Like everyone else who matters, I’m a big fan of George Miller’s 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw it in theatres three times, and by the third, I realized it would always be my favorite action film. So of course when the Rage 2 previews dropped, showcasing the trailblazing, dust-kicking vehicular exploration, I was sold. The map looked diverse, the combat looked like gory fun, and the aesthetic, while divisive, seemed like it was at least trying to say something. What we got was a hack-job side quest simulator with some stellar combat and an open world that manages to feel as barren as Mad Max’s desert wasteland (in a bad way).
From the opening moments, I felt tepid excitement at what Avalanche, makers of exclusively 7/10 games, and id Software, masters of the FPS, would accomplish. But when I was greeted with a clunky prologue full of characters who immediately died (or were never seen again) I pretty much knew where things were heading. I had a sinking feeling that the ratio of id’s influential level design and strong writing to Avalanche’s tendency to make a fun 5-minute gameplay loop and fumble everything else was way, way off. Turns out, I was right.
What you get with Rage 2 is about three hours worth of fun gameplay, pretty-good driving and vehicle combat, and about 10 hours of braindead checkbox ticking. The combat is fun – really fun – but as Cory Barlog says of many AAA games in that spectacular God of War documentary, the “what” might be fun, but the “why” is lacking.
Here’s the plot: Space Hitler has come to replace all humans with a thoroughbred race of cybernetic super-people, so he needs everyone to die. Because, apparently, a meteor wiping out a majority of the population just didn’t give the Authority (yes, that’s really what they’re called) enough room to be evil. Like, Christ, I don’t need or even expect a good-to-decent plot in my action FPS, but when you’re tasking me with bouncing around a huge map running errands, a little motivation or intrigue would definitely take the sting out.
And that’s what the game is: running errands. You’ll meet and recruit three main NPCs by completing one well-designed mission, then a bunch of boring color-coded side activities to boost reputation, then one more well-designed mission. Do this for all three, then play a couple more missions, and the game is over. Hell, even Fury Road’s plot structure was more complex, and it was pretty much a straight line.
Exploring the rich, beautifully crafted environments of the world, while initially awe-inspiring, soon became frustrating. The number of locales and stand-out vistas that populate the landscape are impressive, but the fact that each of them contains one of about four activities, all of which boil down to the same goopy carnage, is a crime. Once again, the shooting is really fun, but only one type of waypoint activity, “Arks,” grant new weapons or abilities. The rest of the progression, be it faction-specific “projects,” weapon and vehicle upgrades, or crafting blueprints, is certainly worth pursuing, but a slight boost to weapon ammo or health feels insignificant compared to finding a new weapon or ability.
Before finding many Arks, the combat feels incomplete and awkward. Movement abilities are limited and you’ve only got a couple of weapons to start out with, meaning encounters boil down to basic pop-n-stop fare. This means bum-rushing all the Arks straight away is the optimal way to play the game, but doing so immediately deflates any flow the plot may have cobbled together by that point. This is the prime example of the open world design of Rage 2 being at conflict with its core structure; it’s like they stripped away abilities and hid them around the map as the only means of encouraging exploration.
When I was being sent on a main mission by one of the three big-name NPCs, Rage 2 felt like a game that had the potential to be amazing. These are well-designed, interestingly paced missions through a variety of indoor environments curated for your abilities and weapons. It felt even better than DOOM at times, and I longed for more of these standard, linear set pieces. Unfortunately, they’re only a small part of the game, and when I was plopped back outside I felt like I was back to playing some weird, open world spinoff.
The decision to make this game open world at all constantly baffled me. Much of my time spent playing Rage 2 was spent hunting for “storage crates” with pink lids in settlements which were near copy pasted, or gas stations which were literally copy-pasted. Engaging with the combat is fun, fluid, and open to experimentation. Jumping from heights to slam into enemies, or sending them flying with an alt-fire shotgun blast means environments can be easily utilized to imbue blunt force trauma upon foes. The vast variety of weapons, including a revolver which lets you snap like Colonel Mustang from Full Metal Alchemist to light enemies ablaze, are an absolute blast to use. This is all a shame, because, to reiterate, much of my time was spent hunting down storage containers with pink lids.
This all sounds like a bit of a downer, doesn’t it? I actually did enjoy my time with Rage 2 more when I came to terms with its design. I started ignoring those dumb containers, and I tore around the map in my sweet car just ticking boxes. It was kind of therapeutic, but I couldn’t help but realize that the more I played the game, the smaller it felt. The characters, while fleetingly interesting, were never used for much of anything, and even the larger settlements felt like little more than set-dressing. It can be exhilarating to get into the flow of Rage 2‘s combat, gibbing fools and zipping around — it’s all the moments in between that feel like such a letdown.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided by Bethesda.