Version tested: iPhone
Would it be cynical to suggest that Rage for the iPhone and iPad feels like little more than a promotional piece for the upcoming PC and console game? Maybe it was the minute-long trailer for Rage proper at the start of the app or the big "Pre-order Rage" button in the menu that gave me that idea.
Or perhaps Rage is a willy-waving tech demo from Doom-daddy John Carmack, wanting to stake his claim as the graphical king of iOS and show off just how flexible his engine is. Because on the pint-size screen of an iPod or the sprawling display of the iPad, Rage is unarguably a hugely pretty game.
Well, actually it's not. It's soul-crushingly ugly; filled with wretched faces and gnarled textures, all flooded in colours that Dulux would have no choice but to name "Bubonic Brown" or "Despair Grey". It's an utterly dismal game, wallowing in filth and perversion. But it definitely looks very sharp, the textures pop and the models are high-resolution. Technically speaking, the app's a marvel.
So is it a cheeky advergame, a vainglorious engine demo – or is it actually supposed to be taken seriously as a game in its own right? Maybe it's a bit of all three. Whatever the case, it's plenty of fun.
The app is set behind the scenes of Mutant Bash TV, Rage's post-apocalyptic game show that eschews red boxes and Anne Robinson in favour of mutants, assault rifles and grime. Your job is to fight off freaks and gun down bulls-eye targets for the perverse enjoyment of MB's brash, glutinous commentator, J. K. Stiles.
The game is an on-rails shooter, forcibly tugging you around grotty environments as impish goons creep, swing and lunge in front of your crosshairs. You've got three weapons – a natty little pistol, a snarling AK-47 and a shotgun – to make your kills, plus a side-stepping dodge move, but no melee for when the mutants hog your screen. It also borrows Gears of Wars' active reload mechanic, letting you dole out double damage if you manage to hot-swap a clip mid-reload.
Aside from staying alive, you're also playing for points. You'll need to compliment your enemy fire-fights by capping spring-loaded targets, grabbing extra ammo and picking up bumper sacks of "Bash Bux". Getting plenty of points and earning a better grade comes down to getting through the stages unscathed, as you'll rack up a higher and higher combo for every kill you pull off as long as you aren't injured.
It means going for headshots and prioritising enemies, dodging one thrown rock and then shooting another out of the sky. You'll need to time your reloads carefully. You'll need to retry stages, and remember when and where enemies come from, to keep your chain going.
It's pointedly reminiscent of Bizarre's score-whore shooter The Club, forcing you to replay stages, memorise enemy placements and study moves and manoeuvres to better your ranking. By your fourth or fifth play-through, Rage mutates from a rather listless shooting gallery into a tense choreography of perfect reloads, knowing dodges and pinpoint skill shots. It's a riot.
Or it would be if the controls were just that little bit tighter. Or, perhaps, if the game was on another platform. Because no matter how hard developers try, the first-person shooter will never find a truly comfortable fit on iPhone. In touch-screen mode, your fleshy thumbs obscure the view and you're far too slow to successfully swing between targets and enemies. In tilt mode, you have to recalibrate the game every time you change seating positions. It's hardly the pick-up-and-play intuition of Angry Birds.
It's not that the genre is an impossible fit for the device – Gameloft has seen plenty of success with its Halo clone, NOVA – but the frustration is thoroughly exasperated by Rage's on-rails nature. Trying to reload, change weapons or dodge by slapping against random bits of glass is a pain when you're frozen to the spot and surrounded by killer chumps. And shooting a tiny bulls-eye target as the camera vigorously whips around the next corner sucks.
Plus, with only three levels, three guns and three types of enemies, Rage is lacking in content. Believe it or not, there's no huge difference between some rotting tenements, a grimy asylum and a putrid underground bunker. There are (currently) no leaderboards or achievements, and the options menu feels distinctly sparse, with no way to move the virtual buttons about or listen to your own music collection in-game.
It all comes off feeling reserved, rushed and slightly unfinished, tipping that balance away from legitimate game and towards tech demo or promotional toy. Sure, it looks incredible, from the lush, downtrodden environments to the creepy, feral animations of the mutants. It's probably worth the couple of quid just to show off how powerful your device is.
Had Rage been properly fleshed out, it might have really been something. Coming from John Carmack, it almost feels like Doom: Championship Edition – a tired old game that's been sped up and retrofitted with a tasty layer of meta-game, while instead of Pac-Man's dizzying rave theme, Rage goes for cheering crowds and bellowing commentary. It could have been a proud salute to the genre Carmack christened.
But it's not. It's a fun distraction on your mobile, giving you a few hours of entertainment to rack up a high score, finish all the stages, and gawp at the tremendous graphics. Like I said, worth a bob or two.
6 / 10
Rage is out now on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. It's 59p for older devices, and £1.19 for Rage HD if you want the high-resolution graphics on iPhone 4, the fourth generation iPod Touch and iPad.