I had certain expectations before sitting down to play Rage 2 at a recent preview event, thanks mostly to the game’s pedigree. What I wanted was the love child of Avalanche Studios’ battle-tested wacky open-world philosophy with id Software’s special jouissance of brutal, gib-filled shooter carnage. I wanted the visceral, nonstop action of 2016’s Doom mixed with the over-the-top gadgetry and stunt-driver chutzpah of a Just Cause. Instead, what I got was the video game equivalent of clunking around freshly fallen snow in winter boots.
The demo I played started a few hours after the game’s opening. You play as Walker, a ranger whose home is destroyed by the Authority, a group that was thought to have been totally dismantled following a 20-year war that kicked off following the events of the first game. As Walker, I was on my way to talk to Loosum Hagar, who was now serving as the mayor of one of Rage 2’s surviving outpost cities, Wellspring.
If that already sounds like there’s a lot of Rage lore you’ll need to bone up on, you don’t really have to worry about it. Fans of the original will be pleasantly surprised with just how many references and how much world-building comes across in Rage 2, but if you never played the first one (or if, like me, almost completely forgot about it), you won’t feel lost.
In fact, one of Rage 2’s strengths, from what I’ve seen, is how it metes out its storytelling. Loosum suspects that one of her rivals in the city, the deceased former Mayor Clayton’s son Klegg, is planning some sort of coup, so she tasks Walker with planting a device on Klegg’s computer that will tap into his emails. The problem is that, in order to get into Kleggl’s private club, Walker needs to become a superstar in both a rally car-style racing competition and on a post-apocalyptic version of American Gladiators called Mutant Bash TV. After winning gold in both competitions, Walker returns to the club, only to face off against the Klegg’s security force and gigantic pet mutant.
I really liked the multi-step structure to this main story mission, and I’m hoping the rest of Rage 2’s campaign plays out similarly. There was enough distance between each mission that I could go off and explore if I wanted to but not enough to get completely sidetracked, and the missions themselves never overstayed their welcome.
One thing I wasn’t too fond of, however, was the open-world itself. Granted, I only saw a small part of it, but so far Rage 2’s overworld doesn’t seem as rich or as dense as those in other games. For as many open-world games as Avalanche has made, they still haven’t totally figured out how to make a map that’s truly memorable. I think that’s by design, considering their open worlds are usually meant as little more than backdrops for their ostentatious action, as opposed to series like Grand Theft Auto or Fallout, where the worlds are main attractions. But Avalanche’s attitude of function over form doesn’t really suit Rage 2, which is dripping with personality in its characters, weapons, and more condensed city hubs. The world itself seemed as generic as that of 2015’s Mad Max, and the deep canyon trenches throughout the map limit where you can go and how you can get there. If the biggest problem you had with the original Rage was that its open-world design felt perfunctory, I’m not sure Rage 2 solves it.
The other thing that stood out as feeling slightly undercooked was the shooting mechanics. Maybe Doom just spoiled me, but I was expecting Rage 2 to at least have some of id’s signature muscularity. The guns, in comparison, felt like they lacked punch, especially the game’s shotgun. The range on it felt limited and the effect of hitting an enemy with it wasn’t as viscerally satisfying as I’d expect from a game with the id logo stamped on the box. Even just moving around felt much slower and clunkier than I expected, feeling closer to Far Cry than a Doom or a Wolfenstein. The same goes for driving, which I found surprisingly cumbersome. Considering Avalanche has plenty of experience with open-world driving, I was disappointed with how much being behind the wheel felt like an obligation rather than a joyful experience, and it made me wonder what kind of complications I’d face when tackling one of the game’s convoys.
Thankfully, the weapons themselves provide the kind of variation you’d expect from an id-influenced title. Aiming down the sights offers a secondary fire mode for every gun. Doing so with the pistol, for instance, gives you a burst-fire mode, while the shotgun offers a shockwave that can send enemies flying. All weapons can be upgraded, as can the abilities, which are the main stars of Rage 2’s combat. Walker is armed with several special powers that are incredibly satisfying to use. Shatter is like a force push that can slam enemies against walls or explode their skulls, while Vortex is like a gravity grenade that sucks enemies in and then suspend them in the air for several seconds, lining you up for a devastating rocket launcher blast. Comboing these abilities to clear out a room of bad guys is Rage 2’s most prominent thrill, but you’ll have to unlock them and their upgrades by traveling to Arks stationed throughout the open world if you really want to get the most out of them.
I came away from my time with Rage 2 as much on the fence as I was before I played it. I’m still looking forward to playing from the beginning and seeing where the story takes me and experiencing the game’s colorful world, but I’m hoping that Avalanche still has time to fine-tune basic mechanics like—you know—driving and moving.