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The id, The Ego and the Megatexture

July 13, 2012

And by "better", I clearly mean "worse".

Rage vs. My Machine.

It was an attempt.

So. I bought Rage. And now I have a question.

But we’ll get to that later. Because, look: as tempting as it is to write a conveniently angry blog for the sake of punning on the game’s name, I’m not all that mad. I went into it knowing the dangers. Rage’s PC launch was famously catastrophic. While the game promised outstanding graphics thanks to a spangly and revolutionary new technique known as “Megatextures”, there was texture pop-in whenever you do so much as move the mouse slightly. Framerates were disastrous. It was a PC game that, pre-patching, all but refused to work for the 35% of gamers using ATI cards (since it’s a Steamworks game, I’m quite comfortable using the Steam Hardware survey for that number) – an enormous, slapstick pratfall that was quickly and unconvincingly blamed on a faulty Catalyst driver, despite the fact that the game was hardly a resounding technical triumph on Nvidia cards either. Some of this had been fixed since launch. Most of it had not. So it wasn’t just a resolute and insoluble miserliness that made me wait until the game was dirt cheap before handing over my money; I considered Rage a wrecked car I’d have to put work into before it was worth a single damn.

And, I mean, I was right. With my Radeon 5870, 6GB RAM and i7 920 processor running it at near full-whack (which was good enough for the far more impressive Witcher 2), I’m getting – at best – stuttering and screen tear. At worst, I’m getting sub-20 frames per second. So yeah, I’d be really happy to call it the  prettiest complete goddamn technical foul-up PC gaming has seen in quite some time.

Only, it’s unfathomably ugly.

This isn’t a dedication to shiny graphics talking here, either. Lo-fi can be good too. (I am, for example, enormously excited about games like Gunpoint and Sir, You Are Being Hunted, which look amazing in their own right.) But Rage isn’t lo-fi, at least not as a design choice. Go on, click that link up above there. That’s either the ugliest set of textures an id Software game has seen since maybe Quake 2, or a set of textures from the third worst engine of 2001. (Hint: it’s not the second thing.) And these ass-ugly textures are constantly butting up against the admittedly super-impressive character and gun models, and the astonishing enormo-vistas the game presents. Whatever arcane computer wizardry Carmack magicked up to make Megatextures a Thing, it clearly meant id had to cut corners elsewhere – hell, almost every elsewhere – to accommodate it.

Remember everything Wellspring can bring. (Pop-in, ugly-ass textures, &c.)

Which means that Rage isn’t anywhere near being 2011’s Graphics King (that would be the aforementioned Witcher 2), perhaps the first time since Doom 2 an id game hasn’t been a huge graphical step ahead of its competitors. Which is fine, because the gunplay is so much fun. Right?  Enemies that move gracefully around the terrain and react satisfyingly violently to being shot in the face; shotguns that feel and sound as chunky as they look; a range of ammo types beaten only by the (hello, can of worms, let’s have a look inside here…) AWFUL Borderlands.

Except.

Except.

Except because of the technical issues – the jerky, unstable framerates, the minute but regular pauses as the game constantly loads and reloads textures, the burning sensation as my eyes are constantly travelling a decade back in time – the gunplay never feels truly responsive. Which means that for pure shootery thrills, games like Serious Sam 3, Far Cry 2, STALKER, and even Wolfenstein 3D (now in handy browser form) still feel superior to these decreasingly dexterous hands. Which is kinda sad.

But not the end of the world. I paid €4.80 for this game. I’ve wrung enough enjoyment out of the 8 hours I’ve put into it (thus far – I’m sure I’ll return to it) to feel like it was a worthwhile purchase. It was probably worth it just to sate my curiosity about whether it could truly be as huge a technical cock-up as everyone said.

But I’m left with a nagging question. And that question is this question.

Are id completely obsolete to PC gamers?

Actually, this shot reminds me that Rage's aesthetic can get pretty confused.

Historically, their games have been the most beautiful on the platform (arguable in Doom 3’s case, but roll with this). That’s no longer even remotely the case – even glorified Source mod E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy is more consistently good-looking than Rage, even if it never even distantly approaches Rage’s high notes, and games like The Witcher 2, Hard Reset and Just Cause 2 far outstrip it in terms of sheer graphical prowess. The trade-offs made in the name of Megatextures innovated id’s game right out of contention.

Historically, id games have had the most satisfying shootery. As discussed, not no more. (Although I’m sure it’d be more of a horse race if their game ran properly. Road not taken, &c.) And their tentative, hesitant steps into quasi-RPG territory don’t do much to make up the difference.

Historically, every new id Tech iteration has at least powered some of the best third-party FPSes of its generation (again, not quite true for Doom 3’s id Tech 4, but ooh, look, over there! A distraction!) Rage’s id Tech 5, on the other hand, won’t be licensed to anyone outside the Zenimax umbrella. Which only further seals the deal on Epic’s Unreal engine’s already almost-complete ubiquity.

I don’t know what’s left, beyond further, wholly new disappointments, such as Tim Willits’ declaration of support for Diablo 3’s always-on connection (admittedly, a declaration made long before D3’s launch fiasco made Rage’s look positively successful, so perhaps he feels differently in the wake of that), or id’s announcement that PC wouldn’t be their lead platform going forward (I’ve tip-toed around saying it, but let’s be forthright – if Rage wasn’t hamstrung by being optimised for seven-year-old tech, it’d probably be a healthier beast.)

A PC gaming environment without id at least partly trailblazing the way forward seems like an odd and sad idea, but maybe it was inevitable that John Carmack would get a little bit bored with designing new and exciting ways of drawing imaginary men. After all, the guy builds rockets in his spare time. And if Rage is the end product of a console-focused id Software, then at least I can throw the €4.80 I don’t spend on their next game in the direction of Paradox or CD Projekt.

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