Rage 2 Hands-on Preview: A Trip to the End of World with Bethesda

We've played Rage 2, Bethesda's newest post-apocalyptic shooter, and have plenty of thoughts about the game!

Pink is an important color when it comes to Rage 2. According to id Software studio director Tim Willits, the color represents the game’s ’80s hardcore punk aesthetic, one of the many ways Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic title separates itself from its drabber older brother over at Bethesda Game Studios. 

“That color resonated well with the personality of the game,” Willits explains during a behind-closed-doors demo event in New York City in January. “It’s a fun color, it’s a fun game.”

Rage 2, the sequel to id’s well-received 2011 first-person shooter, is actually a collaboration between the legendary FPS developer and Avalanche Studios, the team behind the Just Cause series and the excellent Mad Max. In fact, it’s the latter game, with its gorgeous recreation of the Australian wasteland, colorful characters, and stunning muscle car action, that should really excite players about this match made in heaven (hell?). 

Still, the bright colors — the pinks and yellows that permeate the game’s trailers and Rage 2‘s world itself — are a bit of a departure for this franchise, which in 2011 dealt in a muddy brown more akin to those beloved George Miller movies. The newfound brightness in Rage 2 acts as a sort of mission statement for this over-the-top, action-packed romp through a hellish landscape.

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“When we set out to make the game, we wanted to have it stand apart from the original,” Willits says. “The first thing I wrote on a whiteboard when I met the Avalanche team was ‘more crazy than Rage.’ Which led to more of a fun punkish vibe.”

After spending more than an hour with a pre-beta build of the game, completing quests that took me from the set of a televised mutant-killing competition to a deadly raceway where there are no rules, there’s no doubt that id and Avalanche held nothing back on their quest to achieve “more crazy than Rage.” For the most part, this approach works, even if certain aspects of the game come off a bit muddled in the name of making Rage 2 as extra as possible. 

You play as Walker, a super-science enhanced ranger with special abilities, 30 years after the events of Rage. While my demo began about 25% into the game, Willits explained that the story actually opens with the destruction of Walker’s settlement, Vineland, at the hands of the Authority, which has returned after all these years to retake the Wasteland. Walker, fueled by a thirst for revenge, decides to take the fight to the Authority and bury the militaristic faction once and for all. 

Along the way, Walker meets familiar faces and visits a few recognizable locations, such as Wellspring, a walled safe haven that’s looked after by Mayor Loosum Hagar, a character players first met in Rage. (Interestingly enough, Loosum dies in the Rage novelization by Matthew Costello. I guess id and Avalanche decided to kick that from continuity.) This is where my play session began. 

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Both studios have put some real love into building up this world. Willits says that in Rage 2 the world has moved on from the basic struggles of finding water, food, and shelter in the aftermath of the Earth-shattering asteroid crash that left civilization in ruins.

“What happens after we no longer have to search for water? What does the world look like once we’re not so desperate to survive? What’s the next step?”

That question is answered in Wellspring, home to a bustling marketplace, a cantina, a private lounge owned by the wealthiest man in the Wasteland, and even a skyscraper that overlooks the town. It’s here where I first encounter the many quirky survivors of Rage 2.

Since I had limited time to experience the bit of story content featured in the demo, I didn’t get to explore the many side missions, shops, and points of interest at my disposal inside Wellspring. But even if you’re someone who likes to get to the next objective as quickly as possible, id and Avalanche do an admirable job of distracting you with fun pieces of environmental storytelling.

Walking through town, I encountered two men arguing because they were wearing the same revealing outfit. Another guy was banging on the door of a port-o-potty because he really needed to go. There was a line of people begging a guard to let them into the aforementioned lounge, but he was having none of it. There were a few NPCs waiting to give me side quests, too. Talking to them revealed tidbits about other regions on the map.

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Not long after my tour of Wellspring, bullets and bandits started flying. id and Avalanche have really focused on making Walker feel as powerful as possible. You have plenty of ways to murder people during combat besides the classic assault rifle, shotgun, pistol combo. In terms of new weapons, there’s a gravity gun called the Grav-Dart, which lets you tag bad guys by shooting darts into them and then launch the tagged enemies into the air with a press of a button. It’s an entertaining bit of carnage that will more often than not see your opponents ripped to pieces. 

There’s also the return of the Wingstick, which serves as both a support tool and a gruesome medieval weapon that can scalp or decapitate bandits. (Have I mentioned that this game is gory as hell?) When facing armored opponents, you can also use the Wingstick to knock off their helmets, leaving them vulnerable to headshots. Of course, simply cutting their throats open with said boomerang is way more satisfying. 

Shiny, new weapons are great and all, but Walker’s Nanotrite abilities are the true stars of the show. Physics-based attacks such as Shatter, Vortex, and Slam give you a major edge against the heavily-armed psychos roaming the Wasteland. Vortex, which activates a mini-black hole that sucks up your enemies, is a particular favorite, as is Slam, which sees you fly into the air and cannonball back to the ground, sending a shockwave that turns thugs’ bodies into little meaty bits. Shatter works as a “Force push,” but where a Jedi is happy to see your head and arms pop out of their sockets when you hit a wall. There’s also a Dash ability that allows you to dodge attacks quickly.

Willits revealed that there were also some Nanotrite abilities in development that didn’t end making it into the game for one reason or another: “We had all kinds of abilities. We had the pull ability, which didn’t quite work.”

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Needless to say, I never really felt overwhelmed during combat. Even when facing off against a horde of mutants or Goon Squad raiders, killing enough enemies charges up your Overdrive meter, which buffs up your attacks and replenishes your health. You’ll want to use plenty of combos during combat to recharge your Overdrive meter as quickly as possible. 

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There’s an open-endedness to the combat that seems to hint at plenty of techniques that even Willits hasn’t thought of: “I really expect to see some crazy YouTube videos of people doing stuff that I did not realize you could do.”

All of these weapons and abilities are fully upgradeable through a branching skill tree. You can gain skills by completing missions for three specific characters, including Loosum, who will give you Engineering points. Working with Sheriff John Marshall and Dr. Antonin Kvasir will earn you combat and Nanotrite upgrades, respectively. 

To unlock new weapons, clearing out enemies surrounding technologically-advanced Arks scattered across the map is a must. The rocket launcher, for example, is located in one of these Arks, giant structures that once protected the lucky few members of humanity chosen to survive the apocalypse. The secrets hidden within these Arks are enough to make them constant points of conflict in the Wasteland. 

Overall, the combat feels fluid, although I found the controls to be a bit stiff at times, especially as fights with multiple opponents became more frantic. Nanotrite abilities need to recharge every time you use them, so spamming those powers isn’t really an option. The recharge timer is also a bit too slow, which sometimes broke up the pace of a fight. But you still have all those other conventional weapons at your disposal, including a rocket launcher I used to blow up a tank guarding a bandit camp, even if they play second fiddle to the Nanotrite powers. 

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Driving, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, unfortunately. After a fight in the mayor’s office and a quick bit of mission exposition from Loosum, I was sent out beyond the walls to complete a set of challenges in order to get into Wellspring’s “champions” lounge, owned by the wealthy Klegg Clayton, son of the former mayor of the town. Klegg has ties with the Authority and Loosum wants to prove it. Happily jumping in a heavily armored tank-like vehicle, I expected to zoom through the map as I had in Mad Max

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That wasn’t really the case, at least not in this pre-beta build, which suffered from glitchy controls and sluggish handling. Sometimes, the main vehicle completely ignored my button commands. Trying to turn a corner, even at a slow pace, often sent me skidding off the road and into a rock wall. Forget trying to challenge assailants on wheels. They’re faster than you and will outrun you, even if you’re spamming the boost button, which will hurtle you into an even more difficult to maneuver path to self-destruction. 

The main vehicle also came with a few weapons, including a turret that sprays bullets at bandits on foot. (I was really hoping for a harpoon.) Even the weapons lack oomph and are hard to control. After a while, simply running over bad guys seemed like a better choice…when this deathtrap on wheels wasn’t on fire from taking so much damage. (It had a surprisingly short lifespan for an armored ride.) 

I found driving and vehicular combat to be the most disappointing part of the demo. A racing section I had to complete at ChazCar Derby also felt uninspired, more of a means of getting to my next objective than an enjoyable side activity I’ll return to again. Willits did tease a cool little feature where a race is dynamically created anywhere on the map if you run into a race car driver and honk at them. I didn’t encounter one of these activities, though.

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It’s possible that my expectations were a little too high due to my love of Avalanche’s Mad Max, not to mention the studio’s masterful traversal mechanics in the Just Cause series, but what I played in this build is not going to cut it. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of time for Avalanche, which is actually taking point on this project, to fix things. 

That said, driving isn’t the main focus of Rage 2, even if it’s a major component that, to my estimation, will take up a very big chunk of your time in the game.

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“We didn’t want to make a car driving game,” Willits explains after the demo session. “This is a first-person action shooter with cars.”

Indeed, Willits spent a lot of time helping Avalanche design an id-style shooter within an open-world setting: “They call it ‘Willits University.’ The level designers come in and we sit down and we talk about what all good levels need. How to build corners and turns and places where you can have cover.”

But it’s not just Willits teaching class. The id man has learned plenty from Avalanche’s expertise in open-world games, too.

“As an id guy, I think, ‘Well, I’m gonna start here, something’s going to happen here in the middle, and I’ll end over here.’ And they’re like, ‘What if you drive the tank into the back door, what if you approach it like this?’ I never thought of that. So while I’m teaching them classic id-style level design, they’re also teaching me how to not make classic id-style levels.”

“The single biggest focus of development for us has been trying to ensure that this feels like an id-style shooter that also has some of the playfulness and emergent behavior and unexpected results and crazy physics from Avalanche,” John Fuller, the chief production officer at Avalanche who previously served as senior producer on Mad Max, says of striking the delicate balance between an id shooter and an Avalanche open-world action game. (He arrived midway through the post-demo Q&A to answer our Avalanche-specific questions.)

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This transition between id and Avalanche was showcased during the Mutant Bash TV section of the demo, where I faced hordes of rabid mutants in a televised gauntlet hosted by the raunchy Desdemonia, a blood-drinking mistress who has sex slaves to do her bidding and many people willing to die for a chance to become famous. 

This fight for survival, which was made up of different rooms full of baddies and obstacles such as buzzsaws, offered up the best display of combat and level design, as I shot and smashed my way through mutants while dodging the sharp blades ready to rip me to shreds. All the rooms offered up an environmental challenge as well as unexpected spawn points for enemies. At one point, mutants rained down from tunnels above me and I had to quickly perform a Slam to give myself some breathing room. 

If I have one gripe with these id-style sections, it’s that the fights lacked the difficulty you’ve come to expect from games like Doom and Wolfenstein. You feel so overpowered in Rage 2 at times that you start to wonder if the challenge will ever come. Perhaps that’s just a cocky journalist talking after he got to start the game with a few souped-up abilities already at his disposal?

Even a fight with a giant mutant monstrosity named Rukkus in the sewers of Wellspring — a trap sprung by Klegg Clayton after I got into his penthouse and planted a bug on his computer — wasn’t enough to make me feel like my back was truly against the wall. Rukkus turned out to be a bullet sponge that you can take down with a few shotgun rounds to the face. 

It’ll be interesting to see what the skill curve is like at launch. I suspect that you won’t be roaming the Wasteland like a god right from the start, especially when unlocking all of the different weapons and upgrading abilities means that you’ll have to complete a mix of main missions as well as other activities, whether it be securing Arks, clearing out bandit outposts, attacking a convoy, or just collecting things.

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There are a lot of different things to do in Rage 2 and Fuller hopes that you’ll take your time with the game instead of rushing through the story. 

“One of the hallmarks of an Avalanche game is that, if you do it in the shortest amount of time possible, you’re not really playing the game as its meant to be played,” Fuller says. “Imagine you just did the shortest route of the main missions, it’d be like you missed all the fun. You missed what makes it systemic, what makes it emergent, and what makes you able to create scenarios yourself by what you do. It’s a sandbox.”

But Fuller also acknowledged that not every gamer wants to go down a checklist of objectives when they play games. I, for one, abhor fetch quests and collectathons, and I almost always refuse to complete them…unless they’re pivotal to progressing through the story. According to Fuller, Avalanche is working to find the right balance between main missions and grinding a shopping list of activities.

“I think grinding feels like grinding if it’s the only place you can turn. Once you get sick of something, you want to be able to go over and do something else. So what we tried to do is cater for different playstyles,” Fuller says. “We’re not over-engaging. That’s one of the things that makes people sort of backfire a little bit. ‘If I like it, I’ll do it. But if I don’t, don’t force me.’ We’ve been careful about that as well.”

Different environments throughout the map should offer up a bit of variety, too. While I spent most of my time in the desert surrounding Wellspring, a presentation before the demo also promised us forests, swamplands, and even snowy mountains. A day and night cycle will also influence how you approach certain activities.

One thing that’s still up in the air is whether the game will include any microtransactions. While Willits confirms that Rage 2 will receive both free and paid content updates, the studios are still deciding how best to deliver that paid content. 

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“We’re looking at that. We will have paid content. We just have to make sure we deliver value for the people who are buying it.”

Bethesda is one of the many publishers that’s faced backlash over microtransactions in its games, particularly the online multiplayer sandbox Fallout 76, which hasn’t really paved an easy path for Rage 2. id and Avalanche are both still in our good graces, though, and I’m optimistic about their latest project. 

There’s a lot to like about Rage 2: its over-the-top characters (except Klegg Clayton, who could quite possibly be the most annoying NPC in recent video game history), insane physics-based abilities, open-ended combat, and effective world-building. It does stumble at times, especially during the driving portion, but these are kinks that these studios still have time to iron out. I hope they do. 

Rage 2 is out on May 14 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. 

John Saavedra is Games Editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9