Editor’s note: This post contains some story spoilers.

After more than five years in gestation, id Software’s Rage video game hits the stores tonight. Lucky for fans of first-person shooter games, it is one of the best games I’ve played in a while.

The title is a breakout achievement for id Software, which has focused on making first-person shooters with high-intensity graphics.  While id has won kudos for its technology, it hasn’t always gotten the highest marks for story and depth of game play.

But Rage is not only a technologically advanced shooter; it’s also a game with deeper role-playing, adventure and racing elements. And it has a story that will hold your attention, even though it starts out fairly slow. In that sense, Rage is a creative mash-up, blending just enough things together to come off as an original game rather than a copycat. The game bears the mark of a seasoned video game development studio that is finally hitting its stride. When you look at the polished details in this game, you can tell it comes from two decades of experience. That’s very important, considering competition this fall from Gears of War 3, Resistance 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 and others.

A world of variety and mash-ups

Rage takes place in a near-future post-apocalyptic world where survivors brave ruins and wastelands after a meteor hits the Earth. The sci-fi game is a cross of some recent role-playing games such as Fallout 3 and Borderlands, but it is a far better shooting game than either of those, mostly because the graphics are better and the enemies are smarter. Despite the futuristic setting, the Southwestern accents and Wild West environment make it feel a lot more like a Western than a sci-fi story. That’s a far cry from corridor-based shooting games like Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein. I used to enjoy those games immensely when I was younger. But, like other id fans, I want something more from a game now. I’m glad that id recognized that and put so much effort into Rage.

It’s hard to believe that this intricate and immersive world came from the game studio that brought us Doom, which was all about shooting. In some sense, Rage is a classic id Software game, thanks to its searing violence. Rage is a mature-rated title that you don’t want to share with your youngsters. There are plenty of “f bombs,” severed body parts, and bloody endings. But the game stops short of the kind of horror-style of games such as Electronic Arts’ Dead Space.

The blending of the different story, genre and game play elements is what makes Rage so interesting to play. You’re not stuck doing the exact same thing over and over in the game. First and foremost, it is a fun first-person shooting game. There doesn’t seem to be much of a story at the start. But if you stick with the game, the story starts to gel and you find out who you are in the game. You spend a lot of time exploring the Wastelands, collecting, engaging in car combat, and meeting the human settlers. Just collecting and building gadgets is an entertaining way to pass the time.

In this desert world, you have to scavenge for everything. Much like in Borderlands, you have to make your way across the Wastelands desert, hopping from one human settlement to another and fighting mutants the whole way. You have to be a pack-rat scavenger, since you have to collect parts to assemble cars, lock grinders, and bombs. As you tangle with the locals, you pick up some cool weapons like the “wingstick,” a boomerang-like device with razor blades that can sever an enemy’s head when you throw it. The wingstick can be deadly accurate and turn your enemies into sliced watermelons.

The story gets more and more interesting as you run into more memorable characters, some of whom seem like they’re from the Mad Max series of Road Warrior movies. Clans have taken over lawless territories, while a power known as The Authority tries to assert control over everything. In response, a resistance force has emerged. It turns out that, as an asteroid made its way toward Earth, the government created an elitist program, putting some people into a cryogenic sleep deep underground. You emerge decades later, sort of like astronauts returning to Earth, only to discover that the apes have taken over, like in the film Planet of the Apes.

None of this is evident at the beginning of the game, so you play for a considerable amount of time in a state of befuddlement. That adds a bit of mystery to the question of who you are and what you are doing here. As you interact with characters, you find out more about yourself, since they treat you as somebody who is different from the very beginning. You find that the future runs on a barter system. If you need something from someone, they will give it to you only if you can trade. Almost always, they are looking out for themselves. So you have to run around doing jobs for them in order to get what you need.

The obese Jabba the Hut-style character JK Stiles runs a carnival-like gladiator’s arena, where you have to kill a bunch of mutants in arena combat to earn money and an alliance with Stiles. The Stiles episodes are comical, even though you can get into some horrific firefights with the mutants. You have to deal with him because you need him to sponsor you in a high-reward race.

The characters you meet will send you off into different settlements of the world. Just about anybody can set you up with a mission. If you walk up to a character, chances are they will ask you to help find a missing friend or relative somewhere in the desert.

Car Combat

In the town of Wellspring, the racing part of the game comes to the fore. You can race your patched-together dune buggies around desert tracks to earn money so you can trick your cars out. But you have to watch out because your fellow drivers try to run you off the road or shoot you with mini-guns. The cars are physically accurate when it comes to racing around corners or bouncing after jumps.

The fighting from car to car is entertaining because it is simple. You press the A button on the controller to fire homing missiles, which can take out an enemy car in one shot. The homing missiles are quite useful because you don’t have to aim and drive at the same time. That’s the bane of many car combat games.

The car combat is also fun because you can collect weaponry to adorn your vehicle. You can add shields that protect it from gunfire. You can attach homing missiles or mini-guns to take out enemies from afar. You can add spiked wheels to your vehicle and run the enemies off the road into canyon walls. And you can drop land mines to take out enemies that are chasing you.

At first, I found the driving hard. But then I collected some better wheels that gave me better handling on turns. After that, I was better able to make the sharp turns required in races and combat and I was able to keep up with the enemies and win races. I suppose that makes sense, but I sure was annoyed that I couldn’t drive at the beginning of the game.

Outstanding graphics

In Wellspring, you can accept missions from the Sheriff or the Mayor. They get you to carry supplies to watch towers or go after the Shrouded Clan, which has a penchant for making radio-controlled bomb cars. In each town, you find there are local enemy clans that you have to infiltrate and disrupt.

The graphics of the game are amazing. Even on the aging Xbox 360, there were plenty of moments when I just stopped the action to look at the beautiful artwork. For example, I walked under a leaking water pipe and my vision was briefly blurred by the water dripping down my face. The fire and smoke are very realistic. Ashes, dust, and loose papers float like feathers in the wind. The attention to detail is impressive. If you look at the tires, you can see mud streaks on them.

I think the graphics are so good that the game is a cut above everything else I’ve seen. Up close, everything seems so real. The game uses id Tech 5, the latest game engine of graphics guru John Carmack, one of the founders of id, which is now owned by Bethesda Softworks.  The technology brings the characters to life in a way that resembles the outstanding graphics and physically accurate movements in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves game.

Carmack’s id Tech 5 engine uses what the company calls “ MegaTextures,” built from the ground up for each of the powerful game systems: the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and the PC. A MegaTexture is a single image that replaces a bunch of others and thereby reduces the amount of computation needed to create beautiful imagery. The clever thing about this is that it saves id money — it can create its art assets once and use them across multiple platforms.

The game benefits from the MegaTextures because it leaves plenty of computation power for other things. The result is larger levels and better artificial intelligence for the enemies. The enemies are smart enough to attack from different directions and hide when they’re outgunned. They will toss grenades, rush you, poke their heads out to take pot shots and hide behind cover. When they are charging at you, the enemies will also dodge out of the way to evade your flying wingsticks or your shotgun blasts. The enemies can fight in three dimensions, dropping down on you from above. And some are like acrobats, swinging back and forth and dodging bullets until they are ready to knife you.

The result is that you can’t fight this as a “run and gun” game all of the time. You have to sit back, use all of your weapons, and try to be clever. You can toss your own grenades to flush the enemies out or move around them in an effort to outflank them. Or you can send remote-controlled bomb cars around them to blow up an air tank behind them.

Sometimes you have to approach with stealth, using wingsticks or crossbow bolts to take them out. You can assemble weapons from things that you collect. You can create sentry turrets, which shoot at anything that moves, while you attack from a different direction.

In short, you have a full set of tactical and environmental tools to confront any kind of enemy. That’s why the game is such a satisfying shooter.

Slight annoyances

Even though the game is polished, some things annoyed me. You have to save your game constantly or risk having to backtrack a long way every time you die. That’s even more annoying because it takes a long time to load levels on the Xbox 360, as Rage is a huge game that takes up three DVD disks. The game is a larger open world where you can choose which tasks you want to perform. But the world is so large that you can get lost. The visual cues that keep you moving toward your destination — like a dotted line on a mini-map that shows you where to go — aren’t always helpful, particularly when you’re driving in a car at 100 miles per hour. The result is that you’ll waste a lot more time in Rage than you want to, leaving less time for the fun stuff.

While those flaws try my patience, they’re not enough to ruin the party. I rate Rage 88 out of 100. I’m glad this game turned out this way, since id Software made the biggest of bets when it decided to keep polishing this game over a period of years. Fans like me have waited a long time to get their hands on a new id game. id’s last game was Doom 3, published in 2004. As I said before, it was worth the wait.