Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Review: Rage HD (iPhone)

There must have been much excitement amongst fans when ID announced RAGE for the iPhone, even more when it was first demoed as an example of the versatility of the company’s Megatexture technology. The thought of having a lavishly grim and detailed mutant populated world in which to roam around in must have been as alluring as it was too good to be true. And indeed it is, because anyone at least half expecting an open world, or even a closed off, linear FPS experience on Apple’s portable powerhouse will be disappointed. Because RAGE in this guise, is absolutely nothing like that at all.

In many ways RAGE plays upon the strength of the iPhone in delivering a short but entertaining excursion into the low down and dirty wasteland contained within, using the device’s trademark touch screen for simple control and a journey that barely kicks off, to keep things from getting too repetitive before the end is reached. It is you could say, the antithesis of what to expect iPhone gaming to be all about, having more in common with Sega’s HotD series of lightgun games than the title’s own console bigger brother.

Even compared to basic, twenty year old shooters like Doom or Wolfenstein, RAGE is pretty simple. It’s meant to be. It’s something you can pop into and play for a few minutes, before trying again to beat it a few hours later. So, the game follows the tried and tested blueprint found in on-rails shooters pretty closely, with a dashing of FPS targeting for your pleasure. You are automatically moved around the environment via the game’s camera, while control of a cursor allows you to aim and shoot enemies as you are tightly directed to the next location.

There are only a handful of levels to work through, along with the same number of mutated enemies in which to kill, and three weapons to use (pistol, AK-47, and a shotgun). The difference comes into play with the ability to doge incoming attacks, and being able to control the outcome of your reloads with a reload bar of sorts, which allows you to rack up extra damage if you manage to get the icon in the sweet spot indicated on screen. It’s like Gears in this regard.

The sheer simplicity of it all however, is given a noticeable amount of depth with the reload system at hand. You’ve only got a limited number of shots before having to reload again, and timing in this regard, to score the best combo, thus dealing the maximum amount of damage per shot, is essential. Since there is no way of making a last ditch melee attack from the late bumrush of foes you can encounter (dodging isn’t always an option this late in the game) knowing when to shoot, where to shoot, and how to reload with efficiency, all plays a significant part in expanding the overly simple experience as a whole.

Another, is the game’s cleansweep style bonus system, whereby if you manage to get through an entire stage without getting hit, your points score dramatically grows in size. The more kills you make without getting hit, the bigger the bonus paid out at the end. And this scoring system is backed up by the ability to gain even more extra points by shooting down the many flip-up target boards that appear throughout each stage.

While at first all these layered elements to gameplay may in fact be beneficial, the game’s controls simply don’t do them justice. Perhaps if RAGE was simply a HotD clone, where all you do is tap on the enemies to kill them, then maybe things would feel a touch smoother, making you feel like you had more control over your actions.

Alas this isn’t the case. Doing everything the game asks of you whilst the camera is moving, while you are attempting to balance out dodging and reloading before making that last ditch precision shot, can often be quite difficult. Use of the touch screen controls often means that your thumbs can obscure vital parts of the screen. And during times where the camera is quickly moving to the next location - while you are still aiming at things - response times can feel sluggish, and the method of input, inadequate for the task at hand.

But of course, this isn’t so much a flaw with the game itself - more the iPhone, which clearly wasn’t made for these kinds of faster-paced action titles. But then again, maybe id’s decision to toe the line between basic on-rails shooter and HotD clone wasn’t the best choice given the medium it occupies.

Instead, I found it far easier to use the iPhone’s tilt functionality in order to aim around the screen, rather than rubbing my finger all over it in order to target my foes. Playing RAGE this way allows it to feel far more like a responsive on-rails FPS, with headshots being more down to skill rather than a spot of clumsily controlled luck. The downside, of course, is the fact that moving the iPhone around means that your view of the screen is constantly changing. And this isn’t such a good thing. However, controlling the game via the tilt mechanism is a far better option than using the touch screen.

Control quirks aside, RAGE was made to impress with its potential graphical prowess. And in this regard the game excels beautifully, looking very much like it belongs on Nintendo’s upcoming 3DS than it does on you fancy mobile communications device.

Here, Carmack and co showcase some nicely detailed environments, with bump-mapped enemies and impressively baked shadow routines. Compared to Epic Citadel, RAGE may not throw around quite as many basic shader effects (it is in fact fixed function). But then again, it has multiple characters on screen. And however simple it appears to be, feels more like an actual game than just a fancy tech demonstration.

It is a shame then, that the experience doesn’t last quite as long as it should have done. RAGE is only a paltry three levels long, with little else to do once the game has been completed. There is literally nothing to hold your attention outside of replaying the same stuff over and over again, even if it does look mightily impressive for a handheld game.

However, this stubbornness to exceed anything other than the size of a beautifully created, but obviously short tech demo, is exactly the philosophy that several games on Apple’s life conquering device follow to the letter. And with great success I might add. Where RAGE begins to fail though, is with the lack of any online support at all. While many other iPhone games rely on similarly short and constantly replayable bitesize chunks of fun, they make up for it with online leaderboards and other such features, which often pitch players off against each other in getting the highest score and the best ranking.

With the iPhone version of RAGE, id software seems to have come up with a great idea, but without having the real drive to do anything other than the basic, barebones treatment with it. RAGE works as a series of short, subtly deep experiences, with lovely graphics to boot. But doesn’t manage to free itself from being anything but a testing ground for something bigger in the future.

That said, at only 59p for the SD version, and £1.19 for the superior HD edition – which works on the older 3GS model, but with inferior performance – it doesn’t need anything else to offer considerably value for money.

And that’s the point many seem to be missing. Not only is RAGE cheaper than a cup of coffee – it’s like half the price – it’s also cheaper than most things you can buy. So in that sense, for a game, it is well worth the asking price, even if what we have here really is just an interesting, entertaining, albeit expanded technological demonstration of what the iPhone can do.


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