From their early beginnings, video games were designed to deliver diversionary breaks from the daily grind of life. Nowadays, though, they're much more than just a collection of puzzles and brainteasers. Today's games are closer to breakaway lives themselves, into which gamers can invest many, many, many hours before moving on.
Nobody knows that better than Bethesda Softworks, publishers of immersive, open-world, sprawling RPG franchises such as Elder Scrolls and Fallout. And with their latest first-person shooter release, Rage, they've come up with a sort of blending of both of those popular titles.
Mankind's in For It … Again
In Rage's version of reality, mankind finds itself threatened by an oncoming asteroid in the year 2029. It's a moon-sized hunk of rock big enough to wipe out all life on Earth. Of course, governments around the globe recognize the devastation that's fast approaching and secretly create something called the Eden Project. Unsuspecting nanotech-injected volunteers are put into deep hibernation and stashed away in underground cryogenic pods known as Arks. The plan is that once the hurtling asteroid bashes to the planet's surface—sending out a fiery blast wave with the equivalent force of millions of megatons of TNT—the handpicked survivors can reemerge and begin the process of rebuilding.
But things never go as planned, do they?
Gamers play as a nameless Ark survivor who gasps his way up out of a suspended animation sleep to find a few unexpected twists: 106 years have passed in what seemed a blink of an eye and all the other "survivors" in his particular pod group didn't handle the surviving part all that well. The seals on their units failed, and they're all mummified corpses. The biggest shock? Once our hero steps outside his Ark, he quickly learns that the asteroid didn't actually destroy all of mankind—it just made life on the surface very, very difficult.
Due to the residual dust, smoke and radiation, vegetation has been severely impacted, and the world is now a Mad Max-like mash-up of a place. The struggling remnants of our once civilized society—including mutant scavengers, animal/human atrocities and a variety of roustabouts and killers—are all dedicated to hanging on to what little they have. And that means strangers (You!) aren't all that welcome.
So it's a new life of hiding, collecting, scavenging, driving like crazy and, of course, killing. There are a few humans who'll help you out. But there's always a quest (or 10) that needs doing as a form of repayment. Wipe out a clan of drunk and foul-mouthed cockney-accented guys, and you can grab some desperately needed auto parts. Obliterate a group of potentially cannibalistic nasties and you can keep them from attacking a nearby village. On and on it goes.
Deck Shoes and Boomerang Blades
Now, that may sound like a fairly typical dystopian wasteland shooter. But Rage has a bit more to offer in its alternate life package. It has very intuitive game mechanics that make easing into the killing as natural as slipping into your favorite shorts and deck shoes. (Not necessarily a good thing!) The gathered arsenal of pistols, rifles, shotguns, grenades, remote-detonated explosives and boomerang-like blade weapons feel easy in your virtual hand. And the machine gun-equipped dune buggy driving is fluid and fast.
In addition to that button-clicking boost, Rage's graphics engine offers up something of a new standard for other fare in this class to live up to. The glint of sunlight that breaks through the digital clouds will almost make you squint, and a glance down at the individual gravel bits crunching beneath your feet delivers a unique sense of realism as you run from your foes or sneak into the next ruin.
If you're thinking right now that all those enhanced visual details and easy slip-on mechanics will make the action all the more messy—spilling brain-mash glop on your chinos and sending realistic flesh-eating mutants screaming in your general direction—well, you're already reading the next paragraph.
Gory Deck Shoes and Bloody Boomerang Blades
Early on, a pretty young teen teaches you how to throw a bladed wingstick and lop off a guy's head. And you can always blast those noggins with a combat shotgun, too, repainting any nearby walls with a dark shade of crimson. The result? Piles of dead bodies swarming with buzzing flies. You see desecrated female corpses tied akimbo to the four corners of a hallway. And I haven't even touched on some of the gorge-flipping horrors that can be found decomposing in other dark corners or dripping from monsters roughly the size of small buildings.
If you have your console hooked up to a nice DTS sound system, well, then those thunking heads, splashing dismemberments and buzzing insects will be made all the more realistic. And the fetid dialogue, peppered with the f-word, "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard," will ring out loud and clear.
This is not a game, as my Plugged In gaming comrade Kevin Simpson put it, "that you'll soon forget." Alternate lives are sort of like that. You can't just shrug them off after an hour or so.