Version tested Xbox 360
Once upon a time, the arrival of a new id Software game was like staring into the future. These guys invented the first-person shooter, instituted shareware, legitimised mature content, brought us the first real 3D worlds, and obliged the industry to embrace graphics acceleration against its conservative instincts, catapulting in-game visuals forward by a generation. Every game offered a revolutionary breakthrough that fundamentally altered your expectations forever.
These days, you just don't get individual games pushing things forward like that. Instead you get shared gradual progress across a number of releases, so we see experience systems evolving in RPGs before they break into other genres and eventually help Call of Duty to conquer the world online, and everyone stands on each other's shoulders and learns together. The difference with classic id Software games was that we didn't get to see all that working in-between - you'd just wake up one morning and someone had invented deathmatch.
Now that games have been disarmed of their ability to change the world overnight, then, Rage may be the first id Software title to be judged purely on the merits of game design and content, and in many respects it more than meets the challenge.
It's a first-person shooter set 106 years after a world-shattering meteor strike. You're an Ark survivor - a hardy chap pumped full of nanomachines who slept through the carnage in a subterranean hamster ball - but don't worry too much about the details. id Software's John Carmack once likened stories in games to stories in porn, and a lot of the time in Rage you feel like you're waiting for the TV repair man with the mullet to get down to business. There's a big conspiracy involving the oppressive Authority who rule over the wasteland, but there's nothing to latch onto in the writing.
That's not to say that Rage lacks heart though, because this is a game full of character, most of which can be found in its corridor combat against mutants, bandits and Authority goons. The weapons at your disposal are familiar but they're all wonderful, so the shotgun hits like a wrecking ball, the sniper rifle is a long-distance sledgehammer, and the first time you get a rocket launcher is an event.
Each weapon is then transformed by superb ammo types. Most games teach you to regard alternate ammo like wedding china - stupidly expensive and never to be used - but Rage wants you to experiment. You soon earn enough cash to stuff pop rockets into your shotgun to make a grenade launcher out of it, frazzle shields with electrified crossbow bolts, and smash through armour with killbursts - pistol ammo that fires six rounds at once. Everything has a purpose and nothing falls flat.
Not content with that, your bottomless inventory is soon home to a MacGuyver's bounty of homemade off-hand weaponry, engineered from recipes using shiny objects looted from every nook and cranny of the wasteland. The standout is undoubtedly the wing stick - a three-bladed boomerang that decapitates your enemies and often returns to your hand afterward - but there's also much to be said for the spider bot, the sentry turret and the RC bomb car, among others.
Enemy AI is functional - its function is to shoot you a bit and present a target without doing anything too clever - and it suits Rage because this is a game where your weapon and inventory radials are always overflowing with things you actually want to use, and it's more fun thinking about how to kill next than whether you're being flanked. One minute you're headshotting enemies from miles away with your sniper scope, the next you're blowing their legs out with buckshot, and later on you might switch to pop rockets and wing sticks and cruise around gorily vaporising and decapitating people for a bit of refreshment.
These encounters usually take place in slick, linear environments that ferry you through carefully arranged arenas before cunningly depositing you back at the start once you've reached your objective, but outside their confines you're free to explore the wasteland in a range of buggies and cars you earn in the hub towns. Rage's isn't quite an open world - it's more like a series of linear FPS levels and fetch-quest locations scattered around dusty highways - but it's a convincing and likeable place.
Nor is it quite as impactful as the wizardry of those first 3D steps into Quake, but id's programmers can still dust off their robes and pointy hats to take a bow for Rage's megatexture technology, because it allows their colleagues to paint miles of landscape with unkempt vegetation, sandy escarpments, smashed masonry, rusting cars, arcane symbols and broken bodies without ever repeating themselves.