Release Date: September 1, 2015Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Avalanche StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Action-adventure
Featuring a standalone story from the beloved films, Mad Max from Avalanche Studios and Warner Bros. Interactive brings some bright ideas to the open world genre that shine through the surrounding emptiness of the vast wasteland world. There isn’t much here in the way of a story: Players are cast in the role of Max, a harrowed action-hero survivor of a barren desert apocalypse where gas and water equal life and you’re only as strong as the car that you drive. At the start of the game, Max is on his way to a place called the Plains of Silence when his prized car is stolen by the feared and revered warlord, Scabrous Scrotus. With the help of a quirky mechanic named Chumbucket, Max sets off to build a god-like combat vehicle called the Magnum Opus and continue on his way. That’s really all there is to it for a long while. Populated by an incredibly lean cast of side characters, the game leaves much to the imagination in terms of backstory and lore.
On your long, stoic mission to build the Magnum Opus, you’ll encounter dozens upon dozens of side quests, as is the usual in any modern open world game. Some of these are standard fare: competing in death races across the sandy horizon, detecting and destroying hidden landmines, and taking out convoys of enemy vehicles to score precious hood ornaments for your car. However, as the game goes on, a lot of these side quests end up feeling a bit repetitive, especially when you are forced to complete them and lower a district’s threat level in order to progress in different parts of the story. The laundry list of similar objectives, combined with the game’s mammoth length, can leave these missions feeling like chores after a while, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less addicting to keep trudging forward and scratching them off one by one.
The bulk of these side quests, and even some of the main missions, involve clearing out intricate camps of enemies and environmental objects like oil pumps or transfer tanks. These camps offer some of the most thoughtful and intricate level designs in the game, and provide a mix between close-quarters combat scenarios and careful exploration to find a variety of collectables. Each camp encounter begins by scouting out the entrance and eliminating the outside protective forces, whether it’s a perched sniper, a fire-bombing guard tower, or just a weakened gate. Once the perimeter is secured, it’s time to move in and tackle the gauntlet of rooms and corridors that lay before you. I was really impressed by the variety of these camps, from claustrophobic underground tunnels to rickety bridges that stretch over deep chasms.
Another interesting aspect comes in the form of strongholds, which serve as hubs for optional Wasteland Missions and a place to swap out your vehicle before heading back out to the sands. But the real draw of these strongholds is in the special “projects” that can be completed by finding various construction parts at enemy camps or scavenging locations. Once all parts of a project are found and assembled, you’ll unlock a plethora of permanent rewards for that district, such as automatically refilling your water supply upon arriving at the stronghold or revealing all surrounding scavenging locations on the map. And the map is a large one: countless miles of sand and decrepit structures loom in every direction as far as the eye can see, and despite being so barren and devoid of modern life, exploring becomes completely engaging as there are many shadowy corners hidden away in all of that dust which hold some real visual treasures.
Though Max has a powerful shotgun at his side, engaging with groups of wasteland thugs is primarily a hand-to-hand affair, with Avalanche Studios utilizing a rhythmic combat system comparable to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series and last year’s fantastic Shadow of Mordor, albeit one with a more simple approach. Landing quick punches and performing perfect parries is the name of the game here. But of course, that isn’t to say you can’t quick-fire the shotgun into an enemy’s face right after a punch, or pick up a number of deadly melee weapons to help even the odds. Unfortunately, the game can get too overwhelmed at times when multiple enemies flood the screen, resulting in a noticeable framerate dip.
The other main draw of Mad Max is the gritty vehicular combat. Max can use the Magnum Opus to execute deadly side-rams into other vehicles, boost into their front grills in a fiery head-on collision, and even use a menacing harpoon gun to rip enemies from the driver’s seat or pull off their tires to stop them cold in their tracks. You can also pump your sparse shotgun shells into an enemy vehicle’s fuel tank or unlock a powerful sniper rifle that sits in the bed of your car. An added layer of unpredictability comes in the form of desert sandstorms that can happen without warning and highly decrease your overall visibility. While it’s recommended to take shelter during these moments, there are still some rewards for living in risk, like the windswept boxes that only appear in storms and contain large sums of scrap for your death-defying efforts.
Scrap is the main currency in the game, and it can be used to upgrade Max’s skillset and increase the power of the Magnum Opus even further. Scrap can be looted from dead bodies and through scouring interesting scavenging locations that provide a great incentive to explore the mysterious structures that lay scattered across this desolate world. As you clear out more enemy camps, you’ll also start to receive steady deposits of scraps into your bank account as time goes on. Scavenging locations also house various History Relics, an optional collectable that’s represented as old Polaroid pictures with scribbled writing on the back. Although these relics don’t offer a whole lot in terms of providing actual story, the writings do share a whimsical glimpse into the lives before and at the onset of this barren apocalypse.
In addition to the game’s somewhat repetitive side quest nature, there are several routine and long-winded animations that slow down the pace of Max’s adventure at regular intervals. These usually occur around certain menial survival tasks, such as putting more gas in your car or refilling your canteen with water to then drink it and regain some health. I constantly found myself purposely running into battle with low health, because I didn’t feel like sitting through these “pouring” animations for the umpteenth time. It was usually just easier to die or fast travel to the nearest upgraded stronghold to replenish my water and gas than to fill them up manually while out in the field. Even accessing vantage points can feel monotonous at times, as Max must slowly ascend in a hot air balloon and mark every point of interest by physically locating them in the world with his binoculars.
Much like the weathered remains that populate this sprawling wasteland world, Mad Max can be seen as an amalgam of many storied greats throughout recent video game history, putting a unique and mostly successful apocalyptic twist on each. There’s the sandy scavenging of Borderlands, the fluid combat of the Batman: Arkham series, the vantage point system of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, and even the addictive checklist nature (and destruction) of Avalanche Studios’ own Just Cause 2. Even though Mad Max may be a little rough around the edges at times and the story is as sparse as the wastelands themselves, the empty and windswept landscape is excitingly different for the genre, and the arcade-like vehicular combat and rewarding enemy camp mechanics make this one world that is incredibly easy to get lost in until your gas tank runs dry.
Joe Jasko is a game critic.