No disrespect but Avalanche Studios aren’t really known for making great games.
They’ve made fun games. They’ve made bad games. They’ve made niche games. But, great? The kind of thing you’d recommend to people beyond those who already play a lot of video games? I’ve never really gotten that vibe from them. It ain't their style.
Don’t get me wrong: I like those first two Just Cause games as much as any card-carrying “gamer” but, if I was to point at them, it wouldn’t be because they’re a super-great example of what the medium of video games is capable of.
And yet, in spite of this legacy (and its own smaller faults), Rage 2 feels like the closest that Avalanche have gotten to making an outright great video game.
Astute readers may notice that this review is coming in about two months after the game first released. This isn't ideal but various factors (the timing of Computex and the issues that Rage 2 had at launch with AMD drivers being the biggest ones) meant that we weren't able to play and write about this one until fairly recently. Still, Bethesda sent us a review copy, so we played it to the credits and wrote down what we thought of the game. Enjoy.
Rat in a Cage
Developed by Id Software, the first RAGE was a game that impressed critics on its technical merit but left many unsatisfied when it came to the actual gameplay and story involved. A hybrid of Mad Max and Fallout, RAGE was set in a post-apocalyptic near future where an asteroid strike wiped out civilization as we know it.
Releasing almost a decade after that first game and set several decades after it, Rage 2 sees you take control of a cybernetically-enhanced ranger named Walker. You get to choose Walker’s gender - which is neat - but either way the role is played with a little more personality than the first game’s Nicholas Raine. But, even if the tone is a little less grim and sombre, the structure of Rage 2 isn’t that much of a break from the franchise debut outing.
In typical video game fashion, Rage 2 opens with your base of operations being assaulted by the Authority, a technologically advanced military group intent on bringing order to the wasteland by force. After surviving the attack and being kitted out with some new ‘nanorite’ tech, it’s up to you to run, gun and drive their way across the wasteland and win the loyalty of each faction in the region in order to strike back at the Authority. It’s all very Far Cry.
However, there are two key things here that set Rage 2 apart from its immediate-predecessor. The first is that the writing and the setting itself is handled a bit better. It doesn’t quite hang together as cohesively as I’d like and the attempts at humor can be a little hit and miss, but on the whole - the world of Rage 2 is one that’s mostly fun to inhabit.
More than that, moment to moment, Rage 2 is just a whole lotta fun to actually play.
Where the first Rage emphasised the desperation and grit of surviving in the post-apocalypse, the second cuts loose in a big way. Rage 2 is unafraid to have fun with the setup and even more reckless and lackadaisical when it comes to the punchline.
Every weapon in the game has an over the top (and oft-cinematic) alternative fire mode.One gun shoots bullets that embed in your enemies and then explode when you snap your fingers. The game's already-powerful shotgun moonlights as a sonic canon capable of blasting enemies away at a lethal velocity. Running out of ammo in the middle of a firefight in Rage 2 doesn’t feel like a trial, it feels like an opportunity to get creative.
Add to that, Rage 2 also gives you a nifty set of nanorite powers to play with. The word is bunk but the abilities themselves are a lot of fun. You can dash across the battlefield at speed, launch enemies into the air, create gravity vortexes that pull enemies together and even bring yourself back from the brink of death.
The final piece of the puzzle here is in the sense of momentum that Rage 2’s various progressions systems are able to achieve. This next bit is gonna sound pretty quote-unquote video gamey but it always feels like you’re moving forward and making progress towards the next something or other.
Avalanche are pretty generous when it comes to doling out each of the game’s various currencies (though there are too many) and even more open-handed in how overpowered many of those upgrades make you. The more time you spend playing, the more options you have at your disposal and the more fun every combat encounter becomes.
This Lonely Road
Ultimately, the weakest part of the Rage 2 experience is the world. It’s a damned sight better than the original Rage. Sure. However, better isn’t the same as good. Where Doom, Prey, Dishonored and Wolfenstein have all found the specific tones and fantasies that they want to evoke, Rage 2 feels a little listless by comparison.
Rage 2’s wasteland is a little more generic than something than Fallout but it still takes a decent stab at bringing the usual staples of the genre to life. It ticks all the boxes but that’s about it. Mutant Bash TV returns, there’s a bunch of Trump references and Nicholas Raine (and other figures from the first game) even make an appearance or two - but it all feels borne of misguided obligation. Same goes for the vehicle racing and combat in the game. It's here but it doesn’t feel like they serve some greater purpose and it's far from a highlight.
The world might have been wiped clean but Rage 2 can’t seem to think of much to say about itself beyond “hey, shooting stuff and blowing it up sure is fun.” Not every game needs to have some high art ideal to it but, again, if you look at the rest of Bethesda’s battle fleet of franchises: Rage 2 feels like the odd one out. It comes across as shallow and hollow where a lot of its counterparts aren’t.
Where the wasteland of Avalanche’s Mad Max had an incredible sense of atmosphere to it, Rage 2’s apocalypse feels cookie cutter. The settlement and smaller locales have plenty of charm but everything else can be summed up as big. There’s a Big Desert area. A Big Forest. A Big Swamp. Given how video gamey it all feels, It’s honestly shocking there’s no ice or lava level in the game.
And with that openness comes a sense of emptiness. There isn't much in the wasteland of Rage 2 to actually do, nor that much reason to explore every nook and cranny. At times, it feels less like an open world and more like an open world game as cookie-cutter as these things come. It makes for a great backdrop to the action but, beyond that, there's not much of substance here.
The Bottom Line
At its core, Rage 2 feels like a foundation - and this quality works both for and against it.
For as much as I love the strong fundamentals in the game, there’s little outside of them. It’s all a little uneven and underdeveloped. There’s a charm in that roughness to be sure - but it’s not hard to imagine a version of this experience that reaches higher highs and succumbs to fewer lows.
Credit where it’s due, Avalanche have taken a relic of a bygone era and turned it into the game that the first Rage probably ought have been. Rage 2 resuscitates a franchise that was arguably dead on arrival.
Still, after blasting through the story in a scant seven hours, I came away a little unsatisfied. I like Rage 2. A lot. But I can’t help but wonder how much more could have been crammed in. What would a version of this game with more factions or biomes or even multiplayer look like? I’m not sure but I definitely want to find out.