Mad Max: Full Review

Mad Max 2015 Game Screenshot
the magnum opus in her early days

Author: Katu Matson
Title: Mad Max
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment
Developers: Avalanche Studios
Release Date: 09/01/2015
Platform Reviewed: PC
Time Played: 20 hours

Concept and Execution:

I have to preface this review by saying that Mad Max: Fury Road might possibly be my favourite film of all time. So when I learned that they were making a Mad Max game, I knew two things: That I had to try it, and that it had big shoes to fill. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t concerned; most gamers are aware that movie tie-in games tend to be poorly-made, low-quality cash grabs that do justice to neither the creative property in question nor to the minimum level of fun a game should be. There was a thought in the back of my mind that I was going to end up paying $60 for a poorly-acted, hollow re-skin of some shoddy, half-finished game engine intended for something else. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. Mad Max is a solid game, both in gameplay and narrative.

The ties to the films are loose, but there. Mad Max is neither prequel nor sequel, and while there are references to some extant characters, the game doesn’t truly fit into the canon of the movies. The strongest ties between Mad Max the game and the films is the universe in which they’re set. The wasteland is every bit as brutal, cutthroat, hyperphallic, and bizarre as you’d expect.

The concept, overall, is a post-apocalpytic dystopia in which factions, headed by warlords with names like “Scabrous Scrotus” and “Stank Gum” hold territory and wage war against one another for food, resources, and fun. The world as we know it is nothing but barren rock and scorching sand, unable to sustain life comfortably outside of these tribes. Our story begins, somewhat predictably, with Max Rockatansky having his sweet car stolen. Apparently he’d intended to stockpile supplies and head out into the possibly fictional Plains of Silence. With his plans thwarted, he takes to wandering the wasteland, making shaky alliances and building up to his eventual revenge against those who’ve wronged him. Along the way, he’s forced to do a bit of soul-searching, but this doesn’t really end in a satisfying conclusion. On the bright side, the ending contains none of the “revenge hurts you most” preaching that one comes to expect from the genre.

The titular character is modeled after neither Tom Hardy nor Mel Gibson, which is an appropriate choice for a game that’s not meant to ape any of the movies. He’s gruff, stoic, Australian, but otherwise unremarkable. I guess this is to make him an easier vessel for the player’s self, but my preference is almost always for characters that have…well, character. Additionally, as far as I can tell, in this version of the series, “Mad” Max means “Angry” Max, not “Crazy” Max. They play some lip service to Max’s mental instability; it’s roughly the same as in the film, but it takes 60%+ of the game to get to it. Beyond that, he seems pretty mentally capable, smart and calculating in his dealings with people. Still, Slightly Grumpy and Occasionally Violent Max doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

However, Max’s personal Igor, a “blackfinger” named Chumbucket, has no surfeit of character. Chum is…devout about cars. He’s a zealot to the religion of the road, and he clings to Max, who he calls Saint. Chum believes him to be “The Driver” – an agent of prophecy, essentially a chosen one. It’s a bit cliche, but it works. This is mostly because Chum, in all his rambling, nonsensical proselytizing, is an incredibly convincing and well-acted character. I am unashamed to say he is my favourite character in the game.

I have to bring this back to Fury Road for a second, because one of the most highly-praised (or highly complained about, depending on what part of the internet you hail from) aspects of the film was the surprisingly female-dominated character cast. Not so much that they were there, but that they were well-written, human characters that ranged from the (seemingly) heartless to the (seemingly) helpless. I did not have high hopes for the game to meet this standard, because the movie sets the bar pretty high. However, while the game is overall primarily male, there are women among the ranks of the various warlords, and there are a couple women in relatively major roles in the game. My personal favourite is Pink Eye, a wheelchair-bound multiple amputee with silver hair and a voice like an ashtray. However, there is also a woman, Hope, who plays simultaneously the helpless victim and the doting mother. Despite the stereotyped role, however, she isn’t poorly written. However small the margin is, she feels more of a character than a plot device. I cannot say the same for her daughter, Glory.

Concept and Execution Grade: (22/25)

 

Mad Max 2015 Game Screenshot
our hero. sort of.

Mechanics:

The mechanics are, overall, good. There are definitely complaints I have, but they’re relatively few and far between.

The hand-to-hand combat is pretty standard “punch enemies until they die, get combos going to hit harder.” There’s a quick attack and a heavy attack, along with a counter and a dodge. If you’ve ever played the Arkham series, you’re already intimately familiar with Mad Max’s combat, because it is basically a direct translation. However, for whatever reason, I found it more fun and more satisfying than in Arkham. For one thing, “Finally his guard drops! Wet your fists in his red sauce!” or “Kammakrazee!” is better trash talk than “I’m gonna hurt you real bad, Batman!” For another, you spend less of the fight spinning around the arena punching seven henchmen, one at a time, until finally they die. You can focus more on individual enemies, taking them out before you move to the next one. Additionally, the punches feel real, and more impactful. My criticism of the combat system is that the block/counter system is pretty twitchy. The timing requires a preciseness that I personally found hard to excel at, mostly because I was focusing on landing the final haymaker on some fool.

Mad Max also adds the mechanic of the War Criers. They’re like post-apocalyptic hype-men, strapped to hanging chairs above the main platform of most big camps. They beat their drums, and call out fun stuff like “Scrotus loves you all!” to your enemies. If he’s left to his shenanigans for too long, all your enemies get buffed, making them harder to defeat. You can bring down the War Criers by destroying the winch that suspends them (but you’re momentarily vulnerable to attack by the War Boys). If you happen to defeat all melee enemies before taking down the Criers, they’ll actually keep talking to you. “Say…you going to let me live? Do you perhaps need a War Crier? I’ve been doing it for years, pretty skilled at beating a drum…” Of course, it’s only polite to blow them up at that point, but hey, at least they tried. Luckily for Max, he’s his own War Crier: after a certain number of successful hits, he goes into what the game calls Fury Mode. In Fury Mode, Max hits harder and gains access to special, extra-brutal finishing moves.

Max also has a sawed-off shotgun, which can be used for any number of tasks: bashing it against things to break them, using it as a handlebar when ziplining, and occasionally even firing bullets. However, ammo is, understandably, scarce in the wasteland. As a result, your gun is more of a last resort than a common combat tactic. However, for me, shells weren’t so scarce that I felt the need to hoard them, either. I felt like a good balance was struck between “I have so much ammo I don’t know what to do” and “Oh god, I got a shotgun shell, I shall keep it forever close to my heart.”

The “level up” system is a little more involved than “kill dude, get xp, hit level 51, put points in strength.” Firstly, it’s achievement-based. Getting your Fury meter full within a certain time, eat a certain number of maggots out of corpses; these are the things that get you progress. The “levels” are notoriety ranks called things like “Day Lizard” and “Reluctant Saint” (the highest level is the classic “Road Warrior”). You upgrade your character by visiting a backpack-wearing goggled sage by the name of Griffa, who knows a suspicious amount about you and occasionally blows drugs into your face. It, and the car upgrade system, is an elegant solution to the usual immersion-breaking systems of leveling up. And, just as a fun aside, you can also “upgrade” Max to longer, shaggier locks and bigger, bushier beards as you increase in ranks.

The game is very vehicularly focused, as well any Mad Max game should be. The upgrade system for the Magnum Opus (Max’s car, and Chum’s obsession) operates on a combination of purchasing upgrades with “scrap” (the game’s currency), and also obtaining certain looks or upgrades from story missions or special locations. Upgrades help with things like better handling (which is good, as beginning controls feel a bit slippery), better ramming force, and better armor against attacks.

The car combat far exceeded my expectations. For one thing, it goes quite a bit beyond the “speed boost and broadside them” technique that other car combat games have implemented. You can use your car-mounted harpoon gun to tear off wheels and doors, or even pull the driver out so you can run him over. You can use your sawed-off to target their gas tank and blow them to Valhalla. You can side-swipe them, using your Ripperoni Rims to eviscerate their wheels. And, of course, you can give yourself a Nitrous boost and dig into their belly with your ramming grill. Classic. Defeated vehicles drop scrap, spare fuel tanks and sometimes environmental weapons for melee combat. If you happen to take the driver out without totaling their car, however, you can commandeer it and bring it back to base for a hefty scrap bonus. Overall, the driving combat feels fluid, exhilarating, and fun. However, the driving itself can be a bit tricky, especially using a keyboard and mouse, and especially at fast speeds. The camera would occasionally lurch (I definitely had to take some breaks because of motion sickness), and the car itself constantly veered off into rocks or other nonsense. I would highly recommend either playing with a controller, or messing with the sensitivity settings.

By far my favourite mechanic, however, is the cameraman mode. This game is gorgeous, and filled with amazing cinematic action scenes during normal gameplay. Thankfully, it does this justice by implementing a mode in which you can freeze time to take sweet, sweet screenshots. The camera is free to view the entirety of the current area (I’ll be honest, I never tried to see how far out it could go – but it’s pretty far), so you can get the most visceral of closeups, or the grandest of landscape shots. You can also fine-tune your shot by tweaking your focal length, depth of field, and how blurry out-of-focus parts are. You can apply overlays to give your shots a muddy or weathered look. You can apply filters to change the lighting and post-processing of your shots. You can add borders and logos if you like. It’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into making this tool, and unfortunately it seems to be a largely overlooked feature. As an aside, all screenshots in this article were taken by me, to give you an idea of what the engine is capable of.

Mechanics Grade: (20/25)

 

Mad Max 2015 Game Screenshot
in the apocalypse, everything is rust

Atmosphere:

The atmosphere of this game is, arguably, one of its best features. The world feels vast, dry, and hopeless (or, in some areas, vast, sludgy, and hopeless), and this is enhanced by the bleak score. The music in the game is generally pretty subdued, audible mostly during precious moments of downtime. It’s at once serene and eerie, with lots of echo and deep, muted drums; when in enemy territory, it puts you a bit on edge; when safe, it feels more like the eye of the storm. It also does a good job of transitioning from ambient to combat. The two layer together well, the echoing wails of the background mixing effortlessly with the fast-paced drums and bass of the battle music. The ambient sound is effective also, the sound of far-off motors, creaking complaints of sheet metal, and blustering of desert winds all working together to form a symphony of apocalypse.

One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the intense and sudden dust storms that ravage the wasteland. They’re frankly terrifying. A lot of this is that they’re so loud: the winds almost blew out my speakers the first time one of the storms hit, and I didn’t even have my volume up that high. Visibility is also greatly reduced, as you’d expect from having tons of sand whipping through the air at high velocity. During the day, this isn’t so bad, but at night it’s quite limiting. When a storm hits, you’d better hope your car is heavy enough to hide in or you’re close to shelter, or else you’re boned (and you can experience some occasional amusing ragdoll glitches). Taking shelter in a camp helps to muffle the sound somewhat, and helps to protect you from wildly flying objects. However, there are rewards for braving the storm: the quaintly named “muthaloot.” My only criticism of the dust storms is not necessarily a fair one: they’re just not as cool as in Fury Road.

The dialect present in Mad Max is quirky, as though pieced together by someone with a flawed knowledge of the English language. There’s a lot of verbing involved (“I’m gonna corpse you stinkholes!”), and a lot of usage of archaic terminology, that have been given new meanings. And then, of course, the perversion of existing words into stuff like “guzzolene” and “kammakrazee.” This almost devolution of language sets the dystopia apart from the world we live in. The downside to this is that it makes Max seem almost like a man out of time. He rarely engages in dialect, usually speaking in a more contemporary fashion. There’s a piece of dialogue between him and Chum, where Max refers to a “sniper rifle,” and Chum responds, “A what?!” Max seems to roll his eyes, and responds, “A longshot.” Ostensibly this is because he’s one of the survivors of the Time Before, and it’s a design decision that presumably makes him more relatable to the audience as a main character. However, it poses a couple of questions: if Max is from a time closer to ours, where people speak the language that we’re used to – how did these very significant linguistic changes come to the rest of the world during his lifetime? This is a further remove than kids just saying “yolo,” and it’s a bit of a stretch for me to suspend my disbelief on that matter. However, that’s just me nitpicking; it doesn’t negatively affect my feelings about the game.

The voice acting on the other hand, I sometimes take issue with. For one thing, are we currently experiencing a dearth of Australians? Because aside from Max and Griffa, I’m not sure there’s a genuine Aussie accent in the game. Luckily, a lot of the characters don’t even try: there’s a surprising amount of Southern or other types of American accents in the game (I’m giving Chum a pass, because “crazy old coot” is a voice-type that transcends region). However, some of the actors do try to affect an accent, to the extreme detriment of their characters. To me, voice acting can make or break a game, and the fact that some of the characters in this game made me physically cringe is a major count against them.

Atmosphere Grade: (23/25)

 

Mad Max 2015 Game Screenshot
one of the game’s sudden dust storms

Entertainment Value:

Mad Max is a fun game, no disputing that. However, this is more due to the eccentric cast of characters and the sheer thrill of blowing stuff up than anything else. The story starts out a bit shaky: your car’s gone, you have a weirdo sidekick (and a dog that gets almost no screen time – a minor quibble to be sure, but I like dogs…), and the fellow you chainsawed in the noggin is still alive and relatively well somewhere. The story arc beyond that is peppered with some wonderfully bizarre characters like the Outcrier, a man obsessed with having Christmas lights all over his body; Crow Dazzle, a man who either suffers from zoanthropy or is just really, really into crows; and Deep Friah, who kinda looks like Lawrence of Arabia wearing one of those weird beer hats. Beyond these guys, however, the arc feels a bit lacking. You’re angry, you’re hearing angry voices, and you’re beating up angry people. More things happen that make you angry, you kill your nemesis, and the game ends. The only thing I felt at the ending of the game was a sense of sadness, and a bit of anger, myself, at Max. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say he’s not a nice dude, and I definitely don’t relate to him.

To make up for the short story is the incredibly vast amount of side quests. I played the game roughly 20 hours, initially thinking I’d try to 100% it. I gave up on that, partly due to time constraints, but also partly because it felt like an impossible task. I feel like they could have cut some fat from the extra content, and the game wouldn’t have suffered. The world is huge, and filled with tons of things to do, but they’re all variations on the same couple of tasks. Camps to infiltrate, minefields to disarm, races to compete in, wandering vagrants to give water to, and towers to destroy. I didn’t really notice it much while I was playing, because I was having a blast (usually literally). However, looking back on it, it was a bit repetitive.

Overall, if you enjoy blowing things up, kooky characters, and bleak, desolate wastelands, I would definitely recommend Mad Max. If you’re a big fan of the films, and looking for something that’s a close translation of them, I’d still recommend it, but not as heavily. But if you’re looking for something with a strong narrative or tons of unique content, I’d suggest something like Dragon Age: Inquisition over this game. That said, it’s worth a play, even if it’s not a perfect 100.

Entertainment Value Grade: (15/25)

 

Overall Score: (80/100) B-

Katu

Cat lover, guild leader, gamer, consumer of coffee.

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