Clinging on for dear life to the coat-tails of one of this summer’s biggest blockbuster movies, Warner Bros. Interactive have once again turned their attention on another film franchise. Taking inspiration not only from their dominating Batman: Arkham quadrilogy but also last year’s surprise breakout smash Shadows of Mordor, they’ve this time given control of the wheel to Avalanche Studios in the hopes that Mad Max will be the next iconic movie anti-hero to make the transition from big screen to gaming system.
Aside from an early outing on the NES, Mad Max has been largely ignored by the video game world. However, from Fallout to Borderlands, the influence of this Ozploitation movie has rippled across the industry like a twister in the desert, with the post-apocalyptic theme now a staple genre. Getting his very own game has been a long time coming, as the road warrior and his trusty shotgun take to the wilds of the wastelands once again in a unique adventure that takes its cue and plots from George Miller’s 1979 grindhouse film and it’s subsequent sequels, such as most recently, this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
During his ongoing quest to find the Plains of Silence, Max Rockatanksy is forced to take somewhat of a detour after an encounter with Lord Scabrous Scrotus, a warlord who just happens to be the son of Fury Road’s baddie Immortan Joe. Stripped of his legendary Interceptor and left for dead, he’s forced to team up with pious exile and gifted mechanic Chumbucket in order to build a new battle ready car, the Magnum Opus, so that Max can exact his revenge and continue on his journey for peace. It’s a setup for a very thin story that really only gets going in the final act. Aesthetically, this game fits the mould of many sandbox games that have come before, with an alluring but dangerous Mad Max decal pasted on top of it to live up to the look and feel of the film series. Enemies and locations all fit in with the insanity of a world deprived but Max himself looks nothing like either Mel Gibson or his successor Tom Hardy. The rest of the game’s cast is hardly memorable, aside from Max’s loyal servant Chumbucket who provides much of the game’s exposition and often drives the narrative forward.
Like Avalanche Studio’s Just Cause before it, Mad Max takes place in a large playground where missions can be completed however you see fit, using Max’s fun, if rather limited, arsenal of weapons and tools. Broken down into several territories, your objective is to rid each one of Scrotus’ mighty grasp on your road to Gastown. This means scouting out each area for enemy camps, conveys, minefields, sniper towers and scarecrows, all of which must be destroyed in order to win the favour of up-and-coming, but conniving war barons who in return will grant safe haven and upgrades for Max and his new vehicle. It all makes for a very neat itinerary that’s enjoyable to play, but perhaps doesn’t quite fit in with the chaotic atmosphere that the films and indeed other games, have created so well before.
Much like the towers in the Assassin’s Creed games, Max can use a hot air balloon in each territory in order to carry out the necessary recon before deciding which of Scrotus’ outposts to take down first. Pressing down on the D-Pad will allow Max to use his binoculars to assess the situation, by looking for various traps and perimeter defenses before embarking on your next challenge. Some wastelanders will give you helpful intel as well, depending on your notoriety or generosity, but from that point on, how you deal will Scrotus forces is up to you. It may not have the sheer variety as the recent Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but it’s a helpful way to plan your missions if you’re to earn infamy of the road warrior.
Each area has a checklist of side objectives that need completing before Scrotus’ hold on the region reaches zero. The Magnum Opus plays a bit part in this and is easily the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Not simply a method from getting from A to B, the car can be equipped with a variety of defensive and offensive add-ons. Max and Chum make a lethal combination, with your new found partner devoutly repairing your vehicle on the fly or manning the Opus’ harpoon. As your main tool of destruction, your harpoon can be used to pull down scarecrows and guard towers, tear down gates to camp sites, or yank out parts and even drivers from enemy vehicles. There’s nothing quite like being caught in the middle of a high speed chase, only to bring a convoy to a halt by ripping out tyres and leaving your enemies in the dust.
Razor-sharp spikes, side-burning flame-throwers and a rear-mounted sniper rifle can all be added to the Opus, giving you plenty of customisation options to create a vehicle that fits in with how you want to play. Of course, if you don’t want to damage your most prized possession, then you can also hijack vehicles belonging to the war parties that roam the sand dunes and scorched roads. Aside from earning you new cars for your collection and unlocking some exclusive rewards, using enemy vehicles can allow you to traverse the wastelands without being detected by enemies, giving you yet another advantage. It’s about as stealthy as this game gets, and if you’re spotted, then enemy fleets will chase you down, resulting in some high-speed chases that certainly live up to the spirit of the films.
On the ground, Mad Max is an entirely different rust bucket of scrap. Traversing anywhere on foot is a lengthy process, even with the run command assigned to the right trigger. Max feels sluggish as he wades across sand and stone in order to reach his mission objectives. Splintered across the environment are rocky cliffs and rusty shipwrecks that are nearly impossible to climb, unless you find that one correct path, making Max’s terrible jump ability almost redundant. He can only leap so far, and without the option of a climb ability, don’t expect to be scaling any cliffs without the help of ladders or ledges, highlighted with yellow spray paint around the map.
Combat has been lifted straight out of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series, with selection of punches, kicks and takedowns available to help Max dispatch a group of foot soldiers both in the wastes and in the enemy camps. You can quick work out of half a dozen enemies at a time by timing your counters correctly as the Y button symbol flashes above an approaching attacker. The right bumper can be used to evade heavy-hitting weapon attacks or anyone who tries to make a run at Max. Given the road warrior’s history as a brawler, rather than having the martial art knowledge of the Dark Knight, you can forgive a certain amount of rigidness between attacks, but at times, the controls feel unresponsive, with the camera spinning out of control and making it hard to pinpoint your next victim.
Building up combos ramps up Max’s Fury meter, a sort of power gauge that can add extra weight to Max’s attacks as well as replenishing a certain amount of health. Taking a punch will reduce your combo counter to zero so it’s important to keep the pace going if you’re to quickly dispatch the various buzzards, cleaver dogs and so on in an enemy encampment and proceed with your mission. Enemies located in camps can also receive a buffing in their abilities should the camp war crier increase their moral within a certain amount of time. This makes baddies a little tougher and stronger until you’ve killed them or taken out the war crier and his rallying cries. Thankfully, at your disposal, you also have shivs and a shotgun that will allow to keep the crowd under control or even unleash some devastatingly kills as punishment. Holding the left bumper will slow down the action and give you time to ready your aim, but the controls are once again awkward and a missed shot can mean life or death, particularly in a world where ammo and supplies are scarce.
Defeating all enemies is just one of the limited mission objectives available when dismantling an enemy base. You’ll also have to take out fuel containers and oil pumps if you’re to send Scrotus’ forces scattering. Some camps even have boss battles which are all nearly identical, save for a few environment changes, and less of a threat to Max than the awkward control scheme. All of these simple objectives that can be completed with ease but the real challenge lies in locating all of the historical relics, clan insignias, machine parts and scrap if you are to 100% every single camp. Clicking in the left stick will give you the full shopping list but locating these items is trickier than it sounds. Some boxes of scrap will be lying hidden behind walls or within sealed containers, and while intel from allies will help part of the way, finding all of this treasure can take longer than fulfilling the main missions themselves. The rewards for completing these objectives are worth it though, as taking over camps will eventually give you a steady income of scrap material, arguably the game’s most important resource.
Water, food, ammo and fuel are all important items to gather along the way if you’re to survive and keep your engine running across the desert. Generally these items can all be scavenged at camps and outposts, or even collected at allied strongholds between missions, perhaps increasing the survival risks more than it should. But if there’s one thing you have to actively seek it’s scrap. Scrap makes the world go round in this game and if you’re to take on the increasingly difficult clans then you’ll need to locate these raw materials to not only fortify the Opus, but also Max himself. Scrap can be found everywhere from the wreckage of destroyed vehicle to a rusted old building, so thankfully you can eventually install clean-up crews to do most of the heavy lifting, but getting enough to buy new items is a painstaking task particularly considering how the game tries to push you towards that elusive 100% goal.
The pause menu opens up a list of special moves, new equipment and even hair and clothing changes for our lone wolf, all of which is purchased with scrap. Similarly, you can bolster your car’s defensives, weaponry and even cosmetics with scrap, and Chumbucket’s magic touch. Optimisation and customisation go hand-in-hand and is vital going forward as enemy bases and checkpoints grow stronger the deeper you venture into Scrotus’ territory. However, searching for scrap can take over your life and generally venturing to small outposts and wreckage sites takes up more time than the game’s main quest line, growing increasingly tedious.
Even if you plow through the game’s story, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’ll have to take a break to locate scrap. The plot is flimsy as it is, with most missions relying on you finding a unique part for your car or assisting a reluctant ally in taking down Scrotus’ forces on their turf. The lines between main and side mission begin to blur, and the story becomes a mirage amidst the boiling oil and spilt blood the wastelands. But even if you are running on empty and your patience is wearing thin, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be had by completing another objective, taking you that bit closer to the game’s grand finale. If nothing in life gives you more pleasure than checking off items on a to-do list then this game is straight up your sand dune.
For completionists and perfectionists, the various objectives make for a streamlined goal orientated game akin to the likes of the Far Cry series. These bite-sized missions can quickly rack up hours of gameplay, making for an addictive experience for those of a compulsive nature. But with all this order where’s the chaos that makes the series so iconic? You can make your own fun in this very sandy box, as long as it’s within the confines of each mission objective. But aside from drag races and a few other side-quests of lower importance, it all feels a bit too tame to live up to the carnage that is Mad Max.