Mad Max is a 'ferocious' series. That word perfectly encapsulates the franchise's focus on a hostile wasteland, punk styling and weathered but powerful muscle cars. Everything fits together as a cohesive whole, and it's some of the more striking post-apocalyptic imagery of yesteryear. In a lot of ways, that's what Mad Max, the new game from Avalanche Studios, feels like. In fact, the game has quite a big focus on keeping two feet in older concepts, feeling like an open world games of a few years ago. Much like Mad Max as a franchise now, it's appeal is about a grungy, nostalgic feeling. This can be an incredible tool, like we saw in Fury Road this year. The question I find myself asking is, could this game keep up with that vision?
To get it out the way, I'd learn towards 'sort of, but also kind of not', but to end the conversation there would be a disservice to the genuinely enjoyable portions of this game. It feels like a titles with mechanics that are outdated, but add somewhat to the charm of the overall demeanor of the game. Of course, this feeling of outdatedness also applies a lot of hindrances to the title too though.
Backing up, Mad Max has you play at the titular hero. As the game opens, he finds himself in a tussle with a local war chief, Scabrous Scrotus, who holds a grip of the wasteland. After a spirited fight, Max is left to pasture with is iconic Interceptor stolen. This has him relying on the vehicular zealot Chumbucket, who promises to build the 'Magnum Opus' , the best car the wastes have ever seen. From there, the wasteland is your oyster as you try to build your holy chariot fit for the apocalypse. The moment to moment of the game is guided by several phases play, meaning that you will quite often be dipping in and out of different activities several times in any given play session.
That leads straight into one of the real joys of the game: driving. This is a title that has a fascination with automobiles, but also their destructive power. This enthusiasm for blood, fire and motor oil shines through in the mangled metal car combat sections. In what might be some of the most fun in the game, the vehicle on vehicle warfare is always crunchy and meaty. It has a real heft to it, which this heat stained franchise should always have. We don't get this kind of vehicular combat very often, after the heydays of Twisted Metal and the like, so to see it make a roaring return is really satisfying. As you progress your car to attain better power assets, like ramming spikes, flame throwers, harpoons and armour, it only becomes more fun to rip enemy's wheels off as they try to slam their metallic war carriages into you. It's really satisfying stuff.
When it's time to abandon your four wheels and go bipedal, it usually won't take long to find yourself brawling with the inhabitants of the burning sands. While it's the same Arkham style hand to hand we've seen many times over, the brutality and weightiness of the fighting do add something worthwhile to the experience. Sometimes when this system is used, it can feel too effortless and speed driven, as if your punches are gliding from one bad guy to the next. Max has you feel every punch. You can almost perceive the warboys crunchy bones shattering as Max suplex's them back first onto concrete. The camera is often an obstacle though, not always showing you an attack before you can react to it, which is frustrating. Otherwise, it's a decent enough adaption of this well worn combat style.
Now we get to the part that I really did struggle with in my 25 hours of play through. Frankly, progression feels a bit borked. This is a huge structural issue for the entire experience, that constantly feels like it is holding you back in significant ways. In a lot of cases it's actually impossible to progress, as certain story missions need expensive upgrades in order for you to play them. This wouldn't be a problem, if the the scrap currency you use for all your upgrades was easier to come by. The choice of things to invest in is vast, and the pay out of actual coin is comparatively small. To illustrate that, you could unknowingly drop 700 scrap on that cool Harpoon you've been eyeing to then find out you need a huge upgrade if your engine to progress to the next mission soon after. That could well add up to a couple hours of grinding, especially earlier on in the game. It can feel like Mad Max is holding you back and punishing you for the upgrades of your car you want to invest in.
This does lead into another problem I had with the title too. The open world, or more so, the activities that populate it, feel like they're stuck in time. Perhaps this is a layover from the long development of the title, but everything here feels like an open world game from five years ago. The cohesion of activities feels disjointed, and none of it is particularly fun. All of the side quests have been done before and done better. Going out and fighting your way through a base has nothing on a Far Cry 3 type mechanic, taking down towers is becoming old hat by now and gathering resources… well, none of it is particularly fun in the context of having all of done this in many, many open world games before.
I do want to point out that I was pleasantly pleased with the design of the world at least. I thought Avalanche might have had trouble keeping the concept of a 'desolate desert' fresh, but each of the areas feel distinct. When the game isn't holding you back from what you can do, there is something to be said for gliding across a desert wasteland in a battered old muscle car. It can be downright beautiful at times, in a burning, rust addled kind of way.
When you get down to it, Mad Max is really a mixed bag. There is something to be said about games not getting too complicated in their design, instead staying to what is tried and tested. We live in an industry where terms like 'innovation' and 'progression' are thrown around like candy. Companies trying to hit on a new gimmick or selling point is a huge part of most major AAA games. Mad Max isn't that. I'd say, your enjoyment of the game will likely hinge on that fact. There is nothing frilly about this title, with it instead focusing on taking elements from other games to bring together an open world Mad Max game. At that it succeeds with mostly flying colours. At times though, it can feel like the game has been left in a era of open world games when developers were still trying to figure out how to use them. There is a lot of padding here, and it's never fun to feel like you progression is being held back, which can be a frequent niggle in this game. Having said that, there is a lot to admire about the title's dedication about its unshowy-ness. This is just a down and dirty experience, which when you get to it, is probably what a lot of people want. Personally, it did become a little tired in the 20+ hours I spent with the game. While ferocity is in this game's veins, I just wish Avalanche took a few more chances to really add a bite to the game's incredibly visceral roar.
[As a side note, I played through the game on Xbox One. This version had significant frame rate issues when more than a few cars were on screen. I've heard reports that other ports of the game are stable, particularily the PC version, so I didn't make note of it in the review. Having said that, I thought it was worth a heads up.]