Within hours of playing through Bethesda Softworks’ new open world action shooter, I found inspiration.
Rage 2 isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road, as many would have us believe. It’s the John Wick of 2019 video games.
As does John Wick, the game knows exactly what it is. It’s pure action, style as substance and unapologetically intense. And certainly not ashamed of it. It even basks in its absurdity. Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.
As I progressed, the comparison solidified. Both begin with a tragedy. In the case of the game released this past week, a collaboration between storied developer id Software (Doom, Quake) and Avalanche Studios (Just Cause, Mad Max), this is a decimation of the protagonist’s stronghold called Vineland and the death of its matriarch at the hands of the cruel General Martin Cross.
What follows is, similarly, a straightforward revenge tale against the villain and his followers, collectively dubbed The Authority. Controllable character Walker dons the armor of the elite Ranger class of soldier, leveraging technology based on “Nanotrites” (yay science!) to power special abilities including a seismic ground pound and quick dash.
Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.
(I’ll admit momentarily that I don’t have much more than minimal experience with 2011’s Rage, so I’d argue it’s not a requirement. Though there are obviously callbacks and it can enhance the experience.)
Walker, with the help of best bud and mechanic Lily, is tasked with finding three individuals: a grizzled resistance leader named Marshall, Mayor Hagar who runs the game’s major settlement plus ex-Authority scientist Kvasir secluded in the swamp lands. These folks are integral to a project designed to halt General Cross, a maniacal jerk that’s been cloning himself in hopes of “living forever.” Upgrade progression centers around three skill trees, each based on character specialties. For instance, investing experience points into the resistance leader will enhance combat while the scientist will help with gadgets.
Now, I’m a firm believer that a game’s mechanics are of utmost importance. “Game feel,” as I say. If a shooter especially doesn’t feel right, if there isn’t enough feedback when shooting or indicators that the player is getting damaged, it can’t ever elevate above average. Luckily, Rage 2 is centered around its amazing gameplay, rivaling predecessors Doom and Quake which are both on the same game engine.
It feels like an open world Titanfall 2, with cooler combat abilities (minus the Titans, of course). Most of its weapons are distinct, from a standard assault rifle to a unique gravity gun that attaches to foes before swinging them where one’s heart desires. Each one is fully customizable with individual upgrade paths. Plus there are two different “modes” for each, hip-fire and aiming down sights, adding to the tactical possibilities. The standout here is the shotgun, a staple of these kinds of action titles. The punch of this particular shotty is near unrivaled in the history of shooters.
In terms of layout and pacing, this is where the map opens up; Giving freedom to progress any which way, to whittle away the defenses of each enemy faction: Authority, Goons, River Hogs, Mutants and the ominous “Shrouded.” A variety of vehicles, including a fantastic gyro-copter, allow for traversal across the wasteland. There’s noticeable downtime when driving, since hostile convoys are rare, however there’s normally a spot in proximity that catches the eye, enticing a visit. It’s almost like a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild formula, built on distractions that emerge as bespoke endeavors.
We gradually learn about how the game doles out points of interest. Exploring an area yields a question mark on the map and heads-up display, which could be any number of activities: bandit camp, towering turret, roadblock, power plant, fueling station, crashed meteor, resting place of a fallen comrade or the treasured “Arks” that house new weapons and sweet abilities.
While gameplay is essential, I also believe the player needs to be rewarded for their effort. What’s the point of all this spectacle? Rage 2 showers the player with experience points, materials, upgrade points and currency, which means that side activities and poking around the world are absolutely worthwhile. As I’ve said in the past, open world games are inherently repetitive. It’s how a game conceals its repetition that truly matters. Not to mention, opening a crate by punching it never gets old!
One aspect I’ve heard critiqued is its story structure. There aren’t many main missions, granted.
I pose a thought: Why is this necessarily be a bad thing? This actually gives flexibility for different player types. It’s setup in a way that it could be a tight, 8 to 10 hour experience if someone wants only to see the campaign. The alternative is to spend dozens of hours perusing the wasteland and racking up every ability and weapon, finding secrets along the way. In the world of Rage 2, high tech “Arks” are large vessels with goodies inside normally guarded by enemies. I found it tantalizing to seek these out, and felt an adrenaline rush whenever Walker spots a new one.
Even though it’s a plus that the game can be “mainlined,” it’s no doubt a generic action story that left me wishing it had more missions. It’s almost as if the team knew the fun would be in the open world rather than in its narrative, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but more of a mild disappointment.
I’ll point out that the story missions themselves are quite fun, especially for the scientist Kvasir, one of which has the player breaking into a space center to bring a satellite down from orbit. Its scope is particularly notable in a game that’s usually grounded.
Tonally, I noticed early on a disconnect between how the marketing campaign portrayed it versus what it actually is. Absolutely for the better. I was vocally skeptical about its tone being too cringey, with dancing enemies and “wacky” characters amidst bright pink and yellow color splashes. It’s actually more humorous and even can be charming. Item descriptions are creative, as are the names of non-playable characters (NPCs) at outposts. Combine this with a talking vehicle, voiced by Wonder Woman herself Lynda Carter, and the unique personas of the three main helpers, this tonal imprint is more subtle than the advertising proclaimed.
Yes, there’s an enemy type that uses a baseball bat to hit grenades towards Walker. Which means, of course, that Walker can volley them back by pressing the melee button. When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.
From a tech standpoint, it’s a mostly smooth experience on Xbox One X. Super crisp frame rate, even amidst the most frenetic of sequences, without noticeable hitching. Unfortunately there were a few hard crashes in the first third of my 30-hour play through, though luckily none after its latest patch. Really the only sticking point was how slow the menus are, which is ironic since everything else in the game is fast-paced.
When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.
I will note its desolate setting means that the world doesn’t feel as “lived-in” as other titles, even those within the genre. The wasteland is technically true to form in this regard, though I’ll reiterate that the spacing between areas is smartly designed in that activities are never too far away.
While I had a blast, it’s certainly not perfect. Driving around is fine, though vehicular combat leaves much to be desired. In fact, I had more fun flying in the mini gyro-copter than any combat encounter on the open road. Additionally, there’s only one upgradeable vehicle. I was hoping for more flexibility here.
There’s also a type of horde mode called Mutant Bash TV, which adds to the world-building however I found it to be underwhelming. Racing, on the other hand, is way more fun even if a temporary distraction. Occasionally, one of the NPC from the game’s racetrack will flag Walker down on the road, trying to coax into an impromptu race.
Ultimately, I went into Rage 2 with minimal expectations, if not expecting to be turned off by its tone and determination to be “cool.” I’m happy to say with certainty that I was wrong about it.
It’s a special thing when a game subverts expectations to leave a more lasting impression than ever thought possible. This is my experience with Bethesda’s latest, a wild ride with quick combat sequences and more subtle world-building than appears at first glance. If John Wick is the movie equivalent of a video game, then Rage 2 is its often thrilling and always unabashed gaming counterpart.
Sources: Bethesda Softworks, Internet Game Database, Rage Wiki, Screenshots captured on Xbox One X (Except Artwork & Enemy Close-Up).