My mother visited her grandchildren recently and took them to the park. Little Dani (4 years old) was having a good old time, swinging on the swing and jumping down the slide. At one point she stopped, ran over to my Mum and asked, “Nanny, I am having fun, aren’t I?” Adorable. Worlds and realities away, if John Carmack was watching me play Rage over my shoulder, I’d keep turning to him and go: “John, I’m having fun, aren’t I?”
As with most gamers my age, I grew up on id software’s games. Wolfenstein 3D was the highlight of any shareware disc. I beat Doom I and II (the latter being my favourite game for quite some time and my introduction to level creation). I got to play my first multiplayer games with Quake 2 at college. I fondly remember one time running into Mick, probably the best Quake player in our year (I think I was second) and instead of shotgunning or rocketing each other, we intentionally went laser pistol and duked it out. They were uncomplicated times. You shoot dudes, they shoot you. If you were hardcore you might learn rocketjumping, bunnyhopping or *gasp* circle-strafing.
Almost a decade later, the gaming world has changed significantly. Consoles have absorbed and created a large audience hungry for games that play like action-packed movies. PC games remain a vibrant area for game development, but to some industry pundits it’s a dying platform. At different stages of Rage‘s development, Carmack had alternately abandoned and rekindled his love for the platform, citing the relative power of the consoles vs PC, ease of development, audience and of course, potential profits. Which is fine – a game studio is allowed to choose its path based on whatever it thinks is important. But even if you ignore this love-hate relationship with the PC platform, I think Rage is the best demonstration of how they’ve lost touch with modern gaming entirely.
Your character awakens at the start of Rage stuck in some pod, unable to even look left or right[1. A sad metaphor for the rest of the game.]. You’re either a super-soldier or a scientific genius, but what specifically – it doesn’t matter. You’re the world’s best hope of surviving and rebuilding after an asteroid strike decimates Earth. You have no name, no background, no skills, not even a living character reference. If anyone wanted to see your “Apocalypse Survivor” Curriculum Vitae, you’d be in trouble. Nevertheless, you’re picked up by a guy from a nearby town who saves your life and kits you out with a gun and ammo to help make yourself useful. Immediately after saving your skin, he sends you off on your own to kill a lot of scary bandits. Doesn’t make sense? Shut up and welcome to Rage.
Rage really is a throwback to id’s old games. In all the media hype, they promised that they’ve evolved and while keeping some of the FPS gameplay they’ve “perfected”, they’ve added this “living world”. To be fair, they have escaped their penchant for narrow brown corridor shooting for a more detailed and elaborate world. To be unfair, they’ve taken scissors to their old design and just stitched it back together in a new way. Every quest is “go to this place, kill everyone, you’ll know when you’re done because the linear path you’ve taken will conveniently drop you back at the start”. Which is great… kinda.
id want a cinematic feel, so the levels are mostly linear and all the enemies are orchestrated to pop out of their inaccessible hidey hole at the right moment. id want to optimise your time in the game, so all levels will have a fast way to get back to the exit once you’ve found the required Macguffin. Also to this end they’ll also put useful items or easter eggs in any branch you can take, and that sidetrack won’t go too far away from the main path. Bad guys will leap around the environment and keep you on your toes.
But it sucks. Games have evolved past this. Your first quest has the quest giver almost literally say: “Go here, wipe everyone out. That’s it.” Other times they’ll be a little more circumspect, but not by much. No quest so far has given any choice in my path, any moral issue to overcome, and I barely even learn new skills. You just get different guns. Maybe a new schematic for things you can buy.
id wants to give you many things. They want to give you spectacular graphics, an interesting world to see, rocking sound, meaty guns, car combat, and lots and lots of shooting. And on all these things, they succeed. But only separately. My theory is that Rage has been made by a collection of excellently skilled people, but not by a team. It’s almost the Chinese Room approach to game design.
The sound design is great, but not. Sounds are clear, atmospheric and meaty. But if a little notification pops up to tell me I’m in a new region, it sounds like a Mechwarrior being kicked in the nuts. Littered about the wasteland are floating droids that you’re encouraged to launch off jumps into. When you approach them, you’re treated to the loud, high-pitched whine of their rockets. If you crash into them, it’s like when the Walkers in Half-Life 2 are killed, but with all the dials turned to 11. Single-barreled shotguns sound like 6 shotguns strapped together, even though it’ll take a number of shots to take down even a basic dude. It ticks the “sound” box but in terms of gameplay experience, it suffers.
The music is great, but not. There’s a rich orchestral score and lots of it. But it’s always of the form “ratchet up tension, ratchet up tension”. It’s like you had the entire score to Lost playing whenever you enter a new room. It makes combats exciting, but you soon get mental burnout.
Character animations are great, but not. They are detailed and expressive, and are triggered naturally. But if you talk to someone they Emote. Every. Single. Phrase. It’s not dialogue, it’s pantomime. If you’re outside of the triggering range, they’ll barely move. But if they are a major enough character and you click on them, they twist and shift, wave their arms around and adjust their clothing. But they hit poses in succession, not animate smoothly or naturally. The animation is larger than life, and you get this comic feeling in a game that’s supposed to be deadly serious about shooting evil guys in the face.
World and character designs are great, but not. Again, detailed, expressive and there’s a lot of creativity. Every character has a unique look and people look like people. Craggy cliffs are distinguishable and you can get a real feeling for the geology. But it’s just for show. Most of the detail is there for you to run past. Or get in the way because clipping is an issue. A recluse protects his place by hiding the bridge to his building in a ravine, which is only used when you inflate a giant hot air balloon with propellers. Hadn’t he heard of drawbridges? The characters look unique, but are a bit silly (almost every woman wears half a shirt – showing midriff – and short shorts with a goofy looking hat). Some people are Western-themed, but others have a strong Eastern vibe. Some guys have American accents, others English. Where the heck is this place?
Shooting is great, but not. It’s fast, frantic and rewards skill. But it’s all just shooting. To build intensity they’ll throw more guys at you. Or make normal guys take much more damage to kill. They aren’t smarter by a long shot. At best they’ll take cover, then lean waaaaaay out and basically point at their noggin so you can shoot it. They give you a wingstick (a bladed boomerang) which is a one-shot kill for most mooks, assuming the bizarre aiming misses the busy environment. Enemies run really fast, but their hitboxes are all over the place. And when they die you have thirty seconds before they vanish, often right in front of your eyes. You get the feeling of whack-a-mole after a while. Killing wave after wave of dudes like this scratches an itch deep in the reptilian part of my brain, which is fun, but really unfulfilling.
MegaTexture is great, but it’s not. It allows artists to take all the static space and paint it however they like. What this means is that bad guy dens can have unique graffiti everywhere, dirt and grime in the right spots and no need to worry about hiding repetition with appropriately-placed geometry. Level designers can go creatively nuts and have amazing artwork on walls, have giant flesh monsters devouring broken buildings and really scar the world with detail. But conversely, your run-of-the-mill bandits are amazingly artistic despite their interaction with you having no greater purpose than “ARGH! KILL!”. And fleshy buildings really only dump goo on you on your way to shooting more jumping dudes.
On a technical level, Megatexture requires your computer to catch up with the extreme data bandwidth requirements, based on Carmack’s vague heuristics. If you fail some invisible test, you get crappy blurry textures and trying to circumvent it will only lead to worse performance. If you turn about 45 degrees, textures pop in like Unreal 3′s engine at startup. If you turn back, you get the same for the original stuff you looked at. It’s even worse if you spin 180 degrees, like you’ll need to do constantly in a game where they’ll spawn enemies all around you. My machine isn’t top of the line, but it also eats most modern games for breakfast.
It also impacts gameplay. All this texture delivery is optimized by your position and path through the level. Which means for the most part that you can’t take shortcuts like jumping over a small desk. This leads to great screenshots and tech demos, but terrible gameplay. Enemies and scenery get top-billing, but secondary things like plants (pictured right) end up getting no love at all.
Carmack has since moaned about the state of PCs and graphics drivers, and implied that everything would be so much better if he could program an operating system for his game. And yet he’s worried that it takes 4 years to put out a game like Rage. He’s an engineer, through and through, for better or worse.
It’s a shame because id really wanted to evolve. And they haven’t made a bad game. It’s just not a great one. They seem resilient to breaking out of their mould and making a modern game. They just want to make the old games with a shiny new exterior. Which is great and sorta fun, but we’ve moved on. I don’t want to be told to just kill things. I want a story. You can have a linear story, just kill things and still have a good story if what you do makes an impact. id aren’t prepared for that. They aren’t committed to that. They want to make great game components without actually making a great game. They don’t seem eager to learn more of their trade that they haven’t invented themselves. Which is sad – instead of setting the world on fire, Rage just left everyone with a half-interested shrug.