I meant to have this review up weeks ago. That didn’t happen, and I’m sorry about that. Time is a fickle thing.
It’s here now though. I’ve sunk many hours into Mad Max, and I’m ready to tell you how I feel about it.
I think Mad Max: Fury Road has smeared boiling tar all over my perception of Max Max: The Game That isn’t Fury Road. After witnessing Max’s gloriously manic return to the big screen, now that I’ve been overwhelmed by its furious mix of NOISE and FIRE and GRINDING METAL, Mad Max was always destined to feel a bit tame by comparison. It’s an odd thing to admit, given that it’s made by Avalanche Studios, creators of the Just Cause series. And anyone who’s played a Just Cause game will tell you that they’re at the forefront of unbridled-chaos simulators. I mean, just look at this.
It’s not the game’s fault, really. Mad Max: Fury Road benefits from us being unable to interact with it. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s a thrill ride. We’re utterly helpless as the screen explodes again and again, a grotesque cacophony of blood and teeth and smoke and wait, are those women being milked? We’re forced to the edge of our seats, and left completely at the mercy of George Miller’s guiding hand. If you paused that for a moment and handed control to a member of the audience, it would shatter the flow of things. And that’s the problem with Mad Max. For all the whimsical destruction it encourages, it’s not quite as mad as I was expecting. And expectation is a powerful thing.
I do like it though. Mad Max is wonderfully entertaining, barring a few frustrations that I’m surprised ever made it past playtesting. In it, you’re Max. Mad Max. Your mind’s been driven to breaking point by what the world’s become and what you’ve endured. You’re longing to discover the “Plains of Silence”, which is analogous with peace or death or Singapore or whatever. It’s not particularly important, and it’s better if you don’t ask any questions. Aside from a few attention-grabbing high points, the game’s story is paper-thin, an excuse to encourage you to point your fists at things and never stop swinging. But I’m okay with that.
Mad Max isn’t much different from other open-world games. Aside from its appropriately barren aesthetic, it’s a pretty familiar game. The map is full of icons, and your job is to wipe away those icons. Some of them represent “scarecrows”, which must be torn down because physics, and because it looks cool. Some represent scavenging locations, where you’ll find scrap (the game’s chief resource), various collectibles and limited water sources – which are pretty important, given that water is your primary means of restoring any health that’s smashed out of you. Other icons highlight enemy encampments, ripe for you to clumsily assault. Most of these activities lower the threat level in each of the game’s regions, which in turn rewards you with upgrades and unlocks to buy.
On foot, it’s a pretty standard brawler with some rudimentary traversal acrobatics required if you hope to unearth all of Mad Max‘s secrets. Melee combat follows the template laid out by the Batman: Arkham Etcetera games. It works well, but it’s a fairly simplistic implementation of it. Despite their simplicity, melee skirmishes have a crunchy brutality, a viciousness to them, and the lack of regenerating health does keep you on your toes. Enemies range from squishy wasteland war pups to armoured, shield-bearing brutes. There are perishable weapons, shivs and your trusty DIY shotgun to help you out when things get slippery.
The real joy of the game is the vehicular combat. You’re able to commandeer any vehicle you find and some of them have nifty special attacks, but the real star is your Magnum Opus. As you progress you can upgrade its engine, cover it in angry boarder spikes, weld protective metal bars to it and more, all in aid of transforming it into the roaring destructo-chariot of your desire. In the early hours of Mad Max, car combat is a bit fiddly, and figuring out how best to remove vehicular threats in amusing ways takes some trial and error. As you gather more exciting toys, things become more interesting, and eventually you’ll be taking on entire convoys using increasingly satisfying methods. It’s lots of wild fun.
As with Just Cause, poking, prodding and generally experimenting with Mad Max is where most of the enjoyment originates. The physics engine is great, letting you bash down sniper towers and cruelly drag helpless enemies across the dunes using your trusty harpoon. Occasionally it bugs out in hilarious ways, like how sometimes your vehicle will flip end over end for absolutely no reason, or Max will randomly fly through the air as if caught in an invisible explosion. Hanging pots that spin endlessly are a common occurrence.
You’ll spot some really clever details and be introduced to some very cool game mechanics while playing through it, the sort of stuff that I’d rather not spoil here, but as I mentioned earlier, it also suffers from some outrageously bad creative decisions. Max’s jump is pathetic. The potentially game-breaking shortcuts afforded by the physical layout of objects in the world makes it obvious why the devs decided to make his jump so tragically useless, but honestly, they might as well have removed it entirely and put the spare button to better use. Almost every interaction is enveloped in a weird micro cut-scene, complete with a needless fade to black at the end of each and every one. Filling your canteen with water, eating food or refuelling your vehicle all force you to endure these jarring cut-scenes time and again. Once is fine. A thousand times is a bit much. The hot air balloons that you’re expected to use to scout each region and discover points of interest suffer from the same sense of tedium, because after solving whatever problems prevent you from using the balloon in the first place, you’re expected to hold down a button for what feels like forever to watch the balloon rise, then whip out your binoculars and painstakingly scan the horizon for Dots of Importance, and finally hold another button to slowly descend to the ground again. Again, once is fine. A thousand times is a bit much.
Nevertheless, it’s a truly solid game, and I really enjoy the look and feel of its wasteland, even though it’s comprised of not much more than different shades of dirt and rust. It’s also full of pretty, punchy explosions, and that’s always a bonus. Compared to similar open-world action hits like Shadow of Mordor or Far Cry 4, it’s lacking that spark, that special set of features that’s enough to make it a must-have. If you do choose to buy it, you’ll see what I mean. And you should buy it someday, perhaps when the memory of Fury Road isn’t quite so fresh. It won’t blow your mind, but I guarantee you won’t regret it either.