As I installed Rage again for the first time in years, I did so with a full-fledged review in mind; a big AAA game set in a gritty wasteland toting stellar visuals through an equally stellar engine feels worthy of my time, both the playing of it and the critiquing. As it installed, I pondered back on what I actually remembered about the game, jumping between my own experience with it and also what the general perception seemed to be. When I was younger, tech demos were of course a thing, but Rage was one the first games I remember hearing people actively label it as such, presumably in a derogatory manner given the frequent “glorified” descriptor. My own experience is fairly limited, but I do remember playing it on a couple of occasions, both times dropping it after a few hours, but I couldn’t remember exactly why. Perhaps because I too thought it was a glorified tech demo. On closer inspection with a full roughly ten hour play through, I do, in fact, surmise that it is a glorified tech demo, a boring slog of a game that closely escapes the full arse-whooping of a full review through virtue of being so painfully trite that I couldn’t stand to write about it for longer than 15 minutes.
Rage’s world is completely uninspired. Barren deserts surround isolated communities forged out of scrap metal and blood, lunatics run (and drive) wild, sent into madness by the complete lack of civilisation and essential amenities – or perhaps by just how unimaginative the world they reside in – and it’s your job to save the world or something. Rage was built on “id Tech 5” and it uses that technology to create incredibly polished and high fidelity textures. From the sandy dunes in the “open” world to the hair and furrowed brows on character faces, Rage looks, from a technological standpoint, stunning, especially when you consider the game is now over 10 years old. As I explored in my Dante’s Inferno review, games of this time period often appeared blurry and muddy, and while Dante’s Inferno escaped that with an imaginative world, Rage only partly does that through sheer brute force with a general sense of “high definition”. Of course playing this on PC helps, but id Tech 5 is just like that. Games like Wolfenstein: The New Order and Dishonored also get style points simply for looking so clean and shiny. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s all wasted , as the aforementioned aesthetic is all that really matters at the end of the day, and while it’s not “muddy” in a texture sense, it sure is thematically, employing colours only a colour-blind heathen could find attractive. Browns and murky yellows run amok and Rage’s perpetual hideousness doesn’t just stop at the colour palette. Architecture and the culture that dominates the world is just dull. The whole rickety, cobbled-together infrastructure has been done to death at this point, and even before this game came out games like Borderlands and Fallout 3 were doing it far, far better.
This air of banality translates to the story and world building too, as even if, for example, the landmarks in the game weren’t overdone, good backstory and interesting characters that live in them would have given them life. No no no. The writing in Rage is perhaps the biggest contributor to the notion that it’s merely a tech demo, as it feels so half-arsed that I was almost in disbelief that they dared release it in this state. In all, you can complete Rage in around 10 hours. You could knock a few hours off that total too if you don’t fanny around like I did, digging deeper into the games side content yearning for enjoyable, fresh missions and activities. Alas, Rage has none however, as it sends you swiftly from character to character, telling a rudimentary tale of woe in a suitably woefully hackneyed fashion until it’s very completion. The most jarring aspect are the characters themselves, as they are almost completely devoid of characterisation. The characters that do exist and stay around for longer than a few seconds only have traits linked to their role in the grander mission. Kvasir is a hermit scientist genius, so he dons a Russian accent. Jack Portman is a weapons specialist, so he’s gruff, wears no top and only has one eye. Redstone is a mafia-style mayor, so he has a head tattoo and speaks with a big, bad boy inflection. Redstone in particular was a great source of comedy as he so perfectly illustrated how bad the character development was. His faux-hardman presentation fell completely flat as he tries to bully the player protagonist into doing his bidding, without the game ever explaining why he should ever be threatening in the first place.
And this is evident from the very beginning. Within the first few hours, you’ve already met most of the main cast and they never flourish into anything more than stock “good guys” or stock “bad guys”. They merely serve as a way to get the player from one place to another as you shoot the mentally ill along the way. So how is the shootin’? It’s fine. It makes up the vast majority of the game, and I can’t describe it as anything more or less than “fine”. A damning statement for sure. It’s on the floaty side, and some of the weapons turn into peashooters very quickly, but in conjunction with the AI which tends to sometimes pull off clever tactical manoeuvres, the game plays fine. I do mean “sometimes” mind, as I remember this being a marketing point back in the day which was never really delivered. Some enemies leap off the walls Michael Scott “parkour” style, all the while occasionally noticing that you’re aiming at them and attempting to dodge in response. It’s cool for the first 10 minutes, but the animations and tactics quickly get reused, the same goes for the ranged enemies that yell out strategies which you can hear,but they never really ascend higher than “throw a grenade!” or “retreat!”. It’s like F.E.A.R. if Monolith didn’t give a shit.
All of this is in reference to the on foot sections though, as the game bizarrely has both motor combat and travel, both of which are utterly pointless. The driving itself is, again, fine, but it’s completely unnecessary. Rage utilised a false sense of open world-ness to force the player to use their car to get from one location to another. Most of the time journey’s take no longer than 30 seconds, and even though enemies will attempt to gun you down, you can just drive right past them to your destination. In fact, there isn’t a single mission that requires you to really use the car, so the fact the game dedicated so much resources towards it is baffling.
To be candid, I’m boring myself just writing about this game. What’s truly strange about this whole process is that Rage isn’t even a bad game, but when I came to writing about it, every attempt came out severely negative, like this one here. In reality, Rage sits perfectly in the realm of mediocrity, so mediocre that it’s hard not to focus on the negatives. I do truly believe it’s a glorified tech demo, one that doesn’t deserve your time or money.
There are a subset of games that exist exclusively for a state I’m occasionally in called “post-work torpor”. After a heavy night – with the knowledge I have a few more still to come – the last thing I want to do is tackle something heady or complex, especially nowadays where I try to write about everything I play. I’ve started reviews on several games and eventually binned them, the common thread being how they appeal to my energy-deficient mind, the dominating condition after a 10 hour shift. No Man’s Sky, Team Fortress 2 and even Minecraft are recent examples of games I started to write about, and gave up on. It’s frankly amazing, then, that I managed to squeeze out a review for PC Building Simulator as that game fit snugly into the same camp.
Slime Rancher is an offering I’ve played several times from its release to now, and every time I’ve dropped it a few hours in. I think my latest play session was my longest, 5 or so hours, but even then, I just lost interest and shelved it without making fulfilling progress. It’s bubbly, whimsical and sedating, yet something about it makes me feel tense and slightly annoyed. Compared to all the games I’ve already listed, Slime Rancher is easily the least involved and despite the cute breeding concept which could’ve been a source of depth, it’s actually quite shallow. That’s not my problem with it though, the lack of convolution should be enticing to me in the aforementioned sluggish state besides.
No, I think instead Slime Rancher is lacking a goal, something to work towards. There are no new planets to discover, no innate skill barrier to break nor infinite creation to spark further experimentation. Slime Rancher is very much about existing in the now, admiring what you have and just relaxing. So why am I not content with that?
The important thing to note is that when I’m bored with Slime Rancher, I stop playing it. This might seem like a dumbwitted statement, but I can name several examples of games I’ve toiled through despite an overwhelming sense of boredom. Actual Sunlight for example, with it’s critical acclaim and distinctly dire tone, enticed me at first, but I quickly tired of its one-note representation of depression and broader poor writing, yet I played it to completion, not for sadism sake, but hoping for redemption I guess. Anyway, I’ve dropped Slime Rancher at least 5 times now, and only now am I trying to fathom why that is: The gorgeous art direction is incredibly inviting, the slimes which inhabit the world bounce around with such enthusiasm it’s mesmerised me and the game’s simple economy structure means that I’m never worrying about making enough money to prevent a debt collector bashing my head in.
Yet, a few hours in, I’m bored again, and once more I’m reminded of why I relish playing the other games: Oh, look at this wacky elephant/cat hybrid the game spawned! Holy shit, that Demoman is insane, I want to play like that! A few more panes of glass and my 100×100 greenhouse is complete!
Oh look, all the plorts I’ve been harvesting have dropped in value by 6x and won’t rise again for some reason (plorts are literal slime shit for those which don’t know, by the way, the game’s resource you’re tasked at farming). Well, I’ve scrounged up 50,000 gold, lets buy some more land for plort farming! Wait, the next piece of land is how much?!
I’m reminded of an old 360 “indie” game, back when Minecraft was a PC exclusive. It was called Total Miner, and back in school we’d play it constantly because we didn’t have PC’s and the 360’s we had didn’t have Minecraft. The catch with that game was that it was, in retrospect, barren. Features that had existed in Minecraft from the beginning like survival mode, didn’t in Total Miner. The amount of complexity with redstone and pistons wasn’t there either, the amount of blocks was fewer and multiplayer was more limited. We played it anyway, because we didn’t have Minecraft, but once we did have Minecraft, we obviously played that.
I think that’s where I’m at with Slime Rancher, only I have the advantage of 15 different consoles alongside a PC library packed with almost 3000 titles. I’m armed to the teeth with these games: Stardew Valley, Terraria, My Time at Portia, Animal Crossing. When I play Slime Rancher, in all its polished, highly functional glory, I’m just reminded of all the games which do it a whole lot better.
Slay The Spire
Occasionally, I’ll intend to write a full review of a game, and something just doesn’t click. The game itself, Slay The Spire in this case, can be phenomenally complex, wonderfully addictive and just yearns for detailed discussion, yet every draft I’ve written is absolutely naff. As a reviewer, I’ve learned to accept I’m didactic in the way I write. Flowery metaphor doesn’t come easy to me, and sometimes I have a habit of compensating for a lack of eloquence by overexplaining minute details.
I think this is what happened with my failed Slay The Spire attempts, because, truly, it is a game that deserves far more than fleeting thoughts. Card games elude me for the most part. My brain isn’t wired that way: My favourite game is Doom, I am the geek’s incarnation of a meathead. So when it came to explaining the game’s mechanics, I sort of just wandered off into verbose monotony, reading it back was as much a slog as it was writing the thing. It’s completely my fault, because Slay The Spire is the polar opposite of monotony, and deserves much more than that. It’s mantra, from my perspective anyway, seems to be one of deceptive difficulty, and the journey I went on realising its simplicity was a facade was one I’ll remember for a while.
On its surface, it’s nothing more than a deckbuilder with roguelite elements. I’ve played a few in my time, as they tend to be an effective bridge for players like myself who can’t fully commit to a traditional card game. Similar to strategy games, I get overwhelmed easily and crumble into a sack of sorrow immediately once these games get rolling, yet with titles like Guild of Dungeoneering or Hand of Fate, both games used roguelite elements – and in the latters case, Arkham-style combat – as leverage to balance some of the more intense, thoughtful parts of card games, having you rely less on pure strategy and prescience, which I lack, and depend more on your skill elsewhere.
Slay The Spire is the same, although it’s, impressively, less overt about it. From its manifest enemy designs to the rudimentary map system to the self-evident strategy behind each character archetype, the game appears designed around being as approachable as possible. And then, once I’d grasped everything, I had an epiphany, and all the game’s complexities flowed forth.
The game does half the work for you in a way. You start with a character (of which there are four, three you unlock later) along with their accompanied starter cards. You acquire more cards as you win fights, buy them in shops or find them haphazardly in the precarious choose-your-own-adventure style events. Due to the randomness of it all, I never got bogged down in designing super-viable decks, meticulously crafting a perfect strategy, and instead just got lost in the wackiness of it all. Of course, because it’s a solely single player experience, balancing the game around two actual humans competitively playing against each other is a non-issue, and the game can truly facilitate absurd combos.
That’s the core strength. It’s a game you play around with a lot, and in doing so you discover all the little nuances: the cards which interact with each other in completely broken ways, the routes you can take to duplicate cards in monstrous quantities and the items and relics which compound and form effects which are nothing short of hilarious. I never felt frustrated with the game partly for this reason. It’s easy to feel slighted by card games, both by a superior, smarter player or by the game’s inherent luck factor, but Slay The Spire is wrapped in a mellow atmosphere, one where if you fail, you just say “oh well, time to give it another shot shot”, and in that next run, you’ll likely learn something to bring into your next one.
I “beat” the game three times by the time I finally put it down, which I’m constituting as defeating the Act 3 boss. There is an Act 4, which can be unlocked briskly by completing a couple of objectives (which I also did), and alongside an “ascension mode”, Slay The Spire has a ton of content for the experienced and hungry after the game “ends”. And I’ll definitely go back to it one day, because it’s one which constantly surprises me with latent depth, and the feeling of perpetually learning and growing was fulfilling in a way many games can’t compete with.
I’ve completely skimmed over much of what Slay The Spire does well, almost insultingly. The visual style which evoked the same style of the flash games of yore charmed the pants off of me, the swift fashion in which the game doles out new cards and relics to keep you engaged, and I haven’t gone into depth at all with just how wild the build diversity can be. If there’s one takeaway from this, it’s this: just fucking play it.