Review ✎

Mad Max Review – “Wandering Through the Desert”


Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Reviews on: PC
Purchased

The dry, empty, oppressive world of Mad Max is one of the most iconic post-apocalyptic wastelands in cinematic history. Stretching for a mythical eternity, an ocean of desert that’s dotted by isolated oases; the odd refuge in an evaporated wilderness. The world of Mad Max the video game is not the same world depicted in the films; you will see far more inhabitants, find gasoline on every corner, and rarely find yourself thirsty. Instead of trying to capture the desperate world of the Mad Max movie universe, Avalanche Studios chose to craft something wholly different. After all, a game full of nothing but sand dunes would wear thin after a while. However, what they ended up producing is a one-note story driven by revenge in a world brimming with so much side content and busy work that it’s hard to discern exactly what the focus is. If it wasn’t for solid combat mechanics and an outstanding presentation, Mad Max would have been buried alongside the rusty car bodies and sparse remnants of civilization that dot the landscape.

Balloons give you a great look at Mad Max's many vistas.
Balloons give you a great look at Mad Max’s many vistas.

Story

Mad Max opens with the titular hero having his famous V8 Interceptor stolen by Scabrous Scrotus, and Max himself being left for dead. You are then picked up by Chumbucket, a grossly deformed master mechanic who believes Max to be a messiah, the one of legend who will build the “Magnum Opus” and free the territory from the oppressive grasp of Gas Town. This journey will begin in The Great White, a dried out seabed, and put him in contact with a variety of characters.

It’s all very straightforward, you have to help these settlement’s leaders break free from Gas Town’s grasp and in turn they will aid you in your journey. The game tries to paint Max as sympathetic by showing flashbacks of his family, how things used to be, but most of that is lost on the basic revenge plot and the fact that you kill hundreds of people during the course of the game. You are supposed to be improving these settlements for the sake of the people who live there, but your real incentive is to unlock bonuses. It’s all a little shallow. Chumbucket is the real standout character here. His dialogue is well written and brought to life by great voice acting.

Chumbucket is your trusty sidekick for the duration of Mad Max.
Chumbucket is your trusty sidekick for the duration of Mad Max.

Mad Max is a game of icons. Each new region in the world has a hot air balloon that you must use to scope out the territory and fill your map with points of interest, a very common trope in today’s brand of open world level design. These icons range from flaming metal scarecrows that must be pulled down, to enemy strongholds that need to be taken over, and dozens of small encampments that can be a source of scrap (the game’s currency), water (the game’s main source of health), and/or gasoline which is supposed to be rare and highly valued commodity. Tackling these side activities lowers the Threat Level in that territory and thus opens up new mission opportunities.

There are so many things to do and places to visit that it can be overwhelming at first. Combine that with a confusing menu system that doesn’t track everything as well as it should and you may find yourself wondering exactly what you should be doing early on in the game. These things are exasperated by quests that have you trekking all around the world several times simply because you cannot track all the quests at the same time, or tasks that can only be dealt with using a specific vehicle. As these things added up, I felt like the game was either deliberately wasting my time or I was falling victim to last minute, poorly implemented filler content.

So. Many. Icons.
So. Many. Icons.

In addition, the prevalence of the previously mentioned encampments went a long way to break my emersion. I had a hard time believing it was really that difficult to survive with so much water, shelter, and gasoline strewn throughout the world. This is in stark contrast to the world depicted in the films which suggests vast stretches of desert so huge and devoid of life that convoys need tankers full of gas and water just to get from one settlement to another. I never felt like I needed to conserve my resources in this game because a refill was just around the corner. I was very disappointed when I first jumped into Mad Max because of this, but eventually I learned to meet the game on it’s own terms and found one of the best examples of open world car driving available today.

Gameplay

Since Grand Theft Auto went 3D something has always bothered me, shooting from a moving vehicle while also trying to maintain control of said vehicle. You either end up in a ditch, flying over a guardrail, or slowing to crawl all while you unload your weapon in a frantic spray and pray technique that has you shooting the air more often than not. Car-to-car combat is a staple of Mad Max, so it makes sense that Avalanche would want to make it as fluid and user friendly as possible.

In doing so they have crafted one of the most enjoyable driving games I’ve ever played. The cars feel just right, just sticky enough to make you feel in control, but loose where it matters. You are driving on dirt roads most of the time, so having your car adhere to the road like glue wouldn’t make much sense. This balance leads to fast, kinetic car chases where you can focus more on combat without worrying about flying off the road and into a building.

When aiming your selected weapon the action slows down and gives you time to fine-tune your shot. Whether it’s aiming a harpoon to tear off an enemy’s wheel or an explosive thunderpoon that doesn’t need as much finesse, the way car combat is handled is exquisite. There is some frustration around the auto-aim system not always targeting what you want, but you can at least be certain the projectile will hit the target, which is more than I can say for other games.

That’s not to say the driving combat is easy, far from it. It’s all about perfectly timed use of the weapons at your disposal. As you upgrade your car you gain access to more efficient gear and can eventually turn your Magnum Opus into a four-wheeled tank, but that comes at the cost of speed and maneuverability. It’s a balancing act of finding the right amount of protection and firepower while not sacrificing all your speed. Taking down some of the late game convoys were challenging even with a fully upgraded car, yet satisfying when that final vehicle blew up. A lot of attention and detail went into the customization of the various vehicles you can acquire and it all feels unique. It stands out amongst other car combat games and should be looked upon as an example, in my opinion.

There are may upgrades and cosmetic options for both Max and his car.
There are may upgrades and cosmetic options for both Max and his car.

By contrast, the on-foot combat felt rather uninspired. This game was published by Warner Bros. Interactive, and as such the button-mashing, counter-based combat system from the Batman: Arkham series was lifted and placed almost note-for-note into this game. It’s a totally acceptable combat system that may be growing thin the more it’s used, but fairs well here in a different setting than Batman. Some twists include melee weapons and the limited use of Max’s shotgun, but compared to the novel approach to car combat, the on-foot action felt boring and tedious after repeated encounters… and you do beat up a lot of people.

Melee combat is all about timing counter attacks.
Melee combat is all about timing counter attacks.

Graphics & Sound

Mad Max is a visually striking game. From the sun-bleached dunes, to the repurposed ships and buildings that dot the landscape, to the red-violet sunsets, the game certainly captures the aesthetic of the Mad Max universe. Cars explode in loud, fiery explosions and heat waves rise up from the surface. Marvelous, yet annoying, sandstorms turn the world into a game of dodge the lightning bolt while debris flies across the landscape. All the while Gas Town looms on the horizon, a stark reminder of where your journey will ultimately end. The draw distance is impressive as well. I rarely noticed any objects popping in even at high speeds, and textures always streamed in on time as well.

Character animations were also top notch. Fights look realistic and cinematic finishers gave a flourish to the otherwise mundane combat. When an enemy is jumping from a speeding vehicle onto the roof of your own you’d be forgiven if you thought it was a live action scene cut straight from one of the movies.

I did have a few camera issues, however. Sometimes when in hand-to-hand combat enemies would move off screen or the camera would get boxed into a corner. This would make countering almost impossible because you could not see the button prompt over an enemy’s head as they attack you off camera.

The sound effects are also top notch. Your engine roars and rumbles as you jump in the driver’s seat. The sound of vehicles buzzing past you as enemies scream at yell adds to the sense of speed and tension. The satisfying bellow of an exploding car acts as a crescendo to a high speed car chase, fading away to the desolate silence and relative peace of the sun drenched desert. The hand-hand fighting sounds are also impactful, although much like the fighting itself, the sounds grow repetitive over time. The only real complaint I have is lack of music. I feel like it’s absence is a deliberate choice to make the desert feel even more empty, but even when it does kick in it is nothing more than acceptable.

Mad Max Car Exploding
Explosions are nice and fiery.

Performance

I played the PC version of Mad Max and can say that it performed incredibly well from day one. There were only a few very minor instances where the framerate dropped, usually during hectic scenes. Otherwise, I was able to maintain a solid 60 frames per second with most of the graphical features turned to their maximum. I never had the game crash during my 55 hours of playtime and the Steam version fully supports a gamepad, which was my preferred control method.

I did have an odd glitch where the vehicle camera would attempt to auto center behind the car, but would instead spin the long way around turning what should have been a small correction into a long camera spin. It sometimes left me dizzy and disoriented. This was something that was never corrected with a patch or update.

There is a robust selection of graphics options to tweak.
There is a robust selection of graphics options to tweak.

Conclusion

As with most open world games, I often found myself wandering off the beaten path while playing through Mad Max. With a generic story and characters, I was drawn more to the fringe content where I could spend more time driving and tearing vehicles apart. Despite feeling overwhelmed by the repetitive nature of the game, I kept coming back to it. I originally picked the game up hoping to be transported to the wasteland of Mad Max, and was disappointed to find such a disparity between the two worlds. But after revisiting the game several times, I was finally able to meet it on it’s own terms and ended up having a great time. It took me almost a year to roll the credits on Mad Max and even then I found myself thirsting for more.

PC Specs:

  • Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
  • Intel Core i7-4790K 4.0GHz
  • 16GB RAM
  • GeForce GTX 980 Ti
  • Samsung EVO 850 SSD

Good

I originally picked up Mad Max hoping to be transported to the wasteland of Mad Max, but was disappointed to find such a disparity between the two worlds. After revisiting the game several times, I was finally able to meet it on it’s own terms and ended up having a great time. It took me almost a year to roll the credits and even then I found myself thirsting for more.

7
Overall:
7

I remember playing Super Mario Bros. and Metroid on the NES with my older brother, and never being able to land on the aircraft carrier in Top Gun. I faked being sick so I could stay home from school and play Quake II once, but now I request days off from work instead of lying. Age of Empires II is still the best RTS, Half-Life is still the best FPS, and I still think the end of Mass Effect 3 was great!