Anger management — Rage 2 preview

When Bethesda first revealed that Rage 2 was on the way, it took a lot of folks by surprise. For one thing, the original Rage isn’t exactly fondly remembered. To be honest, I’m probably more of a fan of Rage than most people. Sure, the story was bland, there were rampant technical issues, the missions all felt the same, the driving was lackluster — OK, maybe fan isn’t the right word. But it was packed with interesting weapons and the combat just felt right, as befits a developer like id.

More than the surprise of another Rage, it was the sequel’s look that really caught people off guard. The first Rage adhered strictly to the law of 2010s shooter design that 80% of every game had to be brown. Our first looks at Rage 2 seemed specifically designed to counter that perception. Blues and pinks had been smuggled into the wasteland in everything from candy-colored explosions to mood lighting. Combat looked snappier and sillier, and the whole tone seemed to say that the end of the world was no excuse not to party hard.

With Rage 2 still a few months away, we recently got the chance to play a few missions and explore the open world a bit. The demo left me with quite a few questions about how the game will hold together in the end, but it did make one thing abundantly clear: It’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.

As id Software’s studio director, Tim Willits, made clear, everything we played is still pre-beta, so keep in mind that anything I touch on here is subject to change. Our demo also started about a quarter of the way into the main campaign, so I can’t comment on the game’s opening moments, though Willits did confirm that players can choose their character’s gender at the start.

The action in the demo kicked off in the town of Wellspring. That name will be familiar if you’ve played the original Rage, but the town itself is unrecognizable. What was once little more than a few shacks scattered around in the dust has grown into the closest you can get to a metropolis in the post-apocalypse. Our first task was to meet with Loosum Hagar, a minor character from the first game who has become the mayor of Wellspring in the intervening 30 years. This meeting was incredibly poorly timed, though, as bandits assaulted city hall as we made our entrance.

Unsurprisingly for the studio that basically invented the first-person shooter, Rage 2’s gunplay is already on point. I started with a loadout about as basic as you can get: pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun. Ignoring the pistol for this fight (and the entirety of the demo, and every FPS since Halo), I opened fire with the assault rifle until I was close enough to start popping heads with the shotgun. They both felt exactly how you’d expect them to with a slight twist: In Rage 2, most weapons have an alternate fire mode in place of a zoom. While holding the left trigger or right mouse button with the assault rifle simply brings up an iron sight for aiming, doing so with the shotgun turns your shots into concussive waves that launch enemies backward.

Later in the demo, I got to play with a rocket launcher, a rail gun, and a quick-firing plasma rifle, which all felt satisfying but standard. I also got my hands on one of the game’s wackier weapons: the grav dart. Shooting enemies with this gun embeds projectiles into them that don’t have any immediate effect, but when you activate its secondary fire, anyone who’s been hit is yanked in the direction you’re aiming. It’s very reminiscent of Just Cause’s grappling hook, with even more freedom to pull enemies around, since you don’t even need to tether them to another object. It lets you pull off some great tricks like slamming enemies into explosive barrels or gathering them into a dog pile for a devastating grenade toss. It also pairs well with what Willits said is a key tenet of id’s design philosophy: always giving the player the right weapon for the fight they’re in.

In id games, he said, “you’re a good guy. It’s a power fantasy. You always win.”

After dispatching the bandits without too much trouble, I went upstairs to meet Mayor Hagar. She wears the hardships of growing up in the wasteland and watching over a town full of violent miscreants on her face, and I immediately took a shine to her no-nonsense attitude — despite the fact that your introduction to her is a gun pointed in your direction. Though I liked the character, I was bored stiff by the reams of dialogue she spouted to set up my next mission, in which (without spoiling anything) I’d have to go meet a man named Klegg Clayton. Before he’d agree to meet me, though, I’d have to win a round of  the arena deathmatch Mutant Bash TV and a derby race — both of which are returning from the first game.

A lot of Rage 2’s combat revolves around positioning — both getting yourself into a good spot on the map and pushing your enemies where you want them. In the Mutant Bash TV mini-game, there were plenty of opportunities to toss enemies into spikes and other environmental hazards, but even just knocking enemies around the space gives you a lot of control over how you fight. Weapons like the grav dart and the shotgun’s alternate fire are useful here, but your nanotrite powers also do their share of heavy lifting. In the first game, nanotrites — tiny molecular machines injected into the blood — were used to bring you back to life when you fell in combat and were otherwise a plot element. In Rage 2, they’ve evolved.

Since the demo started a ways into the game, I already had a few powers to supplement my arsenal. I got the most use out of Shatter, a burst of force projected from you character’s palm. Like a beefier version of the shotgun’s alternate fire, it sends anything in melee range flying. A well-placed shot will launch whatever it hits like a golf ball with enough force to splatter enemies against walls. Another helpful ability, Vortex, draws nearby enemies and items toward a central point, then sends it all flying skyward. It’s great as an aggressive escape hatch when you’ve taken on too many foes at once and need to get them out of your hair for a moment. You can also ride its upward current yourself, setting you up for probably the most fun ability of the bunch, Slam. Using Slam makes you leap up and dive back down, damaging and throwing nearby enemies into the air. The best part about this ability is that the higher up you are when you execute it, the more powerful it will be. If you start from a high enough vantage point, you’ll come crashing down like a meteor, wreaking havoc on whatever is unlucky enough to be near the point of impact. The most restrained nanotrite ability is Barrier, which does exactly what it sounds like, popping a shimmering wall into existence a few feet in front of you. It’s certainly not as flashy as the rest of your kit, but you’ll be glad to have it when a rocket’s flying at your face, and it gives you a lot of control over the battlefield by cutting off angles of attack.

If the demo is any indication, combat in Rage 2 shines when you start combining all its moving parts. Using Barrier to cut off long-range attacks, blasting enemies off ledges with your shotgun when they get close, then diving down to finish them off with Smash feels great. With the sheer number of ways you can send foes flying, you can also live out your secret, shameful desire to be a juggler, keeping hordes of enemies aloft by chaining abilities and attacks together. And that’s not even mentioning the secondary items you can pick up, which include grenades, auto-turrets, and wingsticks — a kind of deadly three-pronged boomerang carried over from the first game. Given that the original Rage also featured things like deployable walking turrets and ammo that let you remote-control enemies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more inventive tools added later.

Even in the demo’s most chaotic moments, I didn’t see any signs of slowdown or any technical hiccups. Our demo was running on PC, where the framerate is uncapped. On PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, it will run at 60 fps, and on the standard PS4 and Xbox One, it will run at 30 fps.

I wish I had time to try out more complex combat scenarios in the demo, because that’s where the game works best at this point. The missions that I played also involved some driving, which felt a little rougher. For a game where you’ll presumably spend a lot of time driving through the desert, the vehicles in the demo were surprisingly poor at handling rugged terrain. The assortment of cars that I got to use felt great on the open highway that ran through the world, but as soon as I went off-roading, things slowed to a crawl as I got caught on rocks big and small and trudged at a snail’s pace up hills. To be fair, I only got to take a handful of smaller cars for a spin; the retail version of Rage 2 will feature monster trucks and likely other vehicles that can better deal with desert driving. One that we didn’t get to play with but got a tantalizing look at was a gyrocopter that lets you take to the air and bypass the craggy landscape entirely.

The weakest part of the demo for me was the racing segment I had to win to progress. Like its predecessor, Rage 2 looks like it will have a racing circuit built in, letting you climb the ranks to earn rewards. The course that I got to try was a fun but fairly generic-feeling loop over uneven ground, and I got stuck quite a few times from nudging rocks and then needing to go through a long process of wedging myself off of an obstacles that it looked like I should be able to drive over. Thanks to the aggressive rubberbanding of other racers, losing about 20 seconds freeing myself from the clutches of a small pile of rubble didn’t prevent me from winning the race, though. If you can avoid these snags, the cars actually control pretty well, and they’re fun to pilot through hairpin turns.

After coming out victorious in Mutant Bash TV and the derby race, I returned to Klegg Clayton. He’s introduced with a voiceover telling you that he’s a shallow fool who’ll do anything to win people’s loyalty and affection, and then proceeds to act entirely according to that description. It’s a quirk that Rage 2 seems to have in the few NPC encounters I experienced, where it tells you how to feel about a character, then immediately shows you why you should feel that way. Klegg is a caricature who feels ripped out of a Grand Theft Auto game, a mogul with completely unfounded political aspirations who hangs out in a dance club on the ground floor of a building with his name on the side of it. Despite being obsessed with his image, he’s almost perfectly round and has the least convincing blond pompadour you’ve ever seen. He also seems to fancy himself a shrewd negotiator, though by the look of things, he has no idea what he’s doing and he’s at the mercy of far more clever people.

Like Loosum, he also goes on at length, even taking a seat on his couch to more comfortably spout expository dialogue. It makes me a little apprehensive about how Rage 2’s story will play out, as the demo mostly spools out its plot by grinding the action to a halt for info dumps and broad comedy bits. It felt completely at odds with the rest of the demo, which all abides by what Willits said was one of the game’s defining assets — its over-the-top character. Surely there’s a more over-the-top way of advancing the plot than a chat on the sofa.

After my meeting with Klegg, I got into another action set piece in a series of underground corridors. Though the combat still felt excellent, it did mark the third time in the demo that I was forced into confined spaces to do battle with a shooting gallery of baddies. The hallways were so nondescript that I got turned around in the middle of a gunfight, and the repeating pattern made me wonder how long the game’s (again, phenomenal) combat will stay interesting if there’s not more diversity to the levels and situations you find yourself in.

“One of the great things about working in this post-apocalyptic world,” Willits said, “is anything goes.” It’s clear that the team took this idea to heart when designing weapons, abilities, and enemies. Hopefully, it’ll also play out in level design and story, too.

With the main missions out of the way, I mostly committed to driving around and stirring up trouble in the open world for the rest of my demo. Though I got a glimpse of the game’s forest biome, I didn’t see enough to really get a feel for it, spending the vast majority of my time in the desert. When you’re driving in the open world, you’ll often come across enemies on foot and in vehicles, and you’ll sometimes find convoys of souped-up cars guarding gargantuan land barges. I took on a few of these in the demo only to be swatted down like a gnat. In the final version of the game, you’ll be able to upgrade your main vehicle’s weapons, which ought to give you more of a fighting chance. Only your primary vehicle (called the Phoenix) can be upgraded, but any cars you commandeer along the way can be brought to a garage, which allows you to transport them to other garages you find when you need them.

Along with roving gangs, you’ll discover enemy strongholds covering the map so densely that when a staffer turned on all the location icons for the last leg of my demo, I could barely see the terrain anymore. They’re part of what gives Rage 2 what Willits called a “high distraction factor.” The most important of these distractions are the Arks: locked bunkers containing upgrades that you’ll have to blast through hordes of tough enemies to reach. Aside from those, outposts range from crumbling gas stations with a few stragglers living in the ruins to power facilities teeming with well-armed guards. Taking on these camps is a fun way to pass the time, and Willits confirmed that they’re all essentially self-contained levels, with no story or quests tying them together. The team specifically wanted to avoid a structure where players would have to clear a region’s outposts to progress. That doesn’t mean that busting up bandit camps is pointless, though.

Aside from the loot you’ll pick up around these sites, they’ll also contain challenges that can earn you street cred with the game’s various NPCs. Goals — like blowing up structures, finding hidden items, and performing tricky maneuvers in combat and in vehicles — are scattered around Rage 2’s world, and completing them will grant you points that you can cash in to buy upgrades for your character. Every challenge is also tied to a specific NPC, boosting your reputation with that character to grant you access to higher tier upgrades. Each of the upgrade paths is massive, with multiple branching trees to choose from. Only a handful of the upgrades were even viewable in the demo, but there was an exciting diversity to the bonuses they offered. Some did obvious things like boosting stats, but more interesting options included adding homing capabilities to your wingsticks, letting you spawn vehicles to your location, and giving you the ability to bat away airborne grenades with melee attacks. One tree lets you unlock a defibrillator, a tool from the first game that brings you back from the dead and damages nearby enemies in the process.

Taking down outposts felt very similar to destroying enemy infrastructure in Just Cause. Beyond just bringing aspects of their other games into Rage 2, Willits said that id needed Avalanche’s open world experience and focus on improvisational gameplay to really bring the game together.

“Sometimes when I talk with the team, we review a mission, and I say, ‘We need more Avalanche,’” Willits said, meaning adding more elements to the environment that players could find clever ways to interact with. From what I saw, this partnership looks like it will bring out the best in both developers, though I worry that Rage 2’s open world may come to feel like an unwelcome distraction from id’s tight shooting after enough time with the game.

Near the end of our preview session, Willits also revealed some details about DLC. There are plans for both paid and free content post-release, though it’s not quite clear what shape it will take. According to Willits, the game’s architecture allows them to insert new content more easily than in most games, and the team is waiting to see how players respond to the game so they can focus their energy on what fans want more of after its May 14th release.

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