"The best way to get your mind around RAGE is to play it for a few hours," says id Software's creative director Tim Willits, mere moments before I'm given the chance to run around unsupervised in its campaign for two and a half hours.
The last time the game was shown, in March, was a brief run-through of five different segments of the game - a nice technical showcase of all the different facets of RAGE, perhaps, but not a splendid way to show you how the game stands as a whole.
The 15-20 hour campaign starts 106 years after asteroid 99942 Apophis collides with Earth - via a lavish CGI introduction - with your character waking up from cryogenic slumber. Step out of your Apple-esque surroundings, the pristine sleekness marred somewhat by the fact that all your fellow pod-buddies are dead and rotting, and you're immediately attacked by mutants.
I don't need to point out that RAGE looks fantastic, but your first real introduction to its wasteland comes from the passenger seat of local hero Dan Hagar's buggy, voiced by John Goodman, and he's definitely taking the scenic route. When was the last time a game opened with a good vehicle ride? It was everywhere after Half-Life did it in 1998, then it sort of fizzled out in that era where the first thing you do in a game is look up and down to set your Y-axis - though RAGE still has that, of course. I mean, it's 2011. You need that bit. It's basically the law.
It's not long before you're darting around as Hagar's super-powered errand boy, steeping yourself in the established RPG formula of accepting and undertaking various quests. Collect this, deliver that, kill all of these - RAGE definitely has all of this in abundance. Your reward for doing so? Loot, of course.
RAGE, as has been detailed before, straddles a middle-ground between shooter and RPG. Much of its post-apocalyptic world can be scavenged (there are no encumbrance limits) and put to good use. Equipment, including buffs and ammunition, can be constructed from component parts once you've obtained blueprints, and powerful secondary ammunition types, which range from explosive rounds to mind-control crossbow bolts, can be built and foraged.
You don't get to experience much of that at the start, as you're armed with little more than a pistol with some boring regular ammunition, but within a few hours you'll be packing a shotgun and an assault rifle alongside your trusty six-shooter - now loaded with super powerful FatBoy rounds.
Combat encourages you to utilize your full arsenal, though at the start of the game most enemies simply run at you and indiscriminately suck up any and all bullets. Towards the end of my two-hour session I was up against more intelligent foes, some of whom carried energy shields that needed to be deactivated with EMP grenades.
There's a nice rhythm in cycling through your guns and ammo, and you're able to easily flick between these on a controller by holding down the trigger buttons. The system definitely makes a nice change from the typical FPS mould of having two weapons and so much ammunition you never need to worry.
Health slowly regenerates, and there are consumable healing items, but take too much damage and you'll initiate a defibrillation mini-game - your heart has a fancy computer attached to it, and using a two-step process it massages the vital organ and then shocks it back to life. It'll take a few minutes to recharge after each use, so if you die again you'll have to load the nearest checkpoint.
Back with Hagar, your first task is to clear out a pack of bandits from a nearby ruined hotel, and you're allowed to borrow an ATV for the task. Driving seems slightly more tuned and responsive from when I last played the game; that or the handling model of the ATV is easier to get to grips with than your customisable buggy, which is unlocked a couple of hours into the game.
The hotel is stocked with the Ghost clan, and they like to contort themselves to manoeuvre the environment - hanging off beams, leaping over cover, and darting out of the way. I'd love to see what the faction's entrance criteria are. They're a bit creepy, but they fall down after you blast them with a few bullets. I generally found myself firing off a couple more than required for good measure.
Whereas the outside sprawl is big enough to be daunting - criticism of id Tech 4's inability to render large outside areas clearly hit a nerve with the Texan developer - the inside of the hotel, and many of RAGE's indoor zones, will be immediately familiar to anyone who remembered skulking through DOOM's corridors all the way back in 1993.
A few more quests later - realigning a radio tower, warning nearby camps of mutants, working with the Outrigger settlement to provide the Hagar camp with some much-needed supplies, plundering a garage, destroying a barricade - and your time with Hagar comes to an end.
What follows is a journey to Wellspring, a dense, complex town riddled with its own problems, and the beginning of RAGE's second chapter. That, sadly, will have to wait until October.
RAGE is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on October 7 2011.