Since 2004's DOOM 3 we've seen the likes of Half Life 2, Gears of War, and Modern Warfare stand up and take their place in gaming history. That's all very good and well, thank you very much, but it's a truth universally acknowledged that id Software will always know how to do the best video game shotguns.
It probably comes as no surprise to anybody that RAGE's boomstick is similar in heft and power to the ones seen in Quake and DOOM, the two-handed beast sneezing out great big wads of buckshot in impossibly wide arcs, with little to no reload required between blasts. The immense stopping power of the thing makes it effortless to put down packs of charging mutants, and if you're up against human foes you can just fire the thing a second time to get the job done. As far as virtual shotguns go, it really is a beautiful thing.
However, it's 2011 and id Software is not content with just making games that have excellent shotguns. Now the iconic studio wants to go and put out a new series set in a lah-dee-dah big open world, one that features an apocalypse-tinged narrative, a big cast of characters, and a multiplayer mode that has you racing weaponised buggies.
That's right, weaponised buggies.
The mode is called RAGE Combat Rally and it's a six-player affair (in various free for all and team-orientated guises) that mixes the studio's history in deathmatch with third-person vehicular racing. No, I'm really not making this up. The basic idea is that the lot of you rush towards random spots that light up on the map, scoring kills and being a complete meanie to other players on the way. Hit multiple goals in a row and you start racking up a multiplier, which can then be used to accrue those all-important points.
There are a few high concept features for the technical players. The next rally spot is always in the direction of the player who activates the previous one, for example, which effectively ups the tension of the chase; clever so-and-so's will throw pursuers off-kilter by hitting rally points at an angle with sharp handbrake turns.
Elsewhere there's a traditional system of perks, customisable loadouts, and upgrades for your precious buggy. This is thematically consistent with the single-player campaign, where you construct your vehicle out of scrap like rusty old pipes, ancient rocket launchers, and the odd discarded pie tray.
Right now the old Quake 3 Arena announcer is being used as a placeholder, complete with all his "you have lost the lead" resplendence, which casts my nostalgic mind all the way back to 1999 and reminds me how different RAGE Combat Rally is to id Software's traditional fare. This was the developer who put FPS deathmatch on the map, and this whizzed-up version of Combat Cars - albeit in one of the most technically accomplished and beautiful engines currently in existence - feels like a departure from what people were probably expecting.
Different doesn't automatically mean bad, of course, but my initial thoughts upon seeing Combat Rally for the first time was that it must have been an elaborate joke. Where was the proper mode, the one with the shotgun? id Software clearly wasn't lying when it said RAGE's multiplayer was going to different to DOOM and Quake.
I wasn't allowed to play Combat Rally for myself, though I was given the chance to take one of RAGE's buggies around the collapsed wastelands of the single-player world in a race event. The twitchy handling model mixed with high speeds and twisty corners took a little while to get used to, but with liberal usage of the boost button it was possible for me to finish top of the pack.
Elsewhere there's room for some more traditional online FPS corridor blasting, and people will be able to venture into RAGE's still surprisingly unknown world with a partner in the game's co-operative Legends of the Wasteland mode.
The game promises at least eight missions here, each tied into the fiction of the larger single player campaign. id Software demonstrated one - set in the hub town of Wellspring - and the two players smoothly weaved around each other to knock out a small army of charging bandits. The objective was to defuse a handful of bombs scattered around the town, with each deactivation resulting in a renewed enemy counterattack. At these junctures one player liked to run up to the second floor of a building and take potshots with the sniper rifle, leaving his buddy to fight off the same waves of enemies in a central courtyard. Wellspring's topology is dense and intimate, but it's also large and vertical, and each task seems to offer the kind of multiple routes and solutions ideal for co-operative play.
Like Combat Rally, Legends of the Wasteland was a hands-off presentation, though id Software did allow me to play through five cherry-picked areas designed to show off various facets of the single-player game. The problem with RAGE's massive scope, however, is that it's not at easy to appreciate the weight and spectacle of its big world in itty-bitty chunks.
The initial vignette had players driving across a chunk of the Wasteland - steel fences, dilapidated buildings, and fractured roads - to a dam facility in a bid to seek out some all-important parts for the buggy. The aesthetic inside the dam, alongside the staple amounts of apocalyptic destruction, is one of ceiling fans and road signs mounted indoors for unexplained reasons. Oh, and hordes of baddies.
Enemies, especially the little ones, tend to opt for running around rather than intermittently popping their heads out from behind stacks of chest-high boxes, so combat is a skittish, frenzied affair compared to the likes of most contemporary shooters. This is one of the many reasons why the shotgun is so frightfully useful, coupled with the high recoil and hazy iron sights kitted on the assault rifles.
Alongside your staple arsenal, with each weapon sporting an assortment of ammunitions, there's a limited deck of quick-use items, which range from a bladed boomerang to a deployable bomb-strapped RC car which can squirrel through vents and detonate precariously placed caches of explosives for amusing results - one of the five set-pieces revolved entirely around this.
Successful survival in the Wasteland will require rummaging through more tat than you'd see at a car boot sale. Dead bodies can be searched for bits and bobs, and there's enough items scattered over counters and boxes for you to occasionally resort to mindlessly jabbing the A button. Progression in the dam facility needed players to build little machines that would eat through locked doors, but constructing each one from scratch required you to have an electrical wire kit, a hardware packet, and some small gears in your inventory, making it very important for players to proactively scavenge when on their travels.
Elsewhere there's a chance to play through an episode of Mutant Bash TV to secure sponsorship for something that has yet to be been explained. It's a similar concept to the iPhone tie-in game, with you running a gauntlet and knocking down the bevy of mutants thrown in to mess up your day. You're marked on accuracy, kills and time, and during the five-stage arena you're popped into environments like a jungle gym (complete with a spinning death gorilla) and a bonus round in a so-called shipwreck cove.
Another single player environment, Dead City, shows one collapsed metropolis that hasn't been settled, with its jagged blocks of splintered concrete giving way to sickly vegetation. Everything in Dead City is claustrophobic, grey; an anaemic look washed out with an off-putting green twinge.
This fallen metropolis is the perfect home for a mutant infestation. Our club-swinging chums from earlier pour out of crevices and potholes as if they were expecting you, and as you head beneath ground level you counter an altogether gooier underbelly, with squelchy organic mulch and a nasty run-in with a mammoth, tendril-flailing nasty.
Piece the vignettes together and you start to get a taste of what the final product will be, but there's still a lot of content and context left to be seen ahead of RAGE's release in September. Oh, and I am probably legally required to throw in a bit about the graphics which are absolutely excellent and really do run at 60fps on 360. Okay? And, who knows, maybe there'll be an option to graft a couple of shotguns on the front of that buggy for Combat Rally.
RAGE is due for release on September 16 for 360, PS3, and PC.