They told me their game demo would go at least an hour. Rage, three of id's top men told me, is a big game.
Developers usually ask for thirty minutes but here in the second biggest state of the Union, in the 400,000 square foot QuakeCon 2009 hotel, the Gaylord Texan, the development studio behind one of the biggest games of all time wanted to show me their new project.
But for all the talk of scale — for all the mathematics that have dominated the talk about id's next game, Rage, and its amazing technological capabilities — the game demo I got from id was surprisingly focused on nuance, art and color.
Rage is shooting and driving, gun rage and road rage. It's been designed to be swift to its action, to not waste gamers' time, to never let players be lost, and to be gorgeous.
Id's Matt Hooper and Tim Willits took turns controlling a demo that they presented for me in several parts, in a small meeting room at the Gaylord a day before this big shooter-centric convention began. They used an Xbox 360 controller to steer a PC build.
First they ventured into the game's wasteland. Ambling through the dusty, Arizona-style desert, Willits took control of the game's hero — a man never named, in the id tradition of letting the player feel that they are the hero. The game's graphical beauty is arresting, as can be seen in the QuakeCon '09 Rage trailer. The developers talked constantly throughout my demo about creating a game that looks great. Hooper described aspects of the landscape being created to please the eye, of the physical pacing of the character through the world designed to expose the players to grand and lovely sites. "The goal for Wellspring was to make it as gorgeous as possible," art director Stephan Martiniere told me. Good aesthetics are a priority.
Even the people are an achievement. In an interview later, id co-founder John Carmack raved to me that Rage is the first id game to contain "real people," humans rendered with the fidelity to give them life and personality.
A first look at Rage immediately brings to mind the other action-shooter set in a wasteland, Borderlands, though Rage is more of an action-centric game while Borderlands has the player gaining experience points as it calculates damage for every shot. Rage is smoother, more detailed and more organic-looking than the attractive, slightly cartoon-styled Gearbox game.
Rage's wasteland is not post-nuclear. An asteroid hit the Earth, its arrival sending selected citizens of the world into underground bunkers for a humanity-preservation effort called Project Eden. Our hero's bunker is hit with an earthquake; he get out years later than planned, in a jumpsuit and into a world turned Mad Max. There's Fallout to all that; a coincidence, Rage's creators say.
In the wasteland, Willits found a man in a shack named Crazy Joe whose face wrinkled and arms waved with a more authentic elasticity than people in most other games. If current tech often makes characters look to be made of plastic, Rage mixes in some rubber, more closely approximating the movement of bone, muscle and flesh.
We were in the wasteland to see some killing. Outside of Crazy Joe's shack, Willits used a quick-select option to wield the Wingstick, a boomerang of distant death-dealing potential. One far away mutant lost his life this way. The vistas of Rage are impressive, worthy of a postcard from America's Southwest. But they are all the more impressive when one's weapon flies visibly far into that distance and then comes back. The sense of witnessing what could be a mere backdrop painting is replaced by the belief in a continuous, reachable, touchable landscape ahead.
We went to town, a place called Wellspring that combines the look of the Old West with a cramped Chinese village. Hooper raved about significant characters being rendered to look and dress and sound like unique people. He spoke also of exploration and crafting, picking up items and making new ones using a few key components. There's Fallout to all that too, I noticed (he didn't mention), but crafting in this game can be done anywhere, not just at a workbench. That's fitting, as Hooper kept describing the game as one that's designed to waste a minimal amount of time. He wants players to be able to see and do things with immediacy. The id guys steered the demo to Wellspring's mayor, who gave the player plans to build RC-controlled bomb-carts and sends the player to a bandit-controlled base be liberated.
Usually, the player will have to drive everywhere, though that's not a contradiction to id's goal of minimal time-wasting. Hooper said the distance between Wellspring and the based in this mission "isn't just happenstance." It's not a randomly or even mathematically programmed arrangement of sectors. It's designed to pace the player through the action, like a good action movie. And the drive there can be expected to be exciting. For the demo, the id guys loaded right to the base, but driving elements they showed at other moments made clear how such a journey would proceed. The player gains a garage of vehicles, a four-wheel ATV, later an armored sedan or, as shown playable in the demo, a dune buggy. These vehicles can be improved and armed, the better to fend off enemy vehicles in the wasteland. When Willits was driving through the desert at one point, he was being tailed by two enemies. A green circle emerged around his dune buggy to serve as a radar warning for approaching cars. Yellow triangles in the circle pointed to the vehicles hot in pursuit.
Driving's in third-person in this game. Shooting is in first-person. You'll see your hero in his car, but not on his feet. Those perspectives — and those perspectives only, since Willits is leaning against having a hood-camera option for races — are set for Rage. That's because those perspectives are what the developers feel is optimal for the driving and shooting gameplay they have. Again, it's all efficiency and best user experience. Hooper said he's determined to make sure that the driving controls feel natural to shooter players, even, so that FPS gamers won't feel like they're being asked to learn a whole new scheme.
Back to the mission the mayor gave us, we got to this base outside Wellspring, ready to craft remote-control buggies. As open as the game had seemed until this point — and even this base can be visited at any time instead of just when the plot calls for it — the interior offered a return to more traditional id level design. It had corridors and enemies running through them. Hooper, now in control showed off the ability to lay down turrets, to send a spider-robot on a killing spree ahead and, less purposefully, for the Wingstick to get caught in another room because it flew so far away. It won't magically snap back. You have to get it. Enemies wielded their own radio-controlled bombs, one bad guy standing behind green glass with the big controller for his little toy-car-bomb in his two hands. Hooper used his own remote bomb to detonate a portion of the base's interior, allowing him to progress to reaches off-limits to any player wandering into the zone prematurely. He used a cross bow for an optional stealth kill. He used shotguns and pistols for more obvious assaults. He shot the armor off one enemy brute, piece by piece. Had the base been cleared out and the player left, mutants might take over later. There's a flow of life in this world and a reason to return, Hooper said.
Willits took back over to show the game's racing. He found a race promoter in Wellspring standing on a box with a megaphone. Behind him, a burly guy in a shirt painted with a checkered flag occupied a booth. He was ready to dole out races. Rage's races are vehicle specific and, Hooper said, could draw from any of the vehicle elements in the game, allowing for RC Bomb races, jump competitions and who knows what else. Willits played a more conventional three-lap desert dune buggy race made more dangerous with armed competition. It was called the South Highway Combat Rally. During his laps, Willits could collect ammo and speed pick-ups. Enemy shots and car bumps rolled his buggy rolled a few times, but he still won in a minute, 40 seconds. He earned race certificates for winning and a bonus for eliminating one competitor. He could spend those tickets on vehicle repairs and upgrades.
The final section of Rage I was shown was one of those classic locked-room video game carnivals of death. The bulbous TV producer behind something called Mutant Bash TV had our hero locked in a series of rooms, attacked by lanky mutants, while circus music played. The first room had the enemies throwing fireballs. Clearing that allowed the player to walk to the next room, this one jungle-themed with a gorilla statue spinning its blades around the room while mutants flung themselves into the scene via overhanging bars. Then there was a big slot machine to shoot. Then a Kraken level with spikes popping out of the floor as mutants emerge. And, finally, a Big Daddy-scaled boss with a thick tentacle for a right arm. He fired that arm at the player like he was snapping a towel at them. The whole thing took three minutes, forty-five seconds to complete. The reward was $877 dollars, for 46 kills. And the player can keep coming back, their best scores shared through online leaderboards. (id isn't talking about any multiplayer beyond that; when I asked Willits if players should expect id-standard multiplayer he said that the multiplayer is still being worked through and kept secret, that players can think now of Rage as having a rich single-player experience.)
There was a monster closet joke in there somewhere. Monster closets were that old id staple, where enemies hid behind walls, bashed out and mauled the player. They made it into Doom III, by which time some of that game's players criticized them as being archaic. Id gets it. While walking through the Bash TV level, we got a face full of a monster closet. Right in front of our hero a closet sprang open and a dummy monster popped out. Harmless and humorous. No enemy encounters in this game seemed that cheap.
That was an hour of Rage. Did it need the hour? The sprawl suited it. The game appears to break few conventions and may suffer this season from being compared to games out last year and, in Borderlands' case, this October. But as it heads to its when-it's-done release date far off in who knows what year, it will have a chance to clear the pack. I've seen no game that, in this realistic style, looks so good and has a landscape so rich with visual splendor.