Nobody outside the developer (and perhaps John "Hardcore" Riccitiello) has played it yet, but we do know a fair amount about Rage - id Software's next big game and its first completely new property for a while, which is in full production and probably on track for release in late 2009 or early 2010.
We know it's a first-person action game with driving elements, for example, and lead designer Tim Willits makes the FPS part a point of emphasis. "That's really our key message," he tells Eurogamer away from the bustle of QuakeCon's gigantic LAN party. "One website had it listed as a vehicle-based combat game, but that's not what it is. [Driving is] a component of the game, but it's not that kind of game."
We also know that it's an open world, but it's not quite an openworld game. What that means is that there's stuff to do off the beaten track, but there's always a sense of direction. John Carmack, id's programming heartbeat, describes it as "cocooned-in-a-bubble-of-entertainment type gameplay". Concessions are things like RPG-style quest-giving in the main town area (seen in the latest trailer) and character progression.
And while Willits and company are adamant that it's not a racing game, or even a vehicular combat game, those elements are certainly key to its appeal. "We're not trying to remake Twisted Metal or make a better version of Ridge Racer. We really want to keep this as a first-person game. The elements of vehicle combat and racing help build on the foundations of that first-person action game," he says.
With elements analogous to RPGs, though, it's perhaps better to think of your car as your mount - with racing and vehicle combat contributing to that variety of gameplay ideas. "Your vehicle is an extension of your first-person avatar," Willits confirms. The QuakeCon trailer shows a chap in town on a soapbox challenging people to races across "the dusty 8". "Because of the way the world is built and the design structure of the world, if there's a fun kind of gameplay element we want to explore we can make an area for that," says Willits.
We also know a bit about the world into which you're thrust. A product of an apocalyptic event involving a comet (you may remember it's based on a real one, which is due to pass close to the Earth in 2029), it's a dusty future fought over by various factions. "We have bandit factions, we have mutant factions, we have settler factions, and there's another type of controlling force that I won't talk about now," Willits says. You've seen a few of them in the trailers and in the screenshots on these pages. We're told to expect a classic fight between good and evil.
What we see of the world in trailers and shots is huge canyon vistas, and buildings and technology cobbled together from corrugated iron, the husks of old buses and scrap. Steampunk eyepieces, salad-bowl hats and dust goggles are the height of fashion-by-necessity. We ask how the game begins. "Well, you don't start in a little room walking down a hallway!"
We haven't seen you yet, come to that. You're an outsider, according to Willits ("a Buck Rogers type of person," he told us last summer), but whether you're part of the rags and cracked-glass massive remains to be established. But we have seen the sort of vehicles you'll drive: skeletal dune buggies reminiscent of Smuggler's Run or MotorStorm and patched up with weapons, skating rough-and-tumble across the dust and sand, smashing through decaying billboards and the legs of observation towers.
That feeling of being cobbled together seems to extend throughout. Id games typically treat weapons and armour like scattered hypodermics to top up your high, but Rage is a different regimen. We understand you'll have inventory and weapon-augmentation options, but these will apply to new inventions. Your nailguns and railguns are out.
"We want to try to do something new," Willits says, pointing out that id can do its BFG thing with Doom 4. "There are customisable components to some of the weapons - weapon and ammo types - and there are things that you can do to your weapons, but it all revolves around what that weapon brings to the combat. We don't want to put a weapon in for the sake of it."
It's also an id game, so it will be unpretentious and direct. "Matt Hooper - he's kind of my partner in crime on this - and I hate playing videogames where you get an objective and you have no idea what to do," says Willits. "We want to know where we need to go, who we need to talk to, what we need to find and bring back.
"So yes, you will have a classic videogame interface where you know where you're going, where you have a map with a dot on it. People want the potential to explore and do things at their own pace, but they also want to know what's going on." So if we're playing Rage and we're given objectives, we can go off and explore, and later rely on the interface to bring us back to task. "Absolutely."
"We really want Rage to be more approachable and accessible than even Doom 3 was. We want to ramp it up for the hardcore but keep it accessible to the novice," Willits elaborates. Carmack will add to this later: "It's going to be balanced so that we never want to frustrate the player, you never want to make them do something where they're upset, pissed off at the game, whatever, which fundamentally means that you can't challenge them too much because there's a big trade-off there."
Not that they're illustrating that with too many examples. Asked for details on specific missions, Willits demurs. "We don't want to dig too far into the game because we have quite a while before it comes out," he says. But he goes a bit further. "We're not going to be forced and limited into this linear, same thing over and over again structure. We know that players are very ADD these days!"
There's almost no discussion of the control layer, either (except to say "360 is our primary target" in terms of input), but with id games you can probably take some of it for granted. It will feel like a great FPS game: a mixture of player-guided precision and fantastical possibilities; responsive and probably inhumanly fast to manoeuvre through. Willits confirms "the game will be tweaked and adjusted for the keyboard and mouse", which, as Carmack said last week, remains the best option for FPS. PS3 offers keyboard and mouse support, of course, but Willits says he's not sure whether that will make it into Rage.
Elsewhere, oddly for id, there's more discussion of what won't be happening with Rage multiplayer than what will. The co-operative elements outlined last year remain in place: a separate, fun-first two-player co-operative mode (with split-screen options on console), which unlocks rewards that feed into the single-player.
But competitive multiplayer is up in the air. "We haven't quite nailed down exactly what we want to deal with that aspect of Rage," says Willits. "John has some ideas, I have some ideas, but to be honest we haven't really worked through that very much." For Carmack's part, he says Rage won't take the structured, persistent, stat and leaderboard-heavy approach of games like Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3.
But to come back to what we do know, we do know about the technology. The levels of detail thrown about by the id Tech 5 engine on PS3, 360 and PC will be equivalent - and locked at 60 frames-per-second, everyone insists. The engine does something called virtualising textures, which through Carmack-architected voodoo allows the artists to disregard traditional texture-memory boundaries and keep piling on detail throughout - as evidently they have done.
Then again, id's fans expect the games to look great and handle comfortably. It's one of the reasons we're talking to Willits and Carmack about Rage a couple of rooms away from 5,000 adoring fans. What makes Rage interesting - and worth flying into Dallas' 40-degree heat to check up on - is that a lot of it is outside id's comfort zone. A relatively open world, driving elements, RPG-style progression, questing. After two years of trailers and extensive interrogation, we can only guess whether or not it will work out in the end.
What we do know, though, is that it certainly wasn't a boring option. "When it's fun and when it's done," says Willits in answer to the obvious closing question.
Rage is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. We'll know when as soon as they do, we suspect.