To start this review off, I’ll readily admit I’m not the most learned Mad Max aficionado. I saw the original Mel Gibson movie when I was a kid, remember next to nothing about it, and never bothered with the two sequels. I enjoyed this summer’s blockbuster movie Mad Max: Fury Road immensely, but that’s in no small part because it had virtually nothing to do with the original trilogy (aside from taking place in the same world). When Avalanche Studios first announced it was making a new Mad Max video game, I remember my initial reaction was thinking it looked cool but not much else. That opinion didn’t really change over the coming months, and now that I’ve gotten to play Mad Max for myself, I can finally pinpoint why the game never managed to hang onto my attention: it’s 10% fun and 90% boredom-inducing tedium.
The Road Less Travelled
Mad Max kicks off with an intense (and somewhat confusing) opening sequence in which the titular protagonist, Max, is jumped by a roving band of War Boys led by a warlord named Scabrous Scrotus. The marauders take Max’s clothes, his weapons and his car but Max manages to get his own licks in as well, burying a chainsaw blade in Scrotus’s head before being left to die in the wasteland (the player is supposed to assume that Scrotus somehow survives this egregious wound even though it is never made clear). What follows is a predictable journey in which Max must recover his gear and build a new car called the Magnum Opus so that he can venture to a region called the Plains of Silence for…reasons.
Along the way, Max meets other wasteland denizens like Chumbucket, a weird hunchbacked man who serves as Max’s personal mechanic (Chumbucket believes Max is some sort of saint and thus does his bidding without question). Aside from Chumbucket, none of the other wasteland wanderers Max meets have any sort of personality worth getting invested in, and only a small handful show up more than once or twice. This lack of character commitment is just the first in a long list of small yet substantial flaws that slowly sapped my interest during the game’s plodding story campaign. Granted, Avalanche gets bonus points for attempting to craft its own narrative instead of simply aping one of the films. The problem is that the story Avalanche tries to tell is so meandering and devoid of context or focus that it ends up feeling more like a disjointed string of story beats and setpiece moments as opposed to a cohesive tale. Portraying Max as a cipher, a man with next to no past and no clear end goal, works in the films because they have plenty of action and drama to fill two hours with. Trying to transfer the same concept over to a 30+ hour game, however, simply doesn’t work, if only because it’s really hard to care about a character who we spend so much time with yet know nothing about.
Welcome To The Thunderdome
Mad Max’s meandering story wouldn’t be so bad if the gameplay made up for it but, sadly, there’s no such luck there either. Most of the gameplay consists of driving around the wasteland or exploring and fighting on-foot. When you’re not driving to the next story destination or side objective, you’re exploring linear War Boy bases or fighting off enemies in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The game gradually adds in new tools and mechanics which help Max deal with the threats he encounters, but by the end of the game you’ll still be handling most enemies you see with either Max’s car or his fists.
Even after many, many hours of gameplay, I still didn’t feel very comfortable with either the driving or the hand-to-hand combat controls. Driving is simple enough, but the poor handling of virtually every vehicle combined with the game’s weird physics means bumping into a small obstacle while going at a semi-fast speed will send your car flying through the air. Eventual car upgrades make both driving and car combat easier and more fun, but the amount of tedious side content you have to work through in order to unlock these upgrades never really makes them feel worth it.
Hand-to-hand combat is fun (especially since it mimics the well-oiled Freeflow system from the Batman Arkham games), but aside from a generic-feeling “Fury” mode and a few wrinkles in enemy variety, it never really evolves. Hand-to-hand fights are also often frustrating since it’s hard to properly time counter-attacks and the visual effects that trigger whenever Max enters Fury mode or loses a majority of his health will often distract you right out of your combo chain.
Since there’s no stealth gameplay to speak of, entering enemy camps soon becomes a predictable routine of softening the outer defenses with your car, running in, finding the correct linear route, beating up the inevitable horde of bad guys (War Boys in Mad Max sure do love to all congregate in one spot) and shutting the base down. It’s somewhat fun the first few times you do it, but by the fifteenth time, I just found myself sighing and praying it would be over quickly.
Other gameplay elements in Mad Max were no doubt meant to give the game an added sense of mystery and realism, but they almost always just end up making the game feel more annoying. Max has to constantly scrounge for water (to fill his life-replenishing canteen) and fuel (to refill his car), two elements that make perfect sense considering the game’s setting but which I just didn’t want to deal with anymore after the umpteenth time my canteen ran dry. Since Max’s health only ever replenishes from drinking water/eating food and/or reloading a checkpoint after dying, I’d often find myself in a situation where I’d be forced to intentionally kill myself during a tough combat encounter since my canteen was empty and there was no water source/food in sight.
The game’s upgrade system, which allows players to upgrade Max’s survival capabilities, his car and his combat skills, does offer a fair amount of customization in how Max grows as a wasteland survivor and how he can trick out his ride, but again Avalanche mucked things up by tying skill ranks and car upgrades to an overall “Legend Level” that can only be increased by completing a certain number of repetitive side activities and reaching certain story milestones. Since acquiring these upgrades is pretty much imperative for surviving the game’s later story missions, you can’t simply focus on the main story campaign and must frequently pause in order to go out and tear down some War Boy scarecrows or blow up some convoys.
All Who Wander….
I’d say Mad Max is the perfect game for the kind of player who enjoys meticulously checking off boxes on a list. The game’s world is beautiful and expansive at times, but it’s also grim and lifeless, an apt representation of the gameplay it contains. If you’re raring for more Mad Max after seeing Fury Road, Mad Max might scratch that itch initially. However, if the idea of plodding through hour after hour of monotonous side content and a nonsensical story using generic fisticuffs and wonky car combat doesn’t sound fun to you, Mad Max might be one journey you’re better off not taking.