There is a catharsis of conciseness at the heart of “Rage 2.” The last phrase you’ll want to use to describe id Software and Avalanche Studio’s latest romp is, despite its technical accuracy, “open-world.” “Rage 2” doesn’t trade in the pleasures most frequently associated with an open-world, and instead uses it as a playing field for what the people at id Software do best. Indeed, where the first “Rage” tried to stretch a shooter across an expanse, “Rage 2” does quite the opposite and threads an expanse through a shooter, and is all the more successful over a swift 15-hour campaign.
There’s a clear instinct across the game to buck the methodological approach complimenting many contemporary open worlds, and instead overwhelm the player with an internal anarchy that paints the “Rage 2” wasteland in the neon-highlighted accelerant of visceral, crunchy combat. A constantly pulsating soundscape accompanies your every pull of the trigger, thumping and scratching at your mind to forget the sights, forget the discovery, and just seek blood like a lunatic ought to. It works. Few games are like it in its determination to cut out the fat.
This game-wide pathos manifests most apparently in the type of player progression and build-up you’d typically see in a linear experience. Out in the wasteland, your waypoint accomplishments feed directly into the acquisition and subsequent amplification of a finely-honed set of increasingly outlandish player abilities and weapons. You won’t be looting or really discovering that much for yourself, as the game is keen to hand out upgrades in a deliberate way.
It’s the kind of player reward model that’s been most successfully fitted into tighter games like “Bioshock” and the latest “Doom,” the latter of which also developed by id Software and intensely enjoyable for its efficiency and focus in all things demonically violent. You could make a direct comparison between “Doom” and “Rage 2” on this front, but then you’d actually be selling “Rage 2” a little short. With the addition of superpowers that let you do things like launch into the air and ground pound a radius of baddies into red bits, or simply lurch forward and palm strike to a similar effect, you’ll move through crowds like a drill in whipped cream. Every action you take is on the pathway to becoming stronger, and for every uptick in strength you become more able, more wild, in combat. You speed up, hit harder, and take on more and bigger enemies with ease.
And a great advantage of this sort of constant ramping up of player ability is it undercuts any overwhelming need for aesthetic or combatant diversity, since what really changes throughout the game is what you can do. There’s a gun called the Grav-Dart Launcher, where the right trigger plants as many darts as you can on the enemy and the left trigger, after you aim elsewhere, perhaps as high in the sky as you can get it, yanks the darted enemy off in that direction. There was almost no practical reason for me to use this weapon, but the simple opportunity to try it out on foes is what made them enjoyable to confront. The same could be said for finding a new weapon in a looter shooter like “Borderlands,” but an ability in “Rage 2” is , of course, different. It’s not optional, it’s just your progression, it’s inevitable. But an open game world with inevitable outcomes is a tricky thing to design. Usually, such inevitability is reserved exclusively for the narrative side of things, where the preordained outcome is expected.
The challenge of pulling “Rage 2” together, and one that’s met in some places and failed in others, is to find a way to weave into an explorable space this type of player empowerment and visceral combat which seemingly requires a highly deliberate spatial design to work. The result could be described as aisles in a supermarket, scattered across a parking lot. They glow in the distance, beckoning and welcoming, then require that you fight through them in order to fill your cart with reward. Every aisle in “Rage 2” is at least subtly different, so while you may be fighting another batch of the same enemy, you’re still navigating a space with tact. Smartly, the best aisles in the game are arks, futuristic facilities built into the landscape that house those ever-so-important weapons and abilities. Finding one, furiously fighting through it, then gaining some new trick is every piece of “Rage 2” clicking into place. By this method, the “Rage 2” world is more or less funneled through its vision for what the player should become, and how the player should feel doing it.
When you aren’t deliberately hunting down an upgrade, you are constantly turning the corner into a new combat space, another aisle, and gleefully slipping down the funnel. Out in the open, the wasteland tries to deliver you some other violent thrill, whether it’s taking down a roaming vehicular convoy in your batmobile-like tank, or interceding in a fight between warring factions. It’s often the case you can simply follow the gunfire from one space to the next, and it isn’t so much the landmarks as the glittering pink and orange explosions, and screaming muties and super soldiers, that pull you down the dusted roads. There’s a zen to following the violence that certain culture critics would shake their heads at, but it works well to establish the hyper-irrationality that paints every corner of “Rage 2.” In this way you’re embodying the anarchistic actor in a post-apocalypse, like an actually mad “Mad Max,” and you’re conquering the wasteland as you rapidly move through it.
If we’re meant to see this little world as one to conquer, it’s in the time and activities where actions to that effect fail to purvey some sort of reward that the tight weave around its progression loop loosens. In almost any place that isn’t an ark, for instance, you’ll be rewarded with some kind of currency instead. Sometimes you’ll need two different types of currencies to unlock an upgrade to an ability or weapon, or a third currency to unlock a passive ability to more easily find your currencies, and suddenly “Rage 2” is less about tearing people up and more about combining your advanced degrees in hieroglyphics and statistical analysis to see if the upgrade guy at the center of town can do anything for you. Often he can’t because you’ll be missing one of the three separate and otherwise useless upgrade materials used to increase your base stats. There’s no reason for a game like this not to shorten the distance between action and reward as much as possible. Open-world trappings of this sort spill out of the player progression funnel and feel messy as a result. Then stumbling down a new aisle, for all its visceral reward, is somewhat undercut by the game’s deliberately cacophonous bean counting.
So, while not a single of the many neon-colored waypoints on your overworld map is without some kind ostensible reward – a storage container or an Ark chest with the aforementioned currencies – their impact on your player progression is oddly indirect.
In this way, filler material, anything not directly connected to or deliberately spaced away from the upgrade path, somehow feels more superfluous. These are the materials that you can use to craft health kits, which I never used, or the vehicular sub-missions, like racing or taking down convoys, which provide only vehicular upgrades, creating an odd closed loop of sorts on a reasonably well-built car combat subgame. Because the game’s catharsis ties so directly to its concise and often efficient execution of the player progression path, any deviation feels in some way or another less vivid. If that’s unfair, it’s only because the core of “Rage 2” works so well to convince you of the usefulness of those core actions.
Even the narrative, which sees you taking down The Authority and its nefarious, cybernetically-enhanced leader General Cross, ties itself directly to conquering every little waypoint in the world. In a nice bit of structural clarity, as you check off color-coded waypoint markers for your three color-coded allies, they’ll each unlock narrative missions which ultimately culminate in a finale. These missions don’t exploit your abilities in any particular way, but the whole ordeal chugs along at a nice enough pace that they don’t get in the way either.
And that’s the crux of it all. When the game isn’t getting in the way of what it really, truly wants to do, you’re high on your own reward and all the nuttier for it. You might even say you’re filled with a compelling sort of rage, too.