“Rage 2” feels like a last-generation game that has benefited from a contemporary coat of graphics. Similar to any number of post-apocalyptic shooters, it's set in a wasteland of burned-out cars and skeletal buildings overrun by mutants and maniacs whose fashion sensibilities suggest that punk will never die, even after its subversive aura has long been stripped away. The story line is so by-the-numbers that the best thing that can be said of it is that the writers do a nice job of maintaining a light tone throughout. This suggests to me that they were abundantly aware of how slight a piece of entertainment they were working on.
The narrative never shoots for big emotions, just decent quips and ostentatious puns. The one element that made me think they might be reaching for something deeper was that the hero of the game is from a place called Vineland, which made me wonder if someone on the writing team is a Thomas Pynchon fan. Pynchon has novel of the same name, and as anyone who has read him knows, the dyed-in-the-wool, anti-authoritarian author is a connoisseur of puns.
At the start of the game Vineland is all but destroyed by a military group called the Authority which is led by General Cross, an evil dude who resurrects himself at a later point using his own DNA. Before taking his leave, Cross brutally kills the leader of Vineland — a gruff, warrior-woman named Prowley. Depending on your gender preferences, you can go after Cross as Prowley’s adopted son or daughter — either of whom is named Walker. Assisting you to that end is Lily, Proweley’s biological daughter, who spends remarkably little time grieving over her mum. After listening to a holographic recording of Prowley, who had the good sense to figure out that the Authority would eventually off her, you strike out into the Wasteland to try to meet up with three people stationed in different areas of the land who’d very much like to see the Authority toppled. Closest by is John Marshall, a heavily-bearded old-timer who runs the outlaw town of Gunbarrel. Further away are Loosum Hagar, the Mayor of the Wasteland's biggest settlement, and Dr. Kvasir a wizened old scientist who enjoys riding on the back of one of his pitiful mutant creations.
All three nurse ambitions of putting into effect Project Dagger, a plan to infiltrate the Authority’s base and take out General Cross. To accomplish this you first need to level up your relationships with them by completing different tasks out in the Wasteland. You can ingratiate yourself with Marshall by taking out bandit camps and mutant nests; with Mayor Hagar by destroying armored convoys, roadblocks and large mechanical sentries; and with the doctor by tracking down useful tech upgrades housed in smallish podlike structures called Arks and by extracting “feltrite” from crashed meteors. “Feltrite” is one of a number a resources that can be used to upgrade Walker’s abilities. It’s also sometimes dropped by dead enemies, though it vanishes soon after they fall, which provides plenty of incentive to keep moving.
“Rage 2” goes out of its way to encourage you to fight aggressively. The quicker you rack up kills, the higher your kill multiplier goes, and the faster your Overdrive ability replenishes. With Overdrive activated you dish out greater damage for a short period of time while your health replenishes. The shooting in the game is tight, but who wouldn’t expect that given the storied history of id Software? Elite enemies are formidable without being bullet sponges and the bosses aren’t overtaxing. If all you’re looking for is good shooting mechanics, the game has you covered.
At the heart of “Rage 2” is an upgrade system that allows you to power up your weapons so that they handle better, operate over greater range, and carry more ammo. You can also upgrade your vehicle as well as a variety of abilities, including particularly useful ones like a dash that permits you to evade enemy attacks.
I’m a sucker for a good skill tree and in that respect “Rage 2” delivers. But having a better shotgun did little to make me forget that I was playing yet another game set in an overly familiar post-apocalyptic setting with forgettable side activities. At some moment during the time I spent with “Rage 2” the phrase “a game that’s confidently bland” entered my mind, where it’s lingered ever since.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.