Mad Max is a treasured movie series, and it was a great surprise to see the recent Mad Max: Fury Road reboot turn out to be pretty damn good. The pressure is certainly on for Avalanche Studios to deliver with their Mad Max game, which has been in the works since around 2008. So, it's perhaps not unfair to have high expectations, especially when you consider the same studio is responsible for the ludicrously fun Just Cause series, with a third entry set to tear through stores later this year.
Just think about the comparison though. Just Cause games are set in a tropical paradise and give you tonnes of guns, skydiving, mid-air car surfing, anything-goes grappling hooks and the fun cranked up to 11 for the duration. Mad Max is set in a desert wasteland, car fuel must be scavenged and fought for, ammo for your rusty sawn-off is in dire supply and just staying alive is a constant challenge. Can you guess which game is more fun to play?
Mad Max's biggest challenge isn't that it's bloody hard (and it is), it's just so crushingly dull and long-winded. Missions see you constantly driving around the wasteland with ever shifting shades of brown or grey, doing the same sort of fetch quests that you've been commuting between for the last decade. The map is cluttered with collectibles, hot air balloons (Assassin's Creed-style sync points), races, bases to raid, scrap salvage areas, convoy routes to ambush, towers to destroy and so on. Most icons don't even have the decency to bugger off from the map once you're done either. The whole design seems content to make do with the dusty remains of gaming worlds that have moved on long ago, much like Max's life.
There's simply too much of everything and to make things worse, the rewards for stopping to explore are usually poor, with scrap pickups (the game's currency) usually not being worth the effort of getting out of the car.
So much of the game drags things out unnecessarily too. Filling up your water canteen (which can be used to refill your health) is awkwardly slow, as is refuelling your car after dragging a fuel can over from some nearby ruins, having to bash X to open crates is needless and having to hold X to pick up scrap all the time is just pointless padding. Whatever happened to just running over something and picking it up? Screw realism, Sonic had the right idea.
Levelling up points are awarded for completing milestone challenges rather than a standard XP system, which is fine as it hands out points generously enough. Having to drive to find a wandering mystic in the desert to spend them is annoying though. At least you can buy car and outfit upgrades from the pause menu.
Max can use several strongholds as bases and upgrade them to provide extra ammo, scrap bonuses, health refills and more by finding specific salvage parts in the wasteland. You have to go to the base and run to a certain area to activate that specific build as a waypoint on the map, rather than just have them all on there to hunt down at your leisure. Again, something simple, painfully dragged out. There's just so much needless back and forth action that playing the game feels like a chore. Just use some goddamn menus and have done with it. There's no need to waste our time like this, especially given the exceptionally strong competition in the genre this year.
There are plenty of enemies in the game and taking them on on-foot is a large part of the action. The combat system is best described as an Arkham clone with a series of strikes, counter-prompts and evades. Unlike Batman though, Max has a severe glass jaw and won't interrupt his own animations to counter incoming strikes. So it's basically like playing a Batman game with a tranq dart in your neck - but without the pretty colours.
Enemies take ages to go down and shielded ones are a huge pain in the ass as you'll have to roll away from their charges and the camera is most definitely not on Max's side. Bosses are much worse as their health bars are stubborn bastards and the respawning shield goons make some encounters as appealing as being spoon-fed sand.
You better get used to the look of sand because that's pretty much all you'll see in Mad Max. Sand and rocks that is, with a few ruined buildings or rusted shipwrecks from the dry ocean floor. There's the occasional respite with large oil refineries or sulphur pits, but when compared to recent open world masterclasses like The Witcher 3, Assassin's Creed IV or GTAV, it could not be any duller to explore. It's shocking how poor the framerate can get too, considering there's really not much going on. I'll be the first to admit, that one of the best open world games out there -Fallout 3- is hardly a looker, but there's just enough recognisable remnants of the old world to keep you interested and keen to explore, not to mention the dozens of little stories you'll happen across as you trudge across the wasteland.
There is some brief redemption for Max and that takes the form of his customisable car. I'm sure you've seen enough of the trailers and maybe the films to know that the car is arguably the most important part of the game. And by the time you've put about 15 hours into the game, the car might actually be capable of half the things seen in the trailers.
Car combat involves smashing into rival vehicles and using a grappling hook to gain the advantage. The hook is fantastic for yanking drivers and passengers straight through the window, or -when you've put some serious hours into the game- you can start to pull wheels and armour off too.
The vehicular combat is actually really fun, even if the physical driving itself is nothing special. But you're never truly free to go out and explore and get into scraps yourself. Without the vehicle upgrades unlocked by playing story or Stronghold missions, Max's ride is woefully underpowered to take on enemy vehicles beyond the first large area. They simply have too much armour, meaning you're constantly having to fall back and wait for ages while your mechanic repairs the car at the side of the road - at least he can be upgraded later on too.
Violent storms hit without warning, which are near impossible to ride out or find shelter from. You'll drive around in poor visibility, crashing into rocks you can't see and eventually die. To be honest, it's easier/quicker to just let that happen and wait for the lengthy reload screen.
As you've probably gathered, Mad Max is a serious grind to play with little payoff. By the time you're strong enough to feel confident in the world, most of the game is over and you're left with the remaining bases to take over and their samey boss fights or an unfulfilling journey scavenging the wastelands for bit of scrap or collectible postcards. Surely there's more to gaming than this?
- Car combat can be a lot of fun (eventually)
- On-foot fights against smaller groups work well
- Gotta love that grappling hook
- Everything in the game takes too long
- Early exploration punished
- Map and bases are uninspired
The Short Version: Surviving in a real post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a miserable existence. Mad Max nails that feeling of just wanting to crawl under a rock wait for the end. It's a miserably dull grind, occasionally made bearable by the vehicular carnage once you've suffered through the first half.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PC
Developers: Avalanche Studios
Publishers: Warner Bros Interactive