There's a point, around five or six hours into RAGE, when you feel like you're playing the best game in the world. You've just added a wheel spikes and a ramming bonnet to your buggy. Now you can clear the wastelands of bandit vehicles by driving into them at full pelt, making them explode and driving through their plume-cloud like a fire-breathing rock star.
You're cruising through the desertscape on the way to a gang hideout. You have to kill virtually everyone in this brave new wasteland, for some probably plot-relevant reason. On the way, it starts raining meteorites, giving you a chance to earn some extra money, providing you get to the crash sites before the enemy. Arriving at the hideout, the game flips into a slick, corridored shooter, with extremely smooth frame rates and desolate, filthy vistas.
Or you could just bum around in your buggy, earning coin and kudos by wiping out the local filth. Try out a couple of stunt jumps, earning hardware to build a couple of gadgets. Maybe a sentry robot. Maybe some decapitating boomerangs. For this brilliant middle section, the illusion is unbroken - you'll be completely engrossed in RAGE's wastelands.
There's not much of a hint of this feeling in the first two hours. You've woken from 106 years of cryogenic hibernation, one of hundreds of people judged to be mankind's last hopes for civilisation before a massive meteor strike. Rescued from your violent rebirth by chiselled veteran Dan Hagar, you repay him with a few missions, and are rewarded with a basic set of weapons and a serviceable buggy. After a couple of hours, you're equipped and off to Wellspring.
This is where RAGE grabs you. The cards you've been finding can be used in a boiled down, but pretty entertaining collectible card game. You'll discover courier missions, races, and people willing to play stupid games of chance and skill with you. The town doesn't patronise you with signposts, but it's small enough to be fun exploring, just for the sake of it. Once you get your second buggy, the Curprino, the driving stops being - well, rubbish is a fair word, and so is annoying, but slip-slidy is more descriptive. It all starts being fantastic fun.
The progress and story in RAGE comes mainly through shooting people. And the people you're shooting have such character, that it's a pleasure to rob them of their imaginary lives. Artificial intelligence might be the wrong phrase - artificial personality is better. The cockney Wasted clan will rush, retreat, and respond to a head shot with an entertaining profanity. The mutants are mindless running zombie rushers. Ghosts (catchphrase: "this place needs decorating - with blood") are morbid wall-running acrobats, difficult to headshot, easier sprayed with a machine gun. Gearheads use tech, Jackals combine firebombs and axe attacks, and The Authority - the main bad guys - are the closest you'll get to your average military AI.
It's defiantly old-school - if you want to take cover, crouch or strafe behind something. Four weapons are quick-selectable, but you can pause the game and access everything, at any time. There's no limit to your ammo. Can you afford 200 grenades? Take them with you, by all means.
The game keeps this momentum of action, discovery and exploration until you move to Subway City. Suddenly, you're being rushed. There are no courier missions. The mini-games are all the same. Your trips across the wasteland are disappointingly brief. The process of ingratiating yourself with the new mayor is cut short in a dramatically unsatisfying way. The pacing changes from unfolding story to chain slaughter. There are even fewer races and upgrades for the Monarch, your final vehicle. While the last mission is a great showcase for the game's biggest gun, it ends so abruptly that you'll be convinced it's a joke. It's not.