If you’re like me, an open-world game set in the universe of George Miller’s Mad Max has always been on your wishlist. It’s a setting ripe with possibilities for great gameplay: The Big Nothing, a barrier of sand, encapsulates an isolated enclave where the last remnants of humanity struggle to survive against the harsh elements of the post-apocalyptic landscape – including the maniacal warlords hellbent on conquest. We haven’t seen Max on a console since the NES, but finally his true sandbox title has arrived. And now that it’s here, I’m sad to report the experience feels devoid of life, but ironically not because it takes place in a desolate wasteland. There is fun to be had, and the game faithfully creates the look and feel of the movies; however, Mad Max falls short in capturing the depth and immersion that make its source materials beloved classics.
Although it arrives on the heels of Mad Max: Fury Road, this adaptation from developer Avalanche Studios isn’t a movie tie-in. The craftsmanship on display reveals a level of love and care that can only come from something that isn’t rushed out the door to meet a synergistic deadline. Mad Max is visually impressive and sounds great, right down to the car explosions and ambient background music that accompany the bleak vistas off the horizon. It’s not the best looking game to grace this generation of consoles, but Mad Max has moments that are truly sublime – the unconventional beauty of seeing dilapidated ruins of a once thriving human race encourages you to approach exploration with a level of thoughtfulness befitting of the brilliant film series.
As expected, the artistic approach is juxtaposed with the extreme social satire one would expect from a Mad Max title. In the new world, a person’s social value is determined by their looks and material possessions. Men are grotesque figures, obsessed with their shiny chrome machines and bulging muscular bodies. Women are subjugated to the role of sex slavery if they’re beautiful – and those who aren’t join their beta-male counterparts in roaming the Wasteland as lifeless husks.
I say “lifeless husks” in a way that may make it seem as though I’m acknowledging some social commentary, but quite frankly, that’s all the characters in this wasteland are – they’re inanimate beings that show no sign of humanity. While the art design superficially demands I look deeper, the hollow, human-shaped shells that cross my path evoke no feelings sympathy like they do in the Mad Max films. The people of this world are just videogame props designed to give the player things to interact with, which feels more like an obligation on the part of the developer than a genuine attempt to make the rendered world feel real.
Whereas other games tell their story and deliver themes through the characters you meet and the quests you’ll undertake as you play, Mad Max is content with just being a video game. The characters you pass barely move at all and exist only to recite a handful of meaningless phrases. It’s a sad, artificial attempt to make everything feel alive, one that may have worked in the PlayStation 2 era. But by today’s standards, there’s simply no excuse for littering a game with uninteresting, humanoid backdrops that jabber inanely.
I offer this defense for the lack of immersion: This is Mad Max. For some fans, the story and characters aren’t nearly as important as the thrills. If the action is intense and the gameplay is fun, any intellectual shortcomings can be pushed aside. And to some degree, this is a fun action game: car combat is exhilarating, sporting tight controls that leave the outcome of energetic high-speed races feeling as though they’re left up to skill. Similarly, taking down enemy convoys and war parties is everything it should be, right down to the extreme violence and epic explosions.
True to the film series, vehicular battles are the highlight of the game, but when you do get out to stretch your legs, the chaos doesn’t lose a beat. Exit your vehicle and you will be treated to intense hand-to-hand matches that require precision parries and a tactical use of your shotgun if you hope to successfully dispatch bad guys. While these encounters sometimes lack variety, the game does a decent job of spicing things up by throwing in new ways to execute enemies, creating a satisfying sense of accomplishment when the dust settles after a long scuffle. Unfortunately, graphical glitches and camera hiccups will rear their ugly head during melee combat, but they’re rarely problematic enough to give your enemies a technical advantage.
During action-heavy missions, Mad Max succeeds in bringing gleefully gruesome entertainment befitting of a hellish wasteland. There are moments where I was on the edge of my seat, constantly engaged as I raced for my life in my customized V-8, fending off enemy buggies with clever driving and a handful of explosive thunderpoons. Other times, the game is a real drag; the adrenaline rushes are interspersed between ponderous stretches where there’s nothing to do but roam the sands and collect scrap, take down enemy camps, and pick off rival snipers. While enjoyable at first, the chores become painful as the game artificially increases its length by forcing the player to do grunt work over and over again to unlock upgrades and advance the story.
As the anticipation of exploration clashes with the reality of the severely limited possibilities, Mad Max begins to reveal itself as little more than a video game riddled with glorified fetch quests and the same ol’ character models. The playable world, which once seemed intimidatingly large, begins to feel confining due to coerced backtracking – if you want to progress to the next mission, you’ll first have to venture backwards and do an arbitrary number of mindless tasks for your ungrateful allies. It’s not fun in the least, and this approach undermines the open-world design the developers seem to be going for. The sporadic moments of genius as I raced at top speed through dunes – suicidal warboys “witnessing” at my bumper – aren’t enough to make the tedious stretches worthwhile.
In the end, the Big Nothing that surrounds the playable area seems like it was added as a metaphor to exemplify what playing Mad Max is like. While not a broken or bad game, the fun times are mirages in a desert; the illusions of expansiveness and true choice give way as I tear down yet another enemy monument using my tow winch and have a re-occurring fist-to-cuffs brawl with an enemy leader who feels identical to the last dozen.
After the fifty hours I logged, I was left with only a handful of quality memories to show for it, especially since the decent story fades into the background to make way for being the errand boy of the Wasteland elite. Your hard work is rewarded with fancy new titles and increased notoriety among the listless NPCs who clutter the game world, but for me that just isn’t enough. Unfortunately, even becoming a true “Road Warrior” can’t compel me to believe my survival in this bleak future was really worth the time investment. Mad Max used me up like a blood-bag and, much like the false promises of the warlords, Valhalla wasn’t waiting when everything finally faded to black. My servitude never did pay off.
Mad Max is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, and Use of Drugs. This game can also be found on: Xbox One and Windows PC.