To a degree, you’ve played Mad Max before. The ground combat is reminiscent of the Batman Arkham series, capturing bases is cribbed from Far Cry 3, and the atmosphere and upgrade mechanics bring to mind Red Faction Guerrilla. But Mad Max is able to put its own spin on each of these mechanics by layering a sense of desperation and hopelessness on top. You’re not the good guy. There is no saving the day. There is only brutality and your car. And those two things, Mad Max brings together to create a magnificent killing machine. Oh, and scrap.
Mad Max’s story is one of the easiest elements to criticize. The plots sets you off with the basic premise that Max Rockatansky has been left for dead in a post apocalyptic wasteland by Scabrous Scrotus and his War Boys. Your goal? Build a bigger, better car. For the majority of the game, this suffices. The Mad Max movies have never been the kind to throw around plot twists and this is equally straightforward. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the game expects you to believe that Max cares about people who've played relatively small roles up until then. It ends up feeling heavy handed and could have easily been made more impactful by focusing on characters you spend a great deal of time with instead of developing a trope-ridden romance subplot.
Mad Max also misses out on what could have been solid character development for Max by giving no payoff to his interactions with a character named Griffa. You'll earn tokens completing various tasks such as clearing out a certain number of bases or killing a certain number of enemies. These token can be redeemed by Griffa to boost Max’s more ephemeral upgrades (health, damage increase, duration of Fury mode, etc.). Each time Max meets with Griffa, the wandering mystic poses questions about Max's humanity, goals, and past. Early on, it seems like Griffa’s questions could go somewhere and be deeper than your regular videogame schlock. But they don’t. And not only do that not lead anywhere, once Max is fully leveled up, Griffa just disappears. No explanation, no final cut scene, you just have no reason to talk to him again.
But the plot is not why you should see a Mad Max movie and it’s certainly not why you should play a Mad Max game. It’s the cars. And Mad Max is all about cars, specifically driving them and blowing things up with them. Since the Interceptor (Max’s car from the films) is scrapped at the beginning of the game, Max is free to build a new legacy, the Magnum Opus. With the help of the most interesting and entertaining character in the game, Chumbucket, you set out on this endeavor. From the start, you can choose the body of the Magnum Opus and upgrade its components as you see fit. There are 18 different elements to upgrade and customize, many of which have pros and cons. For example, heavy armor, while more protective, weighs the car down and causes it to go slower and handle worse. Furthermore, larger engines increase speed at the loss of agility. The result is that your Magnum Opus drives however you want it to. Whether you want it to be a hulking tank, a fragile speedster, or some kind of Goldilocks car, the game supports your decision.
In addition to upgrades that simply affect how the Magnum drives, others give the car new abilities. Through the course of the game, the car gains access to a harpoon, a rocket launcher (with the wonderful name of “Thunderpoon”), nitrous, a sniper rifle, and even side-mounted flamethrowers. Each of these additions is valuable and end up making the car combat more complex and rewarding than the ground combat. But that’s not to say ground combat is bad.
When not in his shiny new wheels, Max excels at punching dudes in the face. Max fights wastelanders in much the same way Batman fights criminals, Wei Shen fights the triad, and Talion fights the armies of Mordor. Max punches, heavy punches, parries, rolls, shivs and shoots people with his shotgun. While very similar to the games mentioned, Mad Max focuses less on dominating your enemies and more on the brutality of the fight. Max does not slide around the battlefield like a ballerina. He can only attack or defend against enemies within a small range. Because of that, everything feels more dangerous. You have to wait for enemies to approach Max or move closer to them, both of which can be risky. The fault in Mad Max’s ground combat is not its familiarity or of a technical nature. The ground combat is fun, but it is greatly outshined by the car combat both in complexity and versatility.
The further issue with the ground combat is that Max’s enemies don’t really change. Within the first 5-10 hours, you’ve seen all the enemies that Max will fight for the remaining 25-30. Even the enemies in the game’s three factions are all just re-skins of the same enemy types. And none of this is to say that the combat isn’t interesting. It is, especially when you're overtaking enemy bases. Bases often contain large, varied groups of enemies including those with knives or shields, ones that do jump attacks and others that block. The best strongholds are those with War Criers and Top Dogs. War Criers are enemies that are suspended in the air over large battle arenas and buff your enemies. Top Dogs are the games bosses and reside at the top of certain enemy strongholds. But while both War Criers and Tops Dogs do throw some changes into the game’s combat mixture, much like all the other enemies, once you’ve fought them once, you’ve fought them all.
But while combat may be repetitious, the visuals are not. It may sound crazy that a game based in a desert could be one of the most beautiful games of the year, but Avalanche Studios pulled it off. Mad Max has five different regions to explore. Each of the regions is actually quite diverse. The first area you have access to is the Great White, which used to be the ocean floor. Because of that, the area is white and there are dried coral formations, buildings are made from shipwrecks, and there are no proper roads, just trails. Other areas are more gray and granite-y, while others have red clay and ruined structures from above water as well as proper black tops. Then, of course, there is a legitimate dune covered desert. My favorite location has to be the lands outside of Gastown. Not only does it have the best name, Deep Friah, all of the hills are literally mounds of scrap and junk.
Oh, and the skyboxes! Mad Max has some of the best skies of any game. It’s actually a large part of what makes Mad Max so visually interesting. While most games have relatively simple skies consisting of one color and the most complex visuals items on the ground, Mad Max inverses this. The ground, for any one region is largely the same color while the sky is varied and complex. It’s a beautiful thing.
Though amazing to look at, the physical world of MadMax is a large and barren one. Between constantly fighting War Boys, tearing down totems, liberating their camps and disrupting their convoys, there is plenty to do in the wasteland. The problem is the way the world reacts. That is, it doesn’t. Avalanche did a great job creating a desolate world that feels dead, but it also feels like it was never alive to begin with. And worse than that, the world only increases in its desolation the further you progress. As you fight the War Boys and loosen Scrotus’ hold on a region, there are fewer and fewer enemies in that region. But they’re not replaced with anything. The world just becomes emptier.
While driving through the wasteland, it’s common to get into a scrap that involves two of the game’s three factions. But even though the game acknowledges that these factions are enemies, they never fight each other. You’ll never come across a battle already in progress or see the world interact with itself in any way. Everything in the game only exists for Max to interact with. And while this works as a game, it does a terrible job of giving the game a sense of place, save one thing. Throughout the world, Max will come across people shambling around, crying out in raspy voices for water. You can give them water, though there is no reward for doing so. The dehydrated wastelanders don’t give Max some rare item or reveal hidden treasure. The wastelanders just say thanks before moving on. It’s simple, it’s short, and it’s the most human and living thing in the entire game.
Mad Max’s issues with the world are compounded by the writing. The game’s cutscenes are fine and conversations with Chumbucket are actually quite good. Everyone else, on the other hand, is a kind of terrible. The worst offenders are those that show up as points of interest on the map. These NPCs could have a task to offer (like doing particular jumps with the Magnum), information on a nearby base, or just talk and share scrap. Most of the time, what they say doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the task at hand. It could be that their speech is laden with Australian jargon that I don’t understand it, it could be that these characters have gone crazy because their brains are sun-bleached, or it could be their dialogue is just written poorly. And the latter seems like the most likely option.
Now, I haven’t talk about it until now, but one of the most important things to note about Mad Max is its upgrade loop. Avalanche Studios has this down to a science and yet makes it an art. There are four different things that Max can upgrade: gear, car, ephemeral stats, and bases. Scrap is the currency of Mad Max and what allows you to upgrade Max’s gear and his car. Like any game with a loot system, it’s everywhere; in camps, in car wreckage, in sand storms, and in various other places. But you don’t just collect scrap off the ground. Mad Max actually lets you setup your own little economy with it. Every enemy stronghold that you clear out automatically generates scrap every half hour or so.
There are also projects to complete inside your allies’ bases. Each project requires a set number of project parts that can be found throughout the world. Completing projects allows you to do things like refill Max’s health and the Magnum’s gas tank when entering the base in the future. Some projects make it so that scrap from vehicles you destroy is automatically picked up and others allow scrap to generated while you’re not playing the game. What all of this means is that everything you do and everything you upgrade feels meaningful and further helps you upgrade. Even when I finished Mad Max’s story, some 40 hours in, I still had car parts to unlock, projects to complete, and more sweet sweet scrap to collect.
Mad Max is a great game. MadMax has some real issues. Both these statements are true and they don’t contradict because while there are problems and even though they can detract from the overall enjoyment, they never matter in the moment. Mad Max is all about a world gone wrong, about chaos and kinetic, brutal combat both on the ground and in the car. And in the moment, when you’re riding through a sandstorm, playing chicken with a convoy, or liberating an enemy base, the problems with the game don’t matter. What matters is the frenetic fun, the gorgeous vistas, the fantastic driving, and the compelling upgrades. In the end, Mad Max’s ability to create a good time far outweighs any problems it has.
PC Specs: AMD FX-8350 Vishera, AMD Radeon 7950, 16GB DDR3 RAM, Win 10 OS
Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.