An arid wasteland with nothing but barren desert as far as the eye can see.
All you’ve got are the clothes on your back, and the set of wheels attached to your gas pedal. In a world where civilisation is all but forgotten, only two things matter: guzzolene and violence. And you’re going to have to use a lot of the latter if you want any of the former. You are Mad Max. And shit is about to get crazy.
Oceans dried up, and humanity was left to rot. Civilisation died out a long time ago, and those that remain are mere shadows of the humans that came before them: savages that only speak the lingo of bloodlust and crazed ideas. Roads may have long since been worn away and buried under ever-expanding deserts, but road rage lives on. If you want to be anybody in this new, rotten world, you’ve got to own the roads, and that’s exactly what Max intends to do.
Mel Gibson first gave us the pleasure of introducing Mad Max to us in George Miller’s dystopian vision back in 1979. It was followed up with three films, the last one some 30 years after the rest: Mad Max: Fury Road. Whilst the game isn’t a movie tie-in, its release has coincided with the release of the film on Blu-ray and DVD, and both share a very distinct illustration of the Mad Max universe. The game tackles a story completely separate from the film, and aside from a few common areas and names – the nation’s capital, Gas Town, and Max’s crazed petrolhead enemies known as War Boys to name but two – it exists as its own entity. That said, the portrayal of the world and the types of characters you encounter through it feel instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Fury Road; it’s entirely plausible that both exist in the same canon.
The story here isn’t particularly deep, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Besides, on the surface, our anti-hero Max isn’t all that deep himself; he doesn’t talk much, but as his trusty sidekick Chumbucket frequently reminds him, he likes to take long trips inside his own head. The premise is pretty straightforward: Max wants to reach the fabled lands of Plains of Silence. We’re not told a great deal about the place, but we assume it’s a nicer neighbourhood than Max’s current locale. Fair enough. To get there, Max needs a decent set of wheels, but his car has just been stolen by a horde of low life War Boys. Not to worry though: Max quickly meets Chumbucket, a crusty old man who is nothing less than bat shit crazy, but he’s got a good heart underneath the layers of engine grease, and soon becomes something of a spiritual guide to Max, as well as his on-board “blackfinger” (that’s a mechanic to you and I). Chumbucket shares with Max the Magnum Opus, his prized possession: in its current state, a rusted set of four wheels. Together the pair travel through the barren lands, meeting new people (and killing most of them) all in name of repairing the Magnum Opus to a state magnificent enough to reach the Plains of Silence.
With your time as Max split fairly evenly between in-car and on-foot action, Mad Max is an entirely open world game, with literally hundreds of tasks and missions to complete in any order you see fit. Of course, there is a main story, but up until the climax of the game, it never feels any more important than anything else: even optional tasks feel pertinent to Max’s tale, and indeed, some main missions will even push you to complete side missions before the next part of the story will unlock. For some people, this will undoubtedly be frustrating: being forced to complete optional objectives distracts from the main focus of the game, surely? I’d argue anybody wanting to run through the main story of the game without absorbing in the rest of the environment is playing the game wrong. Sure, some open world games lend themselves to that style of play: rush the story, and if you like it, go back and do the side stuff later. But the decrepit yet fantastic world of Mad Max is so intrinsic to the story that you won’t see the full picture unless you’ve taken time to experience it. Especially noteworthy are the historical relics that you can collect from various locations littered across the map: these random objects – most often photos or handwritten notes – provide a brief glimpse of a rich history that the game world is based on, giving valuable insight into the apocalypse and how life was before. Sometimes upon finding one of these relics, Max himself will share brief information of his own recollections, which I’d argue are the most important part of Max’s entire story; it’s through these brief moments that we truly gain insight into Max’s true characterisation, under his façade of a heartless road warrior.
Gameplay wise, you’ll instantly feel at home with Mad Max if you’ve played the likes of the Batman Arkham trilogy, Sleeping Dogs or any game from Ubisoft’s open world catalogue. That’s not a criticism; far from it. Whilst the game follows the typical open world template and arguably does nothing unique in terms of its core mechanics and functionality, what it does do is incredibly well-executed – and simply, is a pleasure to play. You’re never far from something to do, and there’s plenty of variety: fetch quests, fist fights, car battles, races, enemy camp destructions to name a few. Each side mission rewards you either with scrap or some kind of upgrade, so it pays to stray from the beaten path. It’s far too easy to find yourself having lost the last four hours of your evening, absorbed in discovering new locations and clearing out the threats at hand.
Because the story encourages (and in some instances, forces) you to do side missions, it’s unlikely you’ll complete the game in any less than 15-20 hours. Story missions are rather varied: most are replicates of the open world tasks, such as destroying enemy camps or winning races, although several require you to create a particular build for your car before continuing. Gathering the required parts usually forms part of the story, but some have to be bought, so you may need to do some side scavenger missions to make sure you’ve got enough scrap. One mission in particular deserves a special mention. In Act Two, you’ll find yourself having to drive out to the Underdune, a forsaken place where Chumbucket forebodes great terror. Actually a massive international airport partially buried under the sand, you’ll find yourself driving through its abandoned terminals and climbing through plane wreckages. The entire section is incredibly atmospheric; Chumbucket’s warnings echo whilst you have no idea what you’re about to drive into. Combined with creepy and tense music, it almost felt like a survival horror, with shadows lurking around every corner, making you feel like something is going to jump out at any moment. Definitely an unexpected, but very welcome, tone to find in such an open world game. Other missions touched on the same kind of tension – such as an optional Wasteland mission through an old subway station – but it definitely stands out as being the highlight of the game.
It’s these glimpses of familiar sites that I liked most about Mad Max. When the game opens, we see nothing but desert and empty wasteland as far as the eye can see. It’s an amazing-looking landscape, but we can’t relate to it in the same way. It’s not until you see an abandoned airport covered in sand, still intact as far as flight information screens, rows of seats and duty-free shops that you realise just how much intricate detail has gone into creating this post-apocalyptic world. Progressing through the game there are more examples of destroyed civilisation, such as an old truck stop diner and dilapidated brick buildings, and it’s this taste of stark realism that really brought the game to life for me. This realism is only compounded by Mad Max‘s incredible graphics; I’d go as far as to say that it’s the best-looking open world title we’ve seen so far. When traversing the open terrain, the draw distance is simply sublime, and landscapes often look photorealistic. The downside of this is that the game very occasionally suffers from a drop in framerate, but only once in my 25-plus hours of playing so far has this been particularly noticeable, and only for a few seconds.
The crux of Mad Max is of course upgrading the Magnum Opus and your own skills. Essentially, everything boils down to unlocking new upgrades: all scrap you find is spent on some kind of upgrade, and all completed missions and character levels reward you with upgrades. Thankfully, the upgrade system is very simple to use. There are no complex skill trees or slot systems – you can unlock what you want, when you want (or, more to the point, when you can afford it). There’s also an extra facet to character upgrades in the form of “Griffa tokens”. Griffa is a mysterious drifter who allows you to exchange tokens for various upgrades to your stats and abilities. Tokens are automatically rewarded for completing in-game achievements (for example, destroying 10 enemy hideouts, scavenging X amount of scrap, etc.). Tokens are easily acquired through the normal course of gameplay, so it’s a nice way to be rewarded, especially considering scrap-bought upgrades quickly get expensive and can take a lot of scavenging to be able to afford anything substantial.
Combat, both in-car and on-foot, forms a good portion of the gameplay. I found the hand-to-hand combat to be excellent; the attack system based on Batman: Arkham‘s signature rhythm-responsive method. Attacks feel visceral, with a good amount of feedback given, and synchronicity between button prompts and responses rarely falters. Especially in fights with larger, hardier groups of enemies, the tension built up is excellent, although the only complaint I have is when these fights take place in tight areas (such as underground chambers of enemy hideouts), the camera often works against you, not letting you see when enemies are about to attack. Car combat is great fun, even moreso than hand-to-hand, but is restricted based on your car’s upgrade level. In hand-to-hand combat, as long as you are a competent player, no foe is impossible regardless of Max’s upgrades, but on the road, your skill level has little to answer for if your car is poorly armoured and ill-equipped. It’s irritating considering that in some areas, enemy vehicles are relentless with their attacks, with groups of three or four vehicles ramming you in quick succession, and unless the Magnum Opus is properly equipped, you stand little chance of coming out victorious.
But these negative points are barely even minor blemishes to what is otherwise an incredibly well accomplished open world experience. In terms of value for money, Mad Max offers upwards of 50 hours’ worth of content, and you can’t get more bang for your buck than that. The sheer breadth of types of missions on offer means that a wide spectrum of tastes are catered for; from exploration, to combat, to car racing. Whilst the story may be somewhat lacking in terms of substance, the incredibly well-realised world combined with well-written characters more than makes up for it. More than anything else, Mad Max is incredibly fun and rewarding to play, and any fan of the open world genre would be wise to scavenge it out.
Mad Max is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the PlayStation 4 version. Buy it now from Amazon.