Mad Max has always felt like something of a cautionary tale to me, here in the real world we stand on the brink of environmental crisis and the world of Max shows us one possible future. Even exploring the first films the nature of this story is about the darkest sides of human nature and also about a man's will to survive against the most desperate of situations. Max's wife and child have always been a central plot enabler and yet are usually already lost to him by the time you enter the story. For my review I decided to sit down and watch all the Mad Max films to get a feel of where this game was coming from although it's clear the biggest theatrical influence has been the most recent film Mad Max: Fury Road.
Mad Max was released on the same day as The Phantom Pain so I had to make a decision on which to review second: this was based on which looked the most interesting. I find it bizarre looking back over the past two weeks that I'm having more fun playing Mad Max: I genuinely never saw that one coming. For reasons I detail in my latest critical hit article Metal Gear Solid 5, while having exemplary combat and game mechanics, feels empty with virtually nothing to do between outposts. Most enemy camps (save for a few big ones) all feel the same, granted the emergent gameplay contained within each one is where the magic is but there are no stand out unique places. Mad Max is almost the antithesis of this where it's often difficult to travel a few hundred yards before something to do is presented to you. The entire game world is lavished with gigantic structures from beached cruise ships to dilapidated oil rigs and ports. There is a clear sign that the dusty roads you blaze down in your gasoline powered death machine was once a vast sea bed: which has now been stripped of all its life giving water.
The game starts with Max having a run in with a territorial warlord called Scrotus, which to spite Max putting up a good fight (and giving Scrotus a lobotomy with a chainsaw) ends with him losing everything including his car the Interceptor. As anyone who has seen any of the films, in this vicious land born from the old world a fast vehicle is as important as water and food. I appreciate the premise not being more complicated than it needed to be, from the debris and remains of the fight just past Max gathers clothes, boots, a weapon and an unlikely friend in his enemies injured attack dog. As is common now the game leads you through an obligatory interactive tutorial where you learn how to gather water, hand to hand combat basics and as luck would have it you stumble across a skilled mechanic (Black Finger) called Chumbucket who pledges to build you a new car: the Magnum Opus (which in Latin means 'great work').
If you have played games like Farcry 4 or Shadow of Mordor then you will have an idea of what to expect with the flow of Mad Max, as you take your first ride out into the world, the environment starts to open up with more and more locations being visible and game mechanics being introduced. Instead of towers here we see hot air balloons at fixed base stations, you can ascend in these to reveal the points of interest in the area of the game you are currently in. Yes it is just another tower in disguise but you have to give them credit for putting such a cool atheistic over the top and if nothing else it really shows off how gorgeous this game is.
Desolation married pretty
I have seen this game running on all the available systems and to spite the setting it is proper gorgeous. The game runs on Avalanche Studios own in house engine which was used for Just Cause 2, of course it's been tweaked with new tricks for this outing.
What is the most impressive is the way the game makes most locations stand out by either the structures themselves or the dramatic terrain that it sits in. Sometimes you will be ascending through a town built into the mountainside and others working your way down huge canyons that have the crashed remains of a passenger plane now retrofitted as a stronghold. The textures are mostly excellent but what really makes the game pop is the post processing, dust flys up from your wheels, fire and smoke billow in the wind and in the midday heat on the horizon shimmers in the deadly midday sun. The sky has also been used to full effect to make the environments dazzle, some days the cobalt blues stretch on forever with some of the most sumptuous clouds Ive ever seen in a game. It's clear that the development team have spent a lot of time making the environment a character of the world in itself and it really shows.
I have to give a special mention to the epic sandstorms that sweep in from nowhere, they make the ones in MGS5 looks like a cheap trick. You can see them coming like the mountains themselves are falling over, as the wall of sand hits you are engulfed in noise and chaos. Pieces of debris hurtle past you can can knock you for six, crates of scrap are up for grabs by harpooning them and getting out of your car but it can be a risky affair: especially if the storm is electrical. These storms are one of my favourite parts of the game and it's one of the clearest signs that Fury Road was a big influence on the design board.
Most gamers know Avalanche Studios from their Just Cause games but I also have some very fond memories of a little game called Renegade Ops. Looking at these games and the upcoming Just Cause 3 it's clear as day that these guys know how to do explosions and destruction. Every time I ram into another car there is a pulse of sonic energy from my bass, metallic debris explodes in every direction and satisfaction fills every fibre of my being: if you've ever been stuck in rush hour traffic this game makes all that stress just fade away.
Even the rocks that you crash into break and crumble where in most games you just bounce back like you've hit the edge of space and time. Advanced physics make the simplest of tasks much more fun, like pulling a supporting wire away from a sniper tower and watching it topple over or watching the flaming wheels from exploding enemy car role down the road as if possessed. Even when pulling cars or doors you see you own car take the strain as the car chassis lifts and groans against the additional torque.
The car Max drives is a main character in itself and Jesus did Avalanche nail it: I've never had so much fun driving in a game. Everything seems perfect from the thumping roar of the V8 engine to the burning fuel leaking from the exhaust pipes. The enjoyment of driving is in part due to how open the games terrain is, being able get your front wheels up on a large Boulder and then boost yourself up feels spot on and I've often forget on about my mission to just enjoy the thrill of exploring the cliffs and canyons. Apart from the great nothing (edge of the map) there are no invisible walls or barriers: if the car can get there then you can get there.
As you deplete the influence of Scrotus new upgrade options open up for you to add to the car, however sometimes bigger is not necessarily better because heavier gear means less acceleration: so there's a trade between defence, attack and speed that you must gauge yourself. Your first and most useful tool is the harpoon gun which can be used for all kinds of things, ripping pieces off hostile vehicles (including the occupants), pulling down towers and even wrenching open doors. As the game progresses you add a multitude of offensive and defensive upgrades to the chassis and you can even attaché hood ornaments won from taking down the convoys that patrol certain routes.
Bumps in the Road
So if anyone at Avalanche Studios ever reads this (and I hope they do) here are some constructive criticisms or at least requests for a second game. The first and most obvious problem is the hand to hand combat, this seems to be widely regarded as the games major short coming and that's a shame because what is there is feels really good. I love the weight and sense of collision you get like with the car combat, every punch sounds painful and for a few hours it's spot on: the problem is that there just simply isn't enough variety. The Batman games or Shadow of Mordor the combat in many ways feels like it's from the same mould but in these other titles there are so many tools and tricks at your disposal. My rule if thumb here is if it's in the game and will take up a good portion of the players time you need to give people options. Right now it's solid but far to linear and so makes each encounter feeling the same as the last one.
My second complaint is in regard to the way you can approach outposts and bases. It's interesting how you can scope these out, gathering intel on where all the defences are and then making your choice from which direction you will attack. Most large encampments have a secret way in and here I think is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the game. If we have the option to sneak in then why not make this have a tangible difference to the experience? It's for this reason I think a stealth mechanic would really have made this base attacks stand out so much more. This way you would have an additional to way attack in case you were getting bored of the 'pull the gates down' route and secondly it would give the whole idea of scouting a base context and meaning.
There are also a good deal of NPCs out in the world offer advice on the comings and goings of the enemy. At first these were fairly useful but after the first area I found the acting dire and most of dialog inane. The same goes for the tribes of people who you can offer water to, I eventually found it a chore to stop and go through the same animation with no real affect on the game world. I'm glad these ideas have been tried but they really need to make the player feel like it was a worthwhile interaction: maybe if the people you save are represented visually at the respective base in that area? For me personally I would also have loved a far more detailed loot system, while scrap is the main currency of the game the chance of finding rare (useable) items would have made seeking out hidden settlements far more enticing: as it stands the best you can ever hope to scavenge is more scrap, bullets and fuel.
The way Max interacts with his environment while on foot, for the most part it's ok but there are times it really falls short. Not being able to hop over short walls or clamber up rock ledges is sometimes infuriating, especially when near a yellow ledge he can scale heights Spider-Man would struggle with. Yellow paint is the games way of saying 'you can climb this' and it's very Mirrors Edge esk but it all just feels a little too channeled and constricted for me liking, ladders seem too slow getting on and off and jumping is way to floaty. Yet even with these criticisms I can see the developers have been thinking about it, the way Max rolls when he lands and even starts to limp after a bad fall are nice touches.
There is one thing you should consider when looking at this game and that there is a huge amount of repetitive gameplay. Some of the games problems make this worse, like the simple melee combat mechanics. Yet some of its greatest successes swing the game in the other direction, like how it's just a sheer joy to drive the Magnum Opus. The real question is, what kind of gamer are you? See if your ok with the repetition and in fact embrace this as part of the experience of surviving the wilderness then you (like me) will love this game. As you invest time in upgrading the various settlements you befriend there are real benefits like having your ammo and fuel filled on return, even the inhabitants start to act differently towards you: so there are benefits to working at progression. All open world games from Skyrim to the Witcher 3 have repetitive elements, they have to due to the fact that they so big and a unique gameplay mechanic can't be conceived for every single enemy camp. The best way around this is to make the actual act of attacking the camp or base the diverse part with a many options of approach: this is where MGS5 really does shine.
Is it PC?
This is one of the best PC ports I've seen for a while, with loads of options in the settings as well as solid performance. On maximum graphics you can see from my screenshots dotted through the review this game is gorgeous and that's especially true for PC owners. With a silky smooth framerate and stunning visuals PC gamers will not be left wanting. There is a lovely camera mode included that is very akin to the one found in Shadow of Mordor. At any time you can freeze the action and spend a lot of time getting the perfect shot with various FOV sliders and exposures.
As always I play on keyboard and mouse if that's a realistic option but there is full support for controller input if that's your preference. I have hit a few bugs here and there, in one instance I had been killed at a camp and on returning the enemies had stopped spawning which meant it remained locked to me because the mechanism that opens the door is the death of these enemies. This in turn prevented me accessing some optional progression items which is a little annoying but nothing game breaking.
Playing this game in many ways felt like when I played the first Assassin's Creed, a successful proof of concept and some outstanding ideas. Parts of the game worked and others not so much. What is impressive is that Avalanche Studios have made so many elements of this game look like its the second or third game where they are really starting to refine key features: this may be partly due to the DNA of Just Cause running through the game which is no bad thing. As stated the weak link is when Max leaves his car but then even here they get plenty right.
I think to spite some chinks in the armour this game is a huge success on many levels. For one most of the elements I associate with Mad Max are present and correct. The exhilarating car chases and combat from the films are replicated in superb fashion and when the dust settles it leaves you with a big smile on your face. As I review more games and also look closer at other mainstream reviews I'm starting to notice a disconnect between reviewer and player. Some review sites game this game a fairly low score and yet when you look at gamer reviews the consensus seems to suggest it's of a higher caliber: a discussion for another time maybe. Regardless of what has been already said this game offers a massive amount of enjoyment and there really has never been a better time to be Mad Max.