Mad Max is the dark horse of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s lineup. Not only does it have to compete with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in September, it also has to prove itself as good (or better) as the new film and the other franchises under WB’s umbrella. It doesn’t help that Batman Arkham and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor have already perfected the “punch-block-parry-counter” combat system and open-world design that make up most of WB games. How can Mad Max improve on these and how can it set itself apart?
For one thing, this is obviously completely different subject matter. In the one corner, you have a city full of psychopaths being protected by a tank-driving Batman, and in the other, it’s all about high fantasy. Dropped in the middle is the postapocalyptic wasteland ridiculousness of Mad Max. This game, unlike the other two, can afford a distinct sense of dark humor, something it does extremely well, courtesy of Max’s ally, Chumbucket.
While in the middle of car chases and dogfights, the hunchback-like Chumbucket, who also serves as your vehicles mechanic, will cheer you on, urging you to use the many deadly weapons on your car. The bloodthirst combined with the sheer outrageousness of his existence (he hangs from the back of your car with a harpoon gun to pull the wheels right off enemy vehicles and begs you not to get him killed). Chumbucket is as colorful a companion as any of Max’s former partners, a perfect complement to Max’s more stoic approach to things.
During my 20-minute behind-closed-doors session with Mad Max, I had two mission options. I could destroy a convoy in order to acquire a V8 engine for my car or attack one of Scrotus’ camps. (Scrotus is the main villain of the game.) I decide to do the driving portion first, since the fierce car chases have always been my favorite part of the films.
I had the opposite reaction from Batman: Arkham Knight. The driving sections are clearly the stronger half of the game. You’re given a wide open map to explore, although I will say that the wasteland feels a little bit too empty in terms of settlements. True, it’s probably closer to the world of the films, but it makes the game seem too unpopulated, more so than other popular postapocalyptic games, such as Fallout 3 or The Last of Us.
That said, there are plenty of convoys and enemy vehicles on the road to smash into and shoot at. Even a quiet drive for the purpose of catching the beautifully-rendered desert scenery will usually end in a bloodbath. The car is armed with all kinds of goodies, including the aforementioned harpoon gun, a rocket launcher, flamethrower, and Max can even use his double-barreled sawed-off shotgun while driving. All of this stuff, and the car itself, are fully customizable and upgradeable.
The car, naturally, carries a lot of weight in the game, even as an introductory story element where Max needs Chumbucket to fix it. But also from a progression standpoint, you need to make sure to keep the gas tank full and give Chumbucket enough time to make any repairs.
The chase sequence with the convoy was exhilarating. I had to push several other enemy vehicles off the road before reaching the truck with the engine. Max made his way through the ranks with a combination of weapons and good, old-fashioned smashing. The stunts—jumps off cliffs, sharps turns, and crashes—were as easy to pull off. The car maneuvers quite well.
Once I finished the driving mission, I decided to go after Scrotus’ camp. After smashing through a gate with a flamethrower defense system (so cool), it was time to get out of the car and punch some dudes in the face. Here lies Mad Max’s weakness: the brawling system is not on the same level of WB’s other games. I found that the combat lacked the rhythm of Batman’s fast punches and Talion’s expert swordplay. Of course, this might be due to the fact that Max isn’t a skilled fighter, and instead a straight brawler who could get himself killed if overwhelmed, and I applaud Avalance Studios for trying to differentiate, but it creates a stiff system. Again, this criticism comes with the knowledge of Mad Max‘s spiritual predecessors, something this game will have to seriously contend with upon its release.
The game is in a tough spot, sure, and it’s a little difficult to see how it’ll be able to compete in a fall slot full of highly-anticipated blockbusters. Will it be the memorable holiday entry that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was last year? I have a feeling that won’t be the case. But, if you know the story Max Rockatansky as I do, you know that you should never count him out, no matter the odds.