In the past I’ve lamented the terrible state of writing in some games, claiming that for the same money, the developer could have made the game drastically better. In my column this week, we have an even more extreme case where you could vastly improve the quality of Rage 2 by spending less money. Just cut half these cutscenes and you’d have a better game.
In the column, I mentioned that there is ~3.5 minutes of gameplay in the first 23 minutes of the game. That’s actually me being a little generous and counting the tutorial where it locks you in a simple cube room and makes you dash 3 times as “gameplay”.
There’s a lot more to criticize. So let’s do that:
- The default controls on the PC are atrocious. The layout makes no sense, and multiple unrelated items are unified under the same binding because they must be shared when using a controller. For example, the “tap this button to dash” is always the same input as “hold this key to gather all XP orbs”.
- The key bindings don’t work correctly. I somehow wound up with two unrelated bindings to the same key, and the game didn’t warn me. The same key was assigned to dash, and also to some power I didn’t know about because I hadn’t unlocked it yet. As a result I couldn’t dash. The tutorial still TOLD me I could dash using that key, but I couldn’t. I had multiple problems like this where key bindings didn’t work or worked unexpectedly. Did anyone test this?
- As much as the intro of this game loves talking, it loves its popups even more. The game will interrupt dialog for various tutorial notifications, which pause the game and silence the dialog, and which can only be dismissed using enter on the other side of the keyboard. Again, if the developer cared so little about the story that they were willing to trample all over it with popups, then why did they write so much dialog?
- Your talking car doesn’t have very many voice barks. It only took a couple of minutes to get sick of hearing the same two or three messages.
- I suppose this goes without saying, but the plot itself is horrendous. It suffers from characters reading the script, payoffs for things that weren’t set up, lack of stakes, lack of protagonist agency, and a bunch of other indicators that nobody involved really understands how to make a story.
- The level flow isn’t great. It’s not as bad as New Colossus, but it suffers from a lot of the same problems. The levels are dull corridors that aren’t good at guiding you through the space. There’s no attempt at telling a story through the environment and not much variety between rooms. The spaces don’t seem to make a lot of sense and they’re bad at drawing the eye to the next point of alleged interest. I’m still disappointed that we’re now 15 years past the release of Half-Life 2 and developers still haven’t learned the lessons that game had to teach.
I know people think that story doesn’t matter, but I’m telling you that story is the secret ingredient. That’s the spice that takes a solid game and makes it into a legendary one. That emotional connection is the force that makes the game stick with you after you’re done playing. Show us a world and use characters to make us care about it. Give us a villain with an interesting hook and then give us a reason to want to kill them. Foreshadow stuff so we feel the impact when you pay it off later. Then let us defeat the bad guy and save something we’ve come to care about.
I’ll admit it’s not as easy as I make it sound. Good writing is hard work. But that hard work acts as a multiplier for all the other money you’re pouring into the production. Given what games cost to produce these days, it’s madness to cut corners on the writing like this. The salary for a single writer is basically a rounding error in a project this size. There’s a reason people are still talking about Handsome Jack 7 years later, but nobody remembered the name of Commandant Steele ten minutes after beating the first Borderlands game. Writing really does matter, even in genres where “it’s not about the story”.
This sounds pretty negative, but I want to stress that I don’t hate Rage 2. I would say that it’s just underwhelming. People seem to like it, but I predict that in 2 months the world will have forgotten this thing exists.
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