Warner Bros has a lot of love for the open-world games they publish. Each of their recent games have a defining characteristic that separates itself from the others in the catalogue. For Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, it was the nemesis system, in Batman: Arkham Knight it was exploring the streets of Gotham in the Batmobile, and in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt it was the seemingly never-ending stream of quality quests. In Mad Max, it is about car combat and the adventures of picking yourself up after being left with nothing, albeit a shallow experience when compared to its contemporaries.
The game starts off with a bang, a beginning that would rival many game’s endings, only here you have no control of the events that unfold. In a vicious battle with Scabrous Scrotus, you inevitably lose all of your gear, and even your car; a scenario not unlike the beginning of a Metroid game. And allow me to point out that the look of Scabrous Scrotus is no doubt intimidating, but the mere mention of his name doesn’t seem menacing, it sounds like an alternative way to say ‘scrotum’. After being stripped of your worldly possessions, especially that of Max’s prize car The Intimidator, you meet Chumbucket, a “blackfinger” who essentially is like a blacksmith but for cars. Over the course of the game, Chumbucket is a more interesting as the deuteragonist than Max ever is as the protagonist, until perhaps the final act with some desperate attempts to give him some humanity. Other characters come and go, some not as memorable as the rest. For instance, Griffa is a mystic that bestows passive buffs onto Max for tokens earned by completing in-game challenges and by doing races known as Death Runs. These tokens can buff Max’s maximum health, his ability to get more water from sources, and even boost the duration of melee weapons before they break and become unusable. Characters that Max engages with are unique and provide specific benefits for them and Max himself to exploit. It’s a shame that any of the women characters are often reduced to plot devices, and are as throwaway as the men characters that have more screen time.
Max acquires a new car for this adventure in revenge. This one is outrageously referred to as the “Magnum Opus”, an ongoing work of art that evolves through the upgrades you are able to afford and apply. This can be done from the universal currency of ‘scrap’, metal that is broken down to its purest form after the world had descended into madness. Scrap can buy Max better exhaust, engines, tires, and ways to ward off boarders with razer-sharp spikes. Max is able to improve himself as well, through the use of scrap collected to use better armor, buy new combat moves, and grow a beard (hello Witcher 3). The beard here is static, but changes can be applied over time as the game goes and you unlock new styles. The Magnum Opus can get shots of nitrous to outrun pursuers. Early on, you’ll acquire a harpoon that doesn’t use any ammo, but any weapons later like the explosive thunderpoon, the flaming from both sides flamer, and your own shotgun as defenses will require replenishment before setting back out into the wild.
Moving about the wasteland in Mad Max is familiar to anyone who’s played a third-person action game in the past five years. In vehicles, the right trigger will be used to accelerate, and the left trigger to decelerate – pretty standard stuff. There’s an option for alternative controls (much like Batman: Arkham Knight‘s) that adds a handbrake, and is a much better control method that’s off by default. When the Magnum Opus takes damage, Max will tumble out of the car, even when on the move with one of the smoothest animations I’ve seen. It is then Chumbucket will climb on the hood and start to ratchet away. On foot, Max does things only in context sensitive situations: climbing a ladder, picking up weapons, and collecting loot are all done by holding in a button press for a couple of seconds. Whenever collecting items such as scrap or relics should never be relegated by holding a button and then watching Max crouch down to pick it up. It’s a waste of the player’s time as you will have to do this so often. This is a situation whereby these items could instead be picked up just by simply walking over it. Collecting resources make sense in a world that’s experienced an apocalypse, but it slows the pacing down for something that’s designed to be more action oriented.
There’s a reinforcement that playing as Max has to work to survive. He has to eat food, drink water, and conserve fuel. While all of these things are true, they become less needed and nearly obsolete as you progress through the game. As Max takes damage from cars, wasteland wanderers as part of a gang, falling from heights, or explosions, he can replenish health with food and water. They both serve the same purpose. There’s no hunger or thirst, they are simply mechanisms to restore the health meter to full. As Max drives around the wasteland, he’ll be using fuel. Stopping at certain areas, he will have to fight over gas cans and fill up the Magnum Opus. The Magnum Opus can store an extra gas cannister for usage later, as a weapon or as a fuel reserve should Max run out. But that’s thing, I never ran out of fuel for whatever reason, I certainly wasn’t trying. Mad Max is a survival at its most basic form, so don’t be too concerned with the notion that you’ll be dying of thirst, or stranded in the desert without fuel. There’s plenty to go around, even in this post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Scrotus’ influence is everywhere, and it is up to you to reduce the threats to then gain trust from the Stronghold Leaders, such as: Gutgash, Jeet, Pink Eye, and Deep Friah. You can upgrade a Stronghold that not only benefits them, but you as well. By building an armory, your ammo will be restocked when entering the stronghold. By making a maggot farm, your health will be replenished each time you enter the stronghold. Stronghold Leaders will also task you with Wasteland Missions which are the game’s side quests that involve bringing down the threat level for the area by demolishing flaming metal scarecrows, liberating camps, defeating top dog bosses, and eliminating snipers. Top Dog Camps are the hardest to clear, and the only reward you receive is a paint scheme for the car. It’s a status symbol, sure. But logic gets in the way, as in, why can’t Max just paint his car without defeating this guy? These tasks are repeated ad nauseum throughout each sector. There’s a sense of each of these side activities are a chore, and for the most part that’s how they feel. Chores are rarely, if ever, fun. For instance, the vantage points, which have you jumping in a balloon and ascending into the sky to identify everything in an area are given complexity for the sake of complexity. Sometimes the vantage point needs to have enemies defeated and gates lowered, sometimes the wires need to be cut, sometimes the balloon needs to be lowered before you can get in it and go higher, sometimes the balloon needs fuel added, or sometimes it needs all of these conditions met. It’s a task that should be of little to no effort that takes far too long just to discover everything on the map.
Mad Max wants to be all about car combat, but half the time it throws you into hand-to-hand combat situations, which is not the strength of the game. Only near the end of the game will you be appropriately kitted out to handle all types of fights, but by then it becomes too late to be enjoyable. Combat is mundane as you’ll primarily be attacking and parrying, as you work to build up your fury meter to then dole out massive damage as he suplexes his enemies to death. Hand-to-hand combat in Mad Max is not Batman: Arkham Knight by any stretch, but it does offer interesting scenarios for experimentation to test your skills, as well as your patience. As silly as it sounds, Max can’t take a few punches to the face, but he can take a several cars to the face. It evokes the line from Dodgeball, but the inverse “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”
The world is beautiful and faithful to the movies it is inspired by and created from. Despite this being a wasteland, it is remarkably full of color and brightness. The lengthy day-to-night cycles are always breathtaking and screenshot heaven. Storms come at random times, and while you’ll be warned ahead of time, staying inside them is a sight to be hold. Visibility is cut down dramatically, and lightning strikes down, often right in front of you, and treasures of scrap await you. It’s an exhilarating, dangerous, living world. Mad Max is at its most fun when you’re just roaming the wasteland and happen upon an encampment or a sniper you can counter-snipe from a safe distance as the sun is setting over a dune, castings its beautiful orange rays all over the sand.
Thankfully, Mad Max has a built-in Photo Mode from the get-go. This was something that had to be patched in for both Shadow of Mordor and Batman: Arkham Knight. It also includes a Cinema Mode for making short clips, or machinima of your gameplay. The game’s only been out for a week, but there’s some incredible stuff already out there.
Most of the story missions within Mad Max are uneventful. Mad Max is a game that’s slow to get going, but that wasn’t strong enough to keep me fully engaged throughout, especially when the most exciting moments are behind a cutscene. The story often inserts side missions that serve as main story missions, which is just filler instead of meaningful progression. Another scenario is that you’ll be prevented from starting the next story mission due to a few side mission objectives that need to be satisfied for it to be opened up to you. In an effort to avoid spoilers, the final two acts of Mad Max is redemption for a story gone awry. It does everything right in capturing the emotion and feel of that moment, even though it’s very much clichéd.
Bugs are all over Mad Max, and not the maggots you can eat from decaying bodies to replenish your health. I had instances where the story objective stays on-screen through multiple missions and will not clear until I reload the last save, debris that twirls and tumbles in the air for minutes, audio cutting out or not synced with the action, textures popping in, and the car not responding to input for a good four to five seconds. Some can be ignored, others just ruin the immersion and atmosphere, such as when the framerate dips below 30fps, stuttering the simple task of driving during a sunset.
Mad Max is a game that had me torn right down the middle of whether to recommend or not. It does come recommended, though there are some caveats to this recommendation. Mad Max is a substandard compilation of features we’ve seen in other WB-published games over the past year. Mad Max is an exciting and unique approach to an open-world, it just has some odd design choices, like making it about survival when it’s a nonissue. And it’s really unfortunate the story often resorts to completing side activities to fill in for a more meaningful narrative journey, while leaning heavily on a revenge trope as motivation. Mad Max is at peak fun when you’re setting off explosions, smashing your car through an enemy’s camp, or just driving aimlessly and engaging with bandits.
A PlayStation 4 code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes