High noon. I drain the last few drops of water from a moisture collector, a tiny oasis in the sun-bleached white of the desert. The whistling of wind my only company, I make my way back to my car - and my dog - when I hear V8s rumbling in the distance. My binoculars reveal the heat-hazed glint of metal - a War Boy convoy’s headed my way. With ever-greater urgency, I gun the engine and speed off, sending sand billowing into the faces of the approaching War Boys. The chase is on.
Moments like that are where Avalanche’s Mad Max shines.
A Mad Max game was always going to be fighting an uphill battle in the wake of Fury Road. That film was so damned spectacular, so perfectly-executed, that even Avalanche, developer of Just Cause, would surely have trouble matching it. Worse, Mad Max looked just another reskin of publisher WBIE’s open-world Arkham gameplay model. Would the addition of post-apocalyptic vehicular action revitalise that model? More to the point, is open-world even the right genre for this license?
The open world genre is fast becoming synonymous with feature bloat: game worlds strewn with so many quests, collectibles, and activities it becomes exhausting. Mad Max, even more than other such titles, would actually benefit from having less content. You can barely drive fifteen seconds without getting a pop-up about a nearby camp or sniper, which eats into the feelings of abandonment I’d like to experience (in the game, anyway). Such density of incident makes the world feel small, the isolation less potent.
And what a world! The various zones are stark, beautiful, and surprisingly idiosyncratic, with the hazy, fire-belching smokestacks of Gastown always looming in the distance. Where other apocalpyse games are set in the ruins of civilisation, Max is very much a game of the desert. Rather than bombed-out buildings, you get dried-out seabed. It’s unfamiliar and alien. Combined with Photo Mode (which all games should include), there’s some nicely cinematic imagery to be had, supported by great sound design. Genuine Australian voice actors portray Max and a few supporting characters, although the overabundance of American accents feels wrong in something bearing this title.
As a killer feature, Mad Max’s noisy, suspiciously explosive vehicles don’t disappoint, though they pale next to Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, which would have worked great on War Boys, the orcs of the sand. Your main ride, the Magnum Opus (other vehicles are driveable and even capturable), is a loveable hunk of junk, customised through a sometimes-bewildering menu. Vehicular chases and combat deliver satisfyingly dusty, fiery chaos, although because everything’s systems-driven, it’s not quite as cinematic as it could be. Still, the first time a War Boy leaped onto my car and started punching me, it was enough to make me cry “Yes!” in apparently masochistic joy.
The non-vehicular gameplay isn’t quite as consistent. Combat conforms to the rhythmic Arkham style, with a few tweaks to make it feel heavier and tougher, but there’s less combat than in Arkham or Mordor. The random activities - pull down a Scrotus tower, capture an outpost, clear minefields with the help of your trusty dog companion - feel meaningless in high volumes. Too much of the game is all about scrounging scrap metal, guzzolene, water, Dinki-Di dog food, and ammunition, which feels even rarer than in survival horror. There’s a great variety of things to do, but when you do them a dozen times each, it’s tiring and insufficiently rewarding.
Story-wise, Mad Max pits Max, largely free of context, against the terrifyingly-codpieced Scabrous Scrotus, Gastown tyrant and one of Immortan Joe’s sons. The game opens with Max planting Scrotus’ own chainsaw into his head, which just makes ol’ Scrotus more of a dick. Max’s journey brings him across a number of grotesque characters, most notably Chumbucket, the hunchbacked blackfinger who serves as Max’s sidekick and mechanic. Chum’s dialogue - as with most of the dialogue - bears all the weird philosophy and ornate turns of phrase you’d want from Mad Max, which miraculously doesn’t even become annoying, given that he rides on the back of your car all the time.
Sadly, the story missions aren’t as interesting as the characters who send you upon them. Most are essentially the ordinary open-world activities with a little context, and worse still, there comes a point where you realise you’re going to have to do a lot of grinding to move on in the story. It just doesn’t feel right to have Max going around doing other people’s mostly menial errands, but that’s what you’ll be doing a lot of the time, in between random encounters.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Mad Max takes its cues primarily from Fury Road - from the oversaturated colour scheme to the characters (including a disabled female clan leader!), to even the vague geography. It’d be a silly business decision to do any different. But although many of the Fury Road references are in flavour text only (giving the impression it was a late-development change), it kind of bums me out that Mad Max is based directly on that film.
One of the best things about this franchise is how its continuity is spiritual and legendary rather than literal. This game marks the first time anything other than the character and general setting has carried over from title to title. It normalises and codifies the particular weirdness of the movies. Every single thing on those films is unique, and you're constantly being delighted by a new character design or car or stunt. What felt like unique, one-off character designs in the films are now generic, endlessly-respawning enemies in the video game. Mad Max is less bespoke than any of the films it’s based on, which again I blame upon the choice of genre. A game with a firmer directorial hand wouldn’t have this problem.
There are moments when I fucking adore Mad Max, and it feels awkward to attack it for trying too hard. But I really think The WB Open World Game is the wrong genre for the license, or at the very least the wrong application of genre. Mad Max has always been defined by tiny pockets of weirdness in an otherwise barren environment, and this game is way overcrowded with identical sandboxy activities. But it hits the right notes often enough that it’s still worthwhile. Just ignore the bullshit, and you’ll be well on the road to Valhalla, shiny and chrome.