There’s a rather vocal crowd who laments for the days of the old-fashioned first person shooter: the ones with complex level design, health packs, imaginative weapons and enemies. They were, apparently, more challenging and more innovative than the saturation of dull, repetitive shooters that litter the market today. In this year alone, we’ve seen the release of supposedly ‘core’ shooters: Duke Nukem Forever, Bulletstorm, Hard Reset, Serious Sam 3: BFE and Rage. Rage would probably be the stand-out example, purely because it’s got id Software and John Carmack stamped all over it, the combination of which brought us the original Doom and Quake games. This is a sentiment that’s actually proudly stamped on the box (yes, I bought the retail version, and for PC too), banking on the nostalgia and the brand names of those franchises to birth a new one.
Rage [is] an apt demonstration of the necessity of designing a shooter completely from the ground up.
Comparisons to those two games in particular are bound to crop up beyond their union under a common creator. Rage seemingly adopts the core concepts of Doom and Quake and expands them to fit a pseudo open world environment, with a sense of freedom that is less inhibited by the hardware that it needs to run on. So far so good. However, Rage should be historically remembered as the game that demonstrated the extent to which those original core shooting mechanics were taken to, and an apt demonstration of the necessity of designing a shooter completely from the ground up, rather than piecing together the sum of its individual parts, even if those parts have been well received in the past.
Rage reminds me of so many games, but fails to establish itself as unique as a result. Doom and Quake had the luxury of being pioneers; the former being the first, popularised shooter, and the latter providing the ground breaking engine framework for a multitude of subsequent titles (including the original Half-Life). They were also both incredibly fiendish in their design and challenge, meticulously crafted and honed to a point. At least, that’s what most people who played those titles in their heyday would say, but it’s not really a sentiment reflected by anyone who grew up with the current crop of ‘modern’ shooters.
Rage, at times, plays like an old friend.
Perhaps this is the problem with Rage, and there’s certainly evidence to suggest so. Rage, at times, plays like an old friend. A wonderful homage to the grandfathers of shooters, with its pleasantly meaty shooting mechanics and purposeful range of weapons and enemy types. Picking those sections out of the game give you the best moments overall (at least, in my experience), leaving the remainder of the game wondering what it actually wants to be. Unfortunately, isolating those sections means you quickly come to the conclusion that there’s just no depth to it at all. Excusable in the shooters of yesteryear, but painfully obvious now. And if there’s one thing that Duke Nukem Forever, Bulletstorm, et al share in common, it’s that. No matter how many ancillary, ‘modern’ gameplay concepts a developer may stitch into the experience, the core experience will still be the one that players gravitate to, so it’s best to make sure that really stands out.
Put simply, Rage is fun, but not as fun as it should be. Being ‘inspired’ by classic shooters just isn’t enough: either completely emulate those shooters or forge ahead with lessons learnt from what made those shooters fun and evolve it. A piecemeal approach will result in games like Rage: floundering under weight of non-cohesive gameplay elements.
id Software hasn’t really ever been known as a particularly innovative developer in recent history – they pretty much invented the First-person shooter genre 20 years ago with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, and they’ve been riding on that ever since. They’ve basically got two things going for them: Technology (due mostly to the programming talents of John D. Carmack), and experience (20 years of FPS games, and still going).
Rage is a combination of these two things. It certainly has the technology – the id Tech 5 engine has graphics coming out the wazoo. The experience shows as well – the shooting mechanics feel solid and the levels are designed to suit the gameplay. It’s nothing ground-breaking, it’s simply a well-polished game that plays as well as it looks.
But I guess that’s not enough for some people. I’ve spoken to a few people about the game now, and some of them are under the impression that the game is "crap". I’ll say now that it certainly is not crap – but what is making people think that it is? My guess is that it’s probably because single player shooters have changed in the last five years.
Modern shooters tend to lean towards one of two things: Cinematics, or story. Both of these can be used to draw a player into a game and keep them more engaged than if there were only gameplay. For pure action games there isn’t much flexibility to go elsewhere, aside from changing the genre to, say, action/horror or action/RPG. But let’s keep it simple and talk about pure action games (like Rage).
Half-Life 2 was probably earliest to the party with the story side of things. Bioshock is another example. Both of these games have average (at best) shooting and gameplay mechanics, but it isn’t really important when the game plot and setting is so engaging. Cinematic games tend to lean in the other direction. These rely on action-movie style explosions and cutscenes to draw the player in. The Call of Duty series, and the recently released Battlefield 3, are examples of this technique.
This is different to how shooters were made 7 or 8 years ago. Back then, gameplay was the most important thing in a game. Look at id’s previous games: Doom 3 was more of a horror game, so let’s skip that one. Quake 3 was a multiplayer-only game, so let’s skip that too. The single player games we have before that are: Quake 2, Quake, Doom 2, and Doom (noticing a pattern here?). Let’s not go back any further, but look at those four games. None of them rely on story or cinematics to keep the player engaged – one could argue that the technology and budget wasn’t available to them at the time – but regardless, they were considered to be excellent games due to their fast-paced gameplay and excellent (for the time) graphics.
Fast forward to today, and we have Rage – another game with great gameplay and graphics, but lacking in the story and cinematics departments. It isn’t nearly as well-accepted as id’s past games were, even though they have very similar traits as their previous games.
I guess the question is, what needs to change? Are the attention spans of gamers getting shorter? Do id need to put more time into story and cinematics? I would answer "yes" to both questions. Rage is a good game, but unfortunately it was released too late – the gaming world has changed, and Rage just isn’t doing it for a lot of people. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the industry has changed in the last few years. It sure would suck if games like Rage ceased to exist, though.