Rage 2 sees Avalanche and Id pull off what could be the perfect double-act
Still just a rat in a cage?
It is, if nothing else, quite the double act.
There's Id's Tim Willits, diminutive in stature yet towering in presence, and a man that, if you'd let him, would surely happily never stop talking. He's pacing to and fro around a meeting room on the upper floors of Avalanche's main studio, asking everyone assembled if they've got any good jokes about Stockholm, putting on a short one-man show before rattling his way through a presentation on Rage 2, the game his own studio Id is assisting Avalanche with.
And then there's Avalanche's Magnus Nedfors - a towering man whose height is topped off by long, greying locks, yet his laconic, laid back demeanour can make it seem like he isn't there at all. They're an odd couple, this two, but in the partnership they've forged there may well be something approaching magic.
"This image of Id plus Avalanche studios, it basically sums up everything," says Willits as part of his opening spiel. "This is an amazing partnership, I've worked with many other studios in the 20,000 years I've been working at Id, and this has been a joy. They've really taught us a lot about how they build these true open world games, and hopefully we've shown them a few things about making first person shooters."
And the brief demo of Rage 2 we're shown, more than anything else, proves that Id's influence really has worn off well on Avalanche. This isn't exactly the studio's first foray into first-person gaming - who could forget its ongoing theHunter series of simulation shooters? - but it's its first attempt at this particular type of first-person shooting. And not only that - it's taking on the formula of a studio who not only helped invent the form, but one that also came close to perfecting it in 2016's exceptional Doom.
"Working so close with Id, we got to talk to them about all the mistakes you make in the first five years, then we can avoid those," says Nedfors. "That's helped us tremendously to keep going. There's inspiration in getting the feel of an Id shooter - the speed in combat, the heaviness in combat, ridiculously powerful weapons, its big guns that have a big impact in the world. Using movement as an offensive and defensive tool - you don't run from fights. Doom had all of that. We also looked at the original Rage that has some cool things that we brought along."
Ah yes, the original Rage. Before we get ahead of ourselves, it's worth remembering the 2010 game this is a sequel to. It was something of a divisive game, but if you did see it through to the end and wondered what happened next, you'll be pleased to know that the sequel picks up the threads left dangling come the climax of Rage; set some 30 years later with you playing as voiced character Walker (with the ability to choose your gender implied but not yet confirmed), some familiar faces such as Doctor Kvasir will be returning.
Really, though, this Rage has little to do with its predecessor, as you can tell from its more lurid palette ("In Rage 1, we did brown better than anyone else," jokes Willits - "we used every colour of brown and we did it really well") to its more expressive combat. It's best not to think of this as a sequel to Rage; instead, think of it as the next game from the developers of Just Cause and Mad Max, and the next big shooter from the makers of 2016's Doom.
Indeed, Rage 2 has more in common with that game than its predecessor, if the demo is anything to go by. There's the same urgency, the same breakneck pace and the same primal satisfaction to be gleaned from gunning from enemy to enemy with an overstated boomstick. "[The original Rage had] reactive AI and gunplay," says Willits. "Doom 2016, with its push-forward combat, was kind of an evolution of that. In Rage 2 we've taken all those lessons and we've expanded upon them. There's more explosions, more jibs, more of everything."
It's a delight to play, and while it's not quite as snappy in the hands as the superlative Doom - perhaps down to the fact that this is played out not on Id's own tech but on Avalanche's Apex engine - it's a more than passable take on the Id formula with a few tricks of its own. Your repertoire has been massively expanded, a pair of abilities on a cooldown timer - which'll grow to four in the final game - which allows you to force push enemies out of the way, or rush them down in one superhuman dash. There's also Overdrive, acting like an Ultimate and charged most efficiently by chaining together kills, empowering you with Quad Damage-esque power when it's unleashed.
And underneath all that is a boomstick that feels positively boomy, an assault rifle that rattles with the right type of menace. It all ties together for combat that feels like an evolution of Doom 2016, your mad dances through rooms of enemies tied together by those abilities - and your trusty wingstick, returning from the original Rage, which can be tossed to stun opponents before a takedown - playing like an overstated rush of a first-person shooter. It's slick and over-the-top, helped by the more lurid colour palette where pink sunsets dip over impossible landscapes.
The demo is brief - it takes a mere ten minutes to see through from beginning to end - but that just means we're allowed to tinker with it several times over, poking the enemies this way and that to see how they'll react. And they react brilliantly, whether that's through different AI routines playing out or just in how they flinch and fly when being assaulted by a barrage of ballistics. Rage 2's guns feel great, and as with the best Id games the things you shoot feel pretty great too, and it's in the marriage between them that the magic really happens.
So yes, Avalanche Studios can make a snappy Id-style first-person shooter. As for the rest? Well, the demo, while fun, was disappointingly narrow - a short, siphoned off story section that's relatively linear and doesn't show off any of Rage 2's open world. Should there be concern about how it'll come together, and how it'll embrace that flowing first-person combat? Given that it's Avalanche, creators of Just Cause and from the team most recently responsible for the excellent Mad Max, there probably shouldn't be - but don't expect any firm details on that part of Rage 2 for a short while. "It's true open world, Avalanche-style," Nedfors reassures us. "After the short introduction, you can go anywhere and do anything you want, if you want to explore you can do that, you can focus on the story. It's totally up to you.
"We like all our games built on emergent gameplay, dynamic situations. We want a systematic way of building our content so the player can have fun toying around with things, seeing YouTube videos and going 'wow, they can do that in our game'. That's our philosophy of making games."
That philosophy is hopefully going to be evident throughout the rest of Rage 2, in its open world and in its emergent madness, but for now it's clear the Id spirit is stamped on with the force and ferocity of a boot print. And though these two developers are from different worlds, there seems to be much shared ground - they're both, after all, about poking things to see how they react, even if Id likes to go about its poking a little more forcefully. If they can bring those two worlds together with some harmony, Rage 2 could end up being quite the double act indeed.
This article is based on a press trip to Stockholm. Bethesda covered travel and accommodation costs.