My world is fire. And blood.
Mad Max is the stuff of AAA blockbuster design. From its collectible-filled open world to the simplistic yet rewarding free-flow combat system, Mad Max is a graphically beautiful interpretation of a gritty post-apocalypse. Developer Avalanche Studios is trying their first hand at a licensed franchise after getting their AAA feet wet with the Just Cause series. And with last year’s Fury Road film reviving interest in George Miller’s original 1979 cult picture about a lone officer steering through a dystopian wasteland, the time is right to find out if its skull-adorned symphony of sand, blood, and barbed borders is still relevant.
From the same publishing studio that has brought us the Batman Arkham series, expect to find the same studio polish that covers all its high-budget bases. And though initially a little puzzled at itself, this 2015 reboot (unrelated to the latest film) is an after-burning blast that quickly becomes a dream for to-do-list lovers.
Mad Max follows the blueprints firmly laid by recently licensed adaptations, notably by avoiding the tried and tested error of sticking too close to the source material. Instead, the story writers enjoy the creative liberties that reinterpreting a world provides. The universe is still the same, but the plot veers onto the hard shoulder a bit.
In this iteration of the dystopian cult classic, Max is ambushed by Scabrous Scrotus and his gang of War Boys, who make quick work of Max’s iconic V8 Pursuit Special and leave the Aussie rogue for dead. A hunchback named Chumbucket, reminiscent of the shunned Spartan in the similarly styled 300, and a dishevelled dog are now his only allies, and so Max sets out to tame the insufferable wilderness.
So what exactly is this dismounted driver’s objective? That’s a good question, and depending on how you see it, is very much both the strength and weakness of the game’s story. The majority of the script’s first half focuses on Max’s efforts to lessen Scrotus’ influence in the individual territories of the wasteland, in which the embattled leaders fight for sovereignty from the seclusion of their rubble-strewn strongholds. Your ultimate goal is Gastown, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that makes Mos Eisley spaceport look like a petting zoo. But to get there you need to first push the War Boys out of each territory, one activity and side mission at a time – and there’s a lot!
The narrative here is threadbare, which on one hand stays true to the source material.
Ultimately, the opening chapters are a confusing affair that leave you often debating Max’s general objective. That’s because the narrative here is threadbare, which on one hand stays true to the source material. After all, out in this barren post-apocalypse, the goals of most centre around survival and rebuilding civilization. Thematically, anything else seems trivial. But therein lies its weakness as a storyline that only picks up in the final hours leaves you with a taste of identity crisis. ‘What is the point’ is what you’ll constantly be muttering under your breath. But then, what was the point of the films, which were very grindhouse in nature and told their tales with little more than exploitative gratuity – and we love them for it.
So at least the amount of activities and collectibles supersedes any issues of delineation. The wasteland is a sandbox that has so much on the side that you won’t even pay attention to the main story once it starts manifesting by the fifth hour or so. Side missions are everywhere, and quickly distract from the weak story. But that’s okay because there’s enough to keep you entertained and cater to the completionist, encouraging you to 100% every location. You’ll clear enemy camps and oil refineries, rip down iron scarecrows with your car’s conveniently-equipped power cable, fetch valuable resources like gunpowder for dubious allies, secure highway routes by eliminating armed convoys and, of course, take part in destructible races against other drivers. The variety keeps the pace going well, but only if you don’t mind forsaking the story.
Take The Wasteland
As most of Mad Max focuses on territoriality and strategically drawing lines in the literal sand, the game’s main attraction – its stronghold system – appeals to the collectible lover and achievement whore in all of us. A stronghold is your base in a region, where the territory’s leader and followers are attempting to muster some semblance of resistance against the tyrannical Scrotus. Upgrading these strongholds is vital to your overall efforts, and can be done so by collecting scrap scattered throughout the world. The more scrap you scavenge, the more upgrades you can build in each stronghold, from weapons caches to water reservoirs. All of these upgrades will help you out in the long run, especially when you’re in a tight fix and need ammo or food. The system is a bit one-dimensional and sticks to the game’s completionist theme, so if you love the feeling of sound cues letting you know you’ve just unlocked or collected something new, you’ll feel right at home with Mad Max.
Survivalism is a major part of the game, too, but its weak implementation leaves it coming off as an accompanying aesthetic, rather than a driving practicality. Everything is sparse in Max’s world, from ammo and fuel to food and water, making every canteen re-fill a fleeting joy. That is, until the first few upgrades and discovered locations make this survivalist aspect moot. Strongholds soon provide ample resources, and upgrading Max gives him a lead belly that needs appeasing less and less. Resident Evil this is not, and though survivalist games are always a heart-drummer if executed well, this mechanic’s sense of desperation is lost when so much is afforded to you so early.
Man And Machine
If Twisted Metal became an open-world game, it would look something like Mad Max, which has a fetish for V8 dune buggies and Grindhouse-styled paraphernalia. Acquiring and upgrading beefed-up metal constructs is half the thrill, which works in much the same way you upgrade strongholds and your character: building a stockpile of scrap. Collect enough junk, and you’ll be able to deck out your ride in spike-mounted wheels, armored body, and super-powered afterburner. Your car is your closest companion, the only one you can come to truly rely on, and as such, the customisation options appeal well to the role-playing enthusiast and speed demon, not to mention they are about the only thing driving the narrative forward.
The road is a dangerous place, and those upgrades to your Magnum Opus serve to keep you armed against the numerous respawning enemies that number the highways. It’s only when the lifeless wasteland becomes a battlefield of mechanical menaces ramming into one another that Mad Max feels at most home with its respective license. Battering rival vehicles, leaving dust clouds of death and destruction in your wake, is just plain fun. My only issues with the overall gameplay of driving and destroying were the frequent annoyances of having to get out of your car to pick up the scrap left behind by blown up transports, and driver respawn rates, which reminded me instantly of the infuriating random encounters of Far Cry 2, albeit to a lesser degree.
It’s OK, I’ll Walk
On-foot combat follows the general rule laid out by Rocksteady’s Arkham series – yes, I’m sounding like a broken record at this point but the influence of Batman’s lauded reboot cannot be understated. Much like the critically acclaimed superhero action game, Mad Max uses a free-form combat engine that is based on simple counters and strikes. Max is no Bruce Wayne however, his encounters more rugged, chaotic, and open to lethal brutality. Weapons, like everything else in the game, are in short supply (at least until you set up your strongholds properly). Hand-to-hand fist fighting is obviously encouraged, and rightly so because the drunken feeling of brawling power it gives you is a euphoric elixir on par with any flask of purified water.
Mad Max features one of the most bafflingly backwards button mapping you will ever see from a triple-A title.
It pains me to say it, but one of the absolute worst flaws of the game is also the most unnecessary: its control scheme. For some reason or another, Mad Max features one of the most bafflingly backwards button mapping you will ever see from a triple-A title. After spending some time away from the game and jumping back into the thick of it, I completely forgot how to use my weapons. The obvious answer to this dilemma is also the wrong one, because the right trigger, or shoulder button, makes Max sprint (typically a function reserved by one of the main face buttons) and the left trigger makes him jump. The oddity of this arrangement would only be justified were the movement functions imperative to the gameplay, but not once did I ever find myself craving the ability to jump, as the jump itself is so broken that it doesn’t allow for scaling terrain any higher than half a metre. In fact, the only times I commanded Max to start hopping around was when I went to aim my weapon. But oh, silly me, I forgot…
If Mad Max takes a bit of a hit in the story and gameplay departments, it makes up for it in its vividly captivating production because it understands that visual appeal is not all about colour and vibrancy. There is often beauty in greyness, and Max’s world is certainly grey, if not always literally. The environment’s graphics immediately sell the open landscape, and much like you felt when riding the Western frontier in Red Dead Redemption, exploration – which will account for upwards to half your play time – is made extremely easy on the eyes. For a game with so little hue and so much saturation, the way different regions feel genuinely ‘different’ really says something for its artistic variety. Sight-seeing is definitely a joyride.
The models do less to take your breath away but are still serviceable. Max isn’t modelled after Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy, but still stays true to the film franchise’s cult hero. Oddly enough, the jaded Aussie’s face sports some of the most interesting graphical effects. Wait long enough, and Max will start to grow facial hair. Get into a free-for-all, and the fight will leave its mark in the form of cuts and bruises. These graphical vignettes are important because Mad Max features a world of imperfections, and those imperfections, if not highlighted and accentuated, would discretely be ignored.
The sound effects are an absolute powder keg, featuring some of the most powerfully sounding gun-shots, explosions, and car collisions ever heard in a video game. The fights are more grounded than the light-as-air foot battles of Arkham as well. Max feels firmly planted by gravity, taking fewer steps to meet his opponents, but trades this lack of agility for power, and it shows in the audio. Haymakers will make you wince with the sound of their heaviness and execution-style moves leave you with even the most desensitised blood-bathing baron with the occasional stomach knot. Every time you fire a shotgun, it sounds like someone fired one off right by your ear. Every time a sniper bullet just narrowly misses your swerving car frame, the realism of the crack that travels unanimously from air to metal to sand gets your blood flowing quickly. The environmental audio is handled just as masterfully, especially when your car gets overcome by the fury of a sandstorm that would give the F5 from Twister a run for its money.
Like any open world game, there are a few bugs here and there, but nothing that cripples the overall experience. Aside from the plethora of problems that arise when you start jumping around – let us nary mention this again – other programming pitfalls included talking to people when a sandstorm hit, which leaves you wondering why the context-sensitive individual would be at the location marked in the middle of a cataclysmic natural disaster. But this nitpick is symbolic of the minuteness of the few quirks within, so don’t pay too much worry.
While it’s hard to recommend the game for its story, which only ratchets up in the latter half in a climactic killjoy, the arsenal of activities, side quests, and explorative excess on offer is a completionist’s wonderland. There’s so much to do, so much to collect, and so many upgrades to unlock, that old-school gamers who die by the terms ‘Level Up’ and ‘100% Location Looted’ will enjoy their dollar’s worth, even if fans of the film are shorted on a hearty narrated expansion of the Mad Max franchise. And if the sweet graphics don’t seal the deal, the sonic majesty of the game’s surround-sound mandatory audio will.
A review code of Mad Max was provided courtesy of Xbox. The game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Despite its shortcomings, Mad Max is a wonderfully produced tribute to a franchise that takes all the right cues from developer Rocksteady; the result is a polished movie-to-game adaptation that stands with the ranks of The Chronicles of Riddick: Butcher Bay and GoldenEye 007. Get ready to be driven mad with fervour!