Back in the days of my youth—sorry for getting nostalgic here—any game released by id Software was a very, very big deal. Once they had basically defined the first-person shooter genre with the Nazi slaughterfest of Wolfenstein 3D and completely enamored adrenalin junkies with the bar-raising DOOM, they could basically do no wrong. Even the original Quake, which lacked any real narrative flow or thematic logic enraptured PC gamers with its unprecedented true 3D combat, polygonal graphics, and bleak Trent Reznor soundtrack.
It's been 7 years since id's last release, the horror-tinged DOOM 3, and they've finally released RAGE (I spy a well-worn Capslock key at id headquarters) a bold step for id Software both technologically and thematically.
Instead of the usual well-worn id Software story of a one-man Marine Corps as the lone survivor of demonic hordes/alien invasion/World War II, there's a genuine attempt at a story here: your character is the lone survivor (spoke too soon) of a group put into suspended animation to rebuild society after a planet-cracking asteroid collides with terra firma. As you emerge from your "Ark" amongst the desiccated corpses of your comrades, you realize almost instantly that the asteroid didn't wipe out society the way that it was supposed to. No, humanity is still very much alive…just very different.
Unfortunately, by "different," I mean "the same as any other post-apocalyptic media." In the same fashion as countless other titles, from Wasteland to Fallout, RAGE dresses its environments and characters in the usual wardrobe of Armageddon: characters have broken into warring "tribes" in the sunbaked desert, wearing face paint and scraps of junk, living in decimated hovels built of corrugated metal and trading whatever remnants of civilized society they can find in the wreckage of humanity.
It's just so typical of the post-apocalyptic genre that it can be considered cliché. Even the game's opening, where your protagonist emerges from his subterranean womb into the blinding desert, is so reminiscent of Fallout 3 that it borders on plagiarism. Unlike Fallout, which had a dollop of 1950's retro futurism to spice the post-apocalyptic flavor, RAGE seems simply content to mix the typical Mad Max feel with a tiny bit of id Software's usual leanings toward extreme firepower.
It's really too bad that the setting is so generic and bland, as RAGE plays fantastically. id have always been masters of the action and technological aspects of the first-person shooter genre, and RAGE is no different. The engine cranks out a silky-smooth 60 frames per second (at the cost of some noticeable texture pop-in), and there's a surprising amount of depth to the gunplay. There are some light RPG and resource management elements to the game, which ask the player to build tools and items to help them in the game world. Even the enemies seem smarter than the usual brain dead grunts that populate the rank and file of first-person shooters, using cover and flanking tactics to try and flush the player out.
What RAGE brings to the table is the promise of bigger and better things. The id Tech 5 engine is a gorgeous powerhouse, and the inevitable titles that will exploit it—DOOM 4 and Quake 5, please—will be all the better for it. It's a fast, furious, and fun shooter completely lacking in anything distinctive that makes it a must-play title.