A lone wanderer traverses a vast, arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland with only a dog and his car, the Pursuit Special V8 Interceptor, for company.
Mad Max is a film franchise seemingly tailor-made for video game adaptations, yet before 2015 there had been only one Mad Max video game released for the Nintendo Entertainment system in 1990.
However, the Mad Max franchise was so influential that we have witnessed an entire sub-genre of post-apocalyptic wasteland video games become part of mainstream culture, all of them inspired by the Mad Max film series.
The list is long with many critically acclaimed franchises, Borderlands, Wasteland, Rage and of course, the Fallout series were all heavily inspired by the original wasteland warrior, yet for fans of the films, licensed adaptations were conspicuous in their absence.
The last Mad Max film Beyond Thunderdome released in 1985 and until recently, it looked like Max had missed out on his own video game while the titles he inspired gained incredible popularity with a generation of gamers brought up on the titles inspired by George Miller’s iconic reluctant hero.
2015 is a landmark year for the Mad Max franchise, with the release of the well-received Mad Max: Fury Road resurrecting the franchise. Interestingly enough, when pre-release trailers were posted online, many viewers were commenting how much Fury Road resembled Borderlands the irony of this statement lost on a generation deprived for too long of any new entries in the Mad Max series.
Mad Max: the Game was originally announced in 2013 as a cross-generational release for the seventh and eighth generation consoles. Developed by Avalanche Studios of Just Cause fame, Mad Max had something of a troubled development before eventually becoming a title to be released exclusively on Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. I reviewed the game on Playstation 4.
Presumably buoyed by the unprecedented success of Fury Road, Mad Max: the Game is an unexpected delight, unfortunately sent out to die in a crowded release schedule pitted against Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain. Against all odds Mad Max holds its own against its more popular and high profile rival.
The premise will be instantly familiar to anybody that has seen a Mad Max film or played one of the many aforementioned post-apocalyptic video games.
Max is a lone-wolf thriving in an unforgiving, inhospitable, barren wasteland due to his indomitable survival instinct. An inciting incident with delightfully named antagonist Scabrous Scrotus sees Max lose his beloved car the Pursuit Special.
Max’s car is more than just a vehicle; it is his last link to his past life as a traffic police officer and preserves his memories of his deceased wife and child. The Mad Max we see here is directly linked to the one in Fury Road by various characters and locations.
Consider that there is speculation that the Mad Max in Fury Road is actually the Feral Boy from Road Warrior grown up and it is clear that Max as a character functions more as a fable, a campfire legend that has many forms, rather than being one distinct character.
As Max you will reluctantly rejoin what is left of society and work with the remnants of civilisation to combat an overwhelming force of if not evil, then at the very least anarchic moral objectivists hell-bent on taking whatever they need by violent means and aggressive skirmishes.
During these interactions, Max will often bargain with himself that his actions are selfish and that he is motivated by self-interest and mutual benefit but in reality, he often helps those in need far more than they help him. By ignoring his survival instincts and helping others, Max redeems himself and regains a little bit of his humanity.
For the majority of your time, you will be in the company of Chum Bucket, a deformed savant wasteland mechanic that rides in the back of Max’s new car, the work-in-progress, that Chum Bucket names, the Magnum Opus.
The story arc is that Max with the help of Chum Bucket and various other fragile alliances, is attempting to build a car that will allow him to take revenge on Scabrous Scrotus. In the process of rebuilding his car, Max regains his humanity by coming back from the fringes of society.
The game does a brilliant job of emphasising the bond between man and machine. Using salvaged scrap metal, the player will develop the Magnum Opus into a powerful machine of war. The incremental improvements you make actually improve your chances of survival and as a result, the player becomes attached to their Magnum Opus in the same way Max does, it is an essential survival tool.
The plot of the game is a rather simplistic revenge tale, where Mad Max really shines is in its environmental story-telling.
The massive wasteland feels like a real place with distinct districts and locations, you might stumble upon a cave with maggot infested corpses and an accompanying photograph, a relic of a bygone era with its own hastily scribbled story on the back, or you might venture into a dark tunnel and find a group of the feral Buzzards guarding valuable resources. The world Avalanche has created feels alive and fits perfectly into the canon of the Mad Max universe.
Set between Road Warrior and Fury Road, elements of the plot directly lead into Fury Road most notably regarding a female child that Max is haunted by at the beginning of the film.
The majority of your time in Mad Max will be spent either driving or engaged in vehicle combat, the driving feels very arcade-like with vehicles feeling suitably chunky and weighted which makes the explosive car combat feel deeply visceral.
Initially the Magnum Opus is a weak shell of a car that will see you regularly needing to abandon it to give Chum Bucket adequate time to repair its flaming chassis. Persevere though and the Magnum Opus becomes, as its name suggests, a masterpiece with a hardened spike-covered body, saw blade hub-caps and a detachable harpoon gun.
The rest of your time will be spent on foot; exploration is fantastic, capturing the perfect mix of freedom whilst providing enough direction via map markers to give purpose to your searches across the massive open-world map.
You will engage in on-foot combat with multiple opponents, the game uses the now ubiquitous Batman Arkham combat system like 2014’s Shadow of Mordor before it and like Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max does nothing to improve upon it, at times making things worse with combat feeling more sluggish than the recent Batman: Arkham Knight.
Regardless, the combat is fun and at worst, serviceable with brutal animations suiting Max’s character, my favourite move being an overhand right that Max throws as a finisher, breaking the jaw of whomever is unfortunate enough to be hit by it, there is also a WWE style drop-kick that was used with reckless abandon.
The purpose of the game is to forage the wasteland for scrap metal to use in improving the Magnum Opus in a bid to eventually take revenge on Scabrous Scrotus, the son of Fury Road’s Immortan Joe.
Max is also upgradeable using either scrap metal to improve his equipment or using experience points gained by reaching milestones in the environment, to improve Max’s survival skills.
The RPG-lite system is standard in most games nowadays but the one in place here greatly compliments the source material. Water (used for health regeneration) and scrap metal feel suitably scarce and when the player stumbles upon new resources there is an accompanying sense of relief.
Water is initially extremely scarce and the game is no cakewalk, any chance you get to regenerate some health feels like a welcome respite.
The water mechanic is only slightly undermined by the checkpoint system that sees you resurrect with full health upon death.
The checkpoint system can also be an annoyance as, although the auto-save is generous, unless on a main mission, upon death you will resurrect at the nearest stronghold, sometimes “nearest” can mean five minutes driving distance away from your objective.
The game generally does a brilliant job of using game-play to reinforce its themes and narrative, something lacking from many titles of this ilk.
The game is initially quite tricky and it forces you to salvage scrap metal to increase you odds of survival. When you finally build your Magnum Opus it is unbelievably satisfying to obliterate the enemies that previously gave you so much trouble.
For a game set in a barren desert, Mad Max has a surprisingly varied set of locations, each with their own distinct character.
The centre of the map is the most densely populated and where the most civilised parts of wasteland society reside, with remnants of the past still littering the landscape.
Venture to the outskirts of the map and you will find more extreme environments, one memorable location is an area full of bubbling pits of sulphur spewing a thick layer of yellow crust over everything, what could have been a dull, bland, brown and grey mess, turned out to be a vivid and attractive landscape.
The open-world in Mad Max is large, massive even and its visuals do not come without a compromise, though it is rarely distracting there is noticeable pop-in particularly when travelling at high speeds in a vehicle where tufts of grass and mounds of dirt will pop-up mere metres ahead of you.
During particularly hectic battles the frame rate can experience noticeable drops, though neither issue is significant enough to detract from the overall experience or ruin the visual presentation.
The open-world on display here really compliments the film’s, existing somewhere between Road Warrior’s more muted and empty wasteland and Fury Road’s lurid orange fever dream of exploding cars and flame-spewing guitars.
Of particular note are the storms, roam the world for long enough and you might encounter a storm, these can vary from relatively calm sandstorms that will slowly damage your car, to purple-grey electrical nightmares that will rapidly deplete the Magnum Opus’ exterior, throwing lightning strikes and debris at Max and Chum Bucket until they eventually succumb.
Survive in these storms and you can find crates of loot and other rare items. Despite their ferocity, whenever I encountered a storm, I drove head-first into it, even when the experience meant certain death.
Mad Max is a game best played loudly, the relentless revving of engines and explosion of cars is an assault on the senses. Once it has been sufficiently upgraded the Magnum Opus can drive straight through other cars, literally, delivering a crunching explosion of metal and gasoline.
The sound design compliments the on-screen carnage, really driving home the power of the Magnum Opus, though at times the relentless noise can become a little much.
The voice acting is solid, if unspectacular, Chum Bucket and Max have some nice dialogue and a great rapport, with Chum Bucket being the highlight, it can be amusing to hear him talking to the Magnum Opus as though it were a person or proselytising his religion of the Archangel of Combustion, a goddess of the combustion engine whom he worships devoutly.
I commend the development team for selecting an Australian voice actor to play Max but sadly the Australian voice acting is limited to Max and Griffa, an Aboriginal mystic whom Max visits for survival upgrades.
At times due to the sheer number of American voice actors used, it feels as though this is an American post-apocalyptic wasteland rather than Australian.
Given that in recent years there has been a misinterpretation of Max as an all-American hero (fuelled no doubt by the appalling voiceovers the original films received for their American release) it is disappointing to hear a majority American voice cast dominate the game and this detracts from the experience somewhat.
Mad Max feels like a throwback to the Playstation 2 era where licensed games were released with little promotion or fanfare, and turned out to be surprisingly brilliant games.
Funnily enough, the game’s control scheme echoes these old school sensibilities, with many functions being mapped to bizarre button combinations, such as jump and run being mapped to the left and right triggers respectively.
The controls work well but they are a throwback to a bygone era before universal control schemes were the norm.
Considering the quality on display here and the success of Fury Road it seems odd that Warner Brothers seem to have thrown Mad Max out there to die with an unenviable release date and little to no promotion.
Mad Max captures its source material with great aplomb, the development team obviously have a great deal of respect for these films and the game’s plot is surprisingly intertwined with that of Fury Road, sharing characters, a similar tone and existing in the same universe.
An essential purchase for every child raised on the Mel Gibson films and a thoroughly relevant history lesson for those that believe that Fallout and Borderlands created the psychotic post-apocalyptic archetype.