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Rage 2 is the mutant spawn of two very different shooters

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The sequel to Rage feels stretched between an id-style shooter and chaotic, open-world adventure

Rage 2 - road combat between two vehicles id Software, Avalanche Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Rage 2 looks like a blast, at least in the hands of Tim Willits, studio director at id Software.

I watched Willits play around with the murdering tools of Rage 2 for a few minutes before I played it myself in a Manhattan bar last week, and he was clearly having fun turning post-apocalyptic mutants into human salsa in a gray, developers-only sandbox.

Playing Rage 2 immediately after Willits’ demo, out there in the game’s dusty-but-recovering colorful wastelands, I had less fun than he appeared to. I hadn’t mastered the combination of guns and superhuman powers that fuel the (unexpected) sequel to 2011’s Rage. I played it like a modern shooter, for the most part, only remembering to use my mutant-wrecking powers when I was really in a bind. I worked to come to grips with Rage 2’s flow, but never fell into the satisfying gunplay-powered groove of the other recent id Software games, Doom and Wolfenstein.

Id Software is making Rage 2 with Avalanche Studios, using the latter game maker’s Apex Engine. That id-Avalanche collaboration has resulted in a game that, based on an hour-plus with it, highlights each studio’s strengths. There’s a bit of frenetic corridor shooting with big, chunky guns. There’s a lot of open-world exploration in heavily armored vehicles that look ripped out of Avalanche’s Mad Max game, only spray-painted pink and powered by glowing cyan fuel cells. You can even fly around in a dronelike aircraft if you want to watch Rage 2’s carnage from high in the sky.

I’m unsure whether any of that will jell to match the satisfying demon-slaying and Nazi-killing of id’s other games, or the chaotic violence of Avalanche’s Just Cause — or if both teams’ efforts will result in some utopian combination of the two.

It’s not for a lack of ways to inflict carnage. Rage 2 promises a weapon wheel’s worth of guns that range from empowering to just silly. There are the requisite meaty pistols, a rail gun (but no sniper rifles; the developers want you to get up close with your victims), a hulking rocket launcher, and a hefty shotgun. There’s also the made-for-YouTube Grav-dart Launcher. That weapon fires bullets into a body or an object, and those bullets launch whatever they’re lodged into toward a target determined by the player. Using the Grav-dart Launcher, you can send enemies hurtling into the sky or throw an exploding barrel at a cluster of bad guys.

Watch Rage 2’s weapons and nanotrite abilities in action in this overview video.

When I watched Willits play, he got more creative: He fired Grav-darts into a mutant, then erected a force field and placed the darts’ destination on the opposite side of that force field. His enemy became a bloody paste as their body attempted to travel through the impenetrable barrier.

There are all kinds of tools in Rage 2 that use technology that’s indistinguishable from magic. Players can fill a bad guy with bullets, then snap their fingers and set those bullets on fire. They can act like a Jedi, force-pushing enemies hundreds of feet away. A meter fills up as you play, and when triggered, it supercharges all of your guns. It’s called Overdrive, and it’s one of the spell-like abilities powered by nanotrites, the tiny robots that enhance our hero’s biology. It’s where the gameplay loop of Rage 2 may ultimately pay off; it certainly makes the game’s guns pack a more enjoyable punch.

I had access to only a handful of nanotrite abilities, like the aforementioned Fus Ro Dah-esque shove known as Shatter and the ground pound called Slam. As Rage 2’s hero, Walker, who can be either male or female, I can double-jump and even hover in the air, thanks to nanotrites. Walker also has an ability known as the Vortex Grenade, a mini black hole that sucks in bad guys and then barfs them back out. I could even use the Vortex Grenade to launch myself into the air, if I wanted to get acrobatic.

That’s clearly what id and Avalanche are hoping for: player creativity in gunfights. After I spent some time with Rage 2, Willits said that the developers aren’t directly incentivizing creative violence; they just want people to experiment and have fun with the toolbox of destruction.

A giant Crusher and armored soldier bear down on the player in a screenshot from Rage 2. id Software, Avalanche Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The section of Rage 2 I played took place in and around a settlement called Wellspring. Very little of the game’s ability tree seemed available to me, though I was outfitted with a few guns and abilities. I met up with Loosum Hagar, the mayor of Wellspring, who wanted information from a wealthy local named Klegg Clayton. But to get a meeting with Klegg, I first had to prove myself worthy of entering his club, and being neither rich nor famous, I took the doorman’s advice and ventured into the wastes to make a name for myself.

I had to check two boxes in my pursuit of fame: Survive an episode of the television show Mutant Bash TV and secure first place in a race called the ChazCar Derby. The former turned out to be exactly what I thought it was — a Smash TV-like, wave-based game of death. It was a good place to get familiar with Rage 2’s guns and, thanks to the tight quarters of a sequence of arenas, the Shatter and Slam abilities. Mutant Bash TV stood out mainly for its zany supporting cast, consisting of a horny hostess and her underwear-clad, baby doll head-wearing servants. This is not a grim game.

My race in the ChazCar Derby was less engaging, but I learned a trick or two about how to control Rage 2’s nitro-powered vehicles. The music they played, perfect driving-music metal, was great. But it was actually the drive between the Mutant Bash TV set and the racetrack — where a towering mountain of a woman offered me an extremely indecent proposal — when I became most interested in Rage 2. The world is filled with side activities and landmarks to explore. One suggested that I destroy a bunch of fuel tanks in a tiny outpost held by some mutants, but after blowing up half of them, my attention wandered. Far more intriguing was a small fleet of scary-looking ships that warped in right above a group of very powerful-looking enemies who immediately opened fire on my ride, a stolen monster truck. It was obvious I was seriously outmatched, so I got the hell out of Dodge, enticed by what was sure to kill me.

Those little pockets of activity — and Rage 2 seems to have hundreds — looked like a lot of fun.

The player flies in an Icarus drone-copter over a lush biome in a screenshot from Rage 2. id Software, Avalanche Studios/Bethesda Softworks

There’s a deep, multi-tiered tree of skills and upgrades in Rage 2. They’re split up into three categories: combat, engineering, and nanotrite upgrades. In order to progress through each, you’ll need to do favors and complete activities for three key characters: the local sheriff, John Marshall; Mayor Hagar; and Dr. Antonin Kvasir, the scientist who helped players overthrow the evil Authority in the original Rage.

The only favor I did as part of unlocking the tech tree was to plant a bug on Klegg Clayton’s computer for Mayor Hagar, a trick that Clayton appreciated so little that he sent me down into a killing room where I was attacked by a giant mutant hillbilly named Rukkus. I fired dozens of shotgun blasts into that thing, frantically dashed and dodged, and died a dozen times trying to take it down. The battle was frustrating and funky, to the point where I started to question if I was actually enjoying Rage 2’s gunplay and controls. I wondered whether Rage 2 would feel as good as Wolfenstein or Doom when the game comes out in a few months.

There’s time for Avalanche and id to iron out those kinds of concerns. The build was months old anyway, Willits told me. And there were promising things I didn’t get to experience. Much of the demo, which was set about 25 percent into the main campaign, was locked out to me, and I played as Bethesda suggested, on Windows PC using an Xbox controller. There was also a mysterious convoy battle — apparently pretty difficult — teased on the demo’s main menu that I didn’t get to see. Nor did we explore Rage 2’s numerous biomes, which go beyond sun-drenched desert wastelands to verdant swamplands and snowy mountaintops.

Still, we’re getting a sequel to Rage. And it looks more interesting than that dry, all-shades-of-brown game, thanks to its colorful personality and palette of ways to kill things. I’m fascinated to see how it all comes together.

Rage 2 is scheduled to be released on May 14. The game is coming to PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Willits said that id and Bethesda are “investigating” a Nintendo Switch version of the game as well.