Mad Max Review: A Wasteland of Potential

After blockbuster film Mad Max hit cinemas this year, the attention of Mad Max fans eagerly turned to the upcoming game. The movie took everyone by surprise, reinventing Max’s dark and gritty universe with stellar cinematography, featuring some of the best action sequences to ever hit the silver screen. Unfortunately, although not a direct adaptation of the film, Mad Max from Avalanche Studios doesn’t quite have the same impact as the blockbuster hit, providing an enjoyable, yet largely forgettable experience.

Within the games opening cut-scene, Max is stripped of his vehicle by local war baron, and this immediately places Max on a quest to restore his lost car, in order to make an otherwise deadly trip out of the desert wasteland.  It’s just about enough to push the gameplay forward, requiring Max to use his skills behind a wheel, and on foot to gain the resources to restore his car. This two gameplay systems – on foot, and vehicular – are both accompanied with distinct gameplay styles.

Vehicular gameplay takes the form of transportation and combat. Driving Max’s vehicle feels rewarding, as they all have substantial weight to them and respond appropriately to the terrain. Vehicular combat takes the form of destruction derby-esque smashing, with some tools such as harpoons and your shotgun also usable while inside the car. These combat systems are the games highlight as it always feels as though you have various, distinct approaches you can take to any encounter.

While engaging other vehicles you can pull doors from cars to gain access to the drivers within, destroy fuel tanks with a precious shotgun round to immediately take a vehicle out of the fight, or even harpoon a vehicle only to pull yourself into it with nitrous for extra damage. You always have a good selection of options at your disposal at any one time, and Choosing who to target and which tools you will use makes car combat feel tactical and intelligent. Unfortunately this is n direct contrast to segments of the game where Max is on foot.

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When on foot, Max can traverse the interiors of various camps dotted across the wasteland, collecting scrap and dismantling their bases in order to lower the threat level in the region. The only significant interaction taking place here is through the form of hand to hand combat, as Max is able to trade blows with local bandits. This combat adopts a Batman Arkham or Sleeping Dogs style, yet features less depth and variety. While Max fights as you would expect, there’s very little flexibility to his combat style as players are merely tasked to attack with one button, dodge with another, and parry with another. Most of the time, attacking and parrying will get you through the encounter with ease.

Unfortunately this simplistic approach to combat doesn’t suit the gameplay very effectively, as it allows for very little use of improvisation or strategy. Despite Max’s character being portrayed as one who will utilize almost any environment or scenario to gain an upper hand in combat, there’s very little flexibility in Avalanche’s game. Before these melee brawlfests begin, there’s no opportunity for stealth and the only ranged weapon available to you is a shotgun. While you can pick up melee weapons on the ground, these are reflectively ineffective, and do not differ from one to the next in how they affect their target. Additionally, there are near zero environmental interactions featuring in Max’s combat, something Sleeping Dogs, and Batman Arkham Knight already offered in their games. Max’s adaptation of their combat systems is very superficial, and Avalanche have borrowed the bare minimum to make these hand to hand combat sequences playable.

What is there however, feels fluid and responsive, and there’s some satisfaction to be had from taking down large groups of enemies with a flowing combo sequence. Though the sense of satisfaction may be partially diminished when you reflect on how easy these sequences are to perform, especially once Max has invested in a few upgrades. Unlike the similar combat system in Batman Arkham Knight which does a very good job of making you feel like Batman, Max’s flowing moves often make him feel overpowered rather than someone that just scrapes by, and while the difficulty does ramp up as the game progresses, this is largely artificial as enemy numbers are increased, rather than the number or variety of gameplay mechanics. Combat sequences become more a test of your patience than a test of skill or wit, and that’s unfortunate.

Once the enemies in a camp are defeated, it’s time to loot the place, and Max must search high and low for precious resources as these feed into his vehicle and melee combat upgrades. Collecting the scrap itself can be tedious, but the upgrade system this supplies into is much more interesting allowing max to gain access to a diverse set of enhancements for both on foot and vehicular gameplay. With a few upgrades, the feel of your vehicle and its viability in different aspects of combat can change drastically, allowing you to adopt new playstyles and opening up new offensive opportunities such as pulling the wheels off cars, only available if you have the level four harpoon. The same can’t be said for melee combat however, as this simply gets easier with the more upgrades you have, in a rather linear fashion. While some upgrades add additional melee combat finishers, these serve little more than to add a few new animations to the otherwise repetitive set Max has within his original repertoire.

It wouldn’t be evident that the game were as repetitive as it is, if the missions you were tasked to complete had more of an identity, from one to another. It’s often difficult to differentiate story missions from miscellaneous side-quests due to their structural similarity. Many missions simply task you to raid a camp or fetch something from a certain location, nothing especially interested and narrative twists very rarely disrupt an otherwise predictable outcome for each of these endeavors. In a game that’s aesthetically monochromatic it often falls to the gameplay and its structure to interject the vibrance and colour that engages the player. Max sadly lacks that vibrancy, much the same from start to finish with little flexibility therein.

The games impressive visuals Visuals are something Avalanche Studios deserve considerable credit for however, as Mad Max is an absolutely stunning game. Although the desert is bleak and desolate, it’s also beautiful and packed full of visually interesting locations that make you want to explore. Locations range from rundown gas stations to naval vessels and each feature a unique sense of personality. It’s easy to see how the world is lived in, and how that’s changed in response to the harsh environment. Even the larger pockets of civilization also lend well to this theme, depicting groups of people surviving together in rundown naval vessels and makeshift fortifications.  The initial spectacle of many of the games locations is brilliant, and poking around various encampments is interesting, but it’s the predictable gameplay taking place within these smaller environments that sadly underwhelms.

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In contrast to the limited colour pallet of the games desolate wastes, the non-player characters that inhabit this harsh environment are rather vibrant. Each possessing a unique sense of personality, and only a few of which feeling entirely one dimensional. The most significant of these is your companion, Chumbucket, who agrees to go with Max on his journey due to an almost religious fascination with engineering vehicles. Chumbucket lends a lot of his personality to the adventure as he remarks on various features in the environment or narrative, while providing a perspective from which the player can view directly, just how the waste’s harsh environments can shape a human being distinctly from contemporary civilization. Without this companion Mad Max would be a terribly quiet experience, as Chum’s chatter populates the audio most dominantly during Max’s long drives. Considering the game doesn’t feature an especially interesting soundtrack, this goes a long way in keeping the player engaged during these segments of the game.

Unfortunately however, the frequency in which you have opportunity to interact with non-player characters in general is rather low, and that negatively affects the games pacing. At times the game will expect you to complete numerous side quests before you can progress the primary narrative while interjecting nothing new, to keep these experiences interesting. That’s ultimately where Mad Max fails. It’s structure is repetitive without providing the gameplay variance or engaging narrative to carry the player through, and this is especially true for segments of the game where Max is on foot. This doesn’t stop Mad Max from being an enjoyable game in shorter bursts, but I found longer play sessions begin to drag as I moved from one similar activity to the next without considerable intermission or variance between.

Ultimately, Mad Max is a decent video game adaptation of the intellectual property. Vehicular combat is especially enjoyable providing a considerable amount of flexibility to how you approach different combat scenarios, and the visual spectacle of the world with the destruction that takes place within can be truly breathtaking at times. On foot gameplay is however less interesting, failing to offer substantial variation yet presenting itself in what becomes tedious abundance, this is courtesy of a relatively simplistic melee based combat system and very limited enemy variety. Despite this, there is still still some fun to be had in dispensing a brutal beat-down on hordes of bandit thugs. In total, Mad Max is capable open world time-sink that will please fans of the property with an enjoyable vehicular focus, but due to its lackluster combat and repetitive pacing it’s the movie rather than the game that we will remember for years to come.

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Author: Jozef Kulik

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