The Mad Max franchise has a lot of history to pull from, including both the original movies and the new Fury Road entry. Thankfully, the developer of the video game, Avalanche Studios, decided to pull liberally from that world while forging ahead with their own storyline which is not directly related to any of the movies. This is a sort of an alternative history of Mad Max, though the themes are all similar to the other tales.
Mad Max the game offers a dry, dusty open world as its version of the apocalypse. As with the movies, everyone who lives there exists within a realm void of most resources, and where water and food are extremely scarce. In game terms, because both water and food can be used to heal your character, you will feel their scarcity too.
Max is very much like his character from the movies, especially Fury Road, where the loss of his family at the onset of the crisis has more or less driven him mad. He exists as a hermit and a road warrior, only rarely interacting with people other than to defend himself and likely to kill them. He has no friends and works very hard to keep it that way. Truthfully, I don’t think many people will like him as a playable character. I think the older version of Max, who becomes a reluctant hero, is much better than the more bleak modern interpretation. Max’s obsession is to find a way to cross The Plains of Silence, which is an inhospitable barrier that surrounds the known wasteland. He thinks doing that will silence the voices of the past within his head. It’s not really explained why he believes this, and one gets the feeling that it’s part of his mental illness, or his madness.
Anyway, you won’t be crossing the Plains anytime soon. At the game’s onset, Max loses his Black on Black car, his classic police interceptor, which is quickly destroyed. And like in Fury Road, he was so close to being able to cross those plains. Now he’s stuck in the wasteland. The place where people live in the game, which is the bottom of a former ocean, may be hellish, but it’s survivable whereas everything around it isn’t. It’s also a convenient way to provide an open world within the game while still having an arena that the characters need to keep inside.
Gameplay is essentially divided up into two main parts, vehicular combat and hand to hand fighting. Almost everything else falls into one of these two categories. Also, the game is more or less an action oriented adventure. It’s not a role-playing game, so don’t expect Fallout with vehicles – though that would be about the coolest game ever created. You can choose to take on side missions if you choose, but other than unlocking new gear, you don’t really get anything out of doing that.
Your main mission in the game for the most part is to build up a new super-vehicle so that you can cross those plains, and Max is very single minded when following this goal. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about Mad Max is that Max acts like a total bone-head, doing things and acting in ways that I think most players wouldn’t choose if given a chance. As an example, at one point he is given the choice to abandon his stupid plains fantasy and settle down with a new family which is very similar to the one he lost. We even get to see a weird dream sequence that makes you think that he will do that. Even though that is probably really the answer to his madness, we are not given a choice, and Max rushes off and back into his stupid fantasy, which of course has very negative consequences. It’s not really fair to force players down a story path like that without giving them some aspect of choice. And the plot is very dark, perhaps one of the darkest we’ve seen in non-horror type video games in a very long time. You’ve been warned.
But that said, very few people are probably going to play Mad Max because they want to be treated to a good story, which is more or less a minor consideration here. No, Mad Max is packed full of action and for the most part it’s all pretty balanced and fun.
The game world itself is both beautiful and ugly. It’s a very good representation of a sand-colored and oil-soaked world. Everything is rusty, sun-scorched and weather-beaten, including in some cases the people. So everything looks good, while being really depressingly colorless. The same can probably be said for the sound and the voice acting. Max likes to collect history relics which are basically old post cards. Each time he finds one he likes to comment about it, and his comments are masterful examples of dry humor that shows how depressed he must be, and how he views the world. There are a few zingers in there too that will give you a good chuckle.
As you drive around the wasteland, you will get attacked by one of three factions of enemies. Each faction has a slightly different set of vehicles, with the Buzzards being the most unique of the three. Vehicle combat involves jockeying for position and ramming your opponent, firing your shotgun to try and blow a tire, grinding into their sides using razor spike rims, or having your master mechanic Chumbucket, who rides in the open hatch at the back of your vehicle, fire a harpoon weapon to kill attackers or disable their vehicles. Later on you can pick up a bazooka-like weapon which your mechanic can use to take out weaker enemies in a single hit, or to strip the armor off the bigger baddies.
Vehicle combat is very fast paced and engagements tend to be over in under a minute. If an enemy is destroyed, you can circle back and loot their burning hulk for scrap, which is the monetary system in the game which you use to purchase upgrades for your vehicle. Choosing the right upgrade is pretty fun, and you can even pick how you want the body of your car to look. There are five vehicle shells that you can find out in the wasteland in addition to the one you will get for free as part of the story missions. Hearing the roar of a new engine is pretty exciting. You can even customize your ride with paint, insignias and hood ornaments, though all of that needs to be earned.
At different points in the world are convoys which run oil and gasoline to your enemies. Taking on a convoy is the ultimate in vehicular combat as you need to destroy the main vehicle that is protected by several escorts. This often results in a very fast-paced running fight that can stretch out over many miles. It’s the activity that puts you closest to the action from the movies and my personal favorite part of the game. As a reward, each of the main vehicles carries a hood ornament that not only can adorn your car, but gives you a boost to one of your car’s stats. Personally I love the pink teddy bear I have mounted on my hood. It looks so funny and out of place there, while also giving me a defensive boost.
The game world is divided into sectors with each one having a rating based on how hostile it is toward Max. You can lower the hostility level by performing various tasks within that sector. These are things like pulling down scarecrows, which are giant metal statues erected by the armies of the ultimate bad guy in the game, Lord Scrotus, to inspire fear and dread among the people of the wasteland. You can also shoot it out with snipers and use your faithful dog companion to root out and disable minefields. Finally, you can attack some of Lord Scrotus’ camps, which brings up the hand to hand part of the game. Liberating a camp will populate it by friendly wastelanders, who deliver scrap to you every so often as a reward.
There are also several strongholds in the wasteland which are not controlled by Scrotus. The people who live there will reward you each time you visit their fortress if you help to build it up. This can be done by providing them with huge piles of scrap and by taking on special projects within each fortress. Your reward will depend on which special projects you complete, mostly by going out and scavenging specific parts for them. For example, building a maggot farm, as disgusting as that sounds, will grant you food and a full health upgrade each time you visit. Likewise, building a gas reservoir will fill up your car and an armory will give you maximum ammo. These friendly warlords will sometimes offer you side jobs as well, with the reward being an otherwise unobtainable upgrade part for your car.
The bad part about the vehicle side of the game is that most of the tasks are highly repetitive. Pulling down giant metal statues is not a ton of fun after you’ve done it a dozen times or so. Even raiding yet another camp loses its excitement after a while since they are all more or less about the same. While all those activities are fun, they do start to feel more like grinding after a while. Thankfully, many of the story missions are quite clever and make for a nice break in the “destroy the transfer tanks at the camp” monotony. One of the best missions happens when you get to drive through and explore an old world airport that has sunk deep underground.
The hand to hand combat engine is very Witcher-like in that you basically have to parry at the right time to be successful, though The Witcher 3 game does this so much better than Mad Max. At least it’s based on a simple concept in Mad Max. You basically do a series of quick hits to build up fury and then hold down the same hit button to perform a finishing move. As you level up, you can buy the ability to do things like instant kills with your limited collection of shiv knives. At the same time, if someone is about to hit you, you need to interrupt that from happening. Depending on your skill level, you can then do a counter move which is pretty devastating. On the PlayStation 4, the square key is used to punch while the triangle parries, so they are close together.
One on one, it’s almost impossible to lose a fight. However, the game likes to send ten or fifteen guys at you at the same time. This often puts you in the middle of a scrum of bad guys where you are parrying so much that there is little time to actually strike back. If you can find a corner or a spot where they have to come at you one or two at a time then it helps a lot, though sometimes this feels a bit like cheating. Boss fights are mostly conducted in arenas where doing that is impossible though, so it’s best to practice and practice and practice if you want to survive any real combat. Max also has a shotgun which starts out with a single barrel but can be upgraded to have four, a really nice advantage that can sometimes even the odds in your favor. Ground combat is brutal and the rush you will get is likely almost as much fun as when doing vehicle combat, though I think the hand to hand stuff is much more difficult.
There are also races that you can participate in scattered around the wasteland. These can be done as single player affairs against an AI opponent or online in multiplayer mode against real people. For the most part, the transition between the single player game and the multiplayer racing, and then back again, is seamless.
There are many AAA open-world games out there right now, so Mad Max is being released onto a pretty crowded highway. It’s not the best of that crop of titles, but still is very good if you can forgive the lame storyline and repetitiveness of the open world. Those who crave lots and lots of vehicle action followed by lots and lots of hand to hand action will really enjoy Mad Max. And for vehicle combat especially, there really isn’t any competition. Max takes first place for that.
In the end, Mad Max is a good game, easily earning 4 GiN Gems out of 5 despite its flaws. It’s probably not destined to become a classic that people talk about for years and years to come. It’s more of an empty calorie type snack that is a lot of fun in the moment, but doesn’t seem to be building into anything for the future. Which in an ironic way, is kind of the way Max lives his life, so oddly appropriate. Pick up Mad Max if you are in the mood for a little mindless carnage, using your fists or your murderous wasteland warrior vehicle.