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How two studios’ visions of Rage 2 contradict and cancel each other out

Rage 2 is one of those games that are just good; not bad, not great, there’s nothing so incomprehensibly bad that it hurts your head just thinking how that feature made it through the development process, or anything amazing about it that it would make me think about it long after I stopped playing. It’s just like *checks Steam library* Ziggurat or Okhlos: Omega, good games that I’ll play for a good while and then stop before they end or right after and never think about again. However, as I kept playing Rage 2, I kept seeing the lineage of previous great games from the two studios’ history (namely ID’s DOOM and Avalanche’s Mad Max), which made me ponder how come those two games are so highly rated in my mind, but Rage 2 is just fine? That question is what essentially pushed me into 24 hours with the game and seeing credits, and my answer is that while the basics from DOOM and Mad Max are here, the refinement, the commitment, and the ‘passion’ put into those games are not; moreover, while the mixing of those two games might sound like a dream partnership, in reality they contradict and cancel each other out living only segments of pure fun and a lot of time where the player CAN have fun, but is not FORCED to.

Let’s start with ID software: DOOM (2016) was a masterpiece; their “push forward combat” was a great twist, especially considering the mentality modern shooters have had recently, their design of the levels and “quality of life” additions (such as the best 3D map to date), and their self-aware and incredibly motivating story (motivating in that it makes you laugh and want to kill demons) are just some of the near-perfect components that made DOOM a near-perfect game. Rage 2 is a great example of their combat mechanics, which are not as well tuned or refined as their previous work. Basically, if you had told me what DOOM 2016 was about, I would have expected this; a great core idea that works well enough, but still needed time and resources to be shaped into the best version of itself. Guns feel great (especially the shotgun), but you’re never given any reason to use most of them; once you have the assault rifle, the shotgun, and the rocket launcher, you’ll never use the pistol or the hyper-cannon again. Ammo is plentiful and the tactical capabilities of the “core” 3 are all that you will ever need, so the rest of the guns are unnecessary in completing the game or the multiple missions you take—given that you can find most of them in any order you wish that should tell you how necessary most of the weapons are. Furthermore, the game feels thrilling once the “push-forward combat” mentality of DOOM is followed, but the reason that game is a masterpiece is because anything else will not work and the game does a stellar job at coxing you to keep that mentality on your own (as an example, try standing still in DOOM for more than 10 seconds, and if you are alive by the end of those seconds, then you’re playing the wrong game); meanwhile, Rage 2 has all of these powerful and satisfying abilities to use that propel the player forward, these awesome-feeling guns, the ‘regenerating health’ system (enemies drop feltrite when they die and based on your multiplier their rate will increase, giving you more feltrite and more of your health back, but the feltrite disappears after a few seconds) that encourages the player to keep their enemies close, and the overcharge ability that makes combat more pink and visceral, but the most effective way of dealing with foes is sitting in your car and shooting them from afar. Thus, the core of something great is here, but it is buried under monotony, identical looking and feeling enemies (that sometimes have armor pieces attached to them), and an effective and boring way of playing the game that never gets challenged; where DOOM forced you to keep moving forward and always be thinking about your health, ammo, different weapons and power ups, different types of enemies, and the vertical and multi-paths the level affords you, Rage 2 hints and suggests at the same things, but only forces you to point and shoot.

What about Avalanche then? How have they performed with their side of the game? In a word: Mediocre. Just like their recent output (with the exception of Mad Max), Avalanche’s formula for an open-world feels dated and lazy; you still have a checklist of the same activities for each leader, placed somewhat apart in this gigantic map that feels lifeless and becomes more empty the more you play, and you do those activities to earn various types of currencies that don’t get you any meaningful rewards on their own, but if you keep grinding you will notice the difference. This description is both for Rage 2 and Mad Max, but Mad Max felt more thematically and mechanically inclined towards this formula; it was a wasteland of many resources, because the humans were inconvenienced in the beginning but kept hoarding supplies because we are greedy animals (a theme explored by all the Mad Max movies); it was a bigger world than it had to be, because the possibility of running out of fuel and having to scavenge was a mechanical possibility that the player had to plan against or deal with, as well as allowing the player to be caught in one of the game’s headline features (the sandstorms); above all, Mad Max felt like a game with a vision: If you didn’t place a waypoint and started driving towards smoke and structures, you felt like a lonesome, slightly-insane, scavenger in a hostile world consumed by fire and sand, populated by scraps of a better, long-gone world, and madmen who wanted to kill each other; frustrations like boxes with scrap hidden in obscure places just to pat out the completion time, turns to head-cannon food for how these insane groups of savages have these hiding spots as their last defense (I genuinely imagined the War boys hiding those fucking crates and saying “they will never find my precious scrap here”). If you simply explore Rage 2, you will get frustrated: It will take you longer to get somewhere interesting and yield nothing of note in return. If you do one side activity over the other, you won’t change your experience in the slightest; you still go to a place, shoot enemies, and then play “find the pink lid, in the pink world” until you 100% that area and move on. The only interesting changes are the convoys (which are fine, but are not as good as the ones in Mad Max) and the sentries, which still involve you going to a place but you only shoot one tall building that shoots back at you and has different stages that do the exact same things every time; in a game like Mad Max or Just Cause (where the insane possibilities of your toolbox and the world benefit from the consistency of the mission structure and objectives), this formula can be made to work, but in Rage 2 it’s just mundane and mediocre.

However, if the two studios combine their expertise and vision into a singular experience, all of these issues could be forgiven or ignored, so that the good parts can come into sharper focus; unfortunately, this great sounding idea backfires and Rage 2’s most effective flaw is the fact that two great studios have two opposing ideas for the game that actively cancel and weaken their strengths with each other. Take for example the bandit camps: These are secluded, somewhat ‘levels’ that feature a lot of enemies; ID’s strengths allow me to go in with my shotgun and start obliterating enemies, while constantly being in danger of dying, however Avalanche’s car combat makes that practice the less effective method, because I could just sit in my car and shoot half of the enemies from safety. Furthermore, when I get out of the car and will have to engage the remaining enemies with my guns and my abilities, Avalanche’s design of the dens provides a lot of cover, which in turn incentivizes a medium-range combat engagement which in turn makes the game more passive; where ID creates a frenetic pace of bullets and metal, Avalanche wants to create a base to hide boxes in and populates the ‘level’ with waist-high objects that obstruct and frustrate the player; where Avalanche wants to create physics based battles of cars and steel set in a vast world, ID slaps guns into the mix and makes the battles more akin to point-and-click adventures. Design and intend are not the only areas these two studios conflict over, it’s all over the game. Take balance, for example: The abilities are on an initially long cool down, which discourages the player from using them too often until they have the necessary currencies to level up and unlock new traits for those abilities; however, you get those currencies by completing missions, which you complete with the most effective and boring way possible, which now is your “go-to” method that never gets challenged. So even though my abilities are almost instantly back after I use them, I still don’t use them regularly because I never had to; this is a prime example of ID’s willingness to give you an already powerful arsenal and then force you to use it, contradicting with Avalanche’s formula of giving you caveats to that arsenal and then handing you a skill tree to reduce those caveats and keep giving you regular shots of dopamine that will keep you engaged and feeling like you’re progressing in a satisfying way. But even where DOOM and Mad Max saw eye to eye, Rage 2 gets it wrong; both DOOM and Mad Max used ammunition to limit your use of powerful weapons and add an extra layer of strategy in combat situations. In DOOM, using your super shotgun on a regular enemy felt like a waste, missing your shots felt like ammo wasted, because ammo was not plentiful and getting ammo in the middle of combat (through the chainsaw) meant using a finite resource (and an insta-kill) which could save you later—it was a strategic and satisfying decision. In Mad Max, I only ever got a couple of dozen bullets, so every shot of my rifle or my shotgun meant that it was a shot I would probably never get back, so it had to mean something, it had to be an important decision. In Rage 2, there was so much ammo for all your weapons in every bandit den or pit stop or any of the world activities that it was virtually impossible to leave a place with less ammo for the guns I used than the ammo I went in with; even if you were to leave with no ammo, you get so much money that you don’t really need (and ammo is so cheap) that you can simply buy it from merchants. Furthermore, weapons like the assault rifle have contradicting upgrades like being able to holster the gun with the magazine empty and after some time go back to it with the magazine full (essentially begging you to switch to a different gun and keep shooting), but you also can get the mastery upgrade which puts ammo back based on your multiplier (essentially incentivizing you to keep using the same weapon with as much accuracy as possible).  

These are just some examples of the inherent contradictions in the game, but that doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have great moments in it. In fact, where the game truly delivers its most entertaining moments is when the two visions of Rage 2 are separated: Mutant Bash TV and Chaz’s Car Derbies. Mutant Bash TV is a series of combat arenas with score based results and challenges that force the player to be armed only with their guns and their abilities; no car, no cover, and a constant stream of enemies. Even the ammo is limited in this activity, so using just the shotgun is out of the question; you have to use most of your guns in order to have ammo for your favorites later on. The car derbies are, on the other hand, races for cars with no guns, so you have to use your car as a weapon and keep speed in order to finish first; the car physics combined with the race structure create this sense of controlled chaos where your eyes are firmly placed on getting first and using your dodge to ram cars into walls or off ledges is satisfying and fun.

What Rage 2 actually feels like is a dream-ending slap in the face; it would be awesome if two studios known for their mastery of specific genres or excellence over specific elements could combine and make a unique experience, but in reality game development is much more complicated than that. DOOM was a masterpiece because it had a uniquely intelligent idea that they fully committed to; if there was reloading, if the glory kills were longer or yielded cool animations only instead of health drops, if there was more ammo to pick up, if the combat arenas were designed differently, if the story was constructed and told differently, then the game would have been less good. Likewise, Mad Max may not be of the same standards as DOOM, but nonetheless: Had there been more ammo for your guns, if there were more fast travel locations, if Chumbucket could fix your car while driving, if the Wasteland was more populated with enemies and resources, it would have been less good. Mad Max may not hit the near-perfect balance of DOOM, but you can see, feel, and play the game they wish they made, because occasionally the systems, themes, and mechanics click together to create it. Rage 2 is nowhere near that standard; it’s not a bad game (in fact, it’s good), but it does not have the clarity of its studios’ lineage for it and those two inspirations actively contradict and cancel each other out.

Usually, I end these articles with a “do I regret the decision to buy and play this game or am I satisfied with my time and money commitment on it” question, but Rage 2 made me ponder something else: Should I have spent my 24 hours with Rage 2 on Mad Max or DOOM? Honestly, I’m not disappointed or unsatisfied with either my time commitment (I had a lot of fun) or with my monetary one (although I do wish it was around the 50$ price rather than full-price) for Rage 2, but the games, themes, mechanics, and systems it uses were so much better in their previous incarnations as fully though out and solitary components that although it was a worthwhile experiment and it led me to have a deeper appreciation of the directing of games as experiences, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more valuable if I had just spent more time with DOOM and Mad Max in order to pick up the same lessons from playing the games that got it right, and not from the game that tried to be both and got it wrong.

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