Review: Mad Max

Mad Max is, at its heart, a Mad Max game - a sprawling desert wasteland of a game full of vehicular combat.  While it gets repetitive in some of the motions and the boss characters feel phoned in, the rest of the game is quite well done - the scenery feels quite interesting while still being thematic, the theming itself is brilliantly done, the engine is a technical marvel and runs well even on below-spec machines, and the hand-to-hand combat is quite tight.  With plenty of options to trick out your car and buff up the titular Max, and a large sandbox to romp in, it's easy to lose yourself in the world of Mad Max.  The biggest complaints I have here are with the mild repetition and some bugginess, really, and they're fairly minor ones, to my mind.  That said, if you have a lower tolerance for repetition, I might wait for a sale.  It's definitely worth the 24$ I paid for it, but I can see the case for 50$ being a bit harsher.
Review: Mad Max
Date published: Sep 24, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: The ERSB descriptors for this game leave out the fact that it has sexual themes in places.  Many of the boss' taunts include such allusions, and there are some heavily implicit bits in the world, such as a corpse chained to the bed of one of said bosses, and the description for one boss making specific reference to his proclivities.  Merely part of the Mad Max universe, as far as we are concerned, but worth noting for parents considering this game for their children.

Mad Max is a sandbox action game developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Warner Brothers.  Best known for the Just Cause series, there was a fair bit of buzz around this new, licensed entry by Avalanche Studios, especially since the last game published by Warner Brothers, Arkham Knight had infamously bad port quality on the PC, to the point it made headlines and was pulled from the Steam store.  So any optimism that might have been out and about in regards to Mad Max was very guarded after that big-time flub.  Thankfully you can rest easy in that regard: Mad Max is a very solid port.  It's a good game, too, to boot, though not perfect and a bit repetitive.  Let's take a closer look then, shall we?

Mad Max nails the theme of its source material

It's really easy to understate just how much it does, and just how important that is to the final product.  From the moment I first got into Mad Max and saw the introductory cutscene to the moment I finished the game, I knew - this is a Mad Max game.  A lot of attention has been given to the details of such setting, from the dialogue, to the voice acting, to the design of the game-world itself, which does a tremendous job of resembling an actually lived-in, cobbled-together post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The strongholds and enemy camps both are brilliant examples of that, and each one has its own themes, built around different landmarks in that sprawling waste.

Voice acting and dialogue writing do a great job here, and very much feel like they're out of a Mad Max film.  From the over-wrought pseudo-religious babble of the blackfinger hunchback who makes you a new car to the interactions with the various wastelanders and camp leaders, it all "fits".  This is carried over to the character design too, where a lot of detail has been paid to marrying the film's visual design with stuff that really does look like the ramshackle and patchwork clothes and weapons you would have in such a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Models are detailed, textures are sharp, and the designs really do fit the theme.

The crowning achievement here is in the world design.  Avalanche is a quite hard-working studio when it comes to worlds, as was evidenced by the yawning chasm that was Just Cause 2, and managing to make such a large world without feeling those pangs of the copy/paste functions is quite the feat on a world so large.  That craftsmanship has been translated quite well to Mad Max, where while the map is considerably smaller, the detail is only all the tighter for it.  The various camps and notable locations are all fairly unique, even different scavenger camps, making the world feel much more vibrant and alive - or at least, as much as a desert wasteland should.  As I alluded to in the prior paragraph, it does a good job of really nailing that wasteland - small concentrations of survivors punctuated by various wastes  Attention to detail really is the byword here - from small touches that make that feeling of being "lived in" in the camps seem quite real, to the particular way desert rocks crumble and shatter if you run into them hard enough with vehicles, there really is a ton of detail.

The core mechanics, while a broad set, fit together well

At first glance, the broad palette of mechanics which Avalanche paints with can seem a little cluttered and over-reaching: we have vehicular combat, race driving, hand-to-hand combat, shooting combat, stronghold upgrading, and each of them is in its self a separate system complete with its own quirks and upgrades.  The common pitfall of many sandbox games is to do a lot of things in a very mediocre fashion, rather than a few things well.  When it comes to mechanics in Mad Max, however, except for a couple of sore points I'll get into below, the game is cohesive, tight, and not an inch of it feels wasted.  There's nothing here that feels vestigial or unnecessary mechanically - each aspect has it's place, time, and use, and the transitions are smooth and refrain from being jarring.

Most important here is the driving, given it's what you're going to be doing the most of as you roam the wastes, and the handling of the cars whether you are using keyboard or a pad is superb.  There's a definite argument to be made that as a matter of course the pad works best, analog sticks and all, but I found myself actually gravitating towards the keyboard controls, mostly out of that PC gamer familiarity and the keyboard controls working quite well enough in most situations.  Most noticeably, while the base handling is definitely not a lick on the car with all of the upgrades, it still handles decently, which is something many driving games with upgrades don't really do - no, you'll just put up with the shit handling, because it makes you want to upgrade!  Mad Max has none of that, and the handling starts at "okay" and only improves.

Mind you, one of the things that Mad Max does, is have many of the better upgrades have cost and benefits, rather than just being an objectively better thing and thus a linear progression with a single set end point.  By way of example: armour upgrades.  You can upgrade your vehicle with increasingly more degrees of armour, but they also weigh the vehicle down, which reduces your maximum speed, and makes the car handle differently, particularly in the rear end.  Similar is the bull bars on the front of the car for ramming - you're more damaging with a heavier-duty one, but the handling will change as a result of equipping them.  By having upgrades have pluses and minuses like that, it offers a depth to the vehicle customisation system that you wouldn't have otherwise, and I appreciated that.  It also lets you find the vehicle handling that best works for you, by essentially letting you adjust aspects of that handling through different upgrades.

The other aspect to the vehicles in game is of course the combat - and there is a variety of methods of vehicular homicide to choose from.  Ram into people, edge them off cliffs, harpoon the driver right out of their seat, blow them up with explosives, it's all there (albeit through progressive upgrades), as well as a sniper rifle for scoping out fortified positions and side-burners to deter the people whom will try to jump onto your vehicles.  It's fun, fast, dynamic, and is the highlight of the game, frankly, much of the fun I had with this game was with the vehicular combat and as far as I am concerned that is exactly how it should be in a Mad Max game.

A tangential but still interesting aspect is the ability to commandeer vehicles of other factions and capture them by taking them to your base.  While you cannot customise them as you can your own, they each have different advantages and special perks.  Additionally, you can hijack convoy vehicles to destroy for parts to add to your own vehicle for buffs, or "scrapulance" cars that have large stashes of the scrap you use to upgrade your vehicle, and Max.  There's also the "Archangels" system, which at first blush are specialised configurations of the different upgrades to your own vehicle, but they each play to different handling styles, and serve as a good way to suss out the configuration that works the best for you, and as such, encourage experimentation within those different possible configurations.

Unarmed combat flows well, and tightens up
the formula first popularised by the Arkham series

Fans of the Arkham series will find the unarmed combat in Mad Max rather immediately familiar: you have the same free-flowing system of light attack, heavy attack, dodge, and counter.  It's been done a dozen times before and so I am not exactly going to sing Mad Max's praises on high for its particular iteration thereof, I'd still note it does them quite well, for the most part, and manages to tighten up on the underlying design quite well.

In particular, in the Arkham game, as well as Assassin's Creed, the block key is pretty universally the answer to everything.  While you can still get through the early game with that strategy of sorts, you'll be expected to have much better timing and also evade out of the way of certain attacks as the game progresses.  Enemies that will bull rush you to try to get a hold on you to beat on you and let their friends beat on you become a particular hazard, though much less of one when you get the special execution move that allows you to easily escape them.  There's similar other special executions you get as well that help speed the combat along.

The "easy" executions in Mad Max are done with shims, basically makeshift knives, and you have a limited supply of them, which you either replenish in the field through certain dangerous special enemies (those shims can work just as well on you!), scavenging, or returning to the stronghold after you have constructed the upgrade that replenishes Max's ammunition when you return to the stronghold.  By making those easier execution moves a limited resource in such a way, it keeps it from being overpowered in some way.  Rather, since it does have that cost associated, a limited resource, you trade that resource for time and security, so there's always the question of whether it's worth it, and as such, it encourages skilful play.

Mad Max progresses through levels through this combat, and the main-line series of upgrades, save for a couple of additional tools and cosmetic face options, all centre around melee and shooting combat - more ammo, more shims, additional special take-downs, more armour to absorb damage, and so forth.  These are bought with scrap and are basically all objective improvements, unlike the car, so this system is less nuanced, but the nuance offered here is in a different form, really - enemy variety.  While the enemy cars broadly fall into just 'boarders; that haul enemies, 'rammers' that will try to bash you, 'weapons' that use special weapons to try to harm you (rather rare I gound), or the special cars like the scrapulance, the enemies on foot are fairly more varied, with a variety of different attacks or other advantages, and a selection of all kinds across the different factions.  For instance the 'ghost' enemy can see much better in darkness, where other enemies can stumble, thereby giving them an advantage.  While the prevalence of the 'common' normal enemies can diminish the effect of this variety a bit, there is nonetheless quite a variety on offer.

Scavenging is integral, but kept along the main combat paths

As one might imagine in a post-apocalyptic scenario, rummaging for whatever you can find is important to survival.  You essentially have three main resources: ammunition, water, and fuel.  All of these you gain either through the strongholds, after you get the upgrades that are appropriate to each, or out in the field scavenging.   Water basically heals you, along with cans of food you find, but those are consumed immediately and cannot be taken with you, and additionally can be traded to wandering wastelanders for information (usually undiscovered map locations, but occasionally deeper secrets), fuel is used by the car to travel obviously, but also to fuel the side-burner weapons, which consume it a great deal, and the ammunition's use is again, pretty self-evident.  You can stash a can of fuel in your car's trunk section (and you're well-advised to do so if you use the side-burner weapons), but ammunition and water capacity are quite limited, even with upgrades.

For the most part, the game does a very good job of keeping scavenging to the main progression path, and you never really feel like you have to go out of your way.  I've heard people voice complaints that resources don't seem very scarce, but I find that kind of depends on your play-style - if you are just sticking to the story missions, which as a matter of course often take you back and forth between the strongholds and other locations, then you'll likely find yourself not needing resources that much, certainly, but if you do a lot of sandboxing (as I did), then you will need to scavenge more.  As is, I find that the game does a good job of finding the balance, to my tastes, and it as I said, it doesn't feel like I ever had to really actively go looking, but at the same time, I did have to make sure I was picking thing up what scrap and other resources you do come across.

If there's anything that does throw a bit of a mess across the train tracks its one of the stronghold upgrades, which essentially gives you residual scrap even if you're offline, so if you come down with a cold as one of my friends playing Mad Max did, you can come back to enough scrap to upgrade the vehicle's engine to the full v8 as soon as it's unlocked.  Essentially it means all you really have to do is get that upgrade for each stronghold and leave the game for a few days to have all the scrap you could need.  I didn't find it that egregious, but it definitely diminishes the scavenging aspect a fair bit, I found.

The secondary character progression is through the collection of Griffa tokens, which you essentially accumulate every so many levels of the main-line progression, which you can then spend on boosts that are mostly scavenging-centric - get more out of water, things like that - though there's a few other things, such as a thing you can do to make level-ups quicker, and another that make Max's "rage" grow faster (basically his special meter).  Again, pretty well-done, and well-balanced, but objectively straight-up better upgrades, so not much to deconstruct here.  It comes at a decent pace, and is fairly-balanced, and that's about all I could offer, really.  No complaints.

Avalanche's attention to detail fails in
stronghold mechanics and boss design

I have a theory, dear readers, and it goes like this: Mad Max ran out of something.  Either the money was running low, maybe a deadline that the suits wouldn't let Avalanche shirk was the proverbial Sword of Damocles, or perhaps the cocaine pile just ran out.  Whatever it was, Mad Max feels like a game that didn't get just quite finished before it was released.  Why do I say that, you ask?   Well, for all the attention to that detailing, and there is a plethora of such, there are two gleaming weak spots, the glowing red weaknesses in this boss fight - or rather, in all of Mad Max's boss fights.  You see, those boss fights are where the common sandbox clone brush came out, as well as in the stronghold mechanics.

Strongholds really are a lot of where some repetitive nature shows in the game, as rather than say, having different defences, costs and benefits to upgrading each one as you progress through the progression arc that the strongholds represent, instead you are given the exact same tasks in each one, and they're really presented without any ceremony beyond the first time you do them, for Jeet's Stronghold, which comes off more as tutorialising than anything.  Each one is the same - not visually of thematically, mind, as I said, the developers did a good job in that respect, but mechanically?  Yes.  You're unlocking the same thing every single time with the strongholds, and this feels like a missed opprotunity to have something more thematic for each of them.  Instead, it becomes rote repetition, a chore you do when you're new to each region because well, you have to, if you want to get all the extras without backtracking, such as free refills of water, reloads of ammunition, tanks of gas, and so on.  There's certainly reasons to want these upgrades, don't get me wrong, but it becomes something of a chore doing it several times over for each of the strongholds and it somewhat overstays its welcome, frankly.

The boss fights of Mad Max differ in the environments, but in a small way, and the bosses themselves have some visual changes, but all rely on the same, quite-dated video game trope: he hits hard, but is sluggish, and you just want to wait until he charges and then dodge out of his way to beat on his exposed back for the few moments he's dazed.  To be fair to the game, it's kept dynamic enough that it's at least challenging the first few times, but it gets old before you run out of bosses and that the omnipresent fire-spouting traps change configurations is sparse little variety to lift the boss fights out of the doldrums.  While these camps are optional, they definitely feel anti-climatic.  Indeed, it somewhat sabotages them - you can slog through a camp, fighting tooth and nail with every ounce of your skill, and then you have, well .. that, which is mechanically quite simple.  Dodge, hammer attack, repeat until their health bar is depleted, the press E to win.  It's not challenging.  What a boss fight should be, in my opinion, is a sort of final exam of all the skills that were tested in this camp, but there's no sign of that here.  There are a couple attempts at variety by throwing some mooks in you as well, but this feels rather more like a weak attempt at escalating the difficulty across the course of the game - an attempt to make leter-on bosses feel more difficult, and indeed, they don't change the mechanics here, just throw you in with some mooks as well.  It is at best a missed opprotunity to really make those camps shine, but in reality, it felt to me at least like something of a cop out.

On the technical level, Mad Max straight-up delivers,
but unfortunately not without a few minor complaints

Pretty much whatever way you slice it, the fidelity of Mad Max is pretty amazing.  It looks great, both solid and in motion - a strength the developers play to with a feature to help pose and dress up screenshots - and what's all the more impressive, and much more important, in my opinion, is that it does all of this while offering a stable and steady performance, even on lower end machines.  Indeed, some correspondents on Twitter even mentioned that they had below-spec machines, and could still play it fine after they knocked the settings down a bit , and the screenshots they provided were still quite good-looking indeed.  It seems like the kind of game you could probably play on a potato, and there's plenty of options to fiddle with to find a look and framerate that suits you, as well as a plethora of resolution options to accommodate all sorts of different displays.  It's something they've taken the time to make sure is technically-sound when it comes to the graphics.

Where things fall apart a little, but only a little, to my mind (though you may consider it a more significant problem) is in the animations.  The animations themselves are well-captured but not extraordinary, workaday stuff that mostly works - except the jumping animation, which looks ridiculous I must say - but rather the animation code.  A common example is something like my character just kind of glitching on top of a rock, rather than just stepping up onto it.  It happens infrequently, but frequently enough that you'd notice and it won't really slip on by.  There's kind of a variety of small little niggles like that in the animation, and given Just Cause 2 had the same kind of thing, I think it stands to say it's just an area that the developer needs to work on.

Beyond that, though, the engine is a dream.  There's a variety of small and notable things that are perhaps not worthy of their own paragraph but still worth noting - fire effects in particular are amazing, and such that if you get much closer to the screen you may be in danger of burns, for instance.  And one little thing that just consistently stood out to me is how the rocks crumble or shatter in different circumstances.  Yeah, that seems a trival thing, but together with tessellation it looks and feels great, and is just another one of those little details that really add to the atmosphere.  The melee combat feels pretty meaty with a lot of oomph, too, for such a thing, a combination of the combat animations and camera effects working well together with the sound design.  There's a feeling, to my mind, that everything just clicks together rather well in that regard, other than the animation hiccups I mentioned.

Mad Max is, at its heart, a Mad Max game - a sprawling desert wasteland of a game full of vehicular combat.  While it gets repetitive in some of the motions and the boss characters feel phoned in, the rest of the game is quite well done - the scenery feels quite interesting while still being thematic, the theming itself is brilliantly done, the engine is a technical marvel and runs well even on below-spec machines, and the hand-to-hand combat is quite tight.  With plenty of options to trick out your car and buff up the titular Max, and a large sandbox to romp in, it's easy to lose yourself in the world of Mad Max.  The biggest complaints I have here are with the mild repetition and some bugginess, really, and they're fairly minor ones, to my mind.  That said, if you have a lower tolerance for repetition, I might wait for a sale.  It's definitely worth the 24$ I paid for it, but I can see the case for 50$ being a bit harsher.