Review: Mad Max – A World of Fire and Blood
For over 25 years, the Mad Max films held a special place in the heart of post-apocalyptic fiction for their zany energy yet striking world and environment: you can see the influence of the series easily through film, television, and especially in the heart of video gaming.
Titles of today such as Fallout, Borderlands, RAGE, and numerous others owe a heck of a lot to the Mad Max films with their emphasis on barren wastelands where survival of the fittest is the number one rule.
Strangely enough though, Mad Max‘s direct history with video games has been largely faint, an odd situation given how influential the films have been to so many other works in its genre.
With only a 1990 NES title to its name beforehand (based on the second film, The Road Warrior), developer Avalanche Software (previously of the Just Cause series) is hitting the ground running with a new take on the series in video game with the simply-titled Mad Max, bringing along a compelling mix of story with open-ended action and, of course, plenty of explosions and car chases.
Theatergoers earlier this year were treated to the critically-acclaimed film Mad Max: Fury Road, marking a thirty-years-in-the-making return to theaters for the film series since its last installment, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, hit in 1985.
While coming several months since Fury Road hit theaters last May, Avalanche Software’s Mad Max game occupies a space somewhere in-between, staying loyal to the film canon while working on its own entirely.
The story contains a loose connection to the events of Fury Road as a technical “prequel” to the film, but by-and-large Mad Max spins its own tale of survival and action out in the wasteland, starring the one-and-only Max Rockatansky.
Similar in scope to the open-worlds that Avalance Software conjured previously in the Just Cause series, Mad Max sets players out into a dusty, expansive world that largely exists without limits.
In a cheeky procedurally-generated twist, you can drive out deep into the horizon for as long as you’d like without invisible walls or borders stopping you: though at some point you’ll wind up running out of gas, and most likely leading to death out in the wilds by enemies, starvation, thirst, or all sorts of ways that will lead to a death at the hands of War Boys and cries of “mediocre.”
In the opening moments, players are introduced to the drifting road warrior Max and the struggles that pit him against the warlord Scabrous Scrotus (don’t worry — the character names only get better from there), and a brief excursion leaves him beaten and out in the desert with no food, water, weapons, or shelter.
Faced with such circumstances, the real meat of the game comes in once Max crosses paths with the desert mechanic Chumbucket (the Mad Max-ified version of Gollum) and they set out to create the ultimate ride, the Magnum Opus.
Starting off with nothing more than a barely-held-together frame of a car, Max and Chumbucket search throughout the wasteland for various parts and upgrades to gradually build up the Magnum Opus into the ultimate war machine out on the road, while fending off not only enemies but the environment itself.
Faced with unbearable conditions as well as packs of War Boy clans and the constant threat of starvation and thirst, finding ample amounts of food, water, and supplies becomes just as crucial a goal as building up Max’s ride.
The open-world, third-person action structure for the most part suits the title well in recreating the moments that the films have become icons for, as Max switches up letting loose with his fists on enemies with epic car chases and stunts.
Where Avalanche’s Just Cause series reveled in a goofy sense of the unpredictable for spectacle, Mad Max capitalizes on its world for creating a more mature and grounded take on open-world gaming, especially with such a heavy focus on survival and an increasingly harsh environment.
Given the setting, the game imposes factors in the player’s health and keeping Max at his best with a need for food, water, and other supplies throughout the game, even right down to needing gasoline for the Magnum Opus or other vehicles.
It’s an appropriate mechanic that fuels the game’s “survival of the fittest” attitude, though in hindsight the survival mechanics are never truly something that players need to worry about too often. Despite the desperation that the wasteland environments imply, generally finding food, water, and other resources is never a hugely difficult task.
Even when faced under the pressures of dehydration or starvation, the effects are negligible and never (immediately) life-threatening, which takes a way a bit from the feeling of scrounging for survival that the title seeks to create.
Likewise, one of the more divisive elements of the title comes from the implementation of a fast-travel system where players can easily hop around to different points of the map, much like you might find in other contemporary open-world games.
It’s inclusion creates a bit of a catch-22 as being able to skip around the map so easily kind of defeats the purpose of being able to hop into your car and blaze through the desert like Max is so known for.
On the other hand, it is a convenience for those looking to replenish supplies more easily and aids some of the game’s more tedious elements.
Given you don’t have to use it, the fast-travel may be left to the hands of the player of whether they want a more immersive yet tedious experience in lieu of a faster-paced game, at the expense of taking away from some of the game’s believability of a teleporting Max.
Mad Max provides plenty of opportunities for players to fend for themselves through the game’s hand-to-hand and car combat.
In the off-road side of things, combat should feel familiar to those that have played either of Warner Bros.’ previous experiences in the Batman: Arkham series or Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, as Max’s punches, kicks, and other moves switch almost rhythmically between enemies as he fights off War Boys and other wasteland adversaries.
The hand-to-hand system makes sense, though compared to Batman or Shadow of Mordor‘s Talion, Max doesn’t move quite as fluidly or with as much style, resulting in a combat system that toes the line between serviceable and a bit clumsy.
This ties in most directly with the camera system’s weakness, especially in comparison to those of something like the two other aforementioned titles.
Unlike those games’ flowing camera that smartly backs out to let you get a full view of your enemies at hand, Mad Max‘s camera comes in pretty close and can be a bit of a burden while fighting a large batch of enemies at once, resulting all too often in getting hit from the side by enemies that you can’t quite see clearly.
Melee combat works in the game for the most part, though in contrast to the diverse range of options that Batman has in his belts with the Arkhamgames, Max’s combat style is a bit more limited and simplistic.
Dodge rolls and contextual attacks are also available, though by-and-large most battles (aside from more complex boss battles) can be won by simple punches and parries, with little feeling of reward or progression in learning new attacks or using different strategies.
By comparison, the car combat system is arguably the game’s biggest strength and where the game truly shines out in its beautiful, decrepit wasteland.
Given the legacy that the films have had in producing epic car chases, Avalanche Software nails it in Mad Max by offering plenty of options and some moments that truly makes you feel like a badass on the road.
Vehicles handle especially well out in the desert while also giving players a plethora of combat options, as Max handles driving while Chumbucket takes to the rear to provide support with weapons and arms.
In particular, players can use a slow-motion bullet-time effect to more accurately take out enemies, and the game does a great job of leaving that up to you, whether it’s a shotgun blast to the driver, utilizing spikes and slams to run cars off the road, or my personal favorite option of using harpoons and explosive lances to rip cars to shreds.
It’s thrilling and exhilarating in all the right ways and easily the highlight of Mad Max — while poor car combat could have easily derailed the experience, Avalanche Software adapts it perfectly to video game form.
Given its large open-world and a high-adrenaline focus on driving the Magnum Opus out on the road against enemies, Mad Max often feels like a roller coaster in its pacing that while its highs are extremely high, its slower-paced moments often bring the experience to a considerable crawl.
In between the blood-pumping car chases and action set pieces, the title takes things much slower by having players forage for scrap metal to upgrade the Magnum Opus, forcing players to get out of the car and pick up each piece.
It kills the pacing and leaves you exposed to enemies, leaving the game continually confused on how to provide an experience that’s fun for game form while still trying to ground it in a sense of realism.
That feeling extends too into the game’s story and structure, with the title taking on the increasingly-common “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to open-world game design.
Mad Max is no slouch when it comes to content, as there’s plenty of heft to its 20-30 story and numerous side missions and objectives to complete well after the story is concluded.
Oftentimes, the game’s story missions proved to be the more compelling focus of the game; Max for the most part remains a one-note lone wanderer with little character development (not untrue to the original films).
Aside from fun side characters like Chumbucket and some of the kooky bosses you encounter, the majority of the remaining cast aren’t given much depth beyond some of the more typical cliches they fill, such as the damsel-in-distress Hope and her daughter, Glory.
As a story that’s by-and-large standalone compared to the films, Avalanche’s tale is serviceable but simply mediocre, more of a disappointment given the action-packed spectacle that moviegoers had in this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road and its eclectic blend of strong, memorable characters.
Coming on the heels of the 30+ year history of the iconic film franchise, Avalanche Software’s Mad Max has a big name to live up to. While plenty of other popular gaming series like Fallout and Borderlands gave plenty of homage to the films, Mad Max tries hard at crafting an experience that lives up to the name on its own, though not without some setbacks.
Much like the rusty, war torn cars that Max, the War Boys, and company ride throughout the wasteland, at an outside appearance Mad Max may feel a bit wobbly and barely-held together with an open-world that’s large, but not particularly interesting or engaging: filled with missions to complete and objectives to conquer, but not many that are fulfilling or worthwhile.
However, the insides show ambition at crafting an experience that lovers of the film series or great post-apocalyptic fiction can still find room to enjoy, with the game’s impressive visuals and audio creating a world that’s beautiful, yet rundown.
Even if it doesn’t quite hit breakneck speeds, Mad Max still offers a large world to explore and exceptional car chases for road warriors in the making.