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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (356)

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Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5

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Rage 2   PC (Steam) 

Power Through    4/5 stars

“RAGE 2” is the sequel that no one asked for and no one expected. Way back in 2011, a year before my official return from complete PC gaming apostasy, id Software – the brain trust behind the very (dismal) origins of the FPS genre with series like ‘DOOM,’ ‘Quake,’ and ‘Heretic/Hexen’ – released a new IP for the first time in over a decade: “RAGE.” The game was met with mixed reviews from id fans, but as someone with a less-than-rosy view of id’s so-called ‘classic’ FPSes, I found it to be a refreshing change of pace from that developer. However, the majority rules in most cases, and it seemed that “RAGE’s” score of ~80 on metacritic wasn’t the overwhelming success required to churn out annual sequels year-after-year, as Activision did with ‘Call of Duty.’ Color everyone in games journalism, including myself, surprised when, just prior to E3 2018, then at E3 2018, leakers and id/Bethesda revealed that a sequel to “RAGE” was coming. I was quite impressed by the gameplay trailer shown at the time, and looked forward to the opportunity to play “RAGE 2.” Color me surprised yet again when, a mere 4 months after its May 2019 release, the Digital Deluxe Edition of “RAGE 2” was marked down nearly 70% during a mid-September Steam sale. With the “Rise of the Ghosts” DLC slated to release immanently and fond memories of the first “RAGE” in mind, I decided to bite. What I found in “RAGE 2,” however, is a mix of blatant id fan pandering (despite the fact that the ‘RAGE’ IP is now being developed by id/Bethesda subsidiary team, Avalanche – a 2006 startup best known for the ‘Just Cause’ series), blatant copying of Ubisoft’s ‘Far Cry’ IP, and gameplay that starts off slow, but eventually becomes sublime.

Presentation
Because “RAGE 2” is an Avalance production, it doesn’t use any of id’s or Bethesda’s cruddy old game engines. Instead is uses Avalance’s own Apex Engine, which is quite modern compared to those others and is able to dynamically stream a huge open-world in real-time with no pauses for loading. The visuals provided by the Apex Engine are rather mixed, with environments coming out ahead and characters coming out behind. “RAGE 2’s” wasteland is a predictable mix of browns and grays, with some splashes of greens and inorganic colors mixed in. Noteworthy and interactive objects are highlighted in a specific color – because every post-apocalyptic FPS must take a cue or two from the ‘Borderlands’ series – and that highlighting color is hot pink. Unfortunately, the overuse of hot pink as the game’s primary splash of color in an otherwise drab world is NOT limited to interactive objects, but also applies to flares and halogen lights in numerous locations, which actually goes a ways toward subverting the original purpose of the hot pink: Making it easy for the player to see and notice important things. I can’t be too hard on “RAGE 2’s” visuals, though, as there are actually a number of different biomes in the game’s wasteland, each of which is inhabited by unique foliage that makes everything feel a bit less drab than other brown-and-gray wastelands. It’s also noteworthy that “RAGE 2’s” wasteland is literally covered in human garbage (actual garbage, not just terrible people), making it look quite realistic as a world that survived an asteroid impact. Much of this garbage (as well as rocks and bushes) are destructible, sending showers of debris everywhere when blown up or driven over, and even the ground has a dynamic look and feel to it, as the player’s vehicle leaves very impressive-looking tracks.

Character models are notably sub-par, with tons of generic, samey-looking people inhabiting towns; generic, samey-looking bandits/gang-bangers inhabiting the wasteland; and a handful of unique, well-animated NPCs who are central to the plot. Even more annoying, in my personal estimation, is the fact that the enemies associated with the main antagonist group very much look like something out of “Quake 2,” clearly in an attempt to convince skeptical id fans that ‘RAGE’ is still an id IP, even though it’s mainly Avalanche’s baby now and has never had a particularly id-like feel.

Audiowise, “RAGE 2” is pretty solid. I didn’t notice any big-name Hollywood A-listers in the vocal cast, but the gang of usual videogame voiceover suspects did a decent job. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases where the game employs audio distortion for dramatic effect. This distortion is so overdone that it makes it impossible to understand what is being said. I had to turn on the subtitles. The soundtrack is not my cup of tea in most cases, however, I did particularly enjoy one of the more ambient tracks that plays in the wasteland, featuring a weird, groaning instrument that I couldn’t quite place.

Technically, though, is where “RAGE 2” falls down the hardest. It seems that Bethesda is completely incapable of QA testing any software they publish, even when they had nothing to do with the actual development of said software. “RAGE 2” is prone to crashes, but only when trying to exit the game and return to the desktop, which is strange. It also seems to perform poorly on older hardware (my i7-2600K and GTX 970), but that’s not really the case. Avalanche just doesn’t know how to program v-sync, and the game’s rather bizarre mix of options in the video menu don’t really make it clear what the game is doing. Personally, I can’t stand screen tearing, and will gladly take a small frames-per-second (fps) hit in order to get rid of it, so I always use v-sync. Unfortunately, Avalanche’s take on v-sync locks the game to 30fps, even while the other settings are trying to render it at 60fps, which leads to incredible, constant lag spikes and poor performance. Turning off Avalanche’s in-game v-sync and forcing it at the nVidia driver level, however, results in a mostly smooth 60fps even on older hardware. And fortunately, Avalanche/Bethesda removed the Denuvo DRM the game launched with, providing a further performance boost. Going further down the rabbit hole of poor technical design by Avalanche, “RAGE 2’s” default keybinds are an absolute travesty. Yes, the game supports Xinput out of the box and anyone using a standard controller to play it won’t run into this problem, but the PC Typing Master Race and the Razer Hydra users among us will have to spend quite a bit of time fiddling with keybinds in order to create a layout that’s even remotely usable. Finally, the way “RAGE 2” handles DLC is incredibly ham-handed and cumbersome. While the Digital Deluxe version of the game alleges to come with some bonuses and the expansion pack included, in order to redeem these bonuses, the player must create and log-into a Bethesda.net account from the game’s main menu. And for anyone who bought the Digital Deluxe version on Steam, logging-into Bethesda.net will be followed immediately by submitting a support ticket and a screen capture of your Steam receipt to prove you should have access to the extra content, because Bethesda completely screwed up the game’s ability to recognize which version was purchased on non-Bethesda.net stores.

Story
“RAGE 2” picks up the handful of loose story threads a generation after “RAGE” left them dangling there. It seems that the nano-machine infused survivors of the civilization-ending impact of the Apophis asteroid formed an organization called the Rangers. These Arkists (an on-the-nose term for people who survived the end of the world inside underground Arks) set themselves up to be protectors of the wasteland, while still remaining somewhat isolationist in their mindset, not trusting non-Arkists with their pre-apocalyptic technology.

Our hero (or heroine, as the choice is up to the player) is one Walker, a second-generation Arkist (whose body is still infused with nano-machines, somehow), who lives in the Ranger settlement known as Vineland, with his adopted sister and adopted mother, the latter of whom happens to be the leader of the Rangers and a genuine hard-ass. On a day like any other, Vineland is suddenly subjected to an all-out attack by the Authority – the totalitarian sect of Arkists who made a brief, anti-climactic appearance in the original “RAGE” – lead by the mostly-cybernetic General Cross. Cross’ attack wipes-out all of the Rangers at Vineland, leaving Walker as the last remaining human with nano-machine-infused blood. Walker’s mother’s death triggers a contingency plan, in which she directs him, through a pre-recorded hologram, to seek out three people in the wasteland to complete a weapon – dubbed Project Dagger – that can defeat the Authority once and for all.

Of course, Walker sets out into the wasteland to find these three people. Upon finding them, he helps them with a task to get them started on their part of Project Dagger, and is then told to go kill some time while they finish. Unlike the original “RAGE,” “RAGE 2” is a fully open-world game, where the player is given free rein to walk or drive wherever they wish. And that is exactly what the player will be expected to do while killing time waiting on Walker’s new friends to complete Project Dagger.

Unfortunately, the open-world nature of the game is poorly utilized and the number of actual story missions in the base game comes to a whopping total of 8. Thus the pacing is completely at the whim of the player, and the player will probably not know what they’re missing out on. Certain key gameplay mechanics are locked behind doing the initial Project Dagger mission for each of the three main NPCs (missions 2-4 in the game). Yet on the way to these characters’ locations, the player will run across dozens of open-world shenanigans to get into. Thorough players will most likely want to clear these encounters as they come across them, but that is actually the exact opposite of what the player should do, as they will only be making things more annoying for themselves by playing open-world content without unlocking the core gameplay features behind missions 2-4.

Each of the game’s settlements (read: towns) also has a handful of minor NPCs who ask Walker for help chasing bandits or mutants out of a certain area, which then marks that area on the world map. Yet an incredibly thorough, methodical player might find their Walker saying, “I already took care of that,” upon first meeting an NPC with a problem. This problem with the open-world storytelling becomes even more pronounced and ridiculous when a key Project Dagger NPC tells Walker to go kill some time while they work on the project, only to call Walker on his radio as soon as he leaves town to inform him that they’re done.

“RAGE 2’s” lone DLC expansion is “Rise of the Ghosts,” which is only available for play as a coda to the base game and takes place on an island offshore from the main game region. “Rise of the Ghosts” actually has something resembling pacing and features many more narratively-linked story missions than the base game, which is both hilarious and a pleasant surprise, as it seems that Avalanche may have taken criticisms of the base game’s pacing to heart when building the DLC.

“Rise of the Ghosts” reveals that there is indeed one other nano-machine-infused Ranger out in the wasteland, but she’s something of a rebel, chafing against the organization’s rules about sharing nano-machine infusions with the general public. She has decided to show the Rangers the error of their ways by taking one of the wastelands many gangs – in this case, the Ghosts, who played a large role in the original “RAGE” – and sharing her nano-machines with them. The result is an island completely overrun by difficult-to-kill, super-powered maniacs. This rogue Ranger, one Iris, lures Walker to the island in an attempt to join forces with him, but being the goody-goody he is, Walker sides instead with the regular folk who live in the subway.

The smaller size of the open world in “Rise of the Ghosts” combined with the more numerous story missions and more interesting villain really makes the DLC’s pacing feel better than the base game. Though, it could also come down to the fact that any player playing the DLC will have a fully powered-up Walker at their disposal.

A fairly completionist player will get roughly 35-40 hours out of the base “RAGE 2,” and an additional 5-10 hours out of “Rise of the Ghosts.” Like the ‘Far Cry’ series, I find this kind of run-time to be far preferable for an open-world game than the hundreds of hours (of mostly tedium) that comes out of modern ‘Fallout’ and ‘Elder Scrolls’ titles.

Overall, “RAGE 2’s” story is extremely bland and one-dimensional in a world populated by bland and one-dimensional characters. Nothing about the narrative is surprising or interesting, and the entire game plays itself painfully straight, despite some misplaced attempts at dark humor in the names of some random NPCs and the intentionally poor spelling in some diary entries left by bandits. Walker himself is perhaps the most boring character in the game, acting like a complete boy scout in spite of his ability and willingness to murder the majority of people left in his particular slice of the world. “Rise of the Ghosts” tries to correct this, with more depth, more character development, and a moral dilemma at its core, but ultimately it too little, too late.

Gameplay
At first, “RAGE 2” comes across as a fairly bog-standard and uninteresting open-world FPS that blatantly and flagrantly copies the ‘Far Cry’ model for most of its content. You’ve got a big open world, icons appear on it when you get close to them (or learn about them from an NPC or bounty board mission), completing objectives of various types at each of the many map icons earns the player points with one of the three allied factions, the player is free to steal any vehicles they find on the map, and the player is free to hoard money and a mineral called feltrite (I guess as in, “It just feltrite (felt right), maaaaan!”) in order to spend them on upgrades to make their character and weapons more powerful.

Unfortunately, the folks at Avalanche didn’t quite learn all the lessons they should have regarding open-world, do-anything games. While the developers have gone on record claiming that they want the player to feel powerful controlling Walker from the very beginning of the game, that is NOT actually the case. Starting Walker is not particularly fun to control, and the activities he can participate in are hamstrung by the fact that he doesn’t have access to a number of upgrades and power-ups that are explicitly found in certain places and not unlockable at any time just by dicking around in the open-world (e.g., the actual ‘Far Cry’ model). Starting Walker has limited mobility options, with a Dash ability (which operates on a cooldown) being the closest thing to ‘mobility’ on offer. Likewise, his starting arsenal consists of an incredibly weak pistol and an incredibly mediocre automatic rifle, neither of which is particularly compelling (though the pistol does become ridiculously good once fully upgraded). In typical open-world games, the player can grab weapons from defeated enemies anywhere on the map, but with “RAGE 2,” the player must hunt-down hidden Arks in order to obtain Walker’s full arsenal of weapons AND nanotech skills. Aside from those starting weapons and his Dash, Walker only starts with the ability to ‘focus’ the nano-machines in his blood in order to highlight enemies and make them visible behind obstacles (there are no other callouts, like pips or highlighting, for enemy locations at all, and there is no radar, so focusing is pretty important). Focus also attracts feltrite to Walker, which he collects as both a form of upgrade currency and as a means of replenishing lost health. “RAGE 2” doesn’t feature modern regenerating health or old-school health packs, but instead uses a hybrid system of the two, where roughly half of the damage Walker suffers will regenerate (provided he doesn’t get hit again immediately), and the rest must be restored by picking up feltrite (which is basically like the health pickups from ancient games, and will disappear if not grabbed after a few seconds) or by using a consumable first-aid kit, of which Walker can carry several and acquire more either by finding them or crafting them from other junk he picks up in his travels.

Because all of Walker’s major skills and weapons are hidden in specific places or locked behind key story missions, the pacing in “RAGE 2” is decidedly different from a ‘Far Cry’ game, and it’s important for a player to realize this quickly if they are going to enjoy the game. In a typical ‘Far Cry’-style open-world shooter, players are encouraged to take their time, complete content as they stumble cross it in the vast open-world, and not be too concerned about doing things in the ‘correct’ order. In “RAGE 2,” however, it pays to rush the first few story missions and pursue the hidden Arks before doing much of anything else, in spite of the fact that these things are scattered all around the map. Fortunately, the player is given the ability to locate Arks from the outset, by focusing their nano-machines in order to make rainbow-colored pillars of light shoot into the sky above every Ark, allowing the player to ‘follow the rainbow’ to the treasure at the end.

As mentioned in the story section above, each of the three key NPCs involved in Project Dagger act as barriers in unlocking Walker’s full suite of capabilities. The most important of the three (and probably the last one a player will organically encounter if they aren’t rushing the story missions) is an old scientist living in a swamp. Upon completing the initial mission for each of these three NPCs, the player gains the ability to complete ‘Projects’ for them, each of which grants a passive perk to Walker. The old swamp man, however, features one absolutely essential Project that should have been part of Walker’s starting kit, which is the ability to highlight loot while focusing. The biggest drag in “RAGE 2,” if played organically, is the fact that every location and every enemy encounter plays out roughly the same way: Walker goes in, kills a bunch of gang-bangers or mutants in about 5 minutes, then the player spends then next 20 minutes searching for the hidden chests that each location conveniently keeps track of. This is an absolute pace killer, and completely goes away once Walker can see where loot is stashed, even when it’s behind walls or other bits of environment. Completely clearing out every area is essential, as loot doesn’t respawn (except for minor things like ammo packs), nor do enemies, meaning that revisiting an area to search it for more loot later in the game is an even bigger drag than hunting blindly for chests and crates.

Likewise, pursuing the Arks as soon as possible grants the player access to more mobility options – including both a double-jump and the ability to turn invisible while running really, really fast – plus a large number of combat-related skills that transform the game from a cumbersome cover-based shooter into a balls-to-the-wall carnival of death and dismemberment. These skills run the gamut from a mid-air butt-stomp (my favorite) that obliterates enemies with a shockwave, to a dashing punch (which would make Captain Falcon shed a manly tear), to an anti-gravity bomb that causes enemies to levitate helplessly, to an energy barrier (my least favorite) that can electrocute enemies dumb enough to touch it while blocking their projectiles. A fully-skilled-up Walker is a monstrous force to be reckoned with, easily on par with an entire team of ‘Borderlands’ Vault-Hunters all on his own. And then there are the weapons…


Walker’s arsenal in “RAGE 2” never becomes overwhelmingly large, maxing out at 10 weapons for the Deluxe Edition with the expansion pack. The Deluxe Edition grants the player access to the BFG 9000 from ‘DOOM’ and ‘Quake,’ but it’s really just a novelty weapon as the bullets cost $800 (in-game cash, thankfully) each and can’t be found anywhere in the wasteland. The BFG comes with 3 bullets, which I used to one-shot various bosses, but it’s not an integral part of the game. The feltrite laser that comes with “Rise of the Ghosts,” however, is fairly overpowered, as it runs on the same feltrite Walker uses to restore health, which comes at a near constant rate during hectic battles, so it literally never runs out of ammo. Of the other weapons in the base game, there are standards like a shotgun (which has the novel feature of firing shot from the hip and slugs when aimed), a rocket launcher (which fires a single rocket from the hip and a homing cluster when aimed), and the rail-gun-esque hyper-cannon. The rest of the weapons in “RAGE 2,” however, are decidedly unique and fun to use. There’s a revolver. Oh! How boring are revolvers, amirite? Well, this revolver fires incendiary slugs that stick to targets and explode with a snap of Walker’s fingers, setting everything around them on fire. Then there’s a dart gun. Oh! Darts! I’m sooooo scared, amirite? Well, these are gravity darts, and after pumping a target full of positively charged darts, sticking a negatively charged dart anywhere in the environment causes the positively charged darts (and the person they’re stuck in) to fly at high-speed toward the negatively charged dart, with gruesome consequences. Oh, and there’s a pulse cannon that overheats… they can’t all be winners. Each weapon also has four upgrade tiers and four mod slots, which are simply unlocked with feltrite. Each weapon features a curated selection of mods, and the player is free to pick between two of them at each upgrade tier.

To complement his guns, Walker further has access to a handful of consumable items. These include the previously mentioned first-aid kit as well as boosters for his rage meter and skill cooldowns. There are also grenades (which get a shock variant in the expansion), boomerang-like wingsticks (which return from the first “RAGE”), and stationary sentry drones. But, wait, what was that thing about a rage meter? It’s almost an afterthought, really, with the overwhelming arsenal of skills and weapons Walker can bring to bear against the thugs and mutants or the wasteland, but he also has a titular rage meter, which fills up as he racks up kills. Killing enemies in rapid succession also racks up a multiplier, which causes the rage meter to fill faster and more feltrite to drop from the bodies of the slain. With a full rage meter, Walker can, at the player’s instigation, enter a temporary rage mode, where he gains significant health regen and buffs to damage output and defense. The reason I say it’s an afterthought is that I only actively used it twice in the entire game. Sure, I accidentally activated it a couple of times due to the game’s weird and horrible default keybinds (and once just with a fat finger), but I very rarely found myself in a situation where rage mode would feel like anything but overkill.

Overall
Between its atrocious technical presentation, one-dimensional storytelling, poor open-world pacing, and unimpressive first few hours of gameplay, it’s easy to dismiss “RAGE 2” as yet another crappy FPS in a sea of samey, crappy FPSes. But for those who are able to power-through the early game and achieve Walker’s full power, “RAGE 2” blossoms into a sublime ‘fast’ FPS that approaches the pinnacle of that particular playstyle.

Presentation: 3/5
Story:
Base Game: 2/5
Rise of the Ghosts: 4/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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