By Jake Arant
Much like Fury Road, the development of Mad Max’s modern video game adaptation (the first one since the NES!) is a tale of delays and long bouts of silence.
Mad Max was announced by Just Cause developers Avalanche Games in late 2013, but pushed back several times and finally dropping Tuesday, September 1st. I have waited quite some time for it, admittedly becoming far more excited than an adult should in the process.
In the short time that I’ve had the game, I’ve invested a lot of hours, and I’ve come away with a lot of feelings.
This game is not a movie tie-in in any real sense, linking itself to this year’s smash hit Mad Max: Fury Road in only cursory ways. It follows the titular Max, played by Aussie actor/martial artist Bren Foster and lacking any visual similarity to either Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy. The plot is neither complex nor groundbreaking, but it is very true to the source material. After Max loses his treasured V8 Interceptor to psychotic warlord Scrotus Scabrous, he finds himself in an uneasy alliance with a deformed savant mechanic named Chumbucket to build a new car—called the Magnum Opus—and to escape across the Plains of Silence and find solace from his demons.
Though Mad Max has an open world packed with things to do, it has a very different vibe and feel than most other open world games. The wasteland is a place with little to offer aside from death, and every single thing you do throughout the course of the game is aimed at one thing: scavenging enough scrap and leveraging enough favors to get a hold of a rare V8 engine for the Magnum Opus and escape. I’ve seen some people complain that the game lacks variety, and I don’t think that is untrue. However, I think that, either by design or by fluke, the lack of truly diversionary activity makes the world feel more correct. Max and those around him are scavengers and murderers, fighting and killing over maggots and gasoline. The closest thing you get to a break are the moments in between tearing metal and breaking bones.
Which brings me to the brutal car combat that was the star of all the promotional material. It delivers on its promises, visceral and fast, actively recalling the insanity of The Road Warrior and Fury Road. Every car has a feeling of substantial weight to it, and every impact feels appropriately teeth-shattering. There is a great sense of duality that you don’t often get in car combat applications, the sense that inside each rusty metal muscle car is a soft, fleshy person. Your car’s harpoon, when fired expertly, can impale a rival driver and rip him straight out of his car, which is absolutely as badass it sounds. The Magnum Opus can be upgraded in a massive variety of ways, from rudimentary flamethrowers to the explosive harpoons (THUNDERPOONS) that were so prevalent throughout Fury Road.
The combat applications are actually quite wide, and there are plenty of ways to satisfyingly reduce another car to pieces. Outside of the few different body shells you can pick for the Magnum Opus, every part you add affects the car’s stats in multiple directions, making it impossible to truly make a perfect car. Each piece has weight, and weight directly affects handling and speed. I was averse to welding a bunch of weird shit to my car, so I kept it as stripped down and fast as possible, essentially turning my Ford Falcon into a fragile but deadly rolling cruise missile.
In addition to the Magnum Opus, you can also steal and keep any enemy car you run across during your journey. Many of the enemy cars are in fact based directly on War Boy cars from Fury Road, and it was actually super exciting to get to drive some of the cars I saw get blown up on the big screen. The sense of speed that comes with the quicker cars is enthralling, and every single car has the extremely important Mad Max feel, which is the feeling of a ridiculously overpowered rustbucket about to tear itself to shreds..
The melee combat is shamelessly ripped straight from the Batman: Arkham games, and while this may be somewhat uninspired, it works very, very well and is at times unnervingly violent. The game’s Max is a bit more of a brawler than either Gibson or Hardy, and he won’t hesitate to brutally execute a fallen enemy. There’s also a small number of unlockable moves, and I want to draw special attention the fact that many of Max’s executions are pro wrestling moves. If you have ever wanted to see Mad Max suplex a man TO DEATH, your long wait has finally come to an end. There are a number of upgrades you can apply to Max himself, upgrading his old MFP Patrol leathers to take more beatings and attaching all manner of dangerous bits of metal to his gloves. Generally, the out-of-car action is enjoyable enough to not become tedious, although Max’s ability to traverse the environment is limited to specially marked climbing areas, which, to be quite honest, is pretty disappointing for a game of this scope.
The Wasteland itself is a beautiful place, but undeniably an empty one. I have to commend Avalanche for finding so many different shades of desert in which to render the world, because it can’t have been easy. Dried out seabeds, crumbling highways, steep cliffs, and sulfur swamps are Max’s stomping grounds, each one featuring impressive set-pieces and different terrain challenges for your Magnum Opus. Every once in awhile, a devastating sandstorm or lightning storm will blow through, reducing visibility to zero and sending flaming scrap hurling towards you. If you brave the storms, they often yield huge amounts of scrap, making it well worth the risk.
One thing that Avalanche had promoted about the game was the “soft border” system that surrounded the game’s map, making it possible to drive off the confines of the map proper and explore the dangerous flatlands in hopes of possibly nabbing a rare part for your car. This was explicitly said to be an infinitely generating landscape, even just a few days before the game released. From what I can tell, this was either significantly curbed or oversold, as venturing beyond the borders of the map will quickly drain Max’s health and kill him. I have browsed some forums in hopes of a different take or an answer, but it appears other players are experiencing the same thing. So, for the time being, the “Big Nothing” beyond the game’s map is as disappointing as the name implies.
The downside of the sprawling world and high speed method of travel is losing some of the intimacy and detail that comes in games inspired by Mad Max, especially something like Fallout. There are relics you can find all over the Wasteland—old photos and letters from people long dead, some utter nonsense, others offering hints at how the world may have fallen in the first place. Though they’re interesting and sometimes fun, they often lack the subtlety and attention that I had expected, and they don’t do much to help flesh out the world.
The vastness of the world also results in a fair number of odd, if somewhat amusing bugs, and what is decidedly my least favorite thing about any kind of open-world game, which is an interface clogged with stats and reminders. I understand the necessity of tracking all the sidequests and collectibles for the sake of completion, but it’s a far cry from the bloodstained scraps of paper and cryptic hints the characters operate off of in the film.. Admittedly, it’s primarily an aesthetic concern on my part, and you always have the option to completely disable the HUD with the game’s slick Capture Mode.
The Wasteland largely exists as a world separate from the films, bearing no returning character outside of Max himself. It does tie itself into all four movies (especially Fury Road) in small, oftentimes inconsequential ways. Keeping most of these referential elements minor is likely an attempt to drive home the idea of Mad Max as more of a mythology than a series with any defined continuity, and I think it works just fine that way. Trying to force Mad Max into a timeline is truly like trying to hold onto sand, as there is very little to tie the stories together besides Max and his Interceptor, a car that often meets violent and explosive ends onscreen. (Hell, in Fury Road, they destroy it twice.)
The performance of the protagonist himself was something I found myself repeatedly fixating on. It didn’t really matter that he didn’t look like Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy, because Max is, and always has been, more of an archetype than a defined character. He was the gritty, unshaven loner before video games even existed to rely on said trope. Bren Foster does a fine job providing Max with a badass Aussie growl, but the thing that I find curious about it is how the demands of the exposition affect his characterization. Even in the very first Mad Max, Max was not a talker. Even now, in Fury Road, he barely speaks, and when he does, he sounds like he’s almost forgotten how. Although still a man of few words, Max talks an awful lot more during the game, often because he needs to direct the player towards what to do next. The result is similar to the Arkham games, where most of the line readings are excellent, but some just feel…off. And this isn’t necessarily because a line was read poorly, but because it doesn’t sound natural to hear a character like Max constantly voicing their goals. Max’s performance is at its best during his most vulnerable moments, which come rarely.
Throughout the game you’ll meet a handful of characters, all of them authentic in the grossest and most dangerous of ways. There are no real “good guys” in this world, but there are a few who aren’t actively trying to kill you. Two standout performances come from the flamboyant Gastown outcrier, a dry-humored showboat who takes to covering himself in Christmas lights, and the mysterious drifter Griffa, who sounds an awful lot like (but isn’t voiced by) Bruce Spence, who played characters in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
If you’ve played any of Avalanche’s previous outings, you know that they aren’t exactly known for their complexity, and although this game is no different, there is a clear mark of effort and consideration at work. Most of the game is spent with Max and Chumbucket, and I was kind of surprised to see their relationship develop. Max is a dour, unfriendly, and impatient man, and Chumbucket is a jabbering devotee of a self-developed religion surrounding cars. They find that they need each other to realize their goals, but early on it becomes clear that those goals likely don’t coincide. I expected the two to become close over the course of the narrative, but it doesn’t happen. There is a very visible and uncomfortable dissonance between the two. Chumbucket sees Max as a savior, and Max simply views Chumbucket as a means to an end.
This is a recurring aspect of the game’s interpretation of the character. The first Mad Max film was about his descent into madness, and each one since has been about him recovering a piece of his humanity, and redeeming himself in some way, however small. This game is not about redemption. In the way that Fury Road was a retelling of Max’s emotional journey in The Road Warrior, the game is a retread of the initial descent into insanity that was depicted in the first Mad Max. The man you control is not a hero, and if you prefer to look at it this way, it goes a long way towards explaining and setting up his fractured state of mind in Fury Road.
The story is stripped of most of the series’ elements of dark humor, and focuses on the most desperate elements of human nature, exploring the horrible things people have done and will do to survive. Throughout all your interactions with the world, the narrative continues to drive home that nothing can replace what Max has lost, either because he cannot or will not stop running. It possesses far and away the darkest, most emotionally conflicting ending of anything in the series, and it left me a bit uncomfortable with some of my actions. For all the hopeful spots the narrative presents, the offered hands and chances to deviate from his path, there’s only one way for it to end: fire and blood.
The area where it suffers the most is, regrettably, the most important one. A lot of people have expressed anger and disappointment at the fact that the game doesn’t feature Imperator Furiosa in any way, and the concern behind that complaint is valid. Fury Road was truly Furiosa’s film, and it was better for it. These kinds of post-apocalypse movies and games have routinely and habitually, at their worst, featured women as objects, and at best used them to add fuel to the male protagonist’s actions. Fury Road’s cast of badass women drive the film, actively striking back against the toxic masculinity that ruined the world and rules what’s left of it.
The game hinges on what are admittedly very powerful stereotypical masculine fears, specifically the inability to protect one’s family. Though it was powerfully effective to me as a male who is scared of things, it was extremely disappointing storytelling in comparison to Fury Road. Hope, the game’s female lead, exists as little more than a cursory love interest to Max, and her peril serves as his secondary motivation. There is none of the progressiveness or equal footing that Fury Road presented between Max and Furiosa, and despite Hope’s physical capabilities, she serves as little more than a voice that espouses the “goodness” hidden deep within the violent and troubled protagonist, which is a very tired cliché of antihero stories.
What I thought made Fury Road so cool was Furiosa’s passion and selflessness. She worked very well as the driving force of the story, and it put Max, who is consistently a character without agency, in a spot that feels natural to the character. The game’s non-linear nature doesn’t allow Max the thing that typically compels his character to act, which is being chased. He spends a lot of game time sort of aggressively wandering, ruminating on the fall of the world, in what seems to be the sad echo chamber that is his cracking psyche. The narrative has some poignant moments that clearly indicate that Max is destined to relive the same tragedy over and over due to his refusal or inability to move on, but it’s sort of lost in the shadow cast by what it missed by having a character like Furiosa to match his intensity.
I love Mad Max. It’s a very fun game, and absolutely worth the time to sink double digit hours into it. The gameplay is visceral and exciting, and the Wasteland itself is a beautifully ruined place full of interesting areas to see and explore. However, the missed narrative opportunities are hard for me to ignore. Fury Road was a great example of powerful action and a cool critique of the hypermasculinity that pervades this type of media, and although the game did not have to, it’s disappointing that it didn’t continue the trend.
Mad Max is available now on PlayStation 4, XBox One, and PC.