Thoughts: Rage 2

rage2_shoot

Some of my friends have asked me why I even bought Rage 2, since I didn’t exactly enjoy the original and the sequel wasn’t looking like anything special from the previews. My answer to them was that I just wanted to blast things with a shotgun for a few hours, as that’s a genre that’s been somewhat underserved this year (so far), but the real reason is that I really, really wanted to open the review with a “You can’t spell average without Rage” joke.

Unfortunately this makes Rage 2 doubly disappointing, as it’s turned out to have fallen some considerable way short of even that rather dubious target.

When I think back on my time with the original Rage I can’t remember all that much. I remember that the driving was dull, and that there were no sidequests to speak of, and that using John Carmack’s last major contribution to id Software’s engine — megatextures — in a game with such uninspired visual design largely resulted in it having some very pretty rocks and not much else. The high point of the game was some distinctly above-average weapon variety that went very much against the prevailing trends of the time, and which livened up the otherwise subpar combat considerably — however, given that both Wolfenstein and Doom 2016 took that high point and leveraged it into a pair of excellent reboots it has to be said that Rage, on the whole, was not a concept or a franchise that was particularly crying out for a sequel.

Yet one now exists. And now, having played it all the way through, I have to wonder why on earth Bethesda bothered to resurrect the IP: it is exactly the game you would picture when considering what a sequel to Rage would look like. Rage 2 is set in a bland, samey open world that has all the depth of a puddle. It features a car that you can drive around said open world, but the vehicular combat is pointless and the driving physics are just out-and-out terrible. Its plot is virtually non-existent, it barely has any scripted missions, and most of the content is just your standard open-world fare of clearing enemies out of the little question mark symbols that pop up on the map every three-hundred metres or so. It does have a moderately satisfying combat loop, with most of the ingenuity the original Rage displayed around weapons being transferred to a set of magic powers that make individual fights against stock mooks flow quite nicely, and this is probably one of only two reasons I made it to the end of the game. The other is that if you cut out the driving and the question mark locations from the equation, Rage 2 is about two hours long.

rage2_swamp

Nearly all of this was true of the first Rage. Despite an eight-year gap and the primary development responsibilities being handed over to Just Cause developers Avalanche, Rage 2 has ended up being almost exactly the same goddamn game, replete with almost exactly the same mistakes. True, it’s been built from the ground-up to be open world this time instead of the weird halfway house of the first game, but that just means it’s lost the vast majority of its scripted missions. In their place are the set of standard open world “activities” that, in Rage 2, mostly consist of getting out of your car and shooting things. Most of the time it’s a small clump of buildings that must be cleared of bandits, which come in Basic and Armoured flavours but which otherwise lack any variety in how the player deals with them. Sure, there’s a bandit with a bat that whacks grenades at you, but he dies if you shoot him with a shotgun. There’s a bandit with a rocket launcher, but she also dies if you shoot her with a shotgun. The only reason I distinguish between Basic and Armoured bandits is that the Armoured ones take two shotgun blasts to kill. Occasionally a bigger enemy will show up that would actually take some time to kill with just the shotgun, which is why you’re also carrying around a rocket launcher. And that’s most of Rage 2’s encounters in a nutshell: you shoot everything with the shotgun until there’s nothing left to shoot. There’s the occasional robot sentry turret sitting out on its own that’s actually the most dangerous enemy in the game by several orders of magnitude, but all you really need to defeat one is a handy piece of cover and some decent reflexes; for everything else, the shotgun is king.

Well, I suppose that reductive description is actually doing Rage 2’s combat encounters a little bit of a disservice. Taken as an isolated, atomic game element they’re not too bad as you have several abilities to play with as you shotgun your way through yet another bandit horde. There’s a Rush ability you can use to close the distance quickly; a double-jump that can be upgraded to clear any barrier less than two storeys high; a charge-up ground-pound that will suck in and then bowl over anyone in the radius of effect. I was using all of these regularly during combat, as well as abusing the health drops that spew out of every enemy on their demise — one of the few things Rage 2 does that I found genuinely quite interesting was to treat the player’s health pool as an alarmingly ephemeral thing, since enemy fire is actually quite damaging and if you’re trading shots at range you’re likely to quickly have your health whittled down unless you chug some of your limited supply of health potions. If you charge into the midst of an enemy group your health vanishes even more quickly, but when you’re up close you also have the chance to pick up these enemy health drops, which are a bunch of little blue vials that behave much like Doom’s Glory Kill health orbs. As long as you’re killing and getting the health drops, you can ensure that the rate at which you gain health exceeds the rate at which you lose it as a side-effect of being in the middle of a bunch of angry, tooled-up wasteland raiders — but the moment you stop, even if it’s to take cover or reload, your health starts dropping at a precipitous rate.

rage2_explosion

So Rage 2’s combat is built along the opposite lines to Bethesda stablemate Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. Unlike TNC, Rage 2 very definitely wants you to be in the thick of things, blasting away with your guns and using your powers with wild abandon. It’s structured its entire combat design around enabling that gameplay style, and it is the sole part of Rage 2’s design that actually lands properly. Rage 2’s up-close gunfights are about as good as anything on offer from Doom or Wolfenstein — at least to start with, before overfamiliarity has bred a healthy amount of contempt. Once you’ve invested in a few upgrades for your weapons and powers you can get into a zen-like combat flow: shoot, shoot, shoot, ground-slam to knock anyone nearby over, reload, shoot again. The shotgun is an excellent example of videogame shotguns, with a generously wide aiming reticule and a visceral sense of meaty force; because it’s a one-hit kill on most enemies if you can fill more than 50% of the reticule with their body (and because you can’t die if you keep on killing) the fights are very much like being in a shooting gallery, servicing targets one after another as quickly as possible. And despite the lack of real threat from the enemies, Rage 2 somehow avoids this experience becoming fully stale for, oh, a good five or six hours. It’s just that fun to shoot people.

Which is, incidentally, the last time you’ll hear me using the word “fun” to describe Rage 2. The rest of it is full of messy design that’s either incomplete or not joined up in the slightest, pasted over an open world that’s criminally underdetailed in both the narrative and literal sense of the word. I know that Ubisoft, for example, have roughly one trillion outsourced artists working on each of their games because that’s what it takes to get them looking as stunning pretty as they are, and Rage 2 is a great example of what happens when you don’t invest that effort: muddy textures, featureless locations and a lot of skyscrapers that are just big grey boxes that look like they’ve been slapped together in the level editor for the original Quake. It’s already struggling uphill because every game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ends up including a disproportionate amount of grey and brown, but after this and Mad Max it’s looking like Avalanche don’t have any more of an idea of how to make a wasteland look interesting than Bethesda themselves did with Fallout. Every set of buildings use the same corrugated iron shacks; every mutant hideout uses the same set dressing that looks like it’s been scooped directly out of a toilet. This lack of fine detail is a major contributory factor to none of these places feeling like places — they’re just geometry that’s been slapped together by an encounter designer for you to clamber over during a fight, and once the fight is over their value to the world’s sense of place is effectively zero. It takes a lot of work to stop an open world getting bland and samey, but Rage 2 feels like it’s barely even trying.

rage2_drive

Then there’s that design problem. Rage 2 has a dizzying array of currencies and upgrade points and reputation meters and none of them have had more than the most cursory amount of effort put into them to make them engaging to deal with. Take car upgrades, for example. The moment you get out of the tutorial you’re given a car which is pretty much a carbon copy of the one from Rage, complete with dual auto-tracking miniguns as the default weapon. You can upgrade it with some cursory additional bits: a bigger set of cannon, some missiles, a couple of health upgrades — nothing too flashy, but effective enough as an incentive to try and get the corresponding currency, which is Car Parts. You can buy Car Parts in shops and occasionally get them out of chests, but your main way of getting Car Parts is by doing the Convoy events that crop up on the map every so often, which involve you chasing down and destroying a heavily-armed collection of bandit vehicles. Convoy events always reward you with Car Parts, so you duly go off and do a Convoy or three and buy a few upgrades — and then quickly realise that you’ve bought every worthwhile upgrade the starting car has to offer. There are other vehicles in the game, but you cannot upgrade them; the only use for Car Parts is to upgrade the starting car and you’ve already maxed it out. Since Convoys don’t offer any other reward, and since they’ll just ignore you if you don’t shoot at them, you can in turn just ignore them from that point on. The problem with that, though, is that chasing the Convoys is the only time you will engage in vehicular combat in Rage 2. It isn’t tied into any other kind of event or any of the plot missions. So you’ve just wasted time upgrading your car to do an event type that you have no further use for once you’ve upgraded your car. And believe me, the vehicle combat is nowhere near fun enough to justify engaging in for its own sake. It’s completely segregated from the rest of the game, and an excellent example of why I think Rage 2’s design, on the whole, outright sucks.

It’s not an isolated example either, with the same bum note being hit again and again no matter where you turn in the game. Even the combat isn’t immune; a lot of time has been spent getting that close-range combat flow to feel right, but one thing I almost never did in Rage 2 was something I found myself doing all the time in the original Rage: switching weapons. Frequent weapon switching in an FPS is a fairly reliable indicator of good enemy design. Your weapons should be seen as tools to solve the problems posed by different types of enemies, and if you have a good variety of enemies you’ll be changing things up as you encounter each new type. It’s a satisfying thing for the player do; you’re thinking on the fly, picking the right tool for the right job when different enemy combinations mean the answer isn’t always obvious, and lending a more cerebral aspect to an experience that’s otherwise just entirely a matter of reflexes and hand-eye coordination.. As good as Rage 2’s shotgun is, my being able to get by with the shotgun and just the shotgun in every non-boss encounter belies some deep issues with its weapon and enemy design. Part of this problem is that the shotgun is arguably too good: it’s sickeningly powerful out to midrange and it has more than enough ammo to kill everyone in the average bandit camp several times over. But the major issue, as I see it, is that Rage 2 hands you a bunch of innate powers that you have to get right up into an enemy’s face to use and a health system that will sustain you when you’re nose-to-nose with some slavering wasteland mutants — and then gives you precisely one weapon that actually supports that playstyle. Oh, I suppose the assault rifle is also a decent weapon for running and gunning if you ever somehow ran out of shotgun shells, but everything else I used was either absurdly situational (the flame revolver) or else was designed to be used at range and thus rendered utterly redundant by the rest of Rage 2’s combat design (the rail gun).

rage2_minigun

I used these weapons a couple of times and almost died — and more importantly, had to spend a distressing amount of time standing in one place doing precision targeting for less damage than I would have inflicted with one shotgun blast — and then never used them again. Based on that experience I also stopped looking for new weapons to pick up in the wasteland; they’re scattered around in Arks that you have to hunt down, but since I didn’t see a literal chainsaw on the menu I didn’t see the point in wasting time acquiring guns that would ultimately just be worse than the one I already had. Again, it’s a lack of joined-up design, and one that’s arguably harder to understand than the car combat and upgrades being totally pointless: it feels like the weapon designers and the combat designers didn’t talk to each other at any point during Rage 2’s development and so it ended up having a set of weapons that only briefly overlaps with its combat encounters — but the weapon designers and the combat designers should have been the same people. It’s impossible to design one without designing the other, and there’s no excuse for the two of them feeling quite as disjointed as they do in Rage 2.

I haven’t spent any time yet talking about Rage 2’s plot, and for good reason: if I spent much more than a couple of lines laying into it I’d have expended more effort on Rage 2’s plot than Rage 2’s writers did. I’ll just say that after you get out of the tutorial there are a grand total of seven plot missions in the game, none of which take more than fifteen minutes to finish once you subtract the excessive amount of driving from one place to another that Rage 2 makes you do as part of any activity. The driving itself is curiously joyless for an Avalanche game; the car handles like a brick and nearly every single thing in Rage 2’s world — from rocks to fences to tiny plants that your heavily-armoured gunwagon should crush into the dirt — is a collision object that’ll stop you dead in your tracks. Any time you try to go offroad you’ll run into dozens of these collision objects and it makes taking a shortcut an absolutely miserable experience, and one that’s somehow slower than following Rage 2’s ridiculously windy roads. Since there’s no actual vehicle combat in the game (unless you’ve suffered a blow to the head and suddenly find yourself in the mood for taking on a Convoy) this means you spend a distressing amount of your time in Rage 2 slavishly following the stupid purple navigation chevrons the game helpfully overlays onto the road whenever you mark an objective on the map. It’s somewhat staggering, but Rage 2 is an open world game with fuck all to do in terms of actual exploration — the driving is too painful to do anything other than follow the road to your next destination, and the world is so bland that there’s nothing interesting to find in the wasteland even if you did.

rage2_map

Which brings me back to the question I got halfway to asking in my opening paragraph: why on earth does Rage 2 exist? It’s a sequel that falls far short of the standard set by its decidedly mediocre predecessor, let alone the (relatively) polished modern open world experiences from other AAA developers that it’s supposed to be competing against; it’s a sequel that, rather than learning from the original’s mistakes, instead repeats every single one of them while doubling down on the mediocrity as hard as it can. Nearly everything about the game outside of its combat feels like it was phoned in, like Avalanche got handed the IP by Bethesda and told to make a game out of it, but their hearts weren’t really in it. I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of Avalanche, and I don’t want to accuse them of not having any investment in the game they were making because I have no doubt there were more than a few late nights involved in getting Rage 2 out of the door, but that is what it feels like. My personal suspicion is that somebody at Bethesda noticed that Gearbox had spent several years chasing their own tails instead of continuing the massively-yet-inexplicably popular Borderlands series, and so decided to dust off the closest thing to it that they had lying around — the Rage IP — and gave it to somebody who might be able to do a decent job with it, but for whatever reason the drive wasn’t there from either the developer or the publisher to actually make it happen. And while I would have laughed in your face if you’d told me this would happen immediately after I wrote my Rage review back in 2013, it would at least explain why I’m reviewing — and largely hating — Rage 2 in 2019. That and my proclivity for bad jokes involving worse puns.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts: Rage 2

  1. This is a fun review, but I’m going to reiterate an opinion that I don’t see that often: Borderlands is possible because nobody else wants to make a true Diablo with Guns. Destiny and The Division are MMOs that need to be minutely balanced and capable of stringing players along for years on a steady stream of updates. The Division is also hamstrung by a relentless focus on “realism.” Neither game can ultimately allow players to have crazy, potentially game-breaking weapons.

    Borderlands, like Diablo before it, is content to let RNG combine with crafted content to go completely bonkers, balance be (mostly) damned. They even changed their art style deep into developing the first game to more effectively convey that reality.

    Nobody else seems interested in making that kind of game, though, so Borderlands gets all the money and popularity.

    • jack says:

      This is a great observation

    • Hentzau says:

      I very much agree with your broader point that balance should take a backseat to what feels fun. Borderlands somewhat grasps this, although I think it fails to commit to it as completely as it could do (maybe I just missed out on the best weapon drops though). However, that doesn’t change my opinion that playing Borderlands on my own bored me to *tears*. The weapons are a catalyst and help the game immensely, but if you’re not playing with friends there’s just not a huge amount there to catalyse.

      Still, I think you have a point: they might be average games, but there’s nobody else working in that space right now and so they have a gap in the market all to themselves. For what its worth I also think that the Borderlands series will also outlive games-as-a-service as a concept, since co-op hijinks with friends is an evergreen concept.

  2. Delly says:

    “I haven’t spent any time yet talking about Rage 2’s plot, and for good reason: if I spent much more than a couple of lines laying into it I’d have expended more effort on Rage 2’s plot than Rage 2’s writers did.”
    Snarkosauraus Rex, I love it.

    • Hentzau says:

      I think I’m mellowing in my old age since I try to avoid fully laying into terrible games the way I used to — or at least I try to target the game without catching the developers in the crossfire, since nobody deliberately sets out to make a bad one. There was something about phoned-in Rage 2 was that just set me off though.

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