Mad Max fever reached a high this summer with Fury Road making quite the impression with cinema audiences, but the game by Avalanche Studios is quite a different vehicle of delivery. The game’s version of Max is a bit more talkative than that of the latest film, but this is still a Max with the singular goal of survival. He just wants to build a car that will allow him to travel to the Plains of Silence, a land where he envisions escape from the madness of the wasteland that is filled with various factions of killers.
The open world of Mad Max’s wasteland is a sea of yellow desert with the rusting corpses of ships, wind turbines and huge bridges piercing the dunes as a reminder of the world that used to exist. Avalanche should be commended for creating a desert wasteland that can be easily navigated thanks to the various landmarks that dot the sands, including the ever ominous Gas Town whose smoke can be seen billowing into the sky from almost anywhere on the huge map.
While vast, the map of Mad Max is starkly desolate, reflecting the fact that the human population has fallen since the apocalypse, and it does discourage you from trying to walk anywhere as it just wouldn’t be feasible. The map is also quite empty for another more practical reason, and that is to give space for car combat. The duels can take part across miles of road and through achingly large stretches of sand, but they don’t feel as engrossing as they could be.
The start of a road battle is a hectic frenzy, as you try your utmost to avoid being rammed by other cars, while also trying to dish out damage of your own. The car that rams into another deals damage but suffers none in Mad Max, but this is far from the only way to win a fight. Max has his trusty shotgun to hand, while the Magnum Opes can be equipped with a harpoon, an explosive harpoon cap called the Thunderpoon, and the ability to spew fire from the sides of the vehicle. However as soon as you have the harpoon and shotgun most car battles are easily won. The harpoon can be used to pull drivers out of other vehicles, so pretty quickly you can stop a convoy in its tracks and take your time to destroy each car and gather the scrap.
Scrap is required to upgrade Max’s equipment and his car, the Magnum Opus, which can be acquired through destroying other cars, raiding and taking over camps, and looting everything in sight. Customising the Magnum Opus is much more than just unlocking the next piece of equipment to make it better. Each item can help in one way while negatively affecting another. For example, you can add all the boarder spikes to stop people jumping onto your car, the heaviest ram to do the most damage, and the heaviest armour for protection but that will cost you speed. Or you could cut most of that out and have a car that moves across the sand fast enough to outrun others. As a result, handling will change depending on your build, with some builds easier to handle while others will spin out during sharp turns.
You can collect the other cars in the game, most as different forms of the Magnum Opus, so if the Magnum Opus isn’t meeting your standards then you can head back to a stronghold and choose another. However, there’s more than just collecting and building up your car, with four main strongholds in the game, all of which are run by a different leader and fearing for this lives in the face of Scrotus and his War Boys. Each stronghold is weak, when you first arrive there, and it falls to Max to find the pieces required to build them up, with project parts strewn all across the Wasteland.
However, while building up one Stronghold up would have been fine, four feels tiresome, and though they are optional side objectives, doing them is incredibly beneficial as they provide Max with everything he needs to survive. The missions themselves don’t really differentiate themselves either, with the objectives generally ranging from killing someone to getting something or racing someone. More often than not, you’re raiding a camp and punching people to death instead of ramming them off the road.
The melee combat is definitely one of the highlights of Mad Max though. You can feel the weight of punches and kicks, with the combat system from the Batman: Arkham games an obvious inspiration. It’s a lot more heavier and much more brutal here, as Max is not averse to stomping on a man when he is down and then sticking a shiv in his head. In fact, I’d say the melee combat is a system that is much more refined and better than the car combat. That’s a good thing for most games, but when the main focus of Mad Max is car combat then melee shouldn’t be stealing the spotlight.
The various enemy factions in the Mad Max universe are similar in style, but alongside the War Boys and the Roadkill gang, it’s the Buzzards who really stand out. They’re the ones who can give you a genuine sense of unease, especially when you go into their dimly lit underground bases. They’ll constantly try to ambush you, and their red eyes piercing the darkness definitely make them the most intimidating enemies.
By comparison, the Top Dogs are a disappointment. These are the War Boys’ regional leaders, and taking them out lowers the threat factor greatly. You’d expect some challenging and interesting fights, but effectively end up facing the same enemy time and again. They’re all very large, have big melee weapons and use the exact same moves and attacks. Sometimes they’ll swing for you but all it really takes to beat them is to stand back, let them charge, roll out of the way, hit them a few times and repeat. It’s a wonder that no one has taken them out before, considering how predictable each Top Dog is.
Mad Max looks fantastic though and there were more than a few times where the view of the expansive desert made me feel thirsty. The bright blue skies shining off the sand looks really striking and eye catching, while Gas Town is an industrial hell where the sky is dark and flames shoot into the sky. Yet the monstrosity of Gas Town is one of the few places with any true semblance of a functioning society, no matter how twisted, while the beautiful but barren desert is home to death.
The storms within Mad Max are some of the best I have seen in a game, and as the winds blow the dust in the air darkens everything to drop visibility. The car can be buffeted about and you have to watch out for the lightning strikes that hit and destroy vehicles without discrimination. When a warning pops up that a storm is approaching you start gunning it for the nearest friendly camp. Outrunning a storm can be exhilarating, though during more intense moments the frame rate dropped quite dramatically.
The majority of characters can feel quite one dimensional and even Max’s own journey isn’t full of emotional arcs. In fact it can be argued that Chumbucket, the man who builds the Magnum Opus and worships Max, is the character with the most depth. He expresses joy, fear, awe, sadness, kindness and wonder, explaining the world not just to Max but to the player. Chumbucket is an outcast, and not just because of his looks. In this world his emotions are a weakness, and as humanity gets more bloodthirsty, he remains a remnant of a world that has long since died.
Almost everything is technically good with Mad Max, but the game does feel like it is more style over substance. The car combat should have been the main focus, and while battles can stretch across miles of desert, they can lack difficulty and are outdone by the melee fights. Additionally, missions don’t really capture the imagination either and suffer from a degree of repetition. Avalanche Studios is known for creating a series of games that are incredibly entertaining, but Mad Max doesn’t have that same kind of pull. It isn’t a bad game and there is entertainment to be had, but the lack of variety in this world and some drawn out moments keep it from greatness.