RAGE Gameplay Performance and Image Quality

RAGE, id Software's latest high-profile game, was released two weeks ago to a resounding, "WTF!?" Some gamers applaud its gameplay while others condemn its graphics and gameplay. We're here to talk about our time with the game and give our readers a good hard look at performance and image quality in this new shooter.

Introduction

id Software is a company that most PC gamers should be familiar with. If you aren't, then you may quietly go back to your console gaming. id Software created the legendary Doom and Quake franchises, and more than any other company, it has been responsible for the shaping of the modern first-person shooter on the PC. RAGE is id's first new IP since the release of Quake in 1996. RAGE has been highly anticipated, even shown off a few times at QuakeCon, which is an event dedicated to PC gaming. However, no one could have imagined how much id Software has changed from those early Quake days, and RAGE shows the result of this shift in focus from PC to console that has currently begotten id Software.

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RAGE

RAGE is a first-person shooter set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. It follows the adventures of an un-named protagonist soldier, in true id Software style. Set in the year 2135, the game takes place 106 years after an asteroid named Apophis struck the Earth, resulting in the near extinction of human race, save for a few survivors of the Ark project and some mutants. The Ark project was a movement to preserve humanity from the devastation of Apophis by cryogenically freezing and storing members of society deemed important for its preservation.

RAGE also features racing and RPG elements. Racing is almost entirely optional except for a few missions early on which are required for advancing the central plot. RPG elements include quests, an inventory system, looting, and alternative ammunition. Multiplayer modes make use of racing and RPG elements as well. While new for id, these elements have been used in many games before now.

The Engine

RAGE is the first game to be powered by id Software's "id Tech 5" game engine. This gaming engine has also been highly anticipated. The most frequently talked about feature of id Tech 5 has to be the MegaTexture. MegaTexture is a means of storing a single vast texture for static terrain. These textures can be several gigabytes in size (id first demonstrated the technology using a 20GB texture) so a streaming technique is used in order to load and present only the parts of the texture that are currently in use and visible.

RAGE actually uses a more advanced form of MegaTexturing known as Virtual Texturing (link to PDF). Virtual Texturing allows id to pack data for sprites, static meshes, and dynamic models in the MegaTexture, rather than just terrain textures. While technically this is supposed to be "more advanced" we've seen that it has some major problems in reality.

As with previous generations of id Tech engines, id Tech 5 is an OpenGL renderer. Other features include HDR lighting, ambient occlusion, volumetric lighting, motion blur, depth of field, and many other features that gamers are already familiar with. One important feature to note is GPU powered texture transcoding. The MegaTexture data for RAGE is stored on disk in a compressed format that the graphics engine cannot use. In order to convert that data into texture image data, a transcoding operation must be performed. id Software programmers chose to accomplish this with NVIDIA's CUDA technology. On computers with NVIDIA video cards installed, that can be done on the GPU. On computers with AMD video cards, it is done on the CPU. id has reported that CUDA was used for performance purposes. During initial development, OpenCL libraries were not available, so development began with CUDA. When OpenCL became an option, performance proved to be better on CUDA, so they kept to that path.

During early development in 2007, id reported that they were going to be licensing id Tech 5 to other developers. But then id Software was acquired by Zenimax Media in June of 2009. At QuakeCon in 2010, studio CEO Todd Hollenshead told Gamasutra that it was going to be used within Zenimax, but was no longer available for licensing to external developers.

id Tech 5 sports a performance balancing feature. The engine automatically balances image quality with performance, and it aims for a 60FPS target. It does so by monitoring framerates and balancing detail, primarily in textures, to reduce load on the GPU. Before the game's first patch, the auto-balancer was the only option without creating custom CFG files or resorting to console commands. A patch came down on October 8th which added an in-game graphics menu option ("Texture Cache") to force high-resolution textures.

There are obviously a lot of facets and features to id Tech 5. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into everything. What is important to note about it is that most textures are loaded as needed from a large MegaTexture file. Those textures are streamed to the video card dynamically, which can cause some really annoying texture popping artifacts. Then, the game at first offered no way to address the dismal texture quality, but a feature was added to allow gamers to select higher resolution textures than the auto-balancing system seemed to utilize. Beyond that, we can expect to see features we have seen for the past few years: HDR, ambient occlusion, and soft shadows.