An ominous clanking heralds the arrival of a heavy Gearhead thug - a muscular villain in industrial metal armour. If you've seen Iron Man, he looks a bit like Robert Downey Jr's first prototype, only without the goatee or the pervasive air of smugness. Also, this guy has a minigun and a Russian accent that could happily join the cast of 'Allo 'Allo.
Here's a dangerous chap, but here's the thing: you've just thrown a live grenade at his feet. The force of the blast causes him to stagger back, and as he rights himself he brings his head neatly into your crosshair. You're rocking a revolver packed with high calibre Fat Mamma rounds: the first shot blows his mask away, revealing a pair of furious eyes, while the second blows his head clean off. The man's body remains standing for a moment, blood spurting from the freshly-ventilated neck. And then he falls.
Right from the start, it's clear that Rage wants to impress you. The game kicks off with a glossy intro that condenses a meteorite-based apocalypse into 90 seconds of expensive CGI, effortlessly surpassing all 151 minutes of Michael Bay's 1998 crapfest, Armageddon. You assume control of the anonymous hero, and almost immediately you're treated to one of those Bethesda "step outside" moments as you leave the Ark that's been keeping you on ice for 100 years or so. After Oblivion and Fallout 3 you may feel that you've had your fill of dramatically-revealed vistas, but there's every chance you'll gawk all over again here; the overworld in Rage is more or less a single giant texture that loads as you move across it, and the end result is an open wasteland of almost breathtaking detail.
Moments after your emergence, you'll find yourself sitting in a dune buggy as you bounce across the Mad Max 2 ruins of civilisation. And the chap behind the wheel? Why it's John Goodman. Well, it's his voice at any rate; in Rage's backstory, big John probably got squished by the space rock.
In short, Rage has no qualms about flaunting its triple-A status - and it has lofty ambitions to go with its shiny shoes. With Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, id Software pioneered the modern FPS, and so naturally Rage places a heavy emphasis on bloody, head-popping gunplay. But Rage also wants to be an RPG-lite of sorts, encompassing an open world structure, vehicular combat, and side quests by the dozen.
In the former category at least, id's efforts are close to impeccable. While Rage largely restricts itself to claustrophobic internal environments, the actual battles are rarely anything less than thrilling, with foes that appear to be as smart as they are nimble. The more acrobatic opponents will climb the scenery, dive into rolls, and even wall-run in their efforts to evade your roaming aim. Successfully batter a few gun-toting bandits, and their surviving companions will retreat to join other allies. If you're the one who decides to turn and flee, they'll advance to stronger tactical positions, or else toss out grenades to blast you from afar. As far as corridor shooters go - and I say that to avoid the wrath of Halo fans - Rage boasts some of the smartest enemy AI since Half-Life 2.
When these nasties get the better of you, id finds a way to innovate. There's a recharging health mechanic in place, but if you succumb to enemy fire you'll enter a brief mini-game that lets you resuscitate yourself with a defibrillator. It feels gimmicky at first, but as time wears on you'll appreciate its role in proceedings: you feel a bit silly when you have to use it, as invariably this means you screwed up somehow, but it allows you to carry on. It's a way of punishing the player without driving them back to their last save, and while it's a powerful tool, you're limited in its use. Despite its initial appearance, it's a rather clever idea.
Weapon selection is also handled with care. While your arsenal mainly consists of the genre's usual suspects, most of your guns can use alternative ammo that greatly broadens their utility. The shotgun can fire explosives, transforming it into a grenade launcher at a moment's notice, while another late-game toy (I won't spoil the fun by saying what) can take crowd-splattering BFG rounds - one of many nods to id's back catalogue. Most memorably of all, the otherwise-fiddly crossbow can be kitted out with Mind Control rounds, allowing you to assume brief control of your attackers. I say "brief", because they explode after a short interval - ideally after you've just staggered them into their mates.
These alternative ammo types can be manufactured by combining bits of junk that you find lying around, and the same trick also lets you make other tools that can lend you an edge in combat: sentry turrets, spider-like robots, and remote control cars that explode on command. Most useful of all are the Wingsticks, three-pronged boomerangs that will save your life in a pinch. Use one of these to decapitate an incoming enemy, and his headless body will dash on until it loses momentum, or crashes into a wall. The animation here really is top of the line, and genuinely adds to your murderous enjoyment. The same can be said of the constant 60FPS framerate - the kind of treat that's usually reserved for PC gamers these days.
So yes, Rage's combat is sublime. The problem is, the other aspects of the game struggle to meet its exceptional standards. This shortfall is most immediately evident in the first vehicle you drive - an ATV that feels like it's been culled from a different, far cheaper game. It's responsive enough in its controls, but the vehicle feels far too light, with virtually no sense of force when you brake into a sudden stop. The subsequent vehicles are better, but while the game attempts to cheer things up with spontaneous challenges, Rage on wheels is never as much fun as Rage on foot. There's a decent spread of weapons and defensive ploys you can buy to kit out your car, but compared to the majesty of the core shooting, it feels thin. Enemies respawn every time you leave a hub or dungeon, and you'll soon tire of the repeated circle-and-blast tactics that define car combat at every stage of the game.
If you want to tinker with your car's engine and frame, you'll need to enter one of the many race events that are available in the game's two major hubs. There's a surprisingly large selection of time trials and races with or without weapons, but again, the action rarely feels anything more than merely competent. And that's fine, to an extent: for a mini-game or momentary diversion, the racing is alright. In all honesty, however, you'll want to get back to the action as soon as possible.
Apart from the racing there's a vast selection of other diversions to try: a card-based battling game, courier missions, and even Five Finger Fillet - that knife-between-the-fingers thing Bishop does in Aliens (if your school was posh enough that you had to own a compass, you probably did this a few times in maths class). These sideshows are all executed with a good deal of care, but none - with the possible exception of the duelling banjos game in the second hub - is fun enough to play for the sake of pure enjoyment. Winning these games only ever provides you with extra cash, and since your pockets are invariably full, there's little reason to visit them.
You see, the other problem Rage has is that its RPG-esque elements don't really work. It feels like there should be a levelling system of some kind, but there isn't. A couple of hours in you'll be offered a choice of suits to wear, with each conferring some kind of small perk, but that's all it is - a one-off bonus that gives you a shopping discount, or boosts your toughness or manufacturing skills. It's the faintest trace of a class system, so slight as to be almost negligible. Ultimately, for all their detail and mini-games, Rage's hubs just feel like they're delaying you from your next slice of heavenly headshots.
The plot takes itself seriously, and yet there's never enough of it to make you care, nor do you ever grow attached to any of the world's NPCs; their appearance is meticulous, and yet they never do anything more than cough up a line or two of quest briefing. The thrill of hearing John Goodman's voice quickly dissipates when you realise that he's little more than a signpost, commanding you to go to point A and back again. The latter represents the briefing for 90 per cent of the missions, and while this is also true for most games of this ilk, little effort is made to hide the basic repetition.
You see, id's wasteland looks incredible, but it's not particularly large. Unlike the playgrounds of Borderlands and Bethesda's Fallout games, there's no sprawl to Rage's world. One early mission finds a village elder asking you to check on a local who's gone missing at the local radio post, which turns out to be exactly five minutes walk down the road. From bandit hideouts to fascist military bases to friendly outposts, everyone lives right on top of each other. Given that the civilisation has collapsed, you'd think there'd be more real estate up for grabs.
It's almost impossible to wonder off the beaten track, and there's little to no reward for exploration. Ultimately, I suspect that that this is the reason why there's no overall map of the world - because you'd see how absurdly tiny it is. While we're on the subject of omissions, it's also curious that the developers have neglected to include any form waypoint maker - an oversight that occasionally result in you getting lost on some of the more warren-like maps. The lack of a proper checkpointing system is another annoyance: you can save manually, but thanks to the temporary safety net of Defibrillator, you'll frequently forget to do so. Die before your Defib has recharged, and it's back to the last save you go - however far distant that may be.
But oh, the shooting. Rage has its shortcomings, but as soon as you get into another protracted gunfight, you forget all about them. There's a genuine thrill that greets you when you leave you car, put the open world behind you, and enter one of the game's many dungeons. There are three or four levels in Rage that rank as some of the most joyful FPS encounters I've had in recent memory. Each bandit clan has its own distinct flavour that colours both the way they look and the way they fight; the game's fleet-footed mutants offer less diversity, and yet somehow you'll never tire of silencing their guttural squawks with round after round of shotgun fire.
It took me about 14 hours to blow through the campaign, and while the ending wasn't the explosive finale I wanted, I'll certainly be coming back for a second helping at some point. The single-player story is clearly the meat of the package, but there's also two-player co-op that arrives in the form nine co-op missions, which can played online or via split-screen. True multiplayer is entirely restricted to vehicles, with a set of arena-based matches that find you racing to collect fallen meteorites while battering your opponents. I've not had a chance to check this out yet due to the usual hassles with pre-release multiplayer, but by now my feelings on Rage's vehicles should be fairly clear. It's a deep shame that there's nothing in the way of true deathmatch - id invented the term, after all - but there we go. Perhaps we'll get one in the sequel.
Rage is coming out at a difficult time of year, but even if you've got your heart set on the two FPS behemoths coming out in the next four weeks, this really isn't a game to be overlooked - especially if you're a console gamer. It's easily one of the best-looking titles available for the Xbox 360, and while PS3 owners already have Killzone 3 as their graphical heavyweight, this is infinitely more enjoyable. Rage is a technical powerhouse, and if you can overlook the bits that don't quite work, you'll find one of the most exciting shooters we've had in years.