Rage 2, the new open-world shooter from Avalanche Studios and id Software, starts slowly and predictably. A wilderness outpost is attacked by an old enemy; a mentor is dead and the veneer of civilization is shattered. Pick up that suit of armor, young hero, pick up that gun. It's time to go hunting for some chaos, and some revenge.
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It's an opening, full of mediocre writing and dull play, that significantly undersells the game it's introducing. Crafted as a sequel to a messy but moderately well regarded experiment released in 2011, Rage 2 is an attempt to hybridize two disparate game design approaches that are—on paper, anyways—compatible. The first is modus operandi of Avalanche, which creates games like Just Cause and Mad Max—titles that show a strong understanding of chaotic, fluidly interactive open levels made to satisfy a player's ambition to be destructive and creative in equal measure. The other approach is that of id Software, which is currently all about rebuilding the first-person shooters of old using the technology and design practices of the present. Following its Doom reboot and Quake Champions, Rage 2 seeks to cement the reputation of id as a company able and willing to create shooters that are gratuitous, stylish, and fast the way they used to be fast.
At first glance, Rage 2 doesn't succeed at pulling of either of these game design styles. After the dull opening, the game sets you on a path into an open wasteland of a world, a post-apocalyptic wilderness of raiders, mutants, and Wild West-style townships. The world is full of opportunities for violence: bandit camps, enemy robots, hulking mutant boss monsters. As Walker, one of the last armored Rangers—think a wandering sheriff in power armor—you plow through violent encounter after violent encounter, driving and shooting and sometimes shooting while driving, on your way to meet the mutants of the Authority in a final violent showdown.
Structurally, the open world design owes a clear debt to the simplicity of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Like that game, there are only a handful of narrative objectives, leading up to a single confrontation with a big bad. These narrative objectives are meant to be spaced out and used as hubs for exploring entire regions, pursuing side activities, discovering secrets, and generally enjoying the play on offer.
Breath of the Wild manages this trick, extending a game that is, essentially, four story missions and a boss fight into a several-dozen-hour experience by virtue of how complex and charming its space is to explore. Moving through the world takes time, and you get distracted, and you realize that you need to be stronger, so you spend a few hours searching for upgrades, and so on and so forth until before you know it, Ganon is still out there and you've spent a hundred hours running through fields.
It's remarkably easy to play Rage 2 wrong—meaning, in a way that hides the game's strengths and highlights its many weaknesses.
Rage 2's world is not nearly as charming. It plays at being colorful and silly, neon paint and witty one-liners around every corner. But it's actually just dull. There's nothing of note to find between points of interest, and like most other open-world games, these points of interest are marked on your in-game map in a way that highlights their artificiality. An outpost here, a fuel depot here, etc., etc. It all conjures the sinking feeling of checking off items on a particularly outlandish to-do list, an experience that stands as one of the great failures of modern game design.
But does the combat, helmed by the same designers that made Doom constantly riveting, make that to-do list compelling to complete, at least? At first, no. While the game clearly wants you to feel powerful and fast, Walker begins the game with traditional weapons and only the most boring of special abilities, feeling less like a superhero and more like every protagonist of every modern shooter. This changes as you explore Arks, sources of power from the pre-apocalyptic technological Golden Age. These places grant special abilities, new weapons, and an incredible sense of empowerment. The power set, when fully in place, is a creative and engaging one. A vortex ability that can be used to throw enemies into the air and also to propel you to unreachable locations; an energy shield that can be upgraded into a wall of death; a shotgun that, when aimed down the sights, throws enemies off ledges. Each option opens up strategic possibilities, and makes the game's combat spaces feel more dynamic and approachable.
But Rage 2 fails to communicate to the player how essential these powers are to the play experience, and you are free to get them whenever you want or not at all. It's also easy, seeing the structures of an open world in place, to assume that following the story missions will grant more power and variety as the game goes on, and to rush through the entire narrative in a matter of hours. It's remarkably easy, in fact, to play Rage 2 wrong—meaning, in a way that hides the game's strengths and highlights its many weaknesses.
Even after I understood how to play the game correctly, it didn't quite click. Combat, once fully loaded out, feels fantastic, but still not as good as it seems like it should. The problem is this: The spaces you fight through never get particularly interesting. Shooters are, even more than violence, about space. The act of playing a first-person shooter is fundamentally about moving from point A to point B in the most elegant, interesting way possible. Enemies are, as much as anything else, obstacles and anchors to guide your movement through the game space. Without well-designed spaces, shooters fundamentally don't work. And Rage 2's spaces, at their best, are just kind of OK. The navigation choices aren't terribly varied, the scenery not terribly notable. It's nothing you haven't seen before. It's nothing other games haven't done better.
I suspect Rage 2 will find a passionate audience who are able to find their own joy in its spaces, spurred on by the creativity of its power set and and their passion for shooters. But for players without those predilections, Rage 2 will seem like an empty world, because, well, it is.
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