Rage 2 - one of the weirdest games I've ever played
When I first read about Rage 2, I was excited. I'd quite enjoyed the original Rage in spite of its obvious narrative issues - it ended in the most abrupt way possible, akin to a TV show ending not in the middle of a series, but in the middle of an episode. I also really enjoyed the 2015 Mad Max game in spite of its mixed reviews - the post-apocalyptic setting, bone crunching melee combat and (in my humble opinion) some of the best vehicle combat ever to feature in a videogame left it one of my favourite games of the year in spite of its mixed critical reception. The more I think about it, the more I need to write something about Mad Max. Critics were unmoved by it, and yet everyone I know who played it seemed to really enjoy it. Anyway... I digress. Rage was classic Id, Mad Max was classic Avalanche - so you'd hope that by putting them together you'd end up with a game that featured the best of both studios.
What you end up with though, weirdly, is a game that's trying to be two things and as a result fails to really be either of them. The two halves, taken separately, are pretty cool - but it's the transition from one to the other and back again that really highlights their shortcomings. Put simply, it's a weird game that's extremely hard to love. There's a lot of content here, but the vast majority of it feels incidental at best and redundant at worst. I picked up Rage 2 shortly after it arrived on Gamepass and played it until I lost interest, then picked it up again earlier this week (after finishing Deliver Us The Moon) as it seemed like a nice change of pace after a slower, narrative game. I'll be honest - I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.
The single biggest positive of it are the visuals. Rage 2 runs at a locked 60fps/1080p on Xbox One X - a decision that took some flak on launch apparently (I honestly wasn't paying attention at the time...) but in retrospect was absolutely the right one. During the time it took me to finish the campaign I don't think I saw the framerate stutter at any point - and some of those gunfights get extremely intense. It feels like that's pretty much where my positivity toward the game comes to a crashing end. I just couldn't get hooked by it - and I tried. I really did. On paper, it's right up my street... in reality though, the whole experience just left me sort of indifferent to its charms. I think some of it has to do with the dissonance the game sets up in the division between the driving and the shooting. Shooting first? Shooting first.
It's extremely tight and it's extremely hectic, and it's extremely fast. When it hits its stride, you'll be surrounded by enemies and unleashing a variety of attacks to reduce them to torn body parts - whether it's floor slams, force pushes, smacking flying grenades back at them, detonating bits of the environment or just, y'know, shooting them. There's an overdrive ability that you can use to deal out even more damage even faster... and my experience of it was that every time I hit that stride and got into that perfect rhythm of death-dealing, I was moments away from ending the encounter. It just never felt as though it lasted long enough. The story missions were affected by this, and somehow the open world bits that involved you getting out of your car for a bit of brutal carnage creation suffered from it too. In spite of the game taking place in an open world, there seemed to be comparatively few different ways of engaging with the bandit camps that are dotted around the map - with all of the combat encounters ultimately seeming to demand that I push forward using various abilities for maximum effect. Generally though, I'm the kind of player that likes to try approaching things in different ways... and Rage 2 really didn't seem to want to let me.
The design of these places also became predictable. You'll reach the point where you'll feel that if you've seen one bandit camp, you've seen them all - while the areas belonging to the main enemy (the imaginatively named "Authority") all look like they've been lifted from Halo. The enemies themselves all seemed much of a muchness, with one particular boss enemy repeating at intervals until I got to the point of rolling my eyes when it dropped into the world. If the developers were aiming for me to feel threatened by it, they failed - by it's third or fourth appearance, I was bored by the inconvenience it represented and little else. Overall, these sections just felt derivative, I guess - as though I was playing something I'd already played before... and it was less fun this time around. There were a variety of weapons to use, and yet I found myself generally running a shotgun and an auto-rifle - the game offering little incentive or reason to really try anything else out. For a game that's supposed to be about gunplay, that feels like a massive issue.
For all of that, the thing you'll spend most of your time doing in Rage 2 is navigating the map. It's colossal. I'm going to have to compare to Mad Max again here - and I apologise, but hear me out. The vehicular combat in Mad Max is insane. If you've seen Mad Max: Fury Road, you'll have an idea of what it involves - it's about ramming cars off the road, blowing them up with explosives thrown in their direction, hooks and chains being used to tear off panels. Aiming a shotgun at the driver's head is a valid way of bringing a vehicle to a halt, assuming the door's been ripped off first. It's loud and it's boisterous, and it's challenging - and it's a lot of fun. It was an integral part of the game too, with some of the campaign reliant on it. Here in Rage 2, you're less reliant on tethers and boomsticks and instead have... guns. Lots of guns. And rockets. And that change really is the biggest one - they took a system full of interesting and inventive combat options and replaced it with the most commonplace items you'll find in games. It's quite possible that people playing Rage 2 who haven't played Mad Max would be quite impressed with what they'll find here - and to them I'd just say "if you think that's good, go play Mad Max." It's not that it's bad - it's just that it's a step backward from what I know the studio is capable of. And as if that wasn't enough, it's almost entirely unnecessary. I fought a couple of convoys that came across my path, but upon realising that they were mainly a distraction that offered precious little reward for engaging with them, I started to ignore them - and at no point during that campaign runthrough did the game force me to do anything else.
And that there really, is probably the single biggest problem I had with Rage 2 I suppose - there was a LOT of content, and precious little reason to engage with most of it. By the time I'd cleared the main campaign, I'd estimate that I still had roughly 60% of the world objectives left to complete - but they all felt so generic and similar that I couldn't think of a reason to do so aside from the gamerscore it would net me. I'd barely scratched the surface, but could find no compelling reason to dig any deeper. It's another open world game that just feels too damn big for its own good. If it had trimmed down the content and left me hungry for more, I'd probably have been happier with the experience. As it was, the credits rolled and I walked away unable to quite believe just how much more the game expected of me - never a good sign. I think I'm in a minority here in saying that I'd honestly rather have a smaller and tighter experience than an endless drip feed of AAA games that expect me to dedicate my life to them - but I also feel like that minority is slowly getting bigger. It'll be interesting to see where games go in the next generation, but if they go even bigger, I might find myself actively rejecting ones that feel too big. It's a bizarre place to find myself.