Kris Wall reviews Mad Max…
There was a time when the mere mention of a licensed game or a movie tie in was enough to strike fear into the hearts of all gamers, it was once synonymous with the worst that video games had to offer. So you really have to hand it to Warner Bros. right now, they’re really challenging and changing what gamers have come to expect from licensed tie ins, from their fun LEGO series covering Jurassic Park to Marvel and everything in-between, to last year’s brutally brilliant Shadow of Mordor to the absolutely stunning Arkham trilogy, which has come to influence almost every game since and will most likely continue to for many years to come, Warners are on a bit of a hot streak right now. The idea of a game set in the Mad Max universe always sounded like a wildcard, albeit an intriguing one, and with Fury Road reigniting the Mad Max franchise on the big screen, could Just Cause developer, Avalanche Studios make life out on the fury road as exciting to play as it is to watch?
First things first, Mad Max the game has nothing to do with this years Fury Road except a shared universe but just like the movies, the story in Mad Max is stripped right back to bare bones and survival instincts. In the opening moments of the game, Max is hunted down by followers of the dreaded Scrotus Scabrous and forced into a duel which leaves Scrotus with a horrific chainsaw injury and Max stripped of his Interceptor V8, beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead in the harsh wasteland. Luckily he’s found by Chumbucket who believes Max to be a man from prophecy, the chosen one who will build and drive the Magnum Opus, the greatest vehicle the wasteland will ever know. With this new ally building his replacement for the Interceptor, Max sets off for Gastown and revenge.
The story may be slight in keeping with the tone of the series but Avalanche Studios have a clear love and understanding of the world and lore that George Miller created and envisioned with his series. This is about the death of hope and the futile struggle of existing in this unforgiving land, those who lost their lives being the lucky ones. A land where oil is the most valuable currency and you could lose your life for someone else to gain a single drop of it and the religious overtones of a world where cars are worshiped like heavenly chariots and survivors pray to automotive Gods, it’s all been translated perfectly from the films to the game.
As with pretty much all games these days, Mad Max’s combat system is heavily influenced by the Arkham series free-flowing attack system which sees you able to take on attackers from all angles with minimum amounts of fuss. Where Mad Max differs though is the sheer brutality of the fighting. Given that Max is all about survival, he has no reason to live by no kill code so fights descend into really dirty and savage affairs similar in feel to The Last of Us where every attack feels like a desperate attempt to put your opponent in the dirt first.
The face buttons on the controller alter between light and heavy attacks, a counter and using whatever weapon Max has to hand at the time. Timing your counter perfectly results in stronger reversals while building up a strike combo puts Max in fury mode which turns him into a human wrecking ball of destruction. Combat in Mad Max is a truly visceral experience, Max snaps limps with little fuss, piledrives and clothelines bodies into the ground, shivs make a regular deadly appearance and Max has absolutely no qualms about delivering a devastating close range gut shot with his sawn off to put someone down. It might lack the graceful finesse of Arkham Knight but Max is no martial arts master like Batman, he’s a brawler born of survival instinct and the combat here is perfectly and painfully befitting of the world he inhabits.
The Magnum Opus, Max’s replacement for the Interceptor, is quite simply a joy to behold and drive and thanks to the wealth of customization options, the sense of personal investment in the car as the game progresses is excellent. The car starts out as little more than a rusted shell on wheels that barely gets from A to B, a blank canvas for you to build your own legendary vehicle upon with the parts Max collects the further he ventures out into the wasteland and the upgrades he acquires the more he levels up. Whether you want a high-speed pursuit vehicle, an off road dune buggy or a pick up truck tuned for smashing your opponents off the road or hundreds of other combinations, the wealth of choice on offer in the garage has you covered. Unlockable paint jobs, decals and hood ornaments also offer further personalisation of the Magnum Opus to create vehicles that are uniquely your own creation.
By your side at all times is Chumbucket who never leaves the Opus outside of the fortresses that litter the wasteland. He’ll ride in the back of the car manning the harpoon, repair the damage when you step out, upgrade the car on the fly and drive it to Max’s location when you’re away from it. Chumbucket can also use the harpoon like the Batmobile’s winch to pull down towers and fortress gates. There’s a real sense of weight and power to the Magnum Opus when it clashes with other vehicles across the wasteland or crashes into the ground after hitting a ramp, shredding metal all over the place. The first time you thunder through an opponent and the screen explodes in a shower of steel and fire is a joyous experience and it’s one that doesn’t abate at all throughout the course of Max’s journey.
The Magnum Opus handles really well and reacts differently to terrain changes as well as the upgrades it currently has in play. The sense of speed while tearing around the wasteland is exhilarating too as you chase down convoys and try to escape pursuing war parties. Which is great seeing as combat out on the roads in Mad Max is where the game truly explodes to chaotic life and while it might never reach the giddy choreographed highs of Fury Road, it comes damn close. The Opus can be upgraded with spiked rims to grind, flamethrower side panels to stop boarders and ramming grills for destroying everything in front of you. Chumbucket can also use the harpoon to pull wheels, armour and even drivers off of other cars, while the ‘Thunderpoon’ bazooka will obliterate anything it touches. My personal favourite is using Max’s sawn off shotgun to target an exposed fuel tank causing vehicles to explode and flip end over end immediately in a dance of fiery death.
The customization available doesn’t stop at the Magnum Opus either. As you play you’ll collect scrap which is the currency of the game which can be channeled into upgrading Max’s armour and weapons. Max himself can have his appearance changed to your tastes too. There’s also a sort of mini base management game here too as Max can liberate enemy fortresses which then populate with rebels that can farm scrap for Max and there are allied fortresses that can be built up and upgraded with assists such as gas tanks that immediately refill the Opus, an armoury to replenish ammo and crews that head out into the wasteland to salvage scrap while you’re away. Completing side missions reward Max with tokens that can be traded with the shamanic Griffa to boost Max’s competencies in combat, salvaging, fuel management and more. On top of all of that there are also 100’s of challenges available in the game which level up Max’s legend, from wasteland nobody all the way up to the iconic Road Warrior, each level unlocking a further selection of new upgrades and customization options for Max and the Opus.
Slightly less successful is the water & fuel management system that has been included in the game. Water is Max’s source of health and the fuel tops up the Opus’ constantly depleting fuel tank. However, while I was grateful for every single piece of scrap and ammunition I could get my hands on, I never really felt like I was struggling for water and fuel at any point. Something that isn’t helped when you acquire the water and gas tank upgrades for your fortresses that instantly top you up whenever you visit them. In a very nice touch though, you can load a spare gas can into the back of the Opus for use at any point in the off chance you do get caught out in the wasteland or you need a quick makeshift explosive to hand. Why though in a world where fuel is supposedly so precious and Max wastes tonnes of fuel cans blowing things up is never really addressed though.
There’s a crazy amount of content to get stuck into in Mad Max outside of the main story missions. You can undertake Wasteland mission for the rebels that populate the plains. There are fortresses to liberate and Scrotus’ top dogs to take down and defeat in combat. Convoys will reward the Magnum Opus with stat boosting hood ornaments while destroying Scrotus’ sniper towers and intimidating totems and using Chumbucket’s dog to defuse minefields will lower his threat level over the different regions of the wasteland. ‘Scrapulances’ can be hijacked and driven back to fortresses to trade for hefty scrap rewards while there’s a hell of a lot of wasteland vehicles that can be collected to your garage and driven instead of the Opus. There are ‘Archangel’ blueprints to find for Chumbucket to build supercharged variants of the Magnum Opus and hundreds of scavenging locations which can be scouted by finding the balloon lookout points which allow Max’s to hover high above the wasteland and scan the horizon’s with his binoculars to add places to the map. Want something to keep you occupied for a while, this game has got you covered.
Without doubt the star of the show in Mad Max though is the wasteland itself. Not since Red Dead Redemption has such a barren and lifeless plain felt so alive with character, just begging to have every inch explored and it secrets discovered. Visually it looks incredible, the sheer sense of scale and the vastness of the wasteland sprawling out endlessly in all directions, climbing through hills and mountain ranges and diving into tight canyons and cavernous networks. I often found myself driving the Magnum Opus up to a cliff top just to look out over the wasteland, seeing war parties way out in the distance kicking up massive dust clouds as they tear across the sandy plains, the sun setting in the background with the monolith of fire and smoke that is Gastown perfectly framed on the distant horizon.
As well as a day to night cycle, the wasteland also has a pretty ferocious weather system. Remember that crazy sandstorm from the Fury Road trailer, that’s here in the game and it’s genuinely hair raising to see it sweeping across the wasteland from the horizon, consuming everything in its path until it swarms Max and the Opus in a choking storm of dust and debris that chips away at Max’s health and strips armour from the Opus, forcing them to either seek shelter or try to ride it out. Even more fantastic are the electrical storms that batter the wasteland with devastating lightning strikes that destroy cars and enemies with impunity. The vehicular combat in Mad Max is already exciting but the added unpredictability of the storms elevate some of the chases to absolutely heart pounding thrill rides.
During my playthrough with Mad Max, I did encounter an occasional drop in frame rate when the action ramps up, especially when you’re tangling with convoys at high speed. It’s rarely more than a blip but it a real shame as it gets more noticeable the closer you approach to Gastown and its surroundings. Max’s quests also generally amount to little more than driving from A-B and either collecting, destroying or liberating something and as Mad Max is quite a long game, repetition can creep in over time. However Mad Max gets so much right that it’s quite easy to overlook these minor flaws in its design.
With Mad Max, Avalanche Studios have delivered the surprise hit of this year and a serious contender for my favourite game of 2015. I was always looking forward to playing Mad Max simply because of my love for the world of Mad Max but I never expected it to be as in depth or as much fun as it is. Despite seemingly borrowing from everything from The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption to Far Cry, it’s done with such assured confidence and a style that is all its own, earning and asserting its place as an equal to those games rather than a copy. Anyone with even a passing interest in action games needs to play Mad Max and it’s another big win for Warner Bros’ licensed properties. With Avalanche Studios bringing a beautiful and thrilling journey through the wasteland to consoles and providing the perfect companion piece to Fury Road burning up the big screen, 2015 does indeed belong to the mad.
+ The Wasteland
+ The Magnum Opus
+ Great customization options
+ Combat. Especially in-car
+ Brilliant visuals
+ Excellent sound design
– Occasional slowdown
– Quest repetition
– Water & gas management feels superfluous
Kris Wall – Follow me on Twitter