Games

'Rage 2' Is 'Doom' Meets 'Mad Max' Meets Mediocrity

A compromised implementation of fundamentally good ideas that never seems to come together.

by Rob Zacny
May 13 2019, 10:16pm

Image courtesy of Zenimax Media

You know the drill here, even if you haven’t played Rage 2. You drive up to a roadblock, or a small village, or a fortified gas station and the icon on your map lets you know it’s still full of enemies and different flavors of loot chests. So you pull the car around, hop out, and then vault the barricades to start the fight. There’s no point in scouting in Rage 2. It’s a game of momentum: you move forward toward the enemy, blazing away until you run out of ammo and then switching weapons to stay on the offensive without missing a beat. There’s even a perk that lets your idle weapons reload automatically while they’re holstered, just to encourage this exact behavior.

It feels pretty great at first, and so do the special abilities you get to help overcome the odds, though if you haven’t extensively hunted for them it’s possible you just have one or two go-to powers like “shatter,” which sends a blast of energy that strips off armor and knocks them back. It’s a good crowd-control tool, and that’s really the main thing in Rage because every fight just goes full-tilt until you’ve killed every single enemy nearby.

Finally, you get the notification that the location is complete, you get a small pile of money for upgrades and purchases, and it’s over. You open the map, and see what other locations remain. You set a marker, and then head back to your car.

If only Rage 2 existed in a vacuum, its every moment might not remind you of the better games that it borrows from. The fast, gracefully violent combat would feel like a welcome return to the classic shooter formula that id Software pioneered and perfected across the 1990s, except that we already experienced this back in 2016 with the new edition of Doom which, frankly, did it better. Driving across the broken desert wastelands in armored muscle cars, shooting it out with roving enemy convoys, is kind of novel but it’s also a pale shadow of what Avalanche Studios accomplished in its own Mad Max game in 2015. The entire campaign structure, where you bounce between a map covered in activities and hub locations where you get mission from thinly-written goofball characters, is reminiscent of the modern Far Cry series in all the wrong ways and few of the good ones.

But if you can set all that aside, or you don’t have all that context, it’s not so bad. It’s very much the sum of its many decent parts minus the sum of its many mediocre or bad ones.

The setup for Rage 2 is that your small, technologically advanced wasteland settlement is raided by the genocidal Authority and its leader, off-brand mecha-Hitler General Cross. During that attack, your character, Walker, dons powerful Ranger armor that turns them (you can play as a masculine or feminine-presenting character) into a typical shooter hero. When you wake up afterwards, you embark on your mission of revenge by doing enough missions around an open world to unlock new story missions that advance your vendetta against the Authority.

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It’s familiar, generic territory, but Rage 2 provides so little in the way of establishing character or setting that never, for the rest of the game, could I ever really make sense of the story or how any of its characters and missions fit into the world. Every piece of dialogue in this campaign feels like it’s the product of comedic “punch-up.” There has to be something wacky happening in every scene with other characters. You go to one hub city and it’s got bouncers at the door admitting people on the basis of how fashionable they look, and later you’ll encounter two characters getting into an argument about how one stole the other one’s outfit.

The writing would be annoying enough, but it’s undercut by poor presentation. The scripted cutscenes feel “off” in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. The cuts from gameplay to cutscene are too abrupt, the animations are crude (particularly faces), and the audio mix sounds inconsistent with what you hear when you’re playing. At first it feels like maybe a knowing throwback to the slapdash, disjointed campaigns of 2000s shooters. But as the game goes on, it feels more and more like parts of Rage 2 are just unfinished. Audio from major NPCs constantly cuts out, or ends up glitching and playing at the wrong time.

That’s not the only place where it feels like this game maybe has cut some corners. A major part of Rage 2 is supposedly Overdrive, where after chaining together enough kills your character enters a kind of berserker mode where weapons gain new powers, and you regenerate health and do more damage. Except, funny thing: it didn’t work for me. The mechanic was never introduced in-game, and when I went to check on what the hell was going on with it, I noticed that triggering the ability didn’t have a key-binding. I added one… and it still didn’t work. I could be fighting for extended periods at the max kill-combo, and overdrive never became available. There wasn’t even an icon for it on the screen. It just didn’t exist in my game, and since restarting the campaign would wipe my progress, it wasn’t really in the cards. I’m unique in having had this happen, as far as I know, but it does mean I haven’t seen everything Rage 2 can do.

Which makes it particularly disappointing that I still finished the campaign so easily: unlike Doom, Rage 2 doesn’t really demand much from you. The enemy variety doesn’t effectively neutralize favorite tactics like circle strafing, dodging, and ducking behind cover for a quick reload. If you want to just play this game with the assault rifle, you can. You won’t have those battles, so common in Doom, where you needed to master different weapon combinations to handle different varieties of enemies. Doom may have offered a ridiculous power fantasy, but the challenges escalated with that power, and demanded that you raise your game even as it gave you more tools. Here, Rage 2 doesn’t seem to care if you unlock all your weapons and powers or create a build for your character. You can collect a variety of currencies that let you upgrade your character, certain abilities, and weapon effects, but the differences are small and you can still breeze through the game without them, or without particularly leveraging them. I finished the game without ever using two of the major Ranger powers, and having unlocked only four weapons. That’s mostly because Rage 2 demands next to nothing. It confronts you with waves of enemy grunts and the occasional boss character who is so huge and slow as to behave more like a stationary turret, complete with an enormous weak spot to shoot.

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That bland, trivially easy combat might also be down to the nature of where these battles are taking place. Rage 2 has you going to tiny little bases and outposts to fight these battles, but that also means that they all end up having a similar geometry and flow. They’re self-contained, so even if new enemies spawn in, they’re jammed into a tiny space that you can easily dominate with little fear of being overrun. You drive up to a gas station full of bandits, you get out of your car and fight them in the parking lot for a couple minutes, and then everyone is dead and the location is complete. What you don’t have, outside of story missions, is anything like a proper shooter level where pacing, resources, and positioning is out of your control.

That entire open world is a problem, in fact. In the first place, it’s there to provide a playground for vehicular combat, and that combat just isn’t very good. Most enemy vehicles just ignore you on the road, so the only way to get into a road battle is to find an enemy convoy and try to destroy it. Problem is, they also don’t seem very interested in fighting and the toughest part of destroying them is just keeping pace with them as they drive away. It’s shocking how much less enjoyable the combat is here compared to Avalanche’s 2015 Mad Max, where duels on the road would go for several minutes through dazzling storms as vehicles burst into flames, cars smashed into each other, and War Boys leaped from vehicle to vehicle. In Rage 2, enemy vehicles run on the main roads like they’re on rails, and barely react even as you blow them apart. The only reason this game world is so huge is to make these cars matter, and the only reason the cars matter is because they can fight. But turns out that fighting in your car is the worst part of the game.

Then there’s the aesthetic of that world. When I think back to the 2015 Mad Max, it was a lot like Fury Road in that it had a sparse, apocalyptic beauty to it. It could be an exciting place where you were the badass Road Warrior, but it also knew how to use silence and scenery to give you a sense of just how completely this world was devastated, and how desperate existence there was. Rage 2 cribs a lot of its visuals from that game and that world, but it also spray-paints them in day-glo colors and lights up its nights with neon signage. Balloons drift through the sky advertising Mutant Bash TV, where you can go play some wave-combat minigames at the behest of a sexually aggressive older woman who, as such, is portrayed as repulsive and disgusting.

Rage 2 uses the post-apocalypse because it’s an easy place to justify an empty, anything-goes kind of world. But it’s an apocalypse without a sense of scarcity, precarity, or any other kind of danger. It doesn’t make any sense, there’s no story you can tell about it. It has the rusted, reclaimed aesthetics of Mad Max or Fallout but there’s no rationale for why things look that way. Gangs supposedly prey on outlying communities for resources, but what resources? They’ve got TV stations and racing broadcasts, even though you hear every town outside the main hubs has been overrun and destroyed. You never see a single herd of livestock or watch anyone tending a garden, but there’s a bar and restaurant in every town. You hear about how hard life is for people outside the settlements, but you never find any evidence of their existence outside the city walls.

Some of what’s wrong in Rage 2 feels like compromised implementation of fundamentally good ideas, but I think its fatal flaw is that it’s a game obsessed with feeling fun rather than trusting any of its ideas to be fun. Combat was trivial because everything about this game is built around making Walker feel like an awesome killing machine just wreaking havoc on the clowns foolish enough to oppose them. But too much of that feeling numbs you to it, and makes Rage 2 into a game without any kind of meaningful antagonist. Characters dispense the usual variety of “go here, kill X, collect Y” missions, but they all have to do it in a wacky way that lets you know We’re Having Fun. The cars feel powerful and rugged but at no point do they ever feel vulnerable or dangerous, so they stop being interesting. The pattern just repeats throughout this game. Something looks promising at first, then it dissolves under inspection, like a mirage.

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