Rage 2 uses sound and fury to obscure a lack of substance

Rage 2 feels like two different games, both of them quite good, shoved inelegantly up against one another. As sales pitches go, it has a great one — Rage 2 is an open-world action game by Avalanche Studios with the meaty combat of first-person shooter royalty id Software. But there’s a strange lack of mechanical overlap that pervades the entire game, and you’ll feel it right away. It’s hard to describe, like the feeling of a head cold coming on, a vague sense of something being off. It took me several days play to figure out exactly what it was about Rage 2 that was making me feel this way.

The game is set thirty years after the events of the original Rage. The Authority, led by hulking cyborg General Martin Cross, have survived and are making a second attempt to control the Earth, devastated by the asteroid 99942 Apophis which struck the planet leaving it in post-apocalyptic ruin. Apophis is actually a real asteroid and will pass by the Earth in 2029, a fact that has no bearing on this review beyond me finding it very cool. You play as Walker, the last of the Rangers of Vineland, cocooned in a DOOM-esque super suit that grants them powerful abilities beyond mortal human beings. Walker comes in your choice of a male version played by Critical Role‘s Sam Riegel or a female version played by Boruto‘s Amanda C. Miller, and they are a bit of a weapon from the off. Walker quickly learns the basics of their super suit, hoisting a powerful assault rifle and swearing to bring The Authority down all within the game’s opening sequence.

This introduction is standard open world stuff and the bare minimum narrative thrust required to get you rolling. The game has a bit of a bumpy start, casting the player into the world with what feels like very little preparation. I began by aimlessly driving my car around, getting used to the controls, and came upon a kind of mounted gun station atop a small tower. I hopped out and blew the tower up, and the game rewarded me with some of the feltrite mineral used for upgrades. It also noted that there were two “storage containers” in the area I could potentially find. Not yet knowing what these were or what they looked like, I searched fruitlessly and eventually decided to move on. Heading back to the car, I noticed some raiders (the game’s much-marketed and very colourful Goon Squad) battling some wasteland mutants. I headed over, gibbing a couple with the car on the way in, and shot down the rest. When it was over, I expected something to happen. I expected a reward of some sort, a progress bar going up, some indicator that what I’d just done had had an impact. I received nothing for doing this beyond the currency dropped by the dead enemies.

Maybe it’s presumptuous to assume I’d be rewarded for something so simple, but Far Cry found ways to make the same scenario meaningful in wider mechanical ways. In Far Cry, busting up those enemies usually lets you free an ally. Said freed ally might have a quest or tell you where loot is stashed nearby. Even if this doesn’t happen, that action still contributes to weakening the area boss’s influence. Rage 2 doesn’t do any of that, so why would I bother getting out of the car when I see a roadside dirt fight?

Eventually, I started finding my way to a few of the larger outposts, many of which are from the original game, and meet up with their various leaders. There’s one significant outpost per biome — Lagoony in the swampy south and Wellspring in the dusty Broken Tract. These overseer NPC’s grant you access to Projects, one of the game’s four (FOUR!!) different skill trees. Projects grant skill unlocks specific to each area NPC — some favour tech, others favour demolition weapons, you get the idea. Other skill trees include: unlocks and moves for your suit, upgrades for your weapons and upgrades for your vehicles. This is before you get to augments, which are a whole other kettle of fish. All of them are governed by the amount of feltrite you’ve collected and specific mods called Nanotrites that are consumed by your suit as it powers up. It’s a lot to take in and I had to sit down for about 30 minutes and go through the game’s rather dense encyclopedia page-by-page to make sure I understood it because the game doesn’t really tutorialise upgrades beyond throwing a few splash screens at you.

Once I’d gotten through Rage 2‘s underwhelming first few hours, it began to open up a little. Free to tackle whatever I liked, I began scouring the landscape for Arks, high tech orbital drop pods that house new weapons and special moves for my suit. Because they’re a sparkly rarity, Arks usually draw a bit of a crowd of Goon Squad raiders and you’ll have to fight through them to get to the goodies but they’re a critical place to start. Beyond that, I was finding that there were only a handful of very Open World Genre activities to choose from — bust up bandit camps, destroy bandit fuel reserves, challenge weirdos to races, blow up Authority emplacements and kick the shit out of bandit convoys, and they all follow pretty similar design paths. One fuel reserve mission had me totally turned around because the floorplan was so similar I was fooled into thinking it was one I’d already completed earlier.

Credit must be given to Avalanche’s artists, likely well used to the Apex open world engine, the in-house software that Rage 2 runs on. It’s an extremely pretty game, running at a high rate of frames on my Xbox One X even in 4K resolution. Its biomes aren’t terribly different from other post-apocalyptic worlds — deserts, swamps, plains, etc — but they’re lavishly realised and you’re rarely without something too, a vista to take in. Little details like the moon in the night sky, shattered by some devastating impact, give a sense of history that the story and characters don’t really communicate. I was concerned about the decision to use the Apex engine for Rage 2 — Avalanche’s last two titles, Just Cause 4 and Generation Zero, both used Apex and neither made a great case for it as a toolset. Just Cause 4 featured some of the worst visuals of this hardware generation, a trade-off made for greater stability, and Generation Zero was plagued with bugs and decided empty open world. With this in mind, I’m relieved to see that Rage 2 addresses both of these problems. It’s still rife with bugs — and I mean rife, from physics glitches to inventory menus reading zero items held when you’re actually holding several — but it’s also in much better shape than its stablemates.

It was the shooting, quintessentially beefy id Software fare, is the thing that kept me coming back. It kept me thinking about Rage 2 when I would have otherwise quickly moved on. There’s no-one in the world making shooters that feel as good as id Software. No-one. Their shotguns are the best video game shotguns anyone has ever made. They look monstrous, the roar like the end of the world and they hit like a road train in full flight. But as fun as id’s shooting is, it suffers in Rage 2 from being taken out of its element. id shooters are all cut from a similar cloth: linear single player experiences that deal in claustrophobic level design. “Push-forward design,” id calls it. They’re always set in space stations and military installations, all tight corners and small but carefully curated combat spaces. You can’t get much further from that ethos than an open world adventure title. This, combined with the repetitive tasks I mentioned earlier, left me feeling like I was stuck in a loop, one with rapidly diminishing returns. Finally, I had the answer to why Rage 2 felt like it kept leaving me hanging. The Venn diagrams of its design weren’t overlapping the way they were supposed to.

And while I don’t know how you fix that, I don’t know that you have to. Whenever I turned my brain off, ignored any actual goals and committed to mindlessly blowing things up I started really enjoying myself. Rage 2 is at its best when you’re not asking it to be anything beyond a sandbox for chaos. If you are content to scurry abot with your superpowered suit, launching into their air and performing ground pounds like Doomfist and vortexes like Orisa (it seems Overwatch inspired a lot of the superpowers), Rage 2 is happy to let you do that for as long as you like. It was only when I started trying to actually play the game that it came up short. What I’m saying is that, provided you make no real demands of it, Rage 2 is perfectly fine. Ten years ago, that excuse probably would have flown. In 2019, it seems like an oddly cavalier vibe for a AAA release from a major publisher to have.

To me at least, Rage 2 is of a piece with Fallout 76. It’s an experiment that was worth running; a game with a strong central pitch, one that boasts numerous gameplay elements that are strong on their own but don’t overlap in ways that satisfy the player. If you can turn your brain off, Rage 2 will provide you with a fun, if likely brief, diversion you’ll be done within a week. If you can’t, you’ll be finished with it a lot sooner.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Very pretty; Gun combat super strong; Bringing gibs back
Lowlights: Confused design; Lacklustre open world
Developer: Avalanche Studios, id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on Xbox One X with a Rage 2 Collector’s Edition retail box provided by the publisher.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.