I stand on top of a burned hill, watching the sun move across the sky. The sound of motors fading in and out in the distance, a zealous hunchback rambling on in the back seat of my all important four-wheeled conveyance. I wait for the sun to go down over the course of minutes, pondering the vast wasteland before me. It’s a quiet and peaceful moment, which is striking in a game filled with screaming war boys and magnificent explosions. Sometimes the best parts of an open world game come between missions, when the mechanics and controls fade away and you are just in a new place beautifully rendered before you. Mad Max has its flaws, but its wastes are highly suited for wandering the roads in search of excitement, and the game does a great job of gradually making the player understand the titular road warrior.
Mad Max is the latest offering from Avalanche Studios, the people who were made famous by noted explosion simulator Just Cause 2. It’s an open world action game set just before Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Max disturbs bands of war chiefs led by Scabrous Scrotus and rallies a group of survivors against his tyrannical rule. You are joined in your wandering by Chumbucket, a religious former war boy who uses divine inspiration to create the Magnum Opus, which is a muscle car you can customize throughout the game. There are a few other links to the film throughout, but the game smartly tells its own tale, and you’re not expected to know anything about the franchise going in.
The Magnum Opus is one of the main draws of the game, and you can create vastly different vehicles depending on if you want to roll along at max speed or drive a lumbering beast that can ram others off cliff sides. There are also a number of preset vehicle loadouts, called Archangels, that are great for those times where your main design isn’t working in a specific mission. Whichever way you choose to drive, you will have to adapt to the game’s car combat, which will have you harpooning passing buggies, launching missiles at twisted steel structures, and blasting flames from your undercarriage. It’s been a long while since motorized deathmatch games like Twisted Metal Black were a thing, and the car combat here is unique and entertaining throughout.
Of course, you can’t always be driving, and it seems that Max has learned some moves from the caped crusader between films. If you enjoyed the melee fighting from the Arkham games or the sword fighting from Shadow of Mordor, expect more of the same here when on foot. It is a bit limited and mashy, especially at first, but the unique flourishes like firing a shotgun into an opponent’s gut to end a combo do give it some life. The best thing about the fights is Max’s inexplicable use of wrestling suplexes and clotheslines when he is in Fury Mode, which is your reward for stringing together large combos of hits. Watching opponents be drilled into the ground after a body slam never really gets old, even if some of the fighting can get stale and repetitive.
It’s not just the fighting that can be a bit of a grind either. The game is very slow to open up, dripping out the most minimal of plots for two-thirds of its campaign. Max is concerned with reaching Gas Town to retrieve a souped up engine that only the opposing warmongers possess. Until you reach Gas Town, the game mainly feeds you fetch quests for a few more friendly tyrants that allow you to camp in their home turf, and there are points in the middle of the game where the plot is blocked off if you haven’t completed enough of these minor quests or retrieved enough collectibles. It’s an inexcusable flaw, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many players hit that wall and give up, as the game gives them little incentive to continue.
I’m happy to report that getting over that hump is worth it, and the game’s plot lurches to life in its final ten or so hours. Instead of fetching sails or clearing out encampments, you are suddenly personally invested in the goings on, with named villains to fight and interesting locations to visit that were sorely missing from the previous portions of the game. The final missions do a superb job of delving into the psyche of Max and analyzing the motivations of a man with nothing to lose. It slowly becomes clear that you aren’t meant to be role-playing your own version of Max, but instead acting as the singular Max would in this harsh world against such overwhelming and ruthless forces. The final interactive moments of the game where Max the character imposes his will on the player and wrestles back control, they are truly something to behold. It is a tragedy that the beginning of the game has not even the slightest hint of these late revelations.
The problems with the game’s pacing could have been solved with a variety of side missions, but Mad Max falters here as well. There are only a few activities across the wastes, including race events, convoys and strongholds to overtake, and minefields to clear. There are also towers to knock over and snipers to eliminate, and completing those tasks on the way to a larger goal is pretty satisfying and gives you a reason to not fast travel everywhere. Other than those few things, there are scavenging areas littered everywhere, but they give you very few resources, especially later in the game when your strongholds are refilling you more reliably. Finally, there are wanderers that dispense information about the world when spoken to. However, you’ll quickly learn that they only have the most basic of hints to disperse and are easily ignored.
It is clear that the race events were supposed to be a big time sink, but the controls for most of the cars are a bit too loose to be enjoyed in these situations. You can tweak this of course, but the rest of the game encourages you to have a rugged death machine, and switching between upgrades is tedious. You can also collect the cars that your foes drive around the wastes at your strongholds à la Saints Row, but there is little actual reason to do this considering that most of them lack the boost and weapons that you want to be using as you drive along, and they also can’t be repaired by Chumbucket since he only drives with the Magnum Opus. There might be some players that enjoy the races, but I believe that most will be grinding through combat challenges to get to the next plot point.
The strongholds are the real meat of the middle of the game, where you’ll be navigating through junked towns fighting arenas of goons before eventually blowing up their facilities. Taking over the strongholds will populate them with survivors that generate scrap for you on a regular basis, which is pretty necessary later on as there are more upgrades than you could possibly get in one playthrough and most of them are quite expensive. Big piles of scrap can be gained by capturing certain cars or recovering them from the massive sandstorms that take over the game from time to time, but you’ll still want to be grabbing every last drop of currency for most of your playthrough.
The convoys are basically car combat-centric strongholds, and they’re intimidating to take on until later when you can afford to armor your vehicle and acquire better weaponry. Once you’re ready, they are quite enjoyable to chase down, although I can’t help but think how much more enjoyable they’d be if there were some personality to the drivers. Shadow of Mordor hit on such a magical thing with its Nemesis system, and Mad Max desperately needs that added character in the moment to moment action. There are Top Dog minibosses in some of the strongholds that have a bit of this character up front, but they’re basically palate-swapped versions of the same huge thug, and all those battles end up going pretty much the same way.
One thing will distract you from the minor tedium, and that would be the visuals. I had the opportunity to play both the Xbox One and PC versions of the game, and it is a looker no matter where you are. The explosions are as crisp as you’d expect from the folks at Avalanche, and the weather effects and heat haze all contribute to a great sense of place throughout your travels. There are a few frame rate issues with the console versions from what I’ve seen, but the PC version is an excellent port that is well-optimized for running on anything from a hardcore rig to a modest laptop.
Despite its flaws, the journey of Mad Max is well worth experiencing when all is said and done. The frustration I felt with the emptiness of this world from a gameplay perspective ended up feeding into the game’s narrative when it decided to have one. It was surprising how much of the middle I was willing to forgive given the quality of what transpires later on. If you’re also willing to endure the slow burn and a bit of tedium, you’ll be treated with an experience that you won’t soon forget.
Mad Max was played to completion on PC for review using a copy the reviewer purchased. It was tested for several hours on Xbox One using a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Mad Max is a flawed experience, but its late game character moments and beautiful wasteland save it from being purely mediocre.