A Rough Ride into Familiar Territory: Mad Max
By David Thornton
Widespread vehicular mayhem and carnage. Scavenging through a sprawling wasteland populated by violent tribal lunatics. Brutal fist-to-fist combat. Shotguns. Successful video game franchises have been built around each of these concepts. Sadly, in combining them, “Mad Max” comes up short.
The story picks up immediately after the events of the movie, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Max immediately runs afoul of Scabrous Scrotus, the son of the film’s villain Immortan Joe and ruler of Gastown, a settlement mentioned but never visited in Fury Road.
Despite burying a chainsaw in Scrotus’ head (a strange way to introduce the assumedly penultimate villain of the game), Max is beaten, stripped of his gear and his car, and left for dead in the desert. With the help of a twisted mechanic named Chumbucket, he embarks on a quest to build the ultimate wasteland combat vehicle, the Magnum Opus, and take revenge on Scrotus and his legion of war boys.
Almost five hours into the game, nearly everything about “Mad Max” feels familiar.
Exploration and side-quests utilize the formula pioneered by “Assassin’s Creed,” and successfully employed more recently by “Far Cry 4” and “Shadows of Mordor”: enter a new, hostile region, find the vantage point (in this case, hot air balloons incongruously scattered throughout the desert), and mark points of interest on the map.
Scavenging the wasteland is sadly unsatisfying. Scavenging points are generally uninteresting ramshackle shelters and ruins peppered throughout the desert, populated by a few war boys, usually containing a couple of piles of scrap metal (used to upgrade Max’s car and gear), a shotgun shell or two, and a pre-war picture or note. It would have been nice to see a greater variety of items; it’s hard to work up the enthusiasm to fight your way across the wasteland for a few more pieces of “scrap.”
Additionally, exploration suffers as soon as Max gets out of the car. Max is woefully vulnerable to enemy vehicles while on foot, and lacks any ability whatsoever to traverse obstacles. While it would make no sense for Max to be a parkour expert like the heroes of so many other recent open-world games, why provide a jump button at all if Max cannot vault over the smallest of obstacles, or pull himself up a ledge barely a foot taller than he is?
Combat is primarily hand-to-hand, using a system plagiarized from Warner Brothers Interactive’s highly successful Arkham series. Harkening back to the original Mad Max trilogy, ammunition is a scarce and precious resource, so firearms are rarely used.
This would make more sense if the game wasn’t so closely tied to “Fury Road,” which established the existence of Bullet Farm, a nearby settlement devoted exclusively to producing firearms and ammunition for Immortan Joe and his allies. The movie did not suffer from lack of gunplay; why does the game?
Frustratingly, finding ammunition is not really the problem; carrying it is. Will someone explain why Max can only carry three shotgun shells at a time? Why does he need to fashion a bandolier from scrap to carry more? Do post-apocalyptic pants have no pockets? Does he not have an entire car in which to store them?
Food and water provide health, and are scarce throughout the desert. Max carries a canteen that can be filled at certain areas, and eats dog food (in a nod to “The Road Warrior”) out of cans and, grotesquely, maggots out of corpses.
In what is perhaps the strangest departure from the series, gasoline is actually the easiest resource to come by in the wasteland. Granted, the game takes place in the wasteland outside of Gastown, and many of the enemy encampments are crude oil pumping stations. But it feels strange and uncomfortably frivolous for Max to be using gas cans as giant Molotov cocktails while driving around in a fully gassed up car, with another full gas can in the back.
For all its warts, “Mad Max” does do well with the most important feature for this franchise: vehicular mayhem. Initially, it’s a little frustrating as you and your enemies circle repetitively, attempting to ram each other without taking too much damage yourself. The controls and handling take a little getting used to as well.
But after a few upgrades to the car early in the game, it becomes immensely fulfilling to speed across the desert hardpan, crashing into enemy vehicles, attacking tires, doors and drivers with the harpoon, and shotgunning gas tanks. Nearly every encounter ends with a satisfying explosion.
The upgrade system to the Magnum Opus promises even more exciting vehicular combat to come; flamethrowers, tire-shredding hubcaps, anti-personnel spikes, and much more foreshadow veritable orgies of impending automotive carnage.
Unfortunately, outside of the vehicle combat, nearly every feature in the game suffers from the sense that it’s already been done, and usually better.
Sure, Max faces crazy, over-the-top lunatic enemies, but they’re still not as entertaining as those in “Borderlands.” It felt right for Batman to brutally pummel the scum of Gotham; it feels forced with Max. In “Fallout,” every new scavenging location brings equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation, and even the junk is interesting and varied; scavenging in “Mad Max” evokes only resignation. The desolation and lack of resources aspires to, but falls short of the emotionally gut-wrenching desperation of “The Last of Us.”
With its iconic, genre-defining source material, the unbridled success of “Fury Road,” and the current popularity of both open-world and post-apocalyptic video games, “Mad Max” had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it succumbed to mediocrity and lack of innovation.
Hardcore fans of the franchise and eager wasteland wanderers seeking to kill time until the release of “Fallout 4” will find something to enjoy in “Mad Max.” But with masterpieces like “The Witcher 3” and “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain” currently on the shelves, everyone else should wait until the price drops and there’s a break between major releases to climb into the driver’s seat with “Mad Max.”