Only in a world gone to ruin and despair would a publisher pit a new IP against an established and massively hyped franchise, but Warner Bros chanced it and have released Mad Max on the same day as Metal Gear Solid V. Are they doomed to failure because there’s no way the open world brawler/driver can topple the media coverage of Konami’s titan? Will it surprise many, coming out of the mighty Avalanche Studios that brought us the fantastic Just Cause series? Or is it simply an alternative to Snake’s convoluted adventures before the crowded pre-Christmas release calendar and will do just fine? Let’s take it for a spin and find out.
Mad Max started out being developed for last and current generations, but was re-purposed some time after its announcement in 2013 when the team realised they couldn’t deliver the same vision and scope on the ageing hardware. What we’ve ended up with is a huge depiction of the Wasteland from the films overlaid with the aesthetic and vision of George Miller, so that even if the movie actors are missing, the look and feel is there in spades. It’s about survival at any cost, scrounging and scavenging to stay alive, and making alliances with the least homicidal people you encounter. It’s also about a car… but then it shouldn’t be about anything else.
Central to the story is the Magnum Opus, a vehicle you have to build after your original one has been stolen and scrapped by Scabrous Scrotus’ warboys. Max barely makes it out of the encounter alive, and in his efforts to recover what was taken from him meets up with Chumbucket, a talented and slightly crazy mechanic exiled into the wastes. Chum pledges to create the Opus from the right parts, and there begins a tale of death and destruction as Max gathers the materials that will help him reach the Planes of Silence. That’s enough of the story because quite frankly it doesn’t matter, as it really doesn’t in the films (face it, Fury Road’s plot is about driving straight then turning left!). It’s there, and it’s not bad, but it only serves to hang the action off, and that’s where the games strengths lie.
If you’re crafting a Mad Max experience the key components are solid vehicular destruction, meaty combat and being on the edge of running out of all essentials. On the road you want epic rolling battles with enemies leaping from car to car, crashes, explosions, and insane stunts. Out of the car it’s not about ducking into cover and waiting for people to reload, there aren’t many guns around, so it’s time to fight hard and be brutally efficient. There’s also the constant need to find fuel and water, both extremely precious commodities in this ravaged world. Avalanche have constructed things neatly to fulfil all these criteria, and whilst the driving and combat have that familiar feeling from other open world games, the addition of having to find fuel for your car and water to restore your health turns what would have just been a drive and punch simulator into an exploration-fest. Scavenging water and fuel is never a chore, there’s not enough around to make you think about it, but not too little that it needs micromanagement.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking the environment looks a bit sparse and that there aren’t many places to seek out, this is the Great White we’re talking about after all – effectively a dried up ocean. However, the structure of the land and the littering of shipwrecks make for an interesting playground, and within no time there’s lots to have a look at. As things progress and Max’s need for a more powerful engine takes him North, you move from old ocean to land, complete with rundown lighthouse as the clear transition point, and tarmac makes an appearance alongside old abandoned structures. Saying earlier that the story isn’t important comes partly from the landscape because the character and tone is set by the world itself. It took a while to see it, focussing solely on moving from objective to objective meant missing the beauty of the environments and how it flows from one area to the next, and how it provides visual clues to what you might find. Chuck on top of this severe sand or lightning storms and localised tornados and I’d argue it’s tough to find more breathtaking vistas in any other game.
Alas, it can’t all be perfect. Initially driving is a bit rickety because the Magnum Opus needs upgrades to become all powerful (and even turn into a whole bunch of different cars!). Low grip, a tendency to spin on touching the brakes, and no armour all shout “avoid enemies!” in the early stages, giving the opportunity to try out Max’s hand to hand skills. Those familiar with Batman or Shadow of Mordor will understand how this works, and yet may struggle to get to grips early on. Getting attacked by a group is pretty standard, so seeing a button prompt appear to counter a move is intuitive… if only it worked liked that. The prompt won’t necessarily counter every time depending on what animation Max is currently in, so sometimes it will just block, and other times it might not do anything at all. With multiple enemies able to attack very close together rather than a one-at-a-time approach it can prove frustrating until you’re levelled up a bit and have worked out a methodical approach. Then it becomes solid and satisfying.
Looting the corpses you leave and locations you visit for scrap will enable some car upgrades, whereas others need specific items before they unlock. Once this starts happening and you can last through more than slight scuffle with the other Wastelanders on the road, it’s time to become the road warrior. Car combat is a lot of fun when the right tools are there, without them it’s a grind that you’ll probably lose. The most important weapon in your arsenal is the harpoon because it’s just great fun to rip off wheels, doors, armour plates, or even people straight out of the driver’s seat. It’s also used for pulling down structures for access to new areas or hidden stashes, and is integral to story progression. There are thrown explosives and a shotgun to get really violent with, but they have limited ammo where the harpoon just needs to be reloaded by Chumbucket who acts as rear gunner and backseat driver. Ramming and boosting into the others on the road are also valid tactics, mainly because there’s the space to do it. Without the constraints of a street, the freedom of movement (both camera and car) come into play, and you can confidently rotate the view without running too high a risk of crashing out.
Because this is an open world game there are the expected collectibles, activities and sidequests to do, though to give it credit they do have a clear benefit in terms of how active Scrotus’ underlings are in the current game region, so they’re worth completing. They’ll also lead towards bonuses in the strongholds visited that are used as a temporary base as you make your way through the game. In fact, these other activities end up being quite addictive for the obsessive-compulsives among us and are an absolute time stealer, mainly due to the large distances needing covering. A nice touch is map waypoints not being visible until you’ve been told about them, stumbled over them, or spotted them from a balloon (Mad Max’s version of an observation tower). Using binoculars to scan the surroundings for camps or markers is actively encouraged, and adds to the immersive feeling of discovery as well as knowing that what you can see in the distance can be driven to. It’s also a Warner Bros game so the obligatory photo mode is here as well, which you can also use to scout the environment within limits due to the generous camera movement. Going above and beyond, there’s a video mode too where your couch co-op partner can control the camera angles via a second pad to really deliver a cinematic experience.
Mad Max is an interesting one to sum up and rate. I didn’t get on with it at first because the mission structure pushed things too far up the difficulty levels for my fledgling character, only on backtracking did I begin to relax into it and enjoy the charms of the apocalypse. Driving is solid if a little imprecise at times, fighting is brutal but could be slicker, and it’d be nice if the content was a little more varied beyond “kill this” or “destroy that”. It’s fair to say it’s rough around the mechanics edges, but it should be held up as a shining example of how to build a post-apocalyptic dead world. The more time you’re in there, the more you appreciate the desolate beauty, and with so much to do it’s one that’s a pleasure to keep visiting.
A review copy of Mad Max for PlayStation 4 was provided by the Warner Bros PR team, and the game is available now on Xbox One, PC and PS4.