Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rage review

I have spoken previously about how impressed I was with the Rage demo, so it should come as no surprise that I bought and played through the full game. You'll forgive me I hope if this review is even more long-winded than usual.

I played Rage on the X-Box 360. Now, the X-Box is a console with no lack of first person shooters, however most of these in recent times could be termed "console shooters". That's not to say that you can't get these types of shooters on the PC, but simply that they've been designed to work better for consoles and console players. This comes down to factors like the controller, the use of a television some distance from the player rather than a high resolution monitor a mere arm's length away, and perhaps the kind of players who predominantly play on one system or the other and the kind of experience they are looking for. My point is that on the PC, Rage may not stand out. But on the X-Box, it really does.

Lets start with the graphics. These are the best graphics I have ever seen on a console, at least in a first person shooter. I don't know if Rage's graphical engine is more powerful than, say, Crisis 2, and there's games with unique art styles or full of beautiful imagery that are more visually pleasing. But Rage's combination of high resolution graphics and unwaveringly high frame rate just make it a joy to play. But there's more to it than that. The environments are bright and detailed without being too noisy, and most importantly it's never hard to see what's happening.

Now, I'm going to go off on a tangent for a moment, so please bear with me. As you will know if you've glanced at my other blog, I occasionally paint Warhammer miniatures. When I first started, I obviously painted things in simple primary colours; to paint a model I would probably use one shade of blue, one shade of red, and some pure black. But reading painting tutorials and looking at pictures of competition-winning models online, I slowly started to understand a more about the use of colour. I saw how analogous colours that softly blend into each other are so visually pleasing, blues blending into greens or reds into yellows, that sort of thing. I saw whole models that were painted entirely in different shades of the same colour that looked amazing.

So I started to try to use more uniform colour palettes, to use common "wavelengths" in different colours. The idea (at least as I see it) is that a colour is a mix of different wavelengths of light, so by having different colours that share some wavelengths they would better tie together. For example I would paint two different colours, say an orange and a light brown, then stain them both with the same reddish wash to introduce those shared wavelengths. I'm sure I'm doing an awful job of explaining this and any artists reading this are shaking their heads at how ignorant I am about colour theory, but I'm not an artist, I don't know much about this stuff except what I've recently started to learn from experience. What I found was that my models started to look too uniform; they lacked contrast and definition. That's not necessarily to say that they looked bad, but it wasn't easy to make out the individual parts of the model because it all tended to blend together. So now I'm trying to find a balance; colours that look like they belong together but are distinct enough that the model's details are easy to make out at a glance.

The reason I'm talking about this is because I think games are going through the same process. The limitations of the technology meant that games started with simple, brightly coloured sprites. As the technology has progressed and the art started to mature, certain artistic sensibilities started to appear. Bright primary colours were replaced with more realistic muted tones and uniform colour palettes, aided by the use of post rendering filters to tinge the entire screen with that shared wavelength. Take for example this screenshot of Killzone 2:
A veritable cornucopia of colour.

Now, this all creates some very pretty screenshots. However, a problem I have found is that I sometimes have great difficulty actually reading the screen. I literally can't see the enemies much of the time. It may sound silly when you look at a screenshot, and it's my understanding that not everyone has this problem, but when the bullets are flying, my screen is filled with muzzle flash and smoke and is being coloured red by the damage indicator and blurred by motion blur as I'm running and turning and so on, in that split second that I need to identify and target my enemies, I can't seem to make out the grey soldiers from the grey ground, grey walls, and grey sky. This is sometimes made worse by busy textures and unhelpful lighting. And of course there's the military shooters, where it's dark, the bombed out environments are incredibly noisy, your enemies are wearing camo that's the same colour as the environment, they're almost completely behind cover, and your screen goes dark red as soon as you get hit.

But if Rage is any indication, the games industry is starting to understand the problem. Whether it was under the harsh desert sun or in a dingy rubbish-filled sewer pipe, I never had any trouble spotting enemies. Part of this is thanks to the high frame rate and texture resolution, but that's certainly not the whole story. I can't tell you what's really responsible because I don't really know, but even though environments are very detailed and non-uniform, filled with piled up garbage and the like, and your enemies are similarly clothed in a patchwork of detailed, mismatched garments, and they spend plenty of time hiding behind cover, they aren't hard to see.
Looks good AND I can see the enemies.

Artistically the imagery is fitting. Desert wastes hold both crumbling abandoned cities and sleek, high-tech Authority installations. Inhabitants, both friend and foe, wear random pieces of shabby clothing and protective gear and carry rusted old makeshift weaponry, while Authority enforcers wear head-to-toe protective suits and carry shiny new guns and energy weapons.

The graphics and art style, therefore, are both visually impressive and perfectly suited to the game. You do need a significant install to the hard drive for best results, and if you look there's occasionally some noticeable texture streaming as you turn the camera, but I personally never found these to be a problem, not even a minor distraction.

Of course, graphics alone don't make a game. Happily, Rage has some of the best gameplay I've experienced on a console shooter. The game is fast, the controls as extremely precise and responsive, weapons are satisfying to shoot, as is the way enemies react to being shot. You can advance slowly and pick enemies off from a distance or run and gun up close and personal. Enemies are no pushovers, but regenerating health and the defibrillator makes it forgiving while letting you know that you're making mistakes, there's challenging sections but enough tools at your disposable to fight your way through so you should never get stuck.

The speed of the game reminds me of Unreal Tournament 3, which of course is a port of a PC shooter. Unreal was very fast paced, characters moved quickly and smoothly leading to very intense high-speed combat. It's worth noting that Unreal did not have an "aim" button, and it didn't need it. Rage does have the aim button, but you can manage pretty well without it if you want to, which is a testament to just how well the controls work.

Unlike many modern shooters you're not limited in the number of weapons you can carry. You can't just pick them off your victims corpses however; like older games you buy or unlock weapons as the game progresses, at which point they are yours to use at any time. I quite like this; no more having to constantly stop and decide which of the weapons scattered around the floor to use until the next time you run out of ammo.

The weapons themselves are mostly standard; pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, missile launcher, minigun, and of course the BFG. Perhaps the most interesting weapon is actually the crossbow. In addition to regular bolts, which are powerful and silent, it can also fire charged bolts for electrocuting multiple enemies standing in water, mind control bolts, and sticks of dynamite. Having said that, my pick for the most enjoyable weapon/ammo combination in the game is the shotgun with exploding slugs. I can't really describe how much impact this thing has, it's just devastating.

In addition to your firearms, there's a range of secondary items which include bandages, RC car bombs, automated machine gun turrets, and even small machine gun droids that fight alongside you. All in all, there's a satisfying range of options for dealing out death.

All these weapons, ammo types, and tools would get confusing to use in actual battle, but luckily there's a very intelligent control setup for switching between them. Worth mentioning is that holding the weapon change button open the weapon wheel, but tapping it just switches to the next weapon. With a little thought you can arrange weapons to make the most of this, for example you can put the shotgun after the sniper rifle so if you're using the sniper rifle against a distant foe when suddenly someone pops up right beside you, one tap will whip out the shotgun for some fast close-range power.

There's some scope for upgrading weapons, but this is very minimal and almost feels like an afterthought, without even a dedicated interface in the equipment menu. For example, once you by a monocular you can't "unequip" it, so you'll always zoom in when aiming your pistol. More developed is the crafting system, which allows you to craft tools and even fancy ammunition from random junk you can pick up in levels or buy in shops. You need recipes for this, which you find, buy or unlock as the game progresses. It's an interesting diversion, if you wish you can ignore it completely and simply sell any junk you pick up, it's entirely up to you. It's worth mentioning that you can buy or craft most types of ammunition, so you don't have to be conservative with the fun stuff that way some games force you to be.

There's a good variety of enemies, with bandits, mutants, and soldiers of various types. Some will hang back behind cover, but other will charge forward, yelling and screaming, climbing up and swinging and doing whatever it takes to reach you - it's all very impressive, as well as somewhat scary. The way they react to being shot is also very cool; the more reserved enemies scramble for cover while the more aggressive ones stumble but try to keep their feet and maintain their forwards momentum, overall it lends weight to your shots and just makes the experience more engaging.

The game also features some driving segments and side missions. These include racing and vehicular combat, plus you'll have to fight off bandits when driving to and from mission locations. You pick up several vehicles over the course of the game, these can be upgraded using credits won in races. I am not a particular fan of driving games, but I found the racing and combat to be easy to get to grips with and fairly enjoyable. It might not be for fans of more realistic racing games, and unfortunately for them there's no getting away from spending a fair amount of time driving. For everyone else, it helps to break up the action segments and stops the game from becoming repetitive.

Which is not a bad thing as the main story has a decent run-time; It took me about 14 hours to finish Rage, at least according to my last save game. There's a fair number of side missions that I didn't do, and I didn't really get into the racing, so there easily several more hours worth of gameplay in there, and I'm not even considering multiplayer. So it's good that there's ways to take a break from the killing; in addition to driving there's a few minigames to try. The most involved of these is the card game; in addition to the starter deck, you can find cards scattered around levels. The rules are simple, which makes it easy to get in to and quick to play, but after you've played a few rounds you realise that you don't have much control over the game itself, all the skill is in building the deck. It's entertaining while it lasts though.

So the graphics and gameplay are great, the game is a good length and there's a fair variety of things to do. Is there anything wrong with the game? Well, it does have a few weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious is the story. The basic plot isn't very well told; it's post-apocalypse, there's these arcs with people from the past in them and something about meteors and the only surviving government is actually evil. Or something.

The story never really gives us very much substance. Despite the good voice acting I never got to know any of the characters enough to care about them. The Authority are supposed to be evil, but that doesn't really tell us very much about them, and what's worse is that they are faceless. We never even see their leader, General Cross, we only hear him mentioned. It just felt a bit distant to me.

I never felt that I had a personal stake in events, I was just doing what random people asked me to do. This is partly a result of playing a silent protagonist, but other games have overcome this problem and made the fight feel personal - take Singularity for example, where I felt a personal responsibility for everything that was happening. Rage just never managed to give me that sense of personal motivation.

Furthermore, the game felt as though it ended too soon. I understand leaving narrative hooks for a sequel, but this felt almost unfinished. I would have at least expected a showdown with General Cross, even if it wasn't a final showdown. In fact the end-of-game battle, while intense, was a little non-memorable as it was against the same enemies you had been fighting the entire level. There's only a handful of what might be termed "boss encounters" in the game, and these peak about halfway.

Another thing that I wasn't personally a fan of was the very linear level structure. Which you have a large open world to drive around in and towns you can wander around and explore for a while, once you arrive at a mission you are typically just walking down a single corridor. A very thematic, decorated corridor with plenty of twists and turns, but a nevertheless a narrow corridor with absolutely no branches. It's not such a bad thing, but in this case it feels a little strange because of how it contrasts with the greater freedom you have outside of the missions, it would have been nice to have more open levels that you traverse rather than a single path that you travel.

The levels also felt somewhat static. It might just be me, but there's some games where the levels feel more solid and interactive, almost more real. Some of this has to do with physics objects that react to your presence or to being shot at, some of it might be that bounding boxes more closely follow the visible geometry, so when you jump around you interact with the environment the way you expect to. But in Rage, I felt as if the levels were less real, less solid, more of a backdrop that I couldn't effect or interact with. Bounding boxes seemed to be more general; a pile of garbage felt more like a featureless wall than an actual collection of different objects when I would walk into or along it. I suspect this is a sacrifice made for the sake of the high framerate and graphical quality, in which case it's probably a sacrifice well worth making. It's never a problem, but when there's games these days with fully destructible environments I felt that it was worth mentioning.

So after all that rambling on, what's the verdict? I give it 9/10, it focusses on what's important and as a result is easily one of the best first person shooters I've played on a console.

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