Avalanche Studios takes the kitchen sink approach with Mad Max in the latest of its open-world video game endeavors. A desert hellscape that feels larger and more menacing than Australia’s outback? You got it. Extensive character unlocks and vehicle upgrades? Throw ’em in. Races to partake in, camps to assault, convoys to clear, and other errands to run? Consider it done. The result is a Mad Max facsimile chock-full of activities to do and locations to tour, but the dozens of hours spent in this wasteland lack the staying power of Avalanche’s previous efforts.
The narrative sees its share of troubles trying to justify this prolonged revenge story. A son of Immortan Joe, Scabrous Scrotus, liberates Max of his Interceptor and possessions early on, but not before our reluctant hero buries a chainsaw in the giant’s skull. Left to roam the arid terrain in the fight’s aftermath, Max must rebuild and rearm before exacting retribution on Scrotus and reaching the mythical Plains of Silence. Enjoy that exposition, because Mad Max drip-feeds you story details for the next twenty hours. While Fury Road endured a similarly threadbare tale, its two-hour duration, well-developed cast, and nonstop car chase kept audiences enthralled.
Avalanche’s Mad Max still features strong characterization, despite the campaign rushing some story elements. Max meets a likely love interest in the concubine Hope, who can murder maniacs as efficiently as rest of the wasteland’s depraved psychopaths, regardless of her on-the-nose name. Although not of the same kickass caliber as Fury Road’s Furiosa, I welcomed a cause to fight for beyond that of an anti-social Max’s survival. His past is a heartbreaking one, marked by the death of his wife and son, yet Hope’s existence offers a trace of happiness worth preserving.
I compliment Avalanche for not making Max’s hunchback sidekick the joke of every conversation, too. Named Chumbucket, I imagine the writers had a field day crafting his dialogue. He worships the Angel Combustion, a fictional deity of his own creation. Most of his speech contains religious allusions to carburetors, driveshafts, or glorious V8 engines, yet Chum proves to be the key to Max confronting Scrotus again. With Max as the wheelman maestro and Chumbucket as the unrivaled mechanic, the pair will forge the Magnum Opus – a be-all, end-all vehicle of motorized manslaughter.
Mad Max convinced me that Avalanche could make an excellent car combat game. Given the handfuls of weapons and tools, every eight-cylinder skirmish resembles a scene cut from Mad Max: Fury Road, full of fire and decimated metal. The story gradually hands out new automobile murder gadgets, allowing players to master their current arsenal’s ins and outs. I delighted in ramming enemy buggies, tearing doors free of their hinges or spearing occupants through windshields via the harpoon. Once shotgun shells became abundant and I secured additional upgrades, I opted for blockbuster kills, detonating fuel tanks, ripping wheels off pickups, roasting cars with my Magnum’s side burners, or sending raiders to the afterlife on a rocket-propelled javelin (i.e., the “thunderpoon”).
The Mad Max franchise believes fuel, water, and bullets are the lifeblood in this inhospitable apocalypse. Those resources matter here, yet Mad Max’s developers insist that collectibles and upgrades mean even more. You’ll witness the boons of a properly equipped Magnum Opus (wrestling structures to the ground with a reinforced harpoon beats plowing into them), but Avalanche banks on too many overlapping systems trying to please open-world fans. Players collect scrap to beef up the Magnum Opus, Max’s gear, and the friendly strongholds he comes across. Completing challenges for tokens improves Max’s health, the amount of ammo he finds while looting, how long he swings a melee weapon before it shatters, and so on.
The real trouble lies in unlocking access to these upgrades. Max cannot increase his health and armor until his wasteland infamy grows, and the remaining upgrades urge you to fulfill main and side missions, decrease the threat level of Scrotus and his army in allied territories, or hunt down scavenger supplies. I hoarded thousands of scrap because the game gated better abilities and accessories behind quests hours away. Worse, the voluntary activities range from mundane – closing valves that spew noxious gas, for one – to invigorating, like assaulting a convoy while keeping a volatile fuel truck intact. You never know what task NPCs will assign you, so temper expectations accordingly.
The best upgrades tie in to Scrotus and his influence across the badlands. Eliminating snipers, disarming landmines, demolishing metallic scarecrows, and vacating bandit camps reduces the warlord’s power. Of course, you might have seen matching objectives in any open-world game from this console generation or the last. Mad Max buries its wasteland in a bevy of open-world errands without accounting for genre fatigue. Snipers and towers meet their ends on the tip of a harpoon all the same, and minefields simply ordered me to drive to a remote area, have Max’s dog pinpoint the explosives, and hold down a button until Max disabled them. Mad Max tracks these chores so you can revisit them later, though the map itself vomits icons.
The hostile outposts should be a point of praise, considering Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, and similar releases reward myriad plans of attack. And yet the sole sign of inspiration Mad Max shows is in how you approach a settlement. Max tags snipers, molotov slingers, and war criers (who buff their allies) on the map. By eliminating these exterior threats, he can infiltrate the camp without alerting its residents. You could also slip inside through an opening in the outer walls, but when Max breaks in, the route to an objective – destroying oil transfer tanks, a Scrotus underling, or gas pumps – remains linear. Kill the guards, blow up the fort, rinse, repeat.
Avalanche even mishandles the improvements you make to friendly garrisons. Strongholds refill Max’s water, health, and fuel reserves every time he returns, if you acquire the designated building materials from caves, bases, and other landmarks. Nevertheless, the developers lock indispensable benefits behind these fetch quests, too. A scavenging crew will automatically retrieve scrap from cars you annihilate, meaning Max no longer needs to park the Opus and run around the wreckage for six or seven pieces of metal. If an upgrade is so crucial that players should construct or obtain it first, maybe that perk should be accessible by default.
Upgrades aside, Mad Max includes other collectibles and ventures. Avalanche captures the lawless emptiness of the films. Sand and rock stretch to the horizon, accented by puffs of black smoke. A civilization, or raiding parties doing what they do best? Survival is the top priority, and many wastelanders treat Max like the outsider he is – a fact I paid little attention to until I began reading relics that recount the apocalypse’s onset. One artifact passed for a child’s miserable drawing of three stick people and an airplane, but the caption tested my composure. “Mommy’s away in the big plane. She kills the bad guys so we can be free. Hope she brings home some food. We’re hungry,” wrote the four-and-a-half-year-old Rhonda. I needed a break after that.
At least the death runs are fun, right? How could racing with a bomb bolted to your car not liven up already unparalleled chases? The standard races strip players of the Magnum Opus – the machine Max spends dozens of hours augmenting – strapping you into pre-customized death traps instead. You lose your tire spikes, nitrous, harpoon – all armaments, essentially – when racing AI opponents. Why does Max retain his shotgun, then, which turns rivals into scrap metal fireballs without penalty? Suffice to say, none of my competition crossed the finish line. Why the developers forbid custom cars is a mystery.
It became a bigger mystery knowing I could drive my Magnum Opus in identical races, minus the AI, for leaderboard positions against friends and online players. The absence of multiplayer is a slight oversight. I would love to hear the rage-filled retorts of people screaming at the intrusive snipers and molotov hurlers, since these entrenched adversaries attack you mid-race whether gamers plan to retaliate or not. Snipers ruptured my tires consistently, leaving me struggling to gain traction on sandy hairpin turns.
That was the least of my driver-based worries, too. Other Xbox One owners may not stumble upon the input lag I did, yet a half-second of unresponsiveness turned the Magnum Opus into a bumper car in tighter canyons and convoy encounters. While I adapted over time, plugging in my controller’s charging cable and updating the firmware did not mend the issue. The problem also made my on-foot progress more perilous than I anticipated. Sometimes Max ignored prompts to grab hold of a ladder or ledge, resulting in a tumble off a mountain or down a pit.
I even stopped counting the times Max refused to counter enemy punches. During fistfights that impersonate Rocksteady’s Batman, the shock and awe of the apocalypse stands out. Max snaps necks, shanks backsides, and stomps War Boys’ faces into red smears. Strapping wrenches to Max’s knuckles and boosting his fury mode – letting Max hit harder and execute dropkicks and suplexes – further brings out the ferocity of our time-tested survivor. These brawls would be a more gratifying display if Max actually parried the jabs of his adversaries. Rather, he accepts his beatings as is.
I cannot verify whether input lag caused me to miss blocks or if the timing is off in general, but when the same publisher, Warner Bros. Interactive, presented the Batman: Arkham trilogy and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to the world, Avalanche Studios warrants no excuse for these unrefined altercations. The least the team could do is produce a cooperative camera, one that does not go haywire when brawling close to walls or refuses to zoom out so players can evade unblockable attacks.
It would be easier to like Mad Max if not for the endless glitches. Some characters stammer through their dialogue, their syllables repeating five or six times before normal speech patterns resume. One stronghold leader disappeared from in-game cutscenes, leaving Max jabbering to the audioless nothingness. Thank you, subtitles. Random tornadoes abduct Max while exploring as well, causing him to ragdoll about the desert until the unruly physics spit him out. I thought the anomaly hilarious; the gusts then ferried me off a cliff to an unnecessary death.
Mad Max‘s primary failing is following by example – Ubisoft’s example, to be precise. How many points of interest can you mark, how many more towers can you assault before the open-world ennui claims your enthusiasm? Within five hours, I’d done the gist of what Avalanche expects players to do for thirty more. Days passed before I submitted to the monotony, yet one moment trumps the rest.
The fire and lighting look fantastic, particularly during the sand hurricanes copied from Mad Max: Fury Road. I drove into the heart of these storms, where the low visibility and metal debris mocked my safety. Lightning strikes also put the Magnum Opus and a convoy I pursued at risk, an active assailant in a three-way war between man, machine, and nature. Six vehicle carcasses later, I rolled away with a terrifying hood ornament as my prize, though one set piece does not make a game. Maybe Avalanche will follow through on the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of the renowned Fury Road, should a Mad Max sequel arise. Or, you know, wait for Just Cause 3.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided.
Mad Max’s fondness for never-ending upgrades and tedious open-world quests stymies the exceptional car combat and compelling characters.