An exciting adventure bursts out of a three-disc set in Rage: Anarchy Edition (Bethesda Softworks and id Software, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $59.99).
Gamers in love with “The Road Warrior” mentality become part of a grungy, postapocalyptic world that mixes first-person shooting, driving, vehicular combat and role-play.
What's the story: When an asteroid hits Earth in 2029, a small fraction of special humans and researchers survive in underground cryogenic arks, preserved so they can rebuild the planet. Those chosen (who happen to live) emerge years after the impact only to find a wasteland ruled by groups of crazed bandits, mutants and the mysterious Authority, a militarized group that is looking to capture Ark survivors.
Play the role: Built by the developers responsible for Quake and Doom, Rage's action escalates quickly as a player assumes the role of a male member of the Ark initiative.
After a player emerges from his chamber in 2035, he immediately begins to help, as well as get help, from tribes of humans as he explores a nearly open-ended battleground. Our hero walks and drives around friendly and hostile settlements on missions and sub-missions, often fighting for his life.
Those missions might include delivering packages, visiting a scientist to examine a piece of rock, talking to a local about using a wingsticks (a slick boomerang weapon) or fighting off members of the Ghost Clan threatening a settlement.
While in the midst of the epic, I really appreciated the minor aspect role-playing had in the fun. Not having to spend an hour creating a character or engaging in long-winded, branching conversations, I simply could complete linear tasks, get some information out of a character and build up my arsenal for some juicy combat.
With an easy-to-use resource management system, I ransacked recently deceased enemies' bodies and collected or stole stuff (ranging from a can of corn to a Vault Boy bobble head) to sell for cash or build extreme items. Better yet, the action even incorporates some grandiose minigames to help our hero pad his bankroll and progress in the story.
The challenges were so memorable that's it's worth mentioning a few favorites:
* Mutant Bash TV — It's five levels of killing mutants in this reality television extravaganza run by the bloated, creepy J.K. Styles. The player works through arenas in a not-so-fun house to win cash and a certificate for a really nasty vehicle.
* Rage Frenzy — This collectible, turn-based card game gives players a reason to meticulously search for cards hidden throughout environments. The challenge requires buying and then building a deck to compete against a couple of slick sharks at either friendly settlement. It's just like a micro version of Magic the Gathering.
* Mutant Dice (that's what I'm calling it) — A really cool but simplistic holographic board game that requires placing a bet and rolling dice while four mutants move one space at a time at a pistol-wielding warrior. Roll more bull's-eye icons (watch him kill a mutant) than skull icons (the mutants move closer) to win and collect the cash.
Get to the action: As far as first-person shooters go, Rage stands out — not for the creative bloodletting, but for the unrelenting selection of enemies, hard-core weaponry and intuitive menus used to swap items easily.
The player is rewarded for doing a good job with firepower such as a pistol, shotguns, rocket launcher, machine gun and sniper rifle that each have multiple munition types.
My favorite of the bunch is the Striker crossbow. This deadly device eventually can load exploding Mind Control Bolts that allow the player to shoot, and temporarily direct, an unlucky enemy and have him detonate next to his pals.
He also eventually finds or buys blueprints and enough items to construct cool tech gadgets, such as exploding RC cars (just like Call of Duty), lockgrinders and sentry bots (with sharp tentacles).
Now, roaming through long stretches of desert and enemy-filled terrain requires the use of some enhanced, but beat up, ATVs, dune buggies and muscle cars. This is the Mad Max/Mario Kart part of the show. It involves racing for sport to collect certificates that are turned into onboard weaponry (or enhanced paint jobs and mechanics) to use in fighting off more vehicles hanging in the wastelands as our hero fights to reach destinations.
I'm not a big fan of kart games, but they are woven into the story in an intelligent way and certainly make life easier than having to walk all over the place.
Violent encounters: Rage delivers its share of bloody, decapitating head shots and abuse of bodies that turn them into flopping rag dolls or gooey messes, but I certainly have seen worse.
Players will appreciate that the game does take firefights to the extreme. Take the example early on of simply trying to collect auto parts by infiltrating the Gearheads' lair and killing liberally.
Caught up against a maniac using a gun turret atop a burned-out vehicle, I needed to take him out or stay in perpetual firefight mode against a methodical stream of brutes that would not stop attacking.
As the bodies piled up to ridiculous levels (it was insane) and my ammo supply slowly diminished, it became apparent that the developers were more than willing to play an endless game of chicken until I took down the boss.
Additionally, “rage” will be the buzzword for the focused player who doesn't save his game often enough and as a result has to start way back in a mission because of the game's terrible and sparse autosaves.
The player's only saving grace is a bizarre health restoration device. Tied to a matching minigame, the device acts as a heart defibrillator that will not only restore the player's health, but also will electrocute all enemies standing near him.
Pixel-popping scale: 9.5 out of 10. The visuals are a breathtaking blend of rocky planetary landscapes, crumbling buildings and rusted chambers mixed with piecemeal shanty-style settlements that completely embrace visions from such directors as Alfonso Cuaron (”Children of Men”) and George Miller (”Mad Max 2”).
Non-playable characters are a meaty, eye-popping bunch loaded with as many accents as face paint, tattoos and head dresses, ready to chat or assign a mission. All looked as if they had been ripped from a painting by sequential art master Glenn Fabry.
Multiplayer: Currently one of the weak links in the Rage chain, the game is in desperate need of some all-out, multiplayer shooter free-for-alls. Instead, gamers can choose from nine cooperative missions called Wasteland Legends, or up to four drivers can compete online in Mad Max/Mario Kart-style races and demolition derbies.
By the way, those co-ops are well worth working through as players learn a bit more of the game's backstory. They can control Dan Hagar's men to shut down a Gearhead drilling operation in an old prison or find out how Wasteland's biggest mutants become trophies at the Second Chance Bar.
Memorable moments: Wielding a double-barreled shotgun (aka Mel Gibson); stealing a sample of ore from a gorgeous feltrite mine; controlling a flaming Curprino hurdling off of a highway ramp; admiring sunlight peeking out from behind rock formations that John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille would have used in a movie; watching a member of the Shrouded Clan shooting an assault rifle over his head and behind his back; and visiting the Dead City and feeling a large mutant pounding on the highway above me with detail down to concrete dust falling.
Extras and unlockables: The Anarchy Edition includes extra stuff, including a double-barreled shotgun, Rat Rod buggy, Fists of Rage and Crimson Elite Armor. It also includes a download to the Wasteland Sewer missions.
Read all about it: I highly recommend reading Dark Horse Comics' three-issue miniseries that explains some of the backstory and the goals of the Authority. Just look for Rage: After the Impact ($10.99), a handy trade paperback arriving in the next couple of weeks.
Star power: It's worth noting the familiar voice of John Goodman stars as leader of the Hagar Settlement, Dan Hagar. He also humorously narrates the cooperative missions.
What's it worth? Some will think Rage was a too-ambitious effort and it just should have stuck to a first-person-shooting frenzy within some dazzling confines.
However, I loved the creative risk, loved the vehicle combat and just wish the story and depth of characters could back up the visual might. If I was a Hollywood producer, Rage would have funding, but I would demand a rewrite.
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