id Software: ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR
Do you remember when Doom 3 came out? Most of you probably do because it wasn’t really all that long ago. Some of you probably don’t, because according to new gamers anything prior to the release of the Xbox 360 doesn’t exist. Anyway for those who missed it, Doom 3 was a pain in the arse on release. Ignoring the gameplay aspect which is fairly polarising (for the record, I enjoyed it but wasn’t a fan of the monster closets), Doom 3 was one of the few games to rely entirely on dynamic lighting. The entire thing was dynamically lit, which meant that the shadows looked very real. By comparison most everything else used lightmapping, which meant that static geometry had nice lighting effects, but dynamic objects (anything that moved) looked out of place. You know how in old cartoons how the objects the characters interact with would look brighter and stand out from the background? Yeah, that’s what lightmapping was like in many ways. Doom 3 ditched that and everything was lit uniformly, because there wasn’t any lightmapping.
This created two big problems. Firstly, Doom 3 was around when the average mid-high card was something like a 9800 Pro, there were no dual-core CPUs for desktop gaming computers (let alone games to make use of them), 2GB of RAM was ample, and Windows XP wasn’t really all that old. In other words, it was 2004. It ran pretty poorly on almost everyone’s systems. The lighting was an absolute killer. The second problem was that there was little in the way of ambient light, such that shadows were pitch black. I used to make maps for Doom 3 and this particular point used to shit me to no end. Ambient light could be tricked somewhat but it’d cause the shadows to almost disappear and look washed out, not to mention wrecking bump-mapping in the process.
What does any of this have to do with RAGE? Quite simply it’s a similar story with Rage, but for reasons which somewhat escape me. As with all id Software titles, Rage is part game, part techdemo for idTech5, focusing on megatexture technology. Megatextures work by having a single, large texture for terrain, which means you can create a lot of unique detail for terrain. Normally, terrain (or level geometry in general) makes use of repeating textures of various sizes, seamlessly tiling themselves along the geometry. This of course means that one patch of grass looks identical to another. Megatextures avoid this problem by having one big texture with lots of little details on it. Of course that would require an obscene amount of VRAM, and Rage’s install size is in the order of 25GB. To get around that, the engine streams in parts of the texture, scales them to the correct size, and applies it to the terrain. The end result? More varied environments. Rage uses a similar technique but takes it one step further and applies it not only to terrain but also to pretty much everything else.
We need to talk about this right now before we even talk about the game, because this megatexture technology lies towards the core of the complaints about the game. Rage is id Software’s first multi-platform simultaneous release, and idTech5 was built not only for PCs, but also for the 360 and PS3. John Carmack has gone on and on about this, saying lots of interesting things which pretty much nobody understands, but the main point was that it’s challenging to get this kind of stuff to work on these consoles with their smaller amounts of RAM (not to mention storage capacity constraints). The PC however, with its far greater resources, shouldn’t be quite so difficult. Which is why many of us are somewhat puzzled by Rage’s crappy texture pop-in on the PC, which at times can be as bad as for the PS3 (the smallest RAM amount between it and the 360). Even with this pop-in, some areas just use low resolution textures for no discernable reason at all. Look at the screenshots and pay particular attention to distant geometry. See how it looks pretty dodgy? Now look at some of the closer objects. Some of them look pretty shitty too. If this is what megatexture tech does, then I’ll steer clear of it, thanks. Bottom line is I’m probably not going to notice it in regular gameplay. I mean I don’t stop to examine different patches of dirt or grass in real life, why would I do so here? The texture streaming aspect has some serious issues and we have to resort to setting up config files or launch options to get it to work properly. We have to do this because Rage’s video config consists of the following:
- Fullscreen or Windowed mode
- GPU Transcoding (for some of us)
And that’s pretty much it. There’s no option for v-sync, texture resolution, AF, effects quality, nothing. The game is supposed to automatically determine what quality level is suitable for your configuration, but it doesn’t seem to do a particularly good job for lots of people. There are a bunch of technical problems with this game which greatly impacts upon the enjoyment of the gameplay.
And now we can talk about that. Rage’s storyline is a fairly standard post-apocalyptic yarn where a giant asteroid smashes into Earth, presumably wiping everybody out. Actually, given the size of the asteroid (maybe a quarter of the size of our Moon) I would have thought it’d completely wreck Earth but whatever, it’s a game, who cares? A bunch of people were interred underground in arks to survive the impact event. You are one of these people, and wake up in the future, the only survivor from your particular ark. The world is filled with apeshit bandits, honest people trying to live to see tomorrow, and some government called the Authority who want to get their hands on you. Your life revolves around doing odd jobs, either on foot or in vehicles, primarily involving killing people with powerful weapons, while following the main storyline. It looks and plays a bit like Borderlands, but it’s a bit more interesting than Borderlands in my opinion. I wasn’t a big fan of Borderlands, I thought it was a bit boring and tedious, even in co-op.
The gunplay is very good and combat feels nice and visceral, just what I’d expect from an id Software game. The enemies are extremely well animated, as are the ragdoll effects. The game uses a blend between animation and ragdoll physics to create really nice death sequences; enemies that are rushing towards you might stagger forward and then collapse, or they might sidestep and collapse against a filing cabinet or something. It’s a lot better than “stop what you’re doing and fall to the floor!” effect in most games where running enemies end up in all sorts of weird positions after being killed. There’s quite a few weapons to play with, as well as different ammo types. You can also manufacture a bunch of different items. It’s a bit like Dead Island where you can pick up bits and pieces and use them to make different utility items, except you can do this anywhere and don’t need to be near a workbench. Vehicles play a major part in the game and are a lot of fun to drive, though you need to take care of them because they suffer damage. Rage uses the regenerating health mechanic which is so popular in gaming today, which I find a little surprising. I thought id Software would have stuck to the traditional medkits, but apparently not. The driving sequences are reasonably well done but I don’t like how the camera is locked onto the car, nor do I really like the auto-aim for the weapons. I would have liked a bit more freedom with this aspect but driving is at least satisfying. And you’d better get used to it, because you’ll be required to compete in races to advance in the game’s storyline.
In terms of quests and characters, Rage is a bit hit and miss. Most of them are standard RPG-style affairs even though Rage isn’t really an RPG. Yeah, you have an inventory and all that, but there’s no statistics or anything like that, nor any conversations besides sitting there and listening to NPCs and accepting or declining jobs. Character animations are well done and the voice acting is pretty damn good, much better than I was expecting. The problem with the quests though is that there’s nothing that really makes you care much about the main plot. They’re treated with the same kind of enthusiasm as a generic quest to pick up a car battery or something. There’s no real inclination for you to care or any sense of urgency in their requests. It’s like a shopping list: “Okay, we need you to get milk, bread, cheese, some bandages for the critically injured, and maybe some steaks. See you soon!” It’s an odd issue because there’s nothing physically wrong with the delivery of the quests but there’s just nothing that really compels you to get out there and really follow the plot. It feels like they’re of equal importance with the other sidequests.
Rage’s gunplay is really good and the quests are good fun for the most part. It’s a very good shooter, even if it isn’t particularly innovative or new. Rage doesn’t have any new gameplay mechanics or ideas, but there’s nothing really wrong with the gameplay at all. Thus I’m giving it a good rating for this reason. However this does not extend to the technical issues plaguing the game as it stands. The texture-streaming problems and total lack of video customistaion options are absurd. People have to resort to playing with cfg files and cmd-line options to get the game to look halfway decent. This isn’t good practice! Rage is in desperate need of a fix. The benefits of megatexture tech isn’t really apparent here and I’d really question why id Software would bother. There’s an interesting game here, but the tech ironically doesn’t seem like it’s up to scratch.