Posted by Phill Cameron (October 09, 2010)

A voice calls out from the back: “Don't you think Rage is looking a lot like Borderlands?”

Tim Willits shrugs, that bulletproof smile brushing off the question like so much chaff. “Well, we're not set on an alien planet for one.” The crowd laughs. But really, they're all thinking the same thing.

Rage is confident, but no one has any idea if it has any right to be.

It’s also entirely uncharted territory for id Software, of Doom and Quake fame, pulling them out of dark, gritty sci-fi corridors and into the harsh, bleak sunlight of the post-apocalypse. A meteor has hit Earth, you see. And, well, things haven’t been so nice to our mother planet. Think Mad Max, but without Mel Gibson and with a touch of Fallout. Having been safe down in a bunker, you’re finally coming out to investigate the devastation, and everything that’s survived in the interim between you going down and you coming up. Turns out, it’s quite a lot.

“One of the decisions that we made with Rage early on, unlike our earlier games, we wanted to make the universe very rich.” Tim Willits is animated, and not just because he’s high on a cough sweet. “Not just a game. With Doom, the only universe there was was that the scientists had opened up a portal to hell. That’s it. But with Rage we worked on all the different characters, there’s a timeline that happens before you get there, you can imagine things happening after you leave, there’s also enough difference with these characters that we can have add-ons.”

There’s a genuine sense of excitement here; it’s id finally coming away from the type of shooter that everyone grew bored with just shy of a decade ago. They’re trying something new. Or at least, to them it’s entirely new. Slipping into the unfortunately popular setting of the ‘Post-Apocalypse’, they’re inadvertently slotting themselves up against the likes of Fallout 3 and Borderlands. They’re going to have to do something new, otherwise they’re going to look like the girl that turned up to the school dance in the same dress as two other girls, only Rage was twenty minutes late.

Luckily, they’ve got some new tech up their sleeves. Or in their purse, or wherever it is that girls keep their tech these days. The buzzword is ‘megatextures’, and Tim was more than happy to try and explain it to me. And by ‘explain’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘bamboozle me with big scary words’.

“Basically, imagine the world as one texture. In the past we would make one 512v512 texture and then we would just tile it. So, we can still build things with tiling textures, if we want, or we can paint everything unique, but once that’s done, what really makes the tech shine is what we can stamp on top of it. So we have a tiling set of textures, then we go in and we can put all sorts of unique textures like rust spots and paint, and graffiti and all sorts of cool things. Really break it up and make it look all unique.”

“And the same with the landscape, y’know,” he continues. “Instead of having just this procedurally generated tiling stuff, the artists can make separate models and detail pieces and then we can put that all together. So then at the very end we have this magic black box system that’s John Carmack’s brain, and it takes it all and makes it into one texture, and then smartly brings it all in when it needs it.”

And seeing it on screen really does impress. The landscape stretches out for what seems like miles. There’s a richness and virility to the world that is very near startling. While there’s a slight heat haze covering everything, that just adds to the feel of space and expansion, rather than just being a clever graphical trick to disguise poor textures. It’s seamless, too, with the demo wandering through the game world without any judder, any loading, or any sign at all that the game is pulling textures up left and right.

Talking to Willits, this isn’t the only place that the game is trying to innovate and interest. As well as providing the tried and tested method of ‘Insert bad guy, select gun, shoot bad guy in the face.’, they’re trying to add some character to their world with side quests and optional activities, like Mutant Bash TV, a Running-Man-esque game show that allows players to earn money on the side by fighting for their life. It’s the post-apocalypse, times are hard.

And guns. id Software like guns.

“So we try to give you a new weapon, or ammo type, or engineering thing so that you can build your arsenal of weapons to engage your enemies in new and interesting ways. There’s still some people at id who use the shotgun for everything, It’s like ‘really?’. I mean, I actually use the machine gun, that’s my preferred weapon, but there’s still some shotgun fans out there.”

During the demo they headed down into the Well of Wellspring, one of the settlement hubs in the game, and the guy in charge of the well tossed the player some crossbow bolts. But these weren’t any crossbow bolts. They were electric.

It’s at this point that I started to get slightly worried for Rage. There’s something about how they’re promoting it, how everything they’re showing seems more than a little tried and tested before. It’s not that they’re just going with what’s safe; it’s more that they don’t seem to realise that these things aren’t new and exciting to a gamer.

We’ve done electrobolts. We did electrobolts in Bioshock, and they weren’t even new then. On the screen, the player rounds a corner and is faced with a pair of bandits in a puddle. The childish glee on Tim Willits face at the prospect of electrocuting them with their new weapon is almost sad. Two minutes later, they brush over a quick demonstration of driving a remote-control car into a room, and detonating the large amount of C4 strapped to it.

Hey, guys? That’s what we want to see more of.

There’s still hope. Along with Mutant Bash TV, the game has a distinct flavour with each of their bandit clans, and id aren’t taking it all extremely seriously. The wasteland aspect is enough of a downer already, okay?

“The mutants just come at you, they come from everywhere, and they want to get to you as fast as humanly, or mutantly, possible to kick your ass. So they have dynamic pathfinding as well, so they can navigate through the levels really well kind of like the Ghost Clan does. But we did try to make each of the bandit clans act differently, and try to make movement act differently, and when you meet the Authority at some point, then they’ll actually use much more militaristic style tactics.”

I haven’t mentioned the Authority yet, but it wouldn’t be a post-apocalypse without some sort of oppressive military regime making sure everyone is kept nice and poverty-stricken beneath their boot heel. I didn’t get to see them in the demo, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to use guns. And cover.

Guys with guns and cover don’t particularly interest me. What did give me a glimmer of hope, got me feeling excitement for the first time during the demonstration, was their finale, their show piece. The level was set in ‘Dead City’, a desolate array of dilapidated buildings and many, many mutants. Finishing off the puny, human-sized ones brought out a slightly bigger, more worrying variant, with what seemed to be a grenade launcher. He was dispatched after a little time, and then everything went quiet. For a few moments.

And then there was a thud. Dust rose up from the ground, shook from all the buildings in a sychronised cloud of disturbance. Another pause. Another thud. More dust hung in the air, as if it was waiting, inquiring as to what on earth disturbed it.

It was answered by a huge set of chubby, anaemic fingers clasping around the side of a building at the edge of the scene. It served as a good marker for quite how big the owner of those fingers was; each digit being larger than a building window in width. Leering around, the rest of the mutant stood, a good eighty, ninety feet tall, and with a huge lamp post in one hand. Fade to black.

If Rage can rise above all the cliche and well-trod ground of the post-apocalypse to deliver set pieces that excite and engage their player base, there could be something truly brilliant here. There was a hint of that displayed here, but at the moment there’s a good deal of slightly backwards thinking that needs to be overcome. With a parting word, Tim Willits reassured id’s, and Doom’s, many, many fans.

“There’s only so much you can do with corridors. But we’re not doing everything, and for the players that worry that we’ve gone crazy, gone Sarah Palin or something; when you’re down there hunting bad guys, and you’ve got a shotgun in your hand, and you see someone in front of you, and you pull that trigger, the responsiveness, and the action, and what happens, that’s all classic id. So don’t worry about that. And all the other stuff is additive to the experience and makes it a much more well-rounded game.”

Thanks, Tim.


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