Welcome To The Wasteland
by Bryan Vore on Sep 30, 2009 at 04:49 PM
Platform PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher Bethesda Softworks
Developer id Software
Rating Mature

“Where’s the Emmy?” Tim Willits asks several pockets of employees as we tour the hallowed halls of id Software’s Mesquite, Texas office. The co-owner and creative director of the company shows us everything from the original toy shotgun used in Doom to the darkened floor where Doom 4 is currently in development. As we settle in to a spacious conference room, several scouts pop in and out with leads on the last known location of the prestigious award. Miss Donna, the longtime office manager and “id mom,” appears triumphantly at the door holding a beat up black box. Inside is the familiar gold statuette bestowed on the company for “the development of 3D software engines.”

If the wayward Emmy had more room for text it could mention id’s legacy of pioneering the first-person shooter and online multiplayer deathmatches. Since its inception in 1991, id has found incredible success with only a handful of franchises – most notably Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. The company hasn’t released a major in-house-developed project since 2004’s Doom 3, and hasn’t launched a major new game franchise in 13 years. Rage represents a new chapter for the company – serving as the first showpiece for the groundbreaking id Tech 5 engine and the company’s first attempt at open world gameplay, driving, and, well, an honest-to-goodness story.

Enter the wasteland as we take you through a full hour and a half of straight gameplay and address the burning questions that have remained unanswered since Rage’s initial announcement two years ago. Just don’t ask when it’s coming out.

We want to do something different,” says creative director Tim Willits. “We’ve done Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein and they all have a very solid formula. We want to take that solid formula, that first-person action we do so well, and expand it. We want to have a richer story. We want to have more character interaction. We want to have a much larger world.”

This larger world is set approximately 80 years after a devastating asteroid collides with Earth and kills most of civilization. That isn’t to say that humanity wasn’t prepared. Governments around the globe banded together to enact the Eden Project, burying hundreds of pods, or “arks,” beneath the ground containing a dozen people each. Like the crew of a ship, each member has a specific complementary skill that would help rebuild society once they emerge from cryo-sleep. That’s how it was supposed to work, anyway.

An earthquake cracks open your character’s ark before the scheduled time. The rest of the crew is dead, and all of the onboard data is ruined, leaving him no clue as to what he’s supposed to do once he reaches the surface.

“In the very beginning of the game when you wake in your ark you step out [we want players to be] like, ‘Yeah, this is an id game. This looks like a space station. I’ve played Doom. This is cool,’” says Willits. “And as soon as that door opens it’s like, ‘OK, this is different.’”

Our demo starts a couple of hours into the game, but the bright skies and wide open canyons still have the intended startling effect to anyone who’s shotgunned his or her way through id’s traditional pitch black corridors. Our character is standing by an old shack, and a radioactive green swamp looks to be the only water source for miles around. Inside the structure we meet Crazy Joe.

“You seen a mutant yet?” asks the weird old prospector. “Them are just like you and me. When the space rock hits, the unlucky few on the surface started changing. Them were crazy days. Didn’t have no time to get deeper, I suppose.”

Joe warns us to run if we see one so we head outside and, of course, a mutant is atop a distant rock structure scanning the horizon. Willits, who’s manning the controls, equips a tri-tipped boomerang called the wingstick. He gives it a toss and it takes a wide arc through the canyon before cutting down the distant enemy and flying back to our hands. With the danger out of the way, we hop in a nearby dune buggy and blaze over the dry desert landscape.

“Unlike in other games, where vehicles are disposable, in Rage we want your vehicle to be really an extension of your first-person avatar,” Willits says. “The neat thing about the buggy is that you had to earn it. It wasn’t given to you.”

“It’s like when you turn 16,” lead designer Matt Hooper adds. “It’s somewhat beat up and stuff, but it’s your vehicle.” Players start with an ATV, which provides very little defense, and must fight bandits for parts and perform jobs to earn money to get the buggy up and running. Now that the buggy is functional, our latest task is to deliver a message to the mayor of Wellspring.

After a quick scuffle with some bandit buggies, we arrive at our destination. Wellspring is a well-fortified Western/Asian fusion themed town that serves as your home base for the first half of the game. As we maneuver through the streets, we’re met with suspicion for both our stranger status and the fact that we’re wearing an ark suit. Turning in an ark survivor is a rare opportunity to earn a hefty reward from a mysterious group called The Authority. “You hear whispers of them when you arrive and people are concerned about them, but you don’t know much about them,” Willits says. “You’re out to learn what their true purpose is.”

On the way to the mayor’s office, we pass a no parking sign that has been altered to read “no peeing.” The local bar, adorned with stuffed mutant heads, shows broadcasts of current races and episodes of hit show Mutant Bash TV. Mayor Clayton is a jovial sort, welcoming you to his town. The message you deliver for your previous employer requests help with bandits.

“He must really respect you to give you this important job, so for now I’ll trust you, too,” Clayton says. “You can stay here at Wellspring. I’ll give you supplies, but not dressed like that. You’ll bring The Authority snuffing around and I sure don’t need that.”

We head over to the Outpost to cover up our conspicuous attire and, even though we didn’t see it ourselves, the outfit you choose has some kind of effect throughout the rest of the game. But that doesn’t mean Rage has a range of moral choices. “We don’t have a good versus evil choice,” Willits says. “That’s not the game we wanted to play because we always end up playing the good guy, which is odd for [id].”

“We wanted to focus on ‘I like racing.’ ‘I like stealthing.’ ‘I like adventuring and finding things,’” Willits adds. “Those are the choices that we wanted to give people.”

Moving forward another couple hours, we’re tasked by the Wellspring sheriff to destroy a bomb factory run by a bandit clan called The Shrouded. This group specializes in crafting small remote controlled cars with explosives attached to them. They’re a real pain in the ass to everyone crossing through the northern lands so you’ve got to put an end to their production. We head over to mechanic Mick’s garage to grab our custom buggy and hit the road.

Currently, the minimap in the upper right corner looks like a top-down satellite photo of the desert terrain with a red dot highlighting our objective. The developers are still tweaking the guidance system following one prime directive. “We don’t want the player to be lost,” Hooper says. “Tim and I call it ‘open but directed.’ You know that you have to go [to an objective], but if you see something that’s interesting you’re free to go and explore.”

Nonetheless, we take a direct route to the factory and encounter some hostiles along the way. At this point in the game, our offensive options are a pair of chain guns attached to our buggy and a trusty front rammer. We blow up a couple of vehicles in a hail of bullets and play chicken with the next, swerving out of the way at the last second. An arrow indicator on the back of our buggy informs us of danger from the rear, so we pull the handbrake for a quick 180-degree turn. A hit of nitrous rockets us forward and we ram the bandit at full speed, turning his car into a massive fireball. We make it to the factory in rough shape, but at least we didn’t need a tow back to the garage – currently the only way to repair vehicle damage.

Once inside, a heavy door is blocking the way. A small vent looks to be the only way forward, so we pull out the blueprints on how to build our own RC car bomb. This engineering system allows players to build everything from wingsticks to lock grinders provided they have the plans and the parts. Steering the small RC car through the tight corridor works exactly like driving full sized vehicles, except now we can self-destruct at the touch of a button. Blowing up the first bomb cache makes a hole large enough for us to fit through and proceed.

A Shrouded bandit is walking away from us down a hallway and we pull out a crossbow to take him down quickly and quietly, showing that Rage has a stealthy side in addition to id’s trademark balls to the wall action. Eventually, players can earn alternate ammo types and weapon upgrades like scopes and aiming stabilizers. The crossbow in particular shoots a projectile that allows brief control of the enemy before blowing him up.
At the press of a button, four weapon slots appear, corresponding to the directions on a d-pad. Willits selects the machine gun and moves on. In fact, the entire demo is being played with an Xbox 360 controller plugged into a PC — a stark change for a developer with such a strong PC legacy.

“We don’t let them use the mouse right now because the largest chunk of our market’s going to be on the consoles,” says id co-founder and technical director John Carmack. “That’s actually a pretty strict dictum around here. Tim will go around and whack your hand with a ruler if you’re using a mouse playing the game. I mean, yes, you can use the mouse for it, but it’s critical that the controller be the way that we design the game.”
We approach the fallen foe and tap a button over his body. A loot screen appears showing what kind of ammo and items we can swipe. Getting rid of flying boxes is one of the many small changes id is making as it modernizes some of its longstanding conventions. Another is the inclusion of regenerative health.

“I don’t want to get into it too much, but you, as an ark survivor, have certain physical characteristics that make you special, one of which is the ability to heal,” Willits says. “Your heart has functionality that, even after you die, you can bring yourself back to life. So you are more special than just a generic kind of guy. You have special physical characteristics.”

Clearly outnumbered as we approach the next room, we set up a turret to distract the guards as we move to cover. With the turret chipping away at the foes’ health, we move to a flanking position and finish them off with little effort. For the next group, we use a small sentry bot equipped with a machine gun to take the brunt of the damage before we enter the room. We toss a couple of grenades in to weaken their position, sending a few bandits flying through the air in the process. We throw out a wingstick and the bandits jump and roll out of its path. However, this also means they’ve left cover, so we mow them down with shotgun blasts. All that’s left now is to blow up the second cache of bomb materials and we’re out of there.

We pull back into the garage in Wellspring and have Mick fix up our ride. In the final game, he’ll offer congrats on the latest completed mission and point you towards any new developments in town. Since we’ve got experience driving around the wasteland, now it’s time to see if we can handle going pro in the racing circuit. Placing well in these events nets us racing certificates that can be used to purchase exclusive parts and upgrades from dealer Rusty’s shop.

The town’s racing promoter tries to lure us in. “Greetings. My name’s Jackie Weeks and I’m the impresario who runs all the high speed races in Wellspring… and I do mean all of them,” he says. “If you’re interested in testing your skill you can go talk to my business associate over there, Slim.”

We sign up for a three-lap race on a stretch of abandoned highway to the south. Instantly, we’re at the starting line alongside three opponents waiting for the green light. No one starts with any boosts or ammo, creating a mad scramble for the power-ups strewn about the track. Hostiles shoot at racers as they pass by. We whip around a couple turns, ram a rival out of the way, and grab some bullets. We unload into the back of the next racer, but lose him as he grabs some air from a ramp in the latter section of the track. However, it’s not long before we catch up and transform his ride into a massive flaming wreck. We place first, taking home 15 certificates plus a few more for taking out other racers along the way. A deep parts system allows players to bump up stats like acceleration, suspension, and traction. Other tweaks include boost upgrades, a magnet that draws power-ups towards your vehicle, and new combat options like tire rippers, bombs, and EMP shields.

Other early race examples range from solo time trials to six-man rally races through the wasteland, possibly driving RC bomb cars. Right now, however, we’re interested in the top prize for a high profile race only open to sponsored drivers. To earn a sponsorship, Jackie drops a tip that Mutant Bash TV may be looking for a driver.

We hit the wasteland again in search of the television studio. A massive sign and freaky clown face entrance welcome us inside. Portly producer JK Stiles is surrounded by a multitude of monitors and swivels around on what looks to be a futuristic perma-toilet to greet you (can’t miss a moment of the show, you know).

“You want a sponsorship and I need a contestant,” Stiles says. “The game is easy. You enter my little arena and the game begins. The rules are pretty simple. Kill or be killed. Make it through alive, give me a good show, and you’ll have your sponsorship. Easiest sponsorship in the wasteland. You ready?”

Like that we’re shuffled into a gloomy hallway. The game show announcer’s voice crackles through the speaker system. “Welcome to Mutant Bash TV: the show where carnage is king. We’ve got a fresh new competitor here today!” A live crowd cheers with delight watching some far off real-time feed.

In the first room, mutants stream out of doors and holes in walls. We use a shotgun to keep them at bay and a satisfying “ka-ching” sound effect rings out for each kill. The next room is decorated in a jungle motif and mutants jump from branches toward us. A giant spinning fake gorilla rotates around the room, its multitude of blades grinding up any mutant or contestant that gets in its path. Room three contains an oversized slot machine with randomly appearing targets to shoot that grant bonus cash whenever three dollar signs are lined up. The final area, dubbed “shipwreck cove,” features random spikes springing up through the floor, forcing us to keep in constant motion as we blast mutants. Once they’re all taken down, a final door rises and a massive mutant with a tentacle arm charges out. He whips it around forcing us to take evasive action, toss grenades, and unload some buckshot. Eventually he goes down and we are presented with our payday: $755. We’re welcome to try again to better our accuracy, total time, and slot machine prowess. Either way, we can tag new mutants out on wasteland plains as we come across them so that Stiles can add to his house of horrors.

So ends the demo of id’s latest game. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t gather hints as to what’s in store later in the game. Looking over concept art, we see crashed airliners in the desert and stranded ships in bone dry former seabeds. Moving beyond the wasteland, there appears to be some dead cites and a dark neon subway colony.

“Historically, in a lot of the id games, the story starts right when you show up and it’s over at the great finale at the end,” Willits says. “We really wanted to try and create a Rage universe. We don’t necessarily need to do Rage 2, 3, 4, 5. But we can do games within the Rage universe that people are familiar with. Star Wars does a great job of this. The environment and the character and the history of the world, we want that to be just as important as the story that you play through. Characters will tell you backstory. The Authority and how it’s presented will lend to the fact that they have a place in the past and the future. Even the big climax at the end is definitely a good endgame, but it leads to something that could be bigger and greater later on.”

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