Mad Max is an open-world third-person adventure from Avalanche Studios (the developers of the Just Cause series) set in George Miller’s iconic post-apocalyptic world where humanity is all but lost and a man’s best friend and greatest ally is his vehicle. Hot on the heels of the well-received blockbuster film Fury Road, Mad Max enters with quite a bit of promising momentum, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to keep this going until the credits roll. While certainly a fun foray into the bleak wastelands and one that is peppered with interesting story moments, the repetition of side activities that lose their lustre makes for an experience that teeters on the precipice of tedium.
At the outset of Mad Max, we find our antihero stripped of his most prized possession: His V8 Interceptor. After being accosted by a group of bandits known as War Boys, a bunch of murderous madmen led by the unfortunately named Scabrous Scrotus, Max is left to die in the blazing heat of the wasteland. Mad Max has always been about a constant cycle of loss: loss of possessions, loss of humanity, loss of friends, loss of family… loss of sanity. Miller’s universe is one in which whatever anyone has can be destroyed or stolen in an instant. It is a world in which comfort is illusory and fleeting and in this vein Mad Max starts strongly. After almost dying at the hands of his attackers he manages to fight back against his oppressors and escape with his life, however with his car gone, he might not last long. It is shortly after he is forcefully separated from his beloved V8 that he meets Chumbucket, an ex-War Boy mechanic (or Blackfinger as they are referred to) who approaches his occupation with a type of religious fervour. The crazy and enthusiastic hunchback claims to be in direct communion with the Angel Combustion, and holds in his head the plans for the construction of a vehicle far superior to the Interceptor Max has recently lost: The Magnum Opus. Max is reluctantly forced to ally himself with Chumbucket, as part of a dogged determination to regain a vehicle capable of traversing the Plains of Silence, a vast barren expanse beyond which Max hopes to find peace.
As you cruise across the wastelands, searching for the parts that will make Chumbucket’s dream of the Magnum Opus a reality, you will do battle against its denizens both behind the wheel and on foot. The former plays out like a hybrid between Rage and a poor man’s Burnout. When you first start out, the Magnum Opus is little more than a pathetic shell, with little endurance and very weak weaponry. However, as you progress you will outfit it with a harpoon that can tear hapless drivers from their seats or yank their wheels off and stop them dead in their tracks. You also gain Sideburners which spew flames out the sides of your car to toast the opposition and of course Max’s shotgun is never far away if another vehicle gets close enough or a War Boy manages to board you. Your arsenal is complete with the interestingly named Thunder Poon, which are powerful explosive spears that are launched from your vehicle and make short work of enemy vehicles. Unfortunately though, car combat never really comes together into something I would consider cohesive. I was hoping that there would be opportunities for some emergent gameplay where I could mix up weapons on the fly for interesting results, however the reality is you only need to rely on the Thunder Poon to get you out of trouble, and there are no real interesting combos available. The handling of the cars is also extremely poor (especially the ones with lighter frames), and it only takes clipping a rock or hitting some uneven ground for you to start swerving or losing control. Things get better as you upgrade your vehicle with better stability and a heavier frame, but the handling always feels floaty and the combat suffers. The weapons while driving must also be cycled through using the D-Pad, meaning you’re more likely to stick to one or maybe two weapons in the heat of combat. It would have made sense for the four weapons to be mapped to the four directions of the D-Pad rather than having to cycle through them, but as mentioned previously, if you find yourself struggling while fighting vehicle to vehicle you can normally Thunder Poon that problem into submission. In fact, as the game wore on I almost used this weapon exclusively.
Much like the gruff Mad Max himself, the ground combat is a bit rough around the edges too. The game attempts to mimic Rocksteady’s Batman series-style brawling combat, but fails on a couple of fundamental levels. The main one is the unresponsiveness of the counter, which is performed when a prompt appears above an enemy’s head with the Y or triangle button. The problem is that once Max initiates a move it can’t be cancelled, such that even though you’re furiously hitting the counter button when prompted, Max will continue with whatever slow animation he was previously engaged in and promptly receive a smack to the face. This is in stark contrast to the Batman series and games that have very successfully imitated it like Shadows of Mordor, which both allow you counter at a moment’s notice and maintain a slick fluidity in battle. Also, unlike those aforementioned titles Max does not efficiently close the gap with far away enemies, and you are forced to awkwardly shuffle towards them if they are too far away. Although clunky, you do eventually find a rhythm with the combat, and Max is a capable fighter who is more than willing to incapacitate his attackers by whatever efficient and brutal means he sees fit. I much preferred melee combat over the car combat, especially after you upgrade his abilities.
Indeed, upgrading is the name of the game here, and the main currency is scrap. Scrap will allow you to buy parts for your car, craft better armour and offensive capabilities for Max, as well as learn new skills. Scrap can be gained in a number of ways, the most effective being to wrest control of various camps across the wasteland from Scrotus’ hordes. This will constantly earn you scrap over time, with the amount gained being proportional to how many camps you control. Strong allies you make who fortify themselves in Strongholds will also help you out by collecting scrap while you are offline, or scuttle vehicles that you destroy in their vicinity (provided you have completed certain projects for them). The map is separated into large territories that surround each Stronghold where you can try and reduce the local threat level by taking part in various activities such as pulling down Scrotus’ gruesome totems, killing snipers, destroying convoys and disarming minefields. This allows you to gain access to better upgrades for you and the Magnum Opus, and I must admit at the beginning I found this all quite entertaining. I took pleasure in systematically clearing the map of all threats before moving on to the next as I upgraded the strongholds with parts scavenged from the wastelands. However, before too long, the benefits of doing this seemed to dissipate. Once you’ve upgraded one stronghold and gained access to its benefits, it hardly seems necessary to bother with the others (there are four in total). All the Strongholds offer identical benefits, and I found myself losing motivation in upgrading them. After about fifteen hours Mad Max began stumbling into that dangerous territory of empty checklist gameplay that was originally pioneered by Ubisoft in… well all of their AAA games. You are given plenty to do but there is often no meaningful feeling behind doing it. In the end I simply dismantled the camps in each region as this offered the quickest results with the most tangible rewards.
Mad Max is not a difficult game, and inexplicably there is no option to change the difficulty at the beginning. I prefer my games to be challenging, particularly if I’m supposed to be wandering around the ruthless wasteland in fear of my life. Games like the Fallout series captured this well, where you were afraid to tread in certain places if you didn’t have the gear or intestinal fortitude to survive. As soon as I turned up in Mad Max’s wasteland I felt like I was already powerful enough to take on most of it, rather than feeling like I was at its mercy.
In terms of visuals the atmosphere is good, with strong graphics and art direction helping to buoy the experience. While the colour palette leans towards the blander side of things, the day/night cycle acts to continually change the look and feel of the landscape, and small details and splashes of colour provided an oasis amongst the bleakness. Poking about the ruins of what went before such as an airport buried beneath the sands or a house containing two skeletons clutching each other in a final embrace, made the game feel at times unified with Miller’s vision of a world that has lost everything and gone mad. The setting is by far the game’s strongest asset, although this is unsurprising considering the source material.
As grinding out the near countless chores in each territory became tedious, I turned towards completing the story and things started to pick up. Amongst some of the more dull objectives like “obtain a V8,” you’ll meet a handful of interesting characters that give the story some much needed emotional impetus. There is the convict woman Hope and her child Glory, Scrotus’ villainous second in command and all around cruel bastard Stank Gums, as well as the sage wanderer Griffa, who also serves to upgrade some of Max’s stats such as health and melee damage. Unfortunately, just as the story starts to hits its stride with these characters it abruptly ends, and you realise that a relatively weak tale with a few standout strong moments is thinly veiled behind the game’s empty checklists. It’s a pity, because when I was engaged with the story and its setting I could clearly see its potential.
As an Australian, it is refreshing to hear the Aussie twang of my countrymen in the voice-acting of many of the characters. There are even a handful of voices from our trans-Tasman brethren the New Zealanders. The decision to give more prominence to Strayan voice actors was a step in the right direction considering the original films were quintessentially Australian (although Mel Gibson from the original films is technically from New York). The main characters are all voiced quite well, but many of the minor characters like the outlanders you meet randomly all appear to be voiced by the the same person trying on different Australian voices, and the delivery has all the conviction of a bad Year 10 High School drama performance.
Mad Max is a game that imitates better games but doesn’t quite manage to pull it all together. The story and setting are fairly faithful representations of what I expected from a Mad Max game, but the tone suffers from Max feeling too powerful early on without having to truly earn it. The game gives you lots of things to do, but the repetitiveness of many of your tasks and the disappointing one-dimensional vehicular combat can only hold your focus for so long. Once the main story is complete and the final credits roll you are given the option of continuing to upgrade the Magnum Opus and tie up loose ends, however after just over fifty hours spent in the wastelands, I don’t see myself returning there any time soon.