any emotional investment you'll feel in how events play out. It should be taken as an action game and enjoyed as such, so in that respect, Rage is a great title to have in your collection. Fans of the aforementioned Bioshock and Borderlands will probably enjoy Rage the most, however fans of Bethesda's other games are best advised to rent this game before paying full retail. Regardless, this is my kind of action game and anyone who enjoys shooters and/or vehicle combat games will enjoy the experience it has to offer.
Rating: 8 out of 10