Max Rockatansky returns for the second time in 2015 in sandy post-Apocalypse Australia. And he’s pissed. After a brutal and bloody battle on Scaborus Scrotus’ War Rig, Max is left in the desert bruised and battered. Scrotus’ cronies have stolen his car, dragged it off to Gastown, and turned it to scrap. Upon recovery, Max finds his cohort for the majority of the game – Chumbucket. A hunchback outcast of the world who is a master at repairing cars, Chumbucket is the first exposure to the loose Australian aspect of the game.
Whilst out promoting Mad Max: Fury Road, actress Charlize Theron had to have the term “fang it” explained to her. This is a line her character, Furiosa, says a couple of times in the film, so it’s odd that she wasn’t aware of its meaning whilst the film was in production. I mention this because in order to fully understand Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max, you need to know that there is a fairly loose representation of Australian culture within the game. Australians love cars and have weird sayings, both of which you’ll get in spades here.
Chumbucket’s hideout exists in the hull of a rusted out ship, the first of many nautical themed elements, and for the quiet opening moments of the game, it’s the area you will be visiting the most. On the rusted interior is a giant map of Australia. The heeler-like dog that Max rescues in the opening sequence is named Dinki-Di. However, Chumbucket’s pronunciation of Dinki-Di is an American-esque take on Australian slang – he says “Dinki-Dee” rather than what we as Australians are used to.
The opening sequence of Mad Max has a real Rage feel to it. To ease the player into the world, quests are delivered to Max that require him to drive to a location, get out of his car, beat up a few people, and return back home. I started to despair at the immediately repetitive nature of these missions, particularly as I had hated playing Rage, yet I loved Mad Max lore, so the notion that I was in for who knows how many hours of this tired gameplay was the beginning of an uphill battle. Added in are some initially confusing controls and unnecessary button inputs – can we please get past having to press a button to initiate climbing a ladder? This, alongside the slight bastardisation of Australian slang set me off on the wrong foot.
But, fortunately I was wrong. Very very wrong. To really appreciate the joy and wonder that Mad Max has to offer, you need to dedicate a good three to four hours to it before you actually reach the meat of the game. To do that, you’ll need to drive around in your trusty rusted-out vehicle, with Chumbucket in the boot as your backseat driver, searching out enemy locations and gathering scrap to improve your car and build the Magnum Opus – the greatest car to exist. The plot here is very slight for sure, with Max and Chumbucket battling through the wasteland to reach Gastown in order to give Scrotus’ men their comeuppance for ruining his original car. Traditional side quests are replaced with a variety of enemy outposts that can be taken down, such as war camps, burning effigies called scarecrows and minefields, amongst many other things. None of the story or characters leave a lasting impression, but that’s forgivable when the mechanics of the game are so flamin’ good.
Just like 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, there is a lot that is unique about Mad Max, but on the same page, there is a lot that is exactly the same as many other games out on the market. After coming straight from Batman: Arkham Knight, I flet a strong sense of deja-vu with the combat system on offer here. It’s no wonder that the Arkham series has often been copied in games – it’s a near flawless combat system that feels greatly intuitive. Here, it’s moulded to fit the bulky and exceptionally human Max. He fights slow, but not slow enough that he becomes a punching bag. His counter attacks often work, but sometimes they don’t, and this feels like an element of natural human error. It’s not perfect combat, but for the most part, it feels natural, with Max’s use of bashing an enemy into the surrounding environment a rewarding sight to see.
Max does have a few weapons at his disposal – most notably in hand-to-hand combat, he has a shotgun and a shiv. Ammunition is light in this world, so preserving your shotgun shells is important. Shivs are also low on availability and are great at instantly taking down enemies, especially if you find yourself overwhelmed. When you are, it never feels unfair, as you are just a man trying to enact revenge after the death of his beloved car. You can pick up weapons, such as bats or planks of wood, that enemies have dropped, but they do break after a few hits.
Adding to the stress of a fight are War Crier’s – essentially Mad Max‘s version of Fury Road‘s Doof Warrior. War Crier’s are warriors who hang over the fight area beating their drum. If they aren’t taken down in time and are allowed to beat their drum long enough, they can then buff the enemies to make them much stronger and tougher to fight. This inclusion makes each fight feel rewardingly tough, and adds a nice challenge to planning attacks in each battle.
If Max has enough unbroken attacks, he can then unleash a fury attack. Unlike other games where this kind of mode makes the player perform over-the-top acts, this fury attack simply means that Max becomes even madder, making him hit harder and break necks quicker. It’s a nice element, given that the majority of your time playing Mad Max will be embarking on the over-the-top explosively enjoyable car combat.
Given so much of Mad Max occurs behind the wheel of a car, it’s refreshing to see that the driving mechanics are near perfect. Honestly, when I upgraded my car’s engine to the highest level V6 engine, I spent a good half hour just driving around and jumping over chasms, just because it sounded so good and handled so nicely. Car combat occurs regularly, as enemies drive throughout the desert hunting for something to fight with, so it’s nice that each time an enemy appears, you actually want to engage in a fight with them rather than just drive on by because it’s become tedious.
Each vehicle has a weak spot, whether it be exposed tyres or a gas tank on the back, there is usually a way that the car can be taken down by Max alone. When close enough, Max can lean out his car window and shoot out a tyre or blast away the driver with his shotgun. If his car has been upgraded enough, Chumbucket can use the harpoon that’s attached to the back of the car to yank a tyre off, or even better, pull the driver out the window. There is one more upgrade later in the story, but that’s best discovered by yourself. If these options don’t work, you can resort to simply ramming the enemy off the road.
If you manage to take over an enemy’s car, you can then drive through that enemy’s territory unseen – until they realise who’s behind the wheel. Each car you hijack can be driven back to the safe house to be stored and is available for use at any time. Furthering the already superb driving mechanics is the huge variety in vehicles on display, as well as their varied handling. I managed to take over a massive ute, and when I hopped behind the wheel I treated it like my main car. I was a little shocked to find that it handled exactly how you’d expect a massive ute to handle – hard at cornering, slow to accelerate, but very tough in combat. Too often I would find myself avoiding the main story just to drive around and steal new vehicles just to see how they handled.
Cars are encumbered with a twist tier ‘health system’. Cars, as you all may be aware, require petrol to run, so it’s up to you to monitor the gas tank level and fill it up when required. This isn’t as tedious as it sounds, though, as you’re able to maximise your car to consume less petrol through upgrades. The second tier is what happens when your car takes damage during combat. Unlike other games, where the car magically heals over time, Mad Max has your own nifty mechanic in the boot of your car. Chumbucket can’t repair the car when it’s moving, so you have to time your repairing during combat smartly or else you’ll explode in a ball of flames.
Speaking of flames, the other reason to engage in car combat is to see enemy cars explode. Alongside the simply stunning sand effects are some of the best explosions you’ll see in a game. For a world that’s so heavily built around fuel and burning things, it’s glorious to see the realistic flames and explosions. Every car I’ve smashed has exploded in its own unique way.
It’s not just the explosions though, as the scenery is widely varied even though this is just a world of sand. From the normal sand areas through to the sulphuric yellow areas and tar black grounds, this is the most creative display of varieties of sand in a game. These may seem like small differences, but they help create depth to the world. As mentioned, this is quite a nautical themed game, with one of the safe houses being a broken-down lighthouse. Massive rusted-out ship hulls scatter the landscape for miles. In one area, the sand is covered in sea shells. This adds a nice layer of history to the world that isn’t exactly touched on all that much, even though Max does find collectibles around the world, which give an idea of what this place was like before whatever happened happened.
Distance is a real, tangible element here, with your prime destination (Gas Town) always burning off in the distance just on the horizon, beckoning you to come and destroy it. I had a huge feeling of nostalgia playing this game, as I was reminded greatly of Red Faction: Guerilla and that game’s dusty version of Mars – not to mention the massive amount of fun it provided to players exploring its world. The same desire to see what is beyond that ridge or down that gorge is inescapable, and is very welcome here given the less involving story.
That’s what Mad Max boils down to – it’s a (literal) sand box world, which gives you the keys to the funcar and says, “go nuts, blow stuff up, you know you want to”. The world here is always urging you to move forward, it’s always wanting you to reach that next upgrade. After those aforementioned enemy outposts are cleared, your allies move in and gather extra scrap for you. If you gain a particle upgrade, you can even have these allies collecting scrap for you whilst your console is turned off. Some upgrades are not as useful as others – for example, the ability to have Max grow his beard to full length – but if they were all great, then nothing would stand out.
When it came down to it, I was conflicted in scoring Mad Max, because it does so much right, but it’s still not an entirely complete package. The lack of a compelling story is a slight bother, but when the core mechanics are so great and designed to reward the player, it’s easy to forgive that element. I can’t help but compare this to Batman: Arkham Knight, a game that I think is flawed in many ways (the Batmobile), but also does a lot right (great story). Yet, looking at the two games sitting on my shelf, I can’t help but want to be in the world of Mad Max more. It’s such a perfectly realised world, with so many great things to do, that at the end of the day, I felt like a kid playing with my favourite toy in the world’s biggest sandpit. And that’s bloody alright, cobber.