Rage 2’s open world looks beautiful from the moment I set eyes on it. When id Software studio director Tim Willits loads into the developer sandbox to showcase my character’s abilities, I notice the heat haze rising up as the sun beats down on the desert sand. As I enter the game itself, I can see roads winding down into the valley below and cloud-capped mountains on the horizon. From a distance, what’s on show here is impressively detailed. Once you get up close, however, Rage 2 is little more than a soulless vector for its combat.
Arriving at a major hub town towards the beginning of the game’s story, it’s not long before I’m sent into trouble. My mission? To make enough of a name for my character – a ranger named Walker – that a bouncer will let me into his seedy nightclub, where I can meet his equally seedy boss.
To do that, I’ll need to run a gladiatorial gauntlet and win a race in my beaten-up car. I head out towards the mission markers, but in no time at all I meet my first distraction. A petrol station by the side of the road is filled with bad guys, offering the first real opportunity to try out my gear.
As well as an impressive arsenal, Rage’s protagonist has access to a handful of abilities to help tip the scales in their favour: one launches you into the air before slamming you into the ground, scattering your enemies; another lobs a grenade that drags physics objects towards its epicentre, letting you line up the perfect shot as your enemies flounder in mid-air.
Or I can throw up a shield to dodge a projectile, dash towards an opponent, and use another ability to smash them to pulp. My favourite trick up Walker’s sleeve, however, is the Wingstick, the angry offspring of a boomerang and a razor blade. Making a welcome return from the first game, it scythes viciously through the air, decapitating any goon unfortunate enough to be in its path.
As I blast my way through waves of enemies, my shotgun thunders in my hands. Some enemies immediately go flying as my shells slam home, while their more effectively-armoured friends try to withstand the onslaught, barely able to keep their feet on the ground. I swap to my assault rifle and makeshift armour plates fall away as the weapon chatters energetically. As the bloodshed continues, I activate my Overdrive – the ability gives me a burst of healing and an impressive damage buff. The last few goons are quickly dispatched, and I finish off my final adversary with a melee kill that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Mortal Kombat game.
Rage 2’s combat is plenty of fun, but my concern is the world that strings it together. I never felt that there was anything to set it apart from the ideas that have clearly inspired it. It’s Borderlands meets Mad Max by way of Fallout, and although Doom is clawing at the surface waiting to be let out, the framework that brings these combat encounters together feels lifeless. Environments like the petrol station I stopped at are strewn across the landscape, but it doesn’t take long before I feel like I’ve already seen it all.
Most of the post-apocalyptic outposts I come across feel like Bethesda’s least imaginative offerings – strip malls and housing estates that barely hold a candle to Fallout 4’s most mundane settlements. Each of them feels lifeless, my enemies lounging around as if they’re just waiting for me to show up. Once I do, there’s a brief rush of excitement, but I polish my adversaries off with minimal resistance before jumping back in the car and heading to the next point on the map. Occasionally I come across a car chase, or a couple of bandits taking potshots from the side of the road, but these encounters soon prove so trivial that within an hour I pay them barely any notice whatsoever.
Things don’t get much better when I arrive at Rage 2’s set-pieces. My gladiatorial effort feels claustrophobic. Featuring on a TV network called Mutant Bash, I’m sent from killbox to killbox, dispatching baddies from rooms barely bigger than the corridors leading up to them. The idea of televisual spectacle is presented but never backed up, waves of enemies coming at me out of rooms that lack any sense of scale. The towering racetrack achieves a greater sense of post-apocalyptic grandeur, but the race itself doesn’t present any real challenge. When I don’t see another vehicle after my first lap, it almost feels like tacit admission that this whole ordeal is just busywork.
But it’s the characters gatekeeping those set-pieces that really turn me off Rage 2. The mayor of Wellsprings, Loosum Hagar, is the exception to the rule, exuding a sense of quiet decorum that’s entirely absent from the rest of the game. But beyond her, everyone I come across is simply repulsive. The despicable host of that gladiator gauntlet is horrifying, a twisted pastiche of Borderlands’ Mad Moxxi after years of substance abuse, flanked by underwear-clad henchmen in massive baby heads.
Returning to Wellsprings, I find Klegg Clayton: egocentric and aggressive, he manages to overshadow his other personality flaws with how achingly boring he is. His nonsensical monologues are nearly impossible to keep track of, and I’m almost glad when he figures out that I’m not planning on going along with his schemes and turns on me. It’s one thing to not like an antagonist, but they need to at least be able to hold your attention, however awful they might be. In Rage 2, it feels as if the bad guys are just awful for the sake of it.
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Rage 2 has promise as a romp-filled shooter. Its combat is largely impressive, although I wish I’d been able to experience it in a slightly grander setting. My wider concern is that it’s not enough to fill this sprawling but empty open world. There’s nothing meaningful waiting off the beaten track, which makes me wonder why id abandoned Rage’s linear roots in the first place.