Rage 2 arrives on consoles slathered in hot pink highlights, mutant entrails and the fingerprints of a new development team. Avalanche Studios picks up the series’ reigns, joining id Software to create something rather unique – a fast-paced first-person shooter combined with a large open world. From my perspective, it’s a special experience and the dual-studio collaboration pays off handsomely – but the technical decisions behind the game are intriguing, not to mention controversial.
There’s no escaping it: the difference in the gameplay experience between base and enhanced consoles is vast. The vanilla machines run the game at 30 frames per second, but the choices made for the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X versions have split user opinion, and it all comes down to this: what’s best – a nigh-on flawless 60 frames per second, or higher resolution imagery at half that frame-rate?
The move to a new developer represents a major shift for the franchise, with Rage 2 leaving id Tech behind in favour of Avalanche’s own Apex engine. The studio was selected a development partner based on the strength of its technology. The engine supports large scale open worlds with complex physics simulation and dynamic lights – perfect for Rage. After all, the original Rage was designed to offer a Mad Max-like experience with a wide-open wasteland to explore but id Tech 5 wasn’t well suited to a large-scale project, so the environments were constrained, and every mission was divided by loading screens killing the pace.
The Apex engine, however, has already delivered a decent Mad Max game and it allows Avalanche to deliver on the original vision with a massive open world to explore, filled with towns, settlements and gorgeous vistas. It supports a fully real-time time of day system with variable cloud cover plus real shadows and lighting.
In stark contrast to the static ‘baked’ sandbox of the original on last-gen systems, Rage 2 delivers a beautiful world with dramatic sunsets, dynamic shadows and a huge sense of scale. The engine draws large environments without any loading times between areas. You’ll move from the wastelands to a mission area and back again with zero interruption. It’s all seamless now and it feels great. There are limitations, of course – pop-in is often visible while the more distant shadow cascades lack detail. Ambient occlusion is often spotty, but the effect is still convincing.
For me, the key element is lighting. The Apex engine utilises a clustered forward approach to rendering, which enables many dynamic lights without some of the drawbacks associated with deferred rendering. Leaving behind the earthy tones of the first game, the world of Rage 2 is painted with a beautiful palette – the pink hue of the sun as it appears just at the edge of the horizon is a sight to behold as are missions at night with colourful particles filling the screen.
Rage 2 also features a full volumetric lighting system with beams of light slicing across the world, resulting in a thick atmosphere. Spotlights, sunlight and more all penetrate the thick dusty environment in a very convincing manner and it looks impressive across all platforms. Materials are physically-based and react beautifully to light, lending the game a realistic feel. The core artwork itself is often of rather low-resolution when viewed up close, but it still works well overall.
Lighting and materials are enhanced by secondary light bounce – the Apex engine can back project the colour of the ground to surrounding objects, so sunlight bouncing off the red orange desert terrain impacts surrounding objects in a realistic fashion. Screen-space reflections also make a frequent appearance with glossy materials and wet surfaces taking full advantage. Then there’s the beautiful post-process pipeline with very high-quality per-object and camera motion blur. It uses a high sample count and a perfect shutter speed, greatly enhancing the fluidity of the experience. Of course, for the heathens that prefer running without it, the developers were kind enough to include an option to disable it entirely.
All of this works together with the impressive physics and destruction system on display. Dynamic objects are placed around every scene and many of these explode during combat, lending extra heft to the combat – something that was completely missing in the original game. The combination of dynamic lighting, shadows and physics is exactly what was needed. Beyond this, animation is also a high point. The original Rage excelled here with enemies that reacted realistically to gunfire. The same is true of Rage 2 and this is key to the feel of combat. Enemies dart around the screen with weighty animations while reacting to weapon fire. It just feels right. Perhaps it’s not as fast-paced as Doom 2016 but it has a similarly punchy and satisfying feel. And really, ‘punchy’ is a good way to describe Rage 2. It’s clear to me that the influence of id has paid off in spades, and I feel that this new title exceeds the quality of previous Avalanche offerings.
However, how good it feels varies depending on your platform of choice. While the original Rage was focused on delivering 60fps on the lowest common denominator, Rage 2 makes a dramatic choice – the focus on visual fidelity ensures 30fps on base systems and 60fps is reserved for the enhanced machines. With that in mind, Xbox One X, PS4 Pro and the base PS4 all run at a native 1080p while the original Xbox One renders at 900p instead. This is coupled with a very aggressive form of temporal anti-aliasing which does soften the image and minimise edge artefacts, but it goes perhaps too far, resulting in a surprisingly soft and blurry looking image. There doesn’t appear to be any form of dynamic resolution either, unlike the original Rage which used this as a major technical feature. That said, there’s always a chance it is in there (it’s an option on PC – something we’ll discuss soon) but in this case, it’s nearly impossible to spot as the TAA makes pixel counting borderline impossible in most scenes.
However, the key point is that resolution is one of the key things sacrificed in order to deliver a high frame-rate in an open world game. When these mid-generation machines were launched, this is exactly what many had hoped would become standard – 60fps on Pro and X versus a lower frame-rate on the base machines and now that we have that, was it worth it? In my opinion, it is – but there are trade-offs. Firstly, you can’t really expect much in terms of visual refinement on the more powerful machines. All versions look extremely similar but there are some minor advantages on the enhanced consoles including additional shadow casting lights and improved texture detail. Beyond that, most of the extra GPU power from the Neo and Scorpio hardware is targeted almost exclusively at delivering 60 frames per second. The screenshot comparisons reveal minor improvements on the enhanced machines, but nothing is deployed on improving aspects like LOD pop-in, for example. The sense is that delivering an open world at 60fps really is an either/or thing.
I can understand the disappointment and, yes, the game is soft on a large 4K display – there’s no doubt about that. Also, with Xbox One X consistently delivering big improvements over Pro, the level of parity between the two systems does make you think that there’s plenty more left in the tank on the Microsoft system. But judged in terms of the game that’s been delivered to us, I feel the trade-off is worth it – the fluidity gained by aiming for 60fps is a big, big deal. And it is Microsoft’s box that delivers on the 60fps promise almost flawlessly. Nearly every major scene and battle I encountered held a locked level of optimal performance without issue. It feels amazing to play as a result. However, it’s not quite perfect – one sequence in front of the Eden Centre exhibited slight dips and screen-tearing on Xbox One X which I didn’t expect. It doesn’t last long thankfully, but this seems to be an especially heavy area and it does tax the system.
It suggests then that similar scenarios could arise later in the game but even still, moments like this are uncommon. It’s really not something you’re going to need to worry about. By extension then, PlayStation 4 Pro delivers an experience very much on par with Xbox One X but perhaps not quite as stable. Our Eden Centre stress test has dips and tearing, but again, thankfully it doesn’t last long. But it’s in the game’s towns where the difference can be felt more readily: these seem to exhibit tearing and dips on the PS4 Pro that do not occur on Xbox One X by comparison. So, in that sense, the X definitely has an advantage here. That said, aside from towns and the battle in front of Eden, the game runs like a dream on both enhanced machines. I’ve highlighted the areas where I encountered dips – but no other section during any of my sessions exhibited any performance problems at all. It’s a very stable game – it’s just a tad more refined on Xbox One X.
Obviously, the situation isn’t quite so impressive on the vanilla consoles, targeting a 30fps experience. In the case of PS4, I was not able to find any performance related dips at all during testing. It delivers 30 frames per second and it’s locked. The chance for slowdown exists of course, but I was not able to find any which is a good sign. The Xbox One S turns in similarly stable performance but the Eden sequence did briefly drop here, suggesting we’re right at the cusp . It’s not quite as stable as PS4 overall, but still close enough.
You certainly get used to playing Rage 2 at 30 frames per second but switching between the two, it’s obvious that the game was designed with higher frame-rates in mind. The speed of the combat is simply a better fit for 60fps and the base systems feel sluggish by comparison. The controls are heavier and everything just feels less snappy. I’m reminded of playing Doom on Nintendo Switch – it works but it’s not optimal. Still, when you see any version in motion, it’s an impressive achievement – and I feel the developers have done a good job delivering a stable, beautiful experience on all four machines. However, there’s no escaping the sense that Xbox One X and PS4 Pro deliver the game the way it’s meant to be played. And I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be seeing a lot more of this 30fps/60fps divide once new console hardware is available and we enter the next inevitable cross-gen transition period.