Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Review copy of the game provided free of charge by the publisher.
Earlier this year Mad Max: Fury Road was unleashed upon the world and the world responded with nothing but love for its glorious action sequences that used real stunts rather than CGI nonsense. Sure, Max may have wound up being a mumbling sidekick to Furiosa, but it was a truly an amazing movie filled with visually spectacular, thrilling sequences. That presents a daunting challenge for any videogame bearing the name Mad Max. Video game adaptions of movies don’t have a stellar track record, so smartly developer Avalanche have opted to craft a game that takes place sometime before Fury Road rather than trying to follow or replicate the events of the film, granting them the freedom to expand Mark Miller’s postapocalyptic Australia a little bit more while escaping some of the stigma that comes with being based on a series of movies.
Considering Max is usually a man of little words and plenty of action he does a surprising amount of yacking throughout the game, which admittedly grated me slightly since I’m a fan of the movies and found it odd that he talked quite so much. Likewise he’s far more open to completing tasks at the behest of others, something which he simply isn’t in the movies. Really the character of Max doesn’t lend itself well to typical quest-driven open world design. However, thematically the game manages to nail just about everything else, the vast lifeless desert, junk cars and dramatic chases so perfectly replicating the feel of the movies that by swapping over to first-person driving mode you could almost believe you were in Fury Road. It’s just a shame that Avalanche Studios so studiously stuck to the outdated open-word template when building it.
With the destruction of Max’s beloved car, The Black on Black, at the beginning of the game the driving force behind most of the plot is the construction of a worthy successor with the aid of the hunchbacked Chumbucket, the slow and steady earning of new parts providing a clear sense of progression. And that’s really it for the narrative; Max wanders the wasteland doing favors for the various big bosses scattered around the place so that he has somewhere to hide out and build up his new car, but there’s no overarching plot except for the fact that Max has somewhere he wants to go, and to get there he needs a good ride. For the first chunk of the game you’re big goal is to acquire a V8 engine. As a motive it’s pretty thin, but then the Mad Max movies were never big on plot. The Magnum Opus at least provides a tangible reason to bounce from base to base performing favors, gathering Scrap and driving like an idiot, and frankly it’s enough. The rather crazed Chumbucket helps greatly thanks to his pure reverence for the car, referring to it as something holy and Max as a Saint. His religious stance toward his Magnum Opus and the way he prattles on about the Angel Combustion is infectious, helping you achieve almost the same level of love for your upgradable machine.
Let’s begin with what you’re going to be spending the majority of your time doing; screaming around the desert in the Magnum Opus, stopping off to tackle enemy camps and battle other cars. The handling aims for arcade goodness which suits the hectic car combat well. The lack of a handbrake is shocking and does curtail sliding madly around, but otherwise the car feels good as it hammers across packed roads and gets pulled down by loose sand, the way it turns, accelerates and impacts other vehicles changing as you apply new upgrades. You aren’t cruising the desert on your own, though, as enemy war parties and rolling convoys kick up dust, too. Naturally just ploughing straight into an enemy is the simplest method of doing some damage and to that aid you in that area there’s a handy side-swipe move available at the touch of a button, but Max’s ride also comes equipped with a harpoon that can be aimed in slow motion and used to rip off wheels, doors, bumpers and even spear an enemy driver before yanking them savagely out of the car. Max’s trusty shotgun can also be brought into the fray, plus there’s a Thunderpoon which launches explosives.. Aiming these weapons can be a bit of a pain in the arse, though, as the range often feels like it changes with every encounter and sometimes it seems impossible to target something specific.
It’s a limited moveset but from it is borne exciting car combat that’s only made better by impressive particle effects and physics that result in chunks of metal being torn off, sparks flying into the air and dramatic explosions. Sure, it doesn’t match the sheer visual brilliance of Mad Max: Fury Road, but squint a little bit and while you’re in the midst of a raging battle – attempting to rip the armored door off a truck so that you can get yourself into position to harpoon the driver through the air or line up a perfect shotgun blast on the fuel barrels you just exposed on the back of a car – you could almost believe you were replicating a scene from the Mad Max movies, especially if you swap into the fantastic first-person driving view and engage an enemy convoy. The only thing missing is bikes, which are entirely absent despite their prominent use in the movies which is really a shame.
And boy does it sound good. Mad Max is a first-class lesson in strong audio design, the violent roar of your engine acting as the perfect accompanying soundtrack to blasting through the desert. The bang and scrape of colliding metal, the bark of a shotgun, the sound of an exploding car, the power of a dust storm, the wince-inducing racket of the Magnum Opus toppling down a hillside; it all sounds beautiful, a wonderous cacophony of noise. The voice acting is also very impressive, with the exception being Max himself portrayed by Bren Foster, whose performance can be a little hit or miss, although it is very nice to see an actual Australian taking on the role and thereby delivering a proper Australian accent, unlike Tom Hardy who just didn’t bother.
There’s five warlords scattered around the map whose favor you’ll try to earn, done in one of two ways. The first is to complete the building projects within each base such as a maggot farm for food or a survey crew that automatically marks every loot area on the map. To gather these parts you must head into the world and salvage them, which can be quite a time-eating jaunt across the map given the sheer size, but it is worth the effort as they provide benefits for you as well; setting up an oil well means getting a free refill of fuel whenever you stop by, likewise an ammo bench means getting bullets when you decide to visit. The second way to help out the local big boss is to drop the regions Threat Rating, done by knocking down the large scrap Scarecrows, annihilating roving convoys, dismantling sniper towers, clearing minefields and taking down enemy camps. The map is littered with icons, a veritable buffet of generic busy work taunting completionists.
Enemy encampments come in many different sizes and shapes and tackling them is a two-pronged affair. To begin with you need to deal with the outer defenses which can include sniper towers, mortars, flame pipes that stop you getting to the gate and more, which is where the Magnum Opus comes into play. The back of the car contains a useful sniper rifle for dealing with long-range problems including the aforementioned snipers, and it can be pretty handy for taking out the gas tanks feeding flame pipes if you can find ’em. Of course harpooning the tower, sniper or gas tank is always an option, too. Once you’ve dealt with the perimeter you have to sadly abandon the car in favor on-foot action, opting to either go in the front gate or maybe use one of the “secret” entrances that rarely seem to provide any tangible benefit. Inside objectives range from having to just eliminate everyone inside, taking out the big-boss, blowing up the oil well or blowing up all the transfer tanks. Basically its punch everything and blow everything up, which is exactly why tackling enemy camps becomes a chore, a shame because they are at least visually quite diverse and interesting.
Speaking of punching things, punching overly-enthuastic wasteland dwellers in the face using the now very over-used Batman: Arkham style combat system is what you’ll spend almost every moment out of the car doing, although this is a far simpler version of the Dark Knight’s fighting style, opting for strike, parry and dodge buttons without all the fancy gadgets. The only other things spicing up combat are finishing moves that utilise shivs you pick up around the environment, power moves down by holding down the strike button and a Fury Mode that deals big damage. Max’s shotgun is available, letting you whip it out (stop giggling) and deliver a blast of ear-pleasure to the chest of an enemy. Irritatingly, though, manual aiming locks you into position, which is hardly helpful when dealing with ten or twenty foes, and the quickfire is damn near impossible to use on a specific target, such as a hanging War Crier who can buff up enemies if you don’t kill him quickly enough.There’s some unlockable moves and you can snap up weapons as well to aid in crushing skulls, but it’s a simple system that’s somewhat saved by the raw feeling of physicality that combat holds, every punch and kick connecting with a meaty crunch that never fails to satisfy. It isn’t enough to stop fist-fights becoming dull as the game goes on. There’s only so many times you can pound on the same bad guys before it starts to drag. The combat never grows over the course of the game, sticking purely to repeating X,X,X,Y until you feel like giving up. There’s no sense of progression, and difficulty is handled simply by slinging more bad guys at you until eventually combat scenarios involve you and a small tsunami of victims. It’s not a bad combat system, it’s just a competent one, but with the slew of games using the same system being merely competent isn’t enough.
Lowering the Threat Rating is a time-consuming process that clearly demonstrates the game’s clear love of tedious busy work, forcing you to take on camp after camp, pull down scarecrow after scarecrow, shoot sniper after sniper and battle convoy after convoy. Mad Max feels like it set out to deliberately tick every single box on the generic open world design list, even managing to replace the infamous Ubisoft towers that reveal the icon-littered map surrounding you, except this time the developer’s have somehow managed to make the concept more tedious. Hot Air balloons often need to have connecting wires broken which just means positioning the Magnum Opus and using the harpoon, or need to be refueled, which is as exciting as finding the nearby gas can and carrying it up a few ladders to the balloon. Once the balloon is actually read to go you have to hop in it and then wait for it to very slowly rise into the air, at which point you have to take out the binoculars and proceed to slowly scan the surrounding area so that locations will be marked on the map before then very slowly descending. Slowly. And then you can head off to tackle another camp, or rip down another scarecrow, or shoot another sniper. And then repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
It’s necessary, though, as most upgrades for the Magnum Opus are unlocked by dropping a regions Threat Rating to a low enough level, and as you progress through the story you’ll quickly find yourself being outclassed by powerful vehicles, forcing you to spend your time trundling around the map. Those upgrades not unlocked by lowering the Threat Rating are gotten by completing very, very basic side-quests that include the smallest possible amount of context and the most arbitrary of objectives. By gathering up Scrap, the game’s currency, you can purchase engine upgrades, new exhausts, spikes to stop enemies clambering on the car, better suspension and more. There’s a solid amount of upgrades to unlock, and it’s a pleasure to feel and see the Magnum Opus growing in power. However, most upgrades are linear in the sense that the next one along is obviously better than the last and there’s no a whole lot of visual customisation options, so the car will likely never feel unique to you. That doesn’t stop the feeling of ownership, though. Your Magnum Opus at the end may look and feel like almost everyone else’s, but it’s still yours.
There’s almost a light survival layer to the game that feels like the developer’s were unwilling to truly commit to it. Shotgun shells are scarce, water – which heals Max – is hard to come by out in the desert and the car you drive needs to be refueled, otherwise you could find yourself stuck. In the opening hour or two it can create the sensation that you’re eeking out an existence in the harsh wasteland just as Max must do in the movies, but the game quickly abandons the threat of running out of resources. Your car can go for some considerable time without needing to refuel and you can carry a spare container of gas with you so you’ll only ever run out if you’re truly inept, plus more isn’t very hard to come by. Over the course of the entire game I only had to refuel the Magnum Opus a couple of times. Water and shotgun shells remain relatively scarce in the desert, but upgrades ease the burden a little by giving you extra bullets and more water when out raiding. Upgrade a stronghold with a couple of projects and you’ll be refueled and restocked with ammo and water whenever you drop by, too, and you can always fast travel straight to them. Areas to loot for Scrap are very clearly marked on the map and you’ll usually find some shotgun shells there, too, and which ones contain water is also very clearly displayed. You’re not so much surviving as you are thriving. It’d be nice to see a hardcore mode introduced where fuel is very hard to come back and you run out quicker.
It may be abundantly sand-colored and devoid of much more than some rats and plenty of crazy people in overly spiky vehicles but Mad Max’s postapocalyptic world is oddly beautiful and filled with plenty of areas to soak it all up. There’s some weak textures here or there, but it’s hard to care overly much when you’re hammering through the desert in the game’s delightful first-person driving mode, yanking enemies out of the driver’s seat with a harpoon. Even the skyboxes look incredible. And boy does it run smooth, too. Warner Bros. needed something to restore at least a tiny sliver of their damaged reputation on PC after the farce that was Arkham Knight, and Mad Max does just that. On my modest rig there was the occasional bout of dropped frames, but they were rare and for the rest of the time the game ran buttery smooth with almost everything cranked up high. Avalanche Studios proved they can optimise a game for PC well with Just Cause 2, and it’s nice to see they haven’t lost their touch.
Shoving aside all talk of gameplay mechanics, graphics and sound for a moment Mad Max is a fascinating game because it’s a prime example of how the gulf between professional critics and the general public can often be huge. Critically the game has been fairing okay with mostly middling critiques that tend to emphasis the fact that not only is is made up of a check-list of standard open-world mechanics, the kind that you see absolutely everywhere but that it’s also very repetitive, both of which are entirely fair criticisms. Mad Max demands you do a lot of quite tedious stuff over and over and over again. Meanwhile public reaction has been very favorable, with most viewing the game as very, very fun. Out of over 7,000 reviews at the time of writing 94% are positive and the game holds a rating of “very positive.” It’s interesting because Mad Max commits a lot of sins that the public would normally demand reviewers be harsh on, such as the typical open-world covered in icons, most of which aren’t really worth the effort, a generic combat system, a reliance on busy-work, fetch quests, a poor story and much more, and yet Mad Max seems to be getting a free pass while critics are being called out for noting things the public would normally be against. The truth is that both parties are actually correct; the game is a whole lot of fun to play largely thanks to the car combat, but it is also very derivative and repetitive and doesn’t do anything special or all that great to set itself apart. It’s a generic open-world experience only elevated through decent use of the license and rather fun car combat.
The short of is that Mad Max is fun. More fun that it rightfully should be, really. From an objective standpoint, or at least as objective as I can be, it’s a mediocre open-world title that rarely deviates from the standard formula, packed with plenty of pure content, the majority of which isn’t worth the effort. Yet despite this it’s enjoyable stuff and clearly has a degree of charisma since gamers seem to be so enamored with it. I can’t in full conscience slap a recommendation on the end of this review because I don’t view it as something absolutely worth picking up, a title that is really, really worth the time, but if you’ve got some spare cash burning a hole in your pocket and need something new to play then you’ll have fun, and if you don’t then consider this well worth a purchase when it goes on sale. And of course it goes without saying that if you’re a big Mad Max fan, you’ve already bought the damn game and reading this entire review was pointless, so bugger off.