It’s something old and something new: a classic, high-octane first-person shooter with a ream of innovative ambitions. Grandfathers of the FPS, id Software, are finishing off their first new IP in 15 years – here’s why we can’t wait for RAGE…
My favourite moment of E3 wasn’t footage of the last days of Earth or fantasy WWII or dragons conducting bombing runs with giants. It was 20 minutes of id figurehead John Carmack talking frame rates and input lag.
By now, we press have worked out a trusted system for handling Carmack interviews, in which all of the words that spill out of the venerable engineer’s mind are collected in nearby voice recorders, before being processed and recycled as explosive tech-related headlines. So it was in this case, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that E3 2011 saw Carmack playing God with code, making photorealistic cacodemons in petri dishes and destroying priceless graphical artefacts in fits of laser-focused hubris.
In the lengthy reality of the source interview, however, John Carmack sat quietly in his booth, nose tilted slightly upwards in a polite effort to hear properly the questions which threatened to be snatched away by eddies of noise from the surrounding show floor. As he chatted amiably away, he looked like a man who’s come to terms with his place in the order of things.
Flanked by tragic hero John Romero, a pre-Wolfenstein Carmack reportedly once sat through an early 3D demo of Ultima Underworld and loudly boasted his ability to write a faster texture mapper. 20 years later, he smiles contentedly and admits that although he’s “pleasantly surprised that we get as much interest and buzz about graphics technology now as we do,” more and more “the interviews should be with the designers and not the engineers.”
If this represents an acknowledgement from one of the core custodians of the FPS that graphics optimisation is no longer the most exciting thing about game development, then RAGE looks like a heart-and-soul embrace of new ideals. Throwing in their lot with Bethesda has seen id join a cluster of developers united by a near-blind will to explode the genre, spreading its internals in all directions just to see what the results will look like. These aren’t lab-controlled experiments: this is expensive, all-out mad expansion, united not so much by a common goal as a desire to move beyond common goals.
High-level publishers have begun to realise that chasing a specific company identity might not be such a bad thing. A favoured genre or two not only creates potential for inter-studio sharing, but also the chance of that pipe dream that all publishers secretly harbour: a good reputation.
The Elder Scrolls might be Bethesda’s flagship series, but with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, RAGE, Human Head’s Prey 2, and (to a lesser extent in the multiplayer sphere) Brink, the publisher seems to be emerging as the new home of the most exciting and ludicrous game there is: the overambitious FPS.
And crikey, is RAGE one of those. There are familiar elements, of course. Safe in the corridors, we’re offered all of those comforting id perennials: super-responsive combat (at 60Hz! I’m told this is important), ugly, angry humanoids, near-constant weapon switch-out and ammo pick-up noises straight from the ’90s sci-fi soundbank.
There’s the pick ‘n’ mix of modern tropes, like regenerating health, plant-able turrets and toys, and the encouragement to combine weapon effects, straight out of BioShock. These ingredients merge pleasingly into what looks to be a fast-moving, on-the-fly tactical shooting experience with its tactile core set firmly in id’s strengths.
But then there’s the ambitious stuff. Some of it is the result of id tackling non-linear narrative for the first time. While RPG developers have had an alternative form of doing this worked out for many years – one which RAGE does tap into, having civilians about town comment on your past feats – id’s latest is attempting approaches to environmental storytelling which better complement the developer’s strengths.
Seeing is believing
In a showcase mission dubbed ‘The Well’, an engineer named Carlson explains that bandits have invaded the well and started ransacking the place. There are no dialogue trees in RAGE, however, so the follow-up question – “What happened to the rest of your team?” – is never asked. It’s only when we’re deep inside the well complex that we discover the pile of naked, tangled bodies which now comprises its workforce.
This sort of visual storytelling is really the only language id has ever known. I’d be surprised if we find more than a few in-game words describing the cultural differences between the bandit clans in RAGE’s wasteland. But the broad strokes – visual distinguishers like Union Flag body paint and differing AI characteristics between groups – promise to reveal far more, far more intuitively.
Elsewhere, RAGE has a sideline in sprawling urban horror. Dead City is an enormous, devastated cityscape with news trucks half-buried in white sand in its streets, patrolled by an equally gigantic mutant. Taking direct inspiration from Godzilla, its buildings are filled with huge, sticky eggs, malevolence literally dripping down the walls in the form of a horrible black ichor.
Pushing in another direction entirely is the vehicular combat and canyon racing, which seemingly plays like a persistent-world Motorstorm. These sections turn RAGE’s US national park backdrop into a playground of ramps and hairpin bends, and are, according to project lead Tim Willits, “critical” to the game as a whole. It’s the most unexpected turn in design in id’s history since Doom RPG, and the loudest example of their desire to leave the safety of the linear twitch FPS behind and really test both their team and their audience.
In all of the glimpses of RAGE we’ve been offered so far, we’ve been looking deep into the entrails of id’s FPS. Whether they resemble the future or simply intestines stuck to the wall remains to be seen, but the mess will certainly be incredible to see.
RAGE will be released by id Software and Bethesda, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, in October 2011.