Mad Max Skidrow
The recent release of Mad Max: Fury Road is both a blessing and a curse for WB Games' Mad Max. A blessing in the sense that if you're looking to get people interested in Mad Max again, some 30 years after the last film in the series, you couldn't have asked for a better offering than Fury Road. Generally loved by critics and audiences, Fury Road inspired an enormous amount of chatter among the sorts of people who would, at least in theory, be the target audience of a Mad Max video game. Unfortunately, that level of attention, and the kind of scrutiny that inevitably comes with it, does not benefit this Mad Max.
Developed by Avalanche Studios, makers of the raucously entertaining Just Cause games, Mad Max is a curiously sedate contraption. Where Fury Road was essentially one long (but immaculately, frantically paced) car chase across a vibrantly weird wasteland, Mad Max goes entirely in the other direction, spreading out the world's longest laundry list of objectives and errands for the player to address at their own pace. Despite prominently featuring elaborately adorned death machines driven by bands of murderously unhinged scavengers, Mad Max is a game devoid of any sense of urgency. The game certainly tries to convince you that you're in the same Hell on Earth presented in George Miller's films, but it also invites the player to luxuriate in its miserably scorched world. It wants you to hang out here for long periods of time, performing the sorts of busywork tasks that have become so achingly expected in modern open world games. Even as Max grumbles to himself about bolting across the "plains of silence" into some great unknown, you know you'll have a few dozen hours of base capturing, tower ascending, and item collecting ahead of you before the game will start gesturing toward such an outcome. No matter how much Max talks about escaping this world, the game has little interest in you doing any such thing.
I'm well aware that trying to draw direct comparisons between a two-hour film and a 30+ hour game is a fool's errand. They are two different constructions in two different mediums attempting two very different things. The point here is that Mad Max is, for better or worse, inextricably tied to its cinematic counterpart. It drapes itself in the film's aesthetics--War Boys are your primary antagonists; GasTown is one of its central locations; the main bad guy you face is the son of Fury Road's big bad, Immortan Joe--and had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your outlook) to launch day-and-date alongside the film's Blu-Ray release. Yes, this Mad Max is trying to do its own thing, but it's trying to do it in direct parallel to Fury Road.
This does not benefit the game in any meaningful way, outside of marketing considerations. Yes, it's interesting to see Avalanche's take on George Miller's post-apocalypse, but it becomes clear early on that Mad Max has very few ideas of its own. Its sole consistent pleasure is its focus on building your own customizable wasteland vehicle. Called the "Magnum Opus" by your hunchbacked, religiously dedicated sidekick Chumbucket, here the player is tasked with tricking out the rickety frame of an old world car into a fearsome, fire-breathing chariot. The number of ways in which you can decorate your Magnum Opus is impressive, if a bit linear. You aren't presented with options so much as progressive upgrades. There's a set path to the ultimate death ride--there's no sense in skipping out on sturdier spikes or a bigger ramming bar when the benefit is so significant--and in order to get there, you'll need to collect scrap. Lots of it.
Scrap is the currency that drives this late-late-late-capitalist society. It is what you spend to build up both your car and Max himself, and it is everywhere. Tucked into every nook and cranny of Mad Max's enormous map are scavenging locations that offer up scant few variations on a theme: go to location, sometimes fight a few underpowered road thugs, look for glowing scrap boxes and piles, leave when sufficiently plundered. In other games, this is the kind of skippable chaff only the most dedicated in-game collectors would bother with. In Mad Max, they are a vital part of the game's grind, especially early on.
Eventually you will install upgrades designed to provide you more scrap at a much faster clip, but getting to that point takes a huge chunk of the game's runtime. In the early hours, Max has to manually collect every piece of scrap himself, whether it's from scavenging locations or exploded enemy vehicles. As Max begins to meet friendly-ish warlords who let him hole up inside their various cobbled-together strongholds, you can develop tech for them that allows crews to clean up spilled scrap for you, alongside devices that refill your health, your water supply, and your ammunition, among others. In order to build these devices, you have to pick up parts, which are, of course, spread throughout the wasteland inside scavenging locations and enemy bases.
Strangely, it is precisely when these devices are installed that Mad Max begins to lose some of its appeal. It's not that hunting around for scrap is really all that much fun--it's quite the opposite, especially after you've done it a hundred times--but in those hours prior to all those part acquisitions, Mad Max best captures the feeling of dire meticulousness necessary to survive in such an environment. Before Max has been upgraded to hold more bullets, to fight with greater effectiveness, to essentially let the game do half the collecting for him, Mad Max feels appropriately desperate. Once those upgrades are installed, Max goes from a scrappy survivor into precisely the kind of character archetype Max doesn't fit especially well into: the video game power fantasy protagonist.
To be fair, the game's version of Max was always precisely that. From the opening moments of Mad Max, it is eager to tell you that you're Very Special, the kind of special that the film version of Max (especially in Fury Road) absolutely is not. As Chumbucket discovers your shirtless, dusty body left bleeding in the sand by the game's one-note villain--a lumbering, codpiece sporting barbarian appropriately named Scrotus Scaberous--he begins prosthelytizing to you about how you are the Driver of Prophecy. Warlords, despite stating often that they have no good reason to trust you, nonetheless continue to feed you jobs and rewards because that's their only purpose in this world. Multiple characters appear and disappear solely for the purpose of giving Max the necessary pathos to keep doing the things the game requires him to do. Max is the only important character in this world, a world that bends to uncomfortable angles in order to keep you invested in whatever menial task happens to be marked closest on your map.
It's not enough to say that Mad Max hews too closely to the design trappings of most modern open world games, especially those of the Ubisoft/WB Games varieties. Developers continue to apply this kind of design because people enjoy it. I often enjoy it. I even enjoyed it at times while playing through Mad Max. Like last year's Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max polishes this template to a sheen. All the various borrowed parts, from the parry-focused Batman combat system to the seemingly endless string of base capturing side-missions, work in relative harmony to create an engaging, if familiar-feeling experience.
The problem is that these elements would be just as enjoyable in any other game not called Mad Max. Outside of aesthetic considerations and all the death mobile building, little about Mad Max's design feels uniquely suited to the license. It feels like it was assembled from an open world Mad Libs tablet, with blanks left for license-appropriate titles for characters, locations and whatever else. It feels designed via contractual obligation.
Even the most uniquely Mad Max pieces of the game wear out their welcome after a point. By far the most enjoyable missions are convoys, groups of enemy vehicles guarding a special rig that travels along a set path within a given region. These are the closest Mad Max ever gets to capturing the kinetic thrills of the films, as you launch harpoons, shoot flames, and fire shotguns at high speed, bobbing and weaving around defenders as they try to jump onto your hood, or knock you clear off the road. The first few times, these engagements are sublime. And yet, after I'd done about six of these, I couldn't bring myself to bother with any more of them. The rewards for completing them--various hood ornaments featuring skulls and other menacing bric-a-brac--aren't really worth the trouble, and once it became clear the game had no meaningful variations to offer beyond the strength of the vehicles I was assaulting, I got bored with it.
Other objectives became boring much more quickly. The game's attempt at towers, hot air balloons that you sometimes have to find fuel for (not so much a challenge as a momentary disruption), are just a longwinded way of making more icons on the map visible. Crashing through Scrotus' various scarecrow monuments is less fun and more a hasty way to help lower the "threat level" around a given territory. Capturing bases is enjoyable for a bit, but going through the same tedious process of blowing up oil pumps and storage containers loses its luster after a few go-arounds. And even when one of those bases happens to have a boss at the end of it, it's just the same boss fight each and every time. That's not an exaggeration. Outside of a couple of story-based deviations, every boss has the exact same fight strategy, and it's depressingly simple.
Unfortunately, much of Mad Max is just as simplistic. Six or seven hours before I arrived at Mad Max's endgame, I'd already maxed out most of the major car upgrades, every character stat, and every other character stat. Yes, there is a separate skill tree that can only be upgraded by completing challenges throughout the world. These give you tokens, which you can exchange with a ponderous desert mystic named Griffa. He will mutter some fortune-cookie-quality crypticism or another before blowing dust in your face and harnessing cosmic realignment to make it so you do not consume gasoline as rapidly as before. Why there needed to be a second skill tree is beyond me, though I'm guessing that the developers just couldn't pass up the chance to add yet another icon to the map.
All of this is to say that once I'd acquired enough upgrades, Mad Max ceased to present any challenge whatsoever. Enemy encounters went from occasionally tough to disappointingly easy. Areas where I was supposed to feel intimidated or fearful--such as the "underdune," a massive, buried airport repurposed as the main base of operations for a particularly nasty wasteland faction--were robbed of any measure of tension. The only difficulty to be found had more to do with the game's awkward controls than anything else. The game employs a number of context-sensitive button prompts throughout the campaign, and many of those buttons do double duty. The same button is used for both picking up dropping a weapon, and climbing/descending ladders and walls. While holding a gas can, the same button is used for refueling your car and setting the can on fire. You can imagine how many times intending to do one thing resulted in the other.
Admittedly, the lack of challenge I experienced is partly my fault, because I waited so long to bother finishing the story. Part of this is because the story is largely terrible, for reasons mentioned previously, but the other part is that Mad Max's most compelling feature is its grind. It is the blissfully untethered experience of just driving through a picturesque hellscape, doing whatever I felt like doing. I probably could have shaved an easy 10 hours off my playtime if I'd been more focused on just completing the main quest, but the main quest is so patently dull that more often all I wanted to do was anything else. Even if that anything else involved hot air balloons and scrap scavenging, I kept doing it.
Again, I kept doing it because that's what these kinds of gameplay systems are meant to do. They're meant to keep you transfixed, eyes darting to the minimap every few seconds looking for a new icon to conquer. Even the worst of these kinds of games find ways to hook you in. I don't know enough about human psychology to explain how or why having a lengthy checklist of jobs to complete is innately enjoyable, so long as the world you're doing it in is interesting enough. And that's precisely what Mad Max's world is. Hellish as it may be, it's gorgeous to behold, full of scorched mountains, elaborately constructed relics of bygone humanity, and probably one of the best skyboxes I've ever seen in a game. Sparse as it is, I wanted to see everything the wasteland had to offer. It recreates the look and feel of Miller's films brilliantly, marred only by occasional (and severe) framerate problems and a surprising number of audio bugs.
Once the game finally winds its way to its deeply underwhelming conclusion, the mystique all but wears off. The dust cloud of map objectives that surrounded me as I played dissipated, and all I was left with was a profoundly crappy ending, and only a vague recollection of what the hell I was doing for the last 30 hours of my life. Some have criticized Mad Max for not offering enough for the player to do, but I think that's only partially correct. There's tons to do in Mad Max, but most of what you do are the same few things, over and over again. I kept playing those same few things over and over again because I felt like I was supposed to, because some piece of my weird brain told me what I was doing was fun. I didn't know why, and at the time I didn't really care, either. Lots of games do this formula in more interesting ways than Mad Max, but that didn't stop me from burning a goodly amount of my precious lifespan on it like so much guzzoline. Odds are if you decide to play Mad Max, you'll find yourself in a similar situation. So too will you exist in this wasteland, a player reduced to a single instinct: complete.