Platforms available: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Platform reviewed: PS4
With a sharp crack the harpoon was snapped back, sending the half-naked, impaled corpse flying over Max’s car. As the harpoon was readied again to tear down a watchtower, a huge storm swept across the wasteland, smashing suspended sheets of corrugated iron into the vulnerable car. Amidst the carnage, Max ordered his deranged hunchback companion to risk life and limb undertaking repairs from the outside, before a nitrous-fuelled race to safety.
Whilst the titular protagonist of Mad Max – a game tie-in developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment – actually suffers more from a simmering desperation, the world he finds himself in is certainly just plain mad. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to experience.
The opening cutscene sets you as Max – the quintessential haunted anti-hero who has lost his loved ones and his life in the apocalyptic event that left the world a harsh wasteland. Max seeks to cross the mythical Plains of Silence to find peace from the horrors of his past and a present shaped by a constant struggle for survival. When Max loses his fuel-guzzling banger – his primary mode of traversing the wasteland and protection from vicious scavengers – he must seek a new vehicle in order to survive.
The narrative setup is a simple one, but maintains player interest throughout thanks to an intriguing game world and entertainingly quirky dialogue. The latter is exemplified by one of the most hideous yet lovable NPC characters I’ve come across: the insane, disfigured mechanic genius called Chumbucket. The wonderfully-named companion latches on to Max, hailing him as the Saint who can deliver the world from evil. The Gollum-esque hunchback continuously spouts demented, quasi-religious babble, and is so well voice-acted that he is the perfect contrast to Max’s ever-serious, dour demeanour.
Mad Max’s grim, grainy aesthetic is impressive, with good visuals bringing to life an eerily believable and occasionally starkly beautiful world. The wasteland is a jumble of nautical wrecks, rocky outcrops, criss-crossing tracks and hovelled hideouts. In addition, the game world is generously populated with barbaric structures including enemy watchtowers and bases, the destruction of which lowers the threat level in that region. Although the world of Mad Max is bleak, it is certainly not barren. The compulsion to explore the wasteland should remain with you for dozens of hours.
Exploration is necessary in order to: stock up on water that can be used to heal Max; discover project parts that are required to build useful facilities in impressive allied strongholds; and find historical artefacts to flesh out Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic backstory. By far the most important resource to collect, however, is the game’s currency: scrap. Scrap is needed for purchasing additional items for Max, customising the grizzled protagonist, improving personal equipment and upgrading your trusty vehicle – the Magnum Opus.
Whilst the wasteland is an impressive setting, it wouldn’t be such a joy to explore without the Magnum Opus – the indisputable star of Mad Max. Initially, the vehicle is little more than a fragile rust bucket, but the central quest is to turn the Opus from this into a lightning-fast mechanical demon that is, in Chumbucket’s words, ‘as tough as an iguana’s gonads’. In order to achieve this, you must collect scrap and complete story mission to have access to a wealth of upgrades, from installing vicious impaling spikes and imposing front bumper through to an on-board harpoon gun and sniper rifle. It’s extremely satisfying to be responsible first-hand for evolving the Magum Opus with every upgrade, not least because you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in your mechanical fortress. It is disappointing, however, that story progression is required to unlock upgrades and projects, even when you have the necessary scrap and are out of the main tutorial region.
Unlike the majority of open-world games that have come before it, in Mad Max vehicular transport is not just a method of quickly getting from A to B. The Magnum Opus is your primary, most effective weapon against enemies that similarly favour vehicles in which to patrol the wasteland. Mad Max’s vehicular combat is grin-inducingly exhilarating, as you ram enemy vehicles, tear bits off with the harpoon, grind them with spiked hub caps, and annihilate them with mines, to name just a few of the modes of carnage. If the enemy driver is exposed, you can even gorily impale them with the harpoon before yanking them over the Opus, which quite honestly never gets old. Occasionally the damage attribution between you and your foes is a little off when you’re wheel-to-wheel, but turning enemy vehicles into spectacular fireballs more than makes up for this.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be lavished on the on-foot combat system. The familiar quick attack, heavy attack, parry and counter-attack system is reasonably robust, but distinctly underwhelming compared to the bombastic vehicular combat. When you have destroyed the perimeter defences of enemy bases, even if you can pick off some enemies from the safety of the Magnum Opus, you do eventually have to lumber in on foot to beat up the goons inside. Although the structure of each base is imaginative enough that they don’t feel like a chore to clear out, disappointingly the challenge arises from game swarming you with foes to deal with.
Although as mentioned previously it is a pleasure to blast across the wasteland in the Magnus Opus, Mad Max does not quite reach the heady heights of a fantastic game due to its somewhat restricted scope. The narrative is driven along admirably by Chumbucket’s fanaticism, and the mission environments are varied enough to not quickly grow stale, but Mad Max never quite manages to elevate itself above the all-too-common open world topes of fetch/destroy/defeat questions. The wasteland is such a thrilling, energising place to explore and confront, however, that chances are you’ll be too busy just having to fun to notice.
Mad Max may wind up a victim of its busy release window, but it doesn’t deserve to. It’s a bombastic blast of exhilarating vehicular combat and open-world destruction, only slightly marred by uninspired on-foot fighting and limited ambitions when it comes to scope. It may not be the most refined open-world title out there, but it never gets too pretentious and crucially thriving in the wasteland is simply great fun.
This review is based a review copy of Mad Max provided by Stature Public Relations.