Mad Max is a safe, grimy, bombastic set piece that, while unable or perhaps unwilling to explore new frontiers, still delivers a solid and enjoyable wasteland experience. Provided you’re not looking for innovation or a gripping narrative and all your want to do is tear around, beating the crap out of faceless desert nutjobs and improving your beast of a car, this game will satisfy. There are times when a mindless romp will suffice. There are times when, after a tough day at work, we don’t want to think too much. If you are familiar with such times and you need a brainless game to fill those luxurious downtimes, Mad Max has it where it counts.
One wonders how to properly analyze the graphics when in fact, there isn’t that much to analyze. The game looks pretty good and plays well; you don’t have to worry too much about hitches and frame rate issues, for example. The character designs are good without being overly impressive and the general overarching design is appealing without being inspired. I wouldn’t say the visuals occupy the middle ground – they’re substantially more advanced than that – but they’re not really a focal point. That may sound strange to say considering the sheer size of this adventure, but it’s absolutely true that the emphasis remains squarely on gameplay. In this way, it’s definitely an Avalanche production.
Just Cause was never known for its photorealistic graphics, either, but it is well-known for its fixation on over-the-top gameplay. I’ll get to that in a minute but let me add that in terms of audio presentation, Mad Max ranges from average to excellent. The voice performances are solid and the soundtrack is decent, but the effects are stellar; combat is where the sound shines, as you’ll notice within the first hour of playing. This is all part of a concerted effort to keep you playing, to keep the game’s emphasis on the ceaseless action. So long as the game runs well, is technically proficient, and doesn’t lag too much on elements like voice acting, we can happily fixate on the task(s) at hand.
The wasteland is aptly named. Max is your prototypical protagonist; a guy with a troubled history and a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana. At his disposal are his car, the Magnum Opus, and an assortment of weapons and combat maneuvers that wreak havoc on baddies. Right from the start, you’re locked in a bitter battle with Scrotus and his army of violence-loving cronies, and you will continue to wage war throughout the game. In addition to the Magnum Opus, Max will also have assistance in the form of Chumbucket – a strange little mechanic – who believes Max is “Angel,” the hero of legend. Chumbucket might be a little bizarre but he’s a genius when it comes to beefing up the car. Your goal is to enhance the vehicle to the point where it can finally cross the Plains of Silence. We’re just not sure what’s on the other side…
Chumbucket mans the weapons in the rear (the harpoon is useful) while Max zips across the arid desert, occasionally taking down goons dumb enough to stand in his path. As you might expect, you spend a lot of time in your car, so it was important for the developers to make the car combat fun and engaging. It is precisely that and in fact, one could argue that the Magnum Opus is the best part of the entire game. In addition to your harpoon, you can even fire an explosive lance, and you can pinpoint specific targets as well. That’s just the start; you will unlock more goodies to add to your hard-driving chariot, including spikes that will stop overly enthusiastic foes from leaping on the car. Of course, if all else fails, you can always jump out of the car and lay waste with your fists. And a shotgun.
Regarding the hand-to-hand combat, if you’re familiar with Rocksteady’s Batman games, you’ll probably be right at home. I wouldn’t say Avalanche ripped off the idea (it’s not original to Rocksteady, either) but it’s a tried-and-true mechanic that we’ve all seen before: You can mash a single attack button to dole out pain on all sides and when you see the Triangle button over an opponent’s head, that’s your cue to perform a counter. The game encourages you to use your fists as opposed to pumping enemies full of lead, mostly because that lead is kinda hard to come by. The good news is that Max is such a quick and powerful fighter, and the battle system works exceedingly well. The bad news, which becomes more evident the longer you play, is that it works well without pushing the envelope.
You can win the majority of all battles in the game by using the same combination of attacks and parries. There are a few boss battles that require you to go above and beyond but even then, it’s pretty simplistic. There’s the obligatory roll and evade but the combat is so easy that such maneuvers are almost superfluous. Oddly, the straightforward and somewhat unrewarding on-foot combat contrasts sharply with the more fleshed-out car combat. The latter at least tries to delve a little deeper and unsurprisingly, you’ll end up wanting to spend more time in the car. However, let me add that it is fun to watch Max tear up the bad guys with such brutality and precision (similar to how Batman does it so effectively), and that mechanic does function exceptionally well. There just isn’t much to it.
In terms of atmosphere, I think it depends on how you approach the game. If you’re thinking you’ll be tasked with actual survival; i.e., keeping a close eye on resources (outside of bullets), you’ll be disappointed. It’s true that only eating and drinking can replenish health but it’s not a huge stumbling block. Exposure to the oppressive elements doesn’t seem to affect Max too much and you’re not often on the cusp of death. This is probably a good thing, though; this game certainly wasn’t designed to be a survival simulator, nor should it be. I just wanted to clarify that those seeking a somewhat more adventure-like experience may want to look elsewhere. This game is all about balls-to-the-wall action from front to back, start to finish.
You also don’t really have to worry about your car because Chum fixes it quickly, and the Fast Travel points make traveling the treacherous wasteland a breeze. Purchasing upgrades and other new parts for the Magnum Opus makes everything even easier, and we’re not supposed to think too much about the large pieces of scrap metal Max can magically carry in his pockets. The more damage you inflict on the opposition, the more your reputation rises and you can outfit him with new equipment and other cosmetic items. You don’t come across too many characters and the story never really takes center-stage, so you have to be content with the ceaseless gameplay. Resources like food and gas for the car are limited but only to the point where you occasionally think about it. As I said, such things aren’t huge problems.
No, it doesn’t have a brain in its head and it’s too easy. This may deter those seeking a more immersive, challenging experience. But if you step back and consider the entire package, understanding the developer’s goals and simply indulging in the widespread carnage, you’re almost assured a good time. The key is to not analyze too much. If you spend your time wishing Avalanche had done more with the melee combat, wishing they’d spent more time with the script, wishing the game wasn’t quite the cakewalk it is, you’re bound to come away disappointed. But the solution is simple: Just don’t do it. I found that after I stopped approaching the game as a critic, it became a lot more fun. And what’s wrong with fun?
Even so, there are problems that apply to everyone. For instance, despite the huge size of the world map, you’re often told to turn back if you wander too far (an annoying trait in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as well but nowhere near as prevalent in CD Projekt Red’s effort). And there are eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, which you will note with every passing hour. Yes, the gameplay generally performs without a hitch and we don’t have to concern ourselves with glaring technical issues. But there are a few screwy things that won’t escape your attention so again, make sure you’re not thinking too hard. Just lose yourself in the adventure and experiment with different ways of eliminating the enemies that constantly plague your existence. When you do that, the drawbacks recede into the shadows.
Mad Max can be a very entertaining game, especially if your expectations are in the right place. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the wasteland; careening over the sand and blasting foes, laying the prodigious smack-down with fists and shotgun, and upgrading and improving the always-cool Magnum Opus. The control for both driving and melee combat is just about right and the combat mechanic is a tried-and-true system. All of this translates to a high fun factor unless you were hoping for something more. The story is definitely lacking, they could’ve improved and expanded upon the core fighting, and there isn’t much variety in the missions. So yeah, it can feel repetitive and a little mind-numbing at times but it might be the perfect stress-reliever. I say give it a shot.
The Good: Great weather and combat effects. Solid driving and fighting control. Slick, accessible combat mechanic. Outfitting the Magnum Opus is a huge highlight. Players can revel in Max’s raw power and ability. Atmosphere is appropriately intimidating. Plenty of stuff to do in the wasteland.
The Bad: Melee combat is a little simplistic. Story doesn’t cut the mustard. Missions lack inspiration and variety. Might be too dim-witted for its own good.
The Ugly: “What Max can do to his enemies might register as ‘ugly’ in a satisfying way.”