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Mad Max review – A harsh mistress

Avalanche Studio’s Mad Max was always going to struggle to be relevant being released on the same day as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Rarely do we have two open-world games released at exactly the same time, but I think that despite the latter garnering all the attention and good press, Mad Max will benefit from flying (or, erm, riding) under the radar. In one sense, it’s already managed to build somewhat of a cult following, which is certainly fitting for a license that started off in a similar fashion: I feel that a lot of gamers are turning to it when the highly intimidating and at-times inaccessible Phantom Pain doesn’t quite appeal to them. In another sense, the game suffers from a number of design and technical issues that sometimes render the game near-unplayable: these might have been further amplified had they been present in a more publicised game. Either way, Mad Max has a lot going for it if you know where to look, and I’ve still had a lot of fun playing it.

Starting things off in typical Mad Max fashion, our hero has lost his car at the hands of Scabrous Scrotus, Warlord of Gastown. Teaming up with the charming Chumbucket, who sees Max as the chosen one of his vehicular-based religion, our road warrior will trek across a barren wasteland in the Magnum Opus, the greatest car ever built.

Mad Max starts off in familiar territory, but the story quickly wanes into a jumbled mess of warlord caricatures. Max doesn’t quite have the same allure as he does in the films, although Avalanche has done an admirable job in making him a mysterious yet relatable character. He certainly talks a lot more than he does in the films, although I don’t feel this really devalues his standing as somewhat of a “silent” hero. His actions, body language, demeanour and one-word wittiness make him likeable, so the challenge for a 30-40 hour open-world game was to balance required dialogue padding with familiar personality traits. It’s hit and miss, but I like this Max more than I thought I would. Everything around him kicks into another gear later in the game, especially once you actually reach Gastown, but it’s pretty shallow before that. Those initial hours feel like more of a prequel to the real story that doesn’t really kick off until later in the game.

As one might expect with a Mad Max game, driving is key here, and car combat is great. Car upgrades, paid for with the game’s “scrap” currency, let you boost the Magnum Opus’ driving capabilities or combat tendencies, and often these meld together to assist in fury battles on the open road. A power boost, for example, makes ramming into enemy vehicles equally as satisfying as it is devastating for the enemy, while aesthetic touches like bull bars and the like both protect your car and leave a further dent in whatever wasteland witcher is coming in for the kill. You can get creative enough to keep car combat interesting: you can easily just use the harpoon to drag an enemy out of their car, or perhaps shoot the gas tank sitting visibly at the back. It’s exhilarating, complex, challenging and rewarding, adding a nice layer of familiarity that ties into the Mad Max trait of “kill or be killed”. Enemy AI works well to flank and attack you at vulnerable moments, although I found that whenever I’d get out of my car for Chumbucket to repair it, the AI would often sit back and wait for me to get into my car if I stood in a specific location out of sight. Mostly that involved simply parking my car next to a cliff and standing between the car’s hood at the edge of the cliff. That’s all it takes for the enemies to back off and for me to repair my car to full health before jumping straight back into battle.

Occasionally, however, the enemies will jump out of their cars and tackle me on foot. Melee will be familiar for anyone that’s played a Batman: Arkham game or Shadow of Mordor, although there’s a nice string of variety here with melee weapons and Max’s Fury Mode, which helps build up a higher combo rate. It works just as well as it did in the aforementioned, and although at its core it’s really just glorified button mashing, it’s a melee system that is satisfying and can be punishing if not timed well. Enemy encounters can get quite confronting, especially at certain outposts with a higher difficulty rating.

What I found in Mad Max is that, being a world so shattered and reliant on resources, it’s filled to the brim with confrontations and opportunistic events. I’d often get caught up in road battles with convoys carrying sweet, sweet scrap, and these can last anyway between 10-20 minutes depending on how well prepared enemy cars are (and of course how proficient you and your car are in battle). Each region lets you map out locations of interest via a hot air balloon, which is often protected by enemies or perhaps need to be refuelled. Once you do this and map those areas via the binoculars, the map will mark them for you as a convenient means of knowing when and where to attack certain outposts. These camps differ in difficulty and design, and beating them and fulfilling the set objective (like blowing up all of the camp’s oil storage units) will lower the threat level in that region. Getting the level down to zero will make it easier for you to trek the lands.

I enjoyed a lot of my time searching and scavenging the lands, and every resource is scarce enough to make it feel like a valuable asset. Countless times I’ve trekked halfway across a region searching just for water because Max’s health is low. Other times I’ve desperately been in need of some upgrades but haven’t been anywhere near the required scrap count, so a few hours of searching for scrap and taking down convoys is necessary for me to progress. It’s a pretty harsh landscape that makes searching and progression a chore at times, but I appreciate the drive behind that design philosophy. I don’t think they could have done it in any other way. The important thing is that even the base model car you drive handles superbly and is proficient enough in battle to help you build up your currency in the world, so, really, it’s all about how committed you are to survival. That sounds like Mad Max to me.

Despite my admiration for these design elements, it’s hard to overlook some major issues. For one, mission design, especially early on, can be a frustrating mess. One mission in particular doesn’t explicitly tell you what you can’t do to progress, so if you’ve done any extra tasks or upgraded your car at a rate outside of the mission, the game essentially blocks you off from progressing. Framerate drops plague the experience from start to finish, but they appear to get worse later in the later. The UI is also a mess, although I like being able to bring up a certain camp’s or outpost’s statistics to see how much scrap and other collectibles are available at the location. Texture pop-in, wonky animations and crazy physics also hurt what can be a truly stunning game at times.

And I really do mean stunning. Mad Max’s in-game capture editor is superb, and I’ve already spent hours testing my wares as a wasteland photographer. I spent 30 minutes trying to get a shot of Max with lightning striking the world in the distance, and I’m very happy with the end result. Mad Max can look rough at times, but it has some moments of beauty that I think shouldn’t be undervalued. Somehow, Avalanche has turned nothing into something.

The Final Verdict

I certainly feel Mad Max will go down as one of the most underrated and underplayed games of 2015. It’s far from perfect and design issues can severely hinder the experience, but I like how Avalanche Studios has created a game brimming with life, ironically within a world that is hostile towards the will to survive. It could have benefitted from some extra padding but I think there’s a nice amount here, and while the side objectives aren’t as varied as a Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, they feel rewarding in how they propel your survivability in the game world. Mad Max can be a harsh mistress at times, but sometimes that’s the point.

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