First off I want to make very clear that Mad Max is not a movie tie-in. I don’t know about you but I am very glad of this. Many of you, I’m sure, have had the repeated displeasure of trawling through a movie tie-in game that turns out to be lackluster and lazily made – a cheap cash in for the franchise. Not only does this do, what could be a very good film, a great injustice but it also leaves us with bitter, associative memories. I am very happy to report that Mad Max could not be further from that scenario.
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Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros Games
Avg Game Length: 20hrs
The free roamer wasteland playground that Avalanche Studios has created here, is packed to the gills with lore heavy references that I am sure will leave die hard Mad Max fans feeling satisfied and that their money did not go to waste. Admittedly, the story is lacking in depth but we must remember that Fury Road (fair to say, I think, that everybody enjoyed) was not too dissimilar. Like the film, Mad Max doesn’t bludgeon you with in-your-face lines and reference drops to explain its world. In fact, very little effort indeed has gone into telling you anything outright about the world in which Max is doomed to inhabit. This was a smart design choice from Avalanche as it allows them to explain their iteration of the wasteland through gradual player experience. This slow burning exposition is perfect in building up to a climax of the player’s understanding of the world and whats left of its economy and its characters. Again, this is a very good thing when it comes to player immersion and it certainly seems like Avalanche Studios understand that less is more.
The Sprawling Greys And Browns of The Wasteland Stretch Out Before As You Wonder “Right, Where To Next?”
This brings me onto the wasteland itself. Unlike its fellow free roam counterparts of the console generation, Mad Max’s world is not stuffed with lavish interactive potpourri to goggle at in wonderment once the map truly opens up to the player. Avalanche’s less is more attitude really shines through here as, despite the seemingly bland design of a vast desert, there really is tons to do, find and exploit. In a welcome change of pace, none of this is shoved down your throat and you can take your time cracking through all of it in your own time (as most of it will be available to you from the get-go) or you can ignore it altogether and simply focus on the story. Graphically, the wasteland is perfect. It oozes with atmosphere and a grim personality that will keep any explorer morbidly fascinated wherever they go throughout the varied landscape. I dare say that you have been looking at this game through squinty eyes, anxiously worrying ‘Its just a massive desert. How can there be anything to do?’. You can put that naysayer voice to bed because, well, its wrong
A special mention also goes out to Avalanche and their efforts with designing explosions. I mean, its a Mad Max game. There’s going to be rather a lot of them. As you drive along at breakneck speed, maddened and hungry warboys on your tail, you shoot the gas tank and watch the car flip stupendously into the air, enveloped in yellows, oranges, blacks and greys as debris momentarily clutters the road. Frankly it is an exhilarating feeling, never gets old and the fantastic work that has gone into this particular aspect of the game makes it so.
That said, Mad Max’s graphics are not praiseworthy across the board. The character models are solid enough but some can suffer from soft textures and lazy mouth movement, designed as if from the previous generation. Also, when exploring encampments or tunnels, I was surprised by some of the overly soft textures on walls and floors and kept expecting them to pop into focus a la the Unreal Engine. Alas, the sharpening never came and I was left thinking ‘Oh. Alright then’. On the PS4, we do also have to tolerate frame rate drops at the oddest moments but these are very few and far between and when you see one, you’ll have forgotten that the game does it at all. These are minor gripes and overall, the visual quality of Mad Max and the shading delights that its day/night cycle offers, is quite lovely.
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here
Aesthetically, Mad Max revels in driving home the hopelessness of the wasteland. You may be driving along and suddenly notice some wanderers gasping for water. Or Max himself may be desperate for something to eat, stomping a lizard or scooping up some maggots to chow down on. Scarcity of just about anything useful to the human body is gently brought into the equation by the gameplay mechanic of having to find food and water to stay alive – no matter how gross it may be. Just how readily Max will guzzle a can of, probably ancient, dog food helps us to realise that he’s been doing this a long time and has given up caring for things like taste.
Max as a character, however, seems quite lackluster as are a majority of his counterparts inhabiting the wasteland. Despite his madness, we never really see him experience a wide range of emotions and, while his thick and gruff Aussie accent is a breath of fresh air for a protagonist, he just seems mostly deadpan. This goes for many of the other characters he encounters, all of whom seem rather one dimensional. Despite this, there is a wide variety of enemy factions, now crazed into murderous appetites. Each of them with their own enemy types and habitats. Standing out from the crowd, however, is Max’s over enthused sidekick for the game – Chumbucket, voiced by Jason Spisak. He is on the opposite end of the spectrum as the religious fanatic who believes Max to be some divine being. He may be muttering psalms about the glory of the V8 and the pistons or he may be may be gleefully smacking the Magnum Opus (your ride), laughing through words of praise at the demise of your enemies. He is the driving positive tone of the game.
There is also the bubbling undercurrent in the tone of despair and aftermath. This is slowly drip fed to the player through many relics to find scattered across the wasteland, be they old pictures, diary entries or warning messages to loved ones. As you collect more and more of them, they really serve to depict the past world and the last minute panic that spread across it. Max’s commentary upon collecting these items gives each of them that little bit more depth. While they serve no purpose as far as gameplay or progression is concerned, they are a welcome little extra for more curious players to pry into, ultimately leading to a greater sense of immersion in the game. Speaking of which, a day/night cycle helps to boost a sense of immersion but what Mad Max wasteland would be complete without its epic sandstorms?
These are randomly occurring throughout the game and on foot, Max must find shelter before he is swept away like a leaf down a drain. Alternatively, he may suffer getting clobbered in the face with some fast moving debris coming his way. Behind the wheel, he must dodge sporadic lightning strikes and look out for lucrative little boxes as they tumble past and Chumbucket can cling onto one of these for a great reward. Its a welcome little gameplay mechanic that you can look forward to if you are unfortunate enough to get caught in one of these sandy hells.
The real meat and potatoes of Mad Max’s gameplay really centers around a progression tree system. And, crikey, Avalanche really came up with a progression tree for just about anything they could. Of course, I don’t say this in a derogatory sense. It really does pack the wasteland with things to do and reasons to do them. As I said earlier, all of these things are optional, but just about everything that you collect can be used to develop something. The main currency of the game is scrap, which can be salvaged from wrecks or simply found cluttering the environment. This scrap can then be used to (if you’re reading this out loud for some reason take a deep breath because this is going to be a very long sentence) upgrade Max’s jacket and armour, upgrade Max’s knuckle dusters, enhance the quality of strongholds, upgrade the Magnum Opus with armour and weapons, create a plethora of different vehicles, unlock larger ammo capacities and even unlock a great big bushy beard. Seriously.
Strongholds And Enemy Encampments Glue The Map Together
Most of these are fairly self explanatory, but the part that strongholds have to play is something I’d like to crack into. The larger ally encampments are the strongholds. To be clear, these strongholds house survivors of the wasteland, doing their best to build some iota of a society. You can help them out by building oil dispensers, maggot farms, armories, workbenches and water collectors. The components of which are usually nestled deep inside some enemy stronghold somewhere. This usually takes a lot of work and turns into a self initiated little quest in its own right. As the stronghold develops you will be granted extra bonuses for making use of these fast travel points, depending on what you’ve built so far.
On a smaller scale, there are also enemy camps. As I mentioned earlier, scrap is your main form of currency in the wasteland. If you feel you aren’t accumulating enough of this to increase your level of badassery, you can convert enemy camps into ally camps after clearing them out totally and the more liberated camps you add to the roster, the more scrap will come tumbling in for you. This plays into the threat lowering system, making certain territories less dangerous for whatever unfortunate may be roaming around in them. Lowering threats also includes disarming mines, taking out sniper towers and killing Top Dogs of the Scrotus faction.
The combat is familiar for anyone who has played the Batman Arkham games or Shadow of Mordor as it shares the same parry prompt, attack, dodge mechanics. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I’m sure many will agree, it is a system that makes for organic and convincing fight scenes. It succeeds in not feeling like more of the same as, unlike those other two games, Max will not slide from one enemy to another like a lubricated pinball on ice and as a result, the combat has to be of a more patient kind. It succeeds in feeling fresh as different enemy types with different behaviors gradually come out of the woodworks, forcing you to switch up your fight tactics as you play. This is nothing new but Avalanche’s approach to it with the Mad Max stamp somehow simply works.
The V8, The Pistons & The Roar
Lastly, the driving. Driving in Mad Max feels great. While some of the momentum physics can have you laughing after spinning a hundred times after a last minute snag before a jump, you can’t help but feel that happened because ‘you weren’t driving properly’. Each of the enemy vehicles can either be destroyed or stolen, adding them to your collection and each of them handles differently. If you take a vehicle after killing its driver, having shot one of the tyres out, you’re going to have a tricky time directing it back to the garage. Your ride will behave differently if you’re driving on sand, rubble, rocky ground or, if you’re really lucky, a surviving ‘blacktop’ road.
So there you have it. I could happily write tons more about this game but I have listed just about everything you need to know if you’ve been trying to decide whether or not you should buy it. Its not quite under the ‘must own’ category and it does have its failings here and there. It also leaves very little replayability once you’re finished with the first playthrough which, unfortunately, lessens its value. There’s no multiplayer aspect but that’s fine. Mad Max is and always was going to be a selfish one on one experience but one that I found thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.