Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Format: PC, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: September 1, 2015
Mad Max presents a world on the verge of extinction. Society has crumbled, sanity has departed, and survival is the only law that remains. The world has been covered in sand, creating a massive desert wasteland where survival is not guaranteed. Small pockets of survivors have come together to create settlements and fortresses, but there’s no real sense of community. People lie, steal, and murder to ensure their own survival, making family and friend alike untrustworthy companions.
At it’s very core, Mad Max is a game about survival in a broken world and all of the physical, mental, and spiritual obstacles faced in the process. When we’re first introduced to Max, we’re given our first glimpse of how this world can overcome a man. Years before the collapse, Max was a husband, father, and police officer. Sadly, everything Max once knew and loved has been taken from him, leaving him alone in this world, hardened to everything and everyone around him. From his unkempt beard, blood covered knuckles, and rusted car, it’s clear that Max is now more of a product of this world than his old one.
When an encounter with the dangerous warlord, Scabrous Scrotus, leaves Max lying beaten and bloody in the sand, he’ll have to rely on the help of a disfigured mechanic to survive the wastelands and build a new vehicle, one capable of standing up to Scrotus and his convoy. What follows is a story of redemption, perseverance, and learning to rekindle the flames of hope.
What surprised me the most with Mad Max is just how beautiful the game is. The way the sand twinkles in the sun, or how the clouds form and drift across the sky is legitimately gorgeous. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the blood and carnage that permeate through the majority of the game. The fact that you can run people over with your car one second, but then turn around and simply watch a stunning sunset the next is both jarring and wonderful. At the same time, there’s also elements of the story and characterization that have an air of beauty as well. Without getting into too much detail, since I hate spoilers, some of the thematic exploration in the last act of the game is genuinely touching, which isn’t something I would have necessarily expected from a game where you can eat maggots from a corpse as a source of nourishment.
There’s also elements in Mad Max that are downright disgusting.
As I already mentioned, there are gross food sources to eat to regain health, but there are plenty of other things that I found startling as well. From the boils and burns that cover peoples flesh, to the depravity of certain characters and situations (rape and murder are frequently mentioned), the world of Mad Max is an unpleasant one that you’re not likely to find anyone wishing they could inhabit, unless they have a secret fetish for mutilated corpses and eating dog food.
However, despite the contrast between the beauty and the grotesque, or maybe even because of it, the world of Mad Max feels incredibly realized. Every aspect of this game fits into its own mythos and lore. Whether it’s scavenging for ammunition or scrap, killing and eating rats, or fighting off gangs of deranged desert dwellers, everything ties back into the world. In fact, the biggest praise I can give this game is that nothing ever feels “gamey”. Everything serves a purpose, both in gameplay and world building. Unfortunately, while none of the gameplay elements feel forced, some aspects feel unpolished and cumbersome.
The biggest offender here is the driving mechanics. The Mad Max films have always been known for their incredible vehicular action and stunts, so I had high hopes for reliving some of that action in the game. However, the driving in Mad Max is incredibly finicky and maddeningly frustrating.
I’ll admit, driving in video games has always been something I’ve disliked, but I was hoping that the more combat heavy approach in Mad Max would keep me entertained. Unfortunately, the driving mechanics of Mad Max are baffling in how poor they are. Every car you find and unlock in this game is extremely prone to spinning out or flailing around the road like a lunatic. This would make sense if you were going incredibly fast and turned too quickly or sharply, but you can spinout from hitting a pebble at 5mph. The sad thing is, I’m not really exaggerating here. The driving is completely inconsistent, allowing you to go full speed with no problems at one moment and then have you flip your car from going 10 mph the next.
These issues are even worse when partaking in the optional races that dot the map. Your enemies can maintain full speed at all times, even when taking corners, without a single problem. If for some unlikely reason they do crash, then they’re back in control of everything within an instant. If you crash, you have to wait for your vehicle to stop moving entirely and then wait a moment before it starts up again. If this happens, you can almost assuredly kiss your chance of winning the race goodbye. So, unless you can make a flawless run, expect to restart the races over and over again.
Thankfully, the actual car combat is incredibly satisfying. Blowing up enemy vehicles with “thunderpoons” (essentially rockets) is awesome enough, but ripping off tires and doors with your regular harpoon is ridiculously fun too. Gaining speed and slamming into your enemies is a great way to deal a large amount of damage, but you greatly risk your car spinning out and crashing, which actually makes sense in this scenario.
Some of my favorite parts in the game were when I would encounter an enemy convoy patrolling the desert and had to take them all out. Cars were sliding all over the place, crashing into each other, and exploding into giant fiery balls of death. These moments are tense and thrilling and actually feel like you’re playing a part of the Mad Max films, but they can also become long drawn out processes. If you spin out, or your car breaks down, the convoy will be long gone by the time you recover. When you catch up to them again, the enemy vehicles will all have their health refilled and any destroyed cars will respawn.
Thankfully, you can give yourself an advantage in these situations. A large part of Mad Max is spent looking for and unlocking new components for your vehicle. Everything from the types of wheels, exhaust pipes, suspension, and rims is fully customizable. Depending on your configuration, you can specialize in speed, armor, or weaponry, modifying your car to suit the task at hand. I loved the customization aspects and found myself going out of my way to comb the desert in search of scrap (which acts as currency) to buy them. My only complaint here is that, regardless of which components you install, I never found a build that negated the awfully frequent spinout chance.
At any point, you can get out of your car and fight enemies hand-to-hand. If you played any of the recent Batman games, you’ll know what to expect here. You fight with your fists, pummeling those who gets close to you, and can even parry enemy attacks when the button prompt floats over their head. Some enemies have thicker armor and shields and require different combos and techniques to dispatch, keeping you on your toes in the process. Some enemies even wield weapons (pipes, daggers, explosive tipped spears, etc.) which can be stolen and used against them and their pals. You also have a shotgun at your disposal, but ammunition is hard to come by, making it a tool that should only be used as a last resort.
Most of the hand-to-hand fights take place inside of enemy camps and fortresses. Each of the locations gives you an objective to complete (such as destroying an oil pump), but the real purpose of these segments is to score a lot of resources and make a new camp. You can find a bunch of scrap in these camps as well as pieces to fortify and upgrade larger settlements you’ll find throughout the game, which act as a sort of home base for Max. These camps are fun at first, but they very quickly reach the point where you find yourself simply going through the motions in each one. The layout might change with each one, but the objectives never do.
Another purpose for these camps is to bring down the threat level in the area of the map you’re in. The higher the threat level, the more enemies that patrol it. You can reduce threat level by clearing out camps, destroying giant metal scarecrows and sniper towers, or taking down the previously mentioned convoys. If you bring a threat level to 0, then that region will be void of enemies, allowing you to search the area for scrap and ammunition without worrying about danger.
Another interesting aspect is just how much of this game is inspired by Fury Road, the latest film in the franchise. Mad Max includes many of Fury Road’s new additions to the series, such as War Boys, Gas Town, Immortan Joe, and the belief of dying in combat to enter the gates of Valhalla. The enemies all have the same visual flair from Fury Road, as well the more demented and uncomfortable personality traits. As someone who loved Fury Road, it was cool to see a bunch of connections between the film and the game, especially in later areas where you actually get to meet people and visit places only referenced in the film.
Taking things a step further, Mad Max even attempts to flesh out the universe and its lore via collectibles. These relics from the past come in the form of old photographs, letters from loved ones, newspaper clippings, and more. They shine a light on events that led to the world collapsing and give you a glimpse of how society acted during the onset of the apocalypse. As someone who has only seen the original Mad Max film and Fury Road, I don’t know if the details revealed in this game have been discussed in the other films, but I found these little pieces of lore to be fascinating.
Lastly, there’s a “Legend” system that fully encompasses everything you do. You’re given three lists of challenges to complete (Wasteland, Ground Combat, Car Combat) that are full with a plethora of tasks. With challenges such as killing enemies in a certain way, reducing threat level, and performing stunts with vehicles, these challenges pretty much cover everything. Completing challenges will increase your Legend rank and grant you special tokens which can be traded with a mysterious traveler to level up your stats and abilities. After beating the campaign, you’re returned to the map and allowed to roam it freely, completing challenges, exploring new areas, and reducing the threat level. I’ve probably put in an additional five hours after completing the campaign and I’m still only about half-way through with completing everything.
While you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with Mad Max, the bang occasionally becomes a whimper. The game is plagued with a few technical issues, the most notable being a massive drop in framerate when a lot of action is happening on screen at once. Too many cars and explosions on screen at once is the situation I found this problem happening with the most, but it would occasionally happen for no reason when I was out in the desert by myself with nothing happening around me. The game also has some ridiculously long load time, with most coming in around 25-30 seconds. Lastly, the game also has an issue with textures popping in and out. While most of these situations ended up fixing themselves within just a couple of seconds, I did have moment where the frame rate dropped into the single digits and stayed that way, resulting in me having to restart my PlayStation to fix it.
Mad Max is a great game buried beneath some awful design choices and technical flaws. The world feels realized and truly does feel like the universe from the films, but poor driving mechanics and performance issues drag the experience down significantly. Thankfully, there’s a great story, and the visuals, combat, and sense of exploration are very well done. It’s just a shame that you have to sit through so many infuriating driving segments and technical problems to experience the good parts. Despite the positive aspects, Mad Max is a game that I have a hard time fully recommending. Maybe if you rent it, or pick it up on a sale, but buying full price? I don’t think so. You’d be better off just watching Fury Road instead.
– Zack Burrows