MAD MAX: THE VIDEO GAME REVIEW – “SANDBOX? MORE LIKE BLANDBOX”

It’s an accepted lesson in life that you don’t gain much by hanging out with somebody who is generally better than you. If you’re going to sell yourself on looks, don’t eat dinner with Brad Pitt. If you’re going to brag about how good an athlete you are, avoid going to the theatre with Usain Bolt. And if you’re going to make a video game inextricably tied to a movie – a movie that was one of the best things to be made this year – you’d better be sure that you know what you’re doing.

Mad Max is one of those franchises that has had a huge hand in inspiring other video games, such as Fallout, Rage and especially Borderlands, but never really had a direct presence until now, using the recent success of Mad Max: Fury Road as a jumping point to push this game into the public eye.

By the way, get used to hearing about Fury Road in this review, because it set a benchmark in quality that I’m going to point at every time I can. Some might say I shouldn’t judge a game based on how it related to a different creation, in a different medium, but those people are more deluded than a man with a fistful of lottery tickets. This game wouldn’t exist if not for that film, it constantly brings it up in an attempt to validate itself through association and it’s selling itself on the goodwill that George Miller’s recent blockbuster created. The game is basically hanging off the side of the movie like a remora.

Max with binoculars

Yep, that’s sand.

Obviously, the problem is that Mad Max: The Video Game is nowhere near as good as Fury Road. It hasn’t really done itself a solid by drawing attention to the comparison, because it’s not a favourable one. For god’s sake, it’s so unwilling to think for itself that it was advertised as “Mad Max: The Video Game.” When was the last time you heard of a game with that subtitle this side of 1990? The most recent one I can think of is the infamous Rambo: The Video Game, and that was like being punched in the gut by Sylvester Stallone for several hours.

Which isn’t to say that Mad Max is bad. In fact, it falls just on the positive side of average for what it’s worth, but that’s not worth much. I don’t regret buying it, but I don’t feel the need to go out of my way for it either, that sort of thing.

What we’re looking at here is a sort of driving, punching, resource-collecting free-roam game in a literal sandbox, kind of a cross between Sleeping Dogs and Just Cause 2. You play as Max Rockatansky (no, really), a lone survivor in a dusty, post-apocalyptic Australia. At least, I think it’s meant to be Australia. The actor playing Max is a genuine Aussie, apparently, but he sounded to me more like an American trying to gargle a mouthful of koala pee and shredded Fosters cans.

The game starts off with Max having his car stolen by the local warlord as he drives across the wasteland, whereupon he’s beaten and thrown into the dunes with absolutely nothing and must claw back his meagre needs from an uncaring and hostile world in which – no, wait, it’s alright. He’s immediately found by a deformed mechanic prodigy named Chumbucket, who has a safe base of operations, a set of highly useful practical skills, knows the area like the back of his hand, and is also brain-damaged enough to believe that Max is some sort of deity for whom he needs to build the best car ever.

And good thing that all this was here, I was almost expecting there to be some effort put in from the player. Mind you, I do have to congratulate the game for being the first one I’ve ever seen to have a button solely for “make my twisted, brainwashed, hunchbacked slave fix my car whenever I feel like it.” You know what button that is? E! It was so intrinsic to the gameplay to be able to order the disabled guy around, they actually gave that function to one of the vowel keys, and not one of the crap ones like O, or I.

So it’s not a struggle to get from nothing to something. The difficulty comes into driving the sodding cars, because the physics are lurchy as hell and vehicles feel about two tons heavier than they should. They don’t drift, they break easily no matter how much armour I put on them, and all the fun extras you can add to them, like flamethrowers, grenade launchers and the annoyingly necessary harpoon upgrade, they’re all locked off until you do a bunch of side missions, or just spend your time knocking over student art projects.

Max grappled

“Alright, but no tongue!”

See, the wasteland is divide into sections, each one owned by a settlement, and they’re all under the heel of the nutjob who committed grand theft auto on you at the start. Therefore you can earn goodwill by roaming their respective areas, pulling down the scarecrows he’s made, killing snipers he’s sprinkled over the place strategically (pretty smart for a guy who wears a fake rhino horn as a codpiece) and blowing up the conveys that go around doing… Well, we’re not sure yet, but they need exploding, right?

The other way in which you can lower his influence is by clearing out bases of thugs and destroying his oil supply, and that’s probably where the game is at its strongest. By the way, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a shooter, for while there is a shotgun you can use, there’s almost no ammo and it’s more of an instant finishing move for when you desperately need it. For most of the time you’ll be relying upon your fists and the occasional bat with nails in to make it through your foes.

How’s it function? Well, I didn’t make that early Sleeping Dogs comment lightly, because Mad Max uses the kind of melee combat we’ve seen in the Arkham games, Shadow Of Mordor and yes, United Front Games’ recent odyssey of Wei Shen. And this sort of combat needs a name, so I’m calling it a “reaction brawler,” fighting that’s more about keeping an eye on your opponents and cancelling out their attempts to hit you than it is about just tearing through them like an American tourist mistakenly walking through a Japanese paper door.

Luckily for Mad Max, I really like reaction brawlers, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ask for a new take on those mechanics. All the other games I’ve mentioned had their own spin that separated them from the herd. The Arkham series, ostensibly the original creator of the reaction brawler system, was about free-flowing movement and the right tools for job, engaging in a complex game of rock/paper/scissors as each enemy had a specific weakness you had to exploit to defeat them. In Shadow Of Mordor it was based around crowd control – picking off specific targets with the bow, brainwashing others who might be useful, blasting back troublesome enemies to deal with later and terrifying the rest with psychotic finishing moves. Finally, Sleeping Dogs utilised a more combo-based methodology, bringing in heavy and light attacks as well as a variety of different counters and grapples.

But Mad Max doesn’t have any of this. It’s got the basic mechanics, but there’s nothing else there. It’s like the starting template from which the other games all grew, but there’s not a lot added to it in this case, bar a vague emphasis on picking up breakable melee weapons if you see them. It’s still fun, but once you’ve played it a few times you’ve basically seen everything you have to see.

Mind you, the combat can be pretty brutal. Enemies move fast, it’s frequently hard to counter them in time and there’s a fair few attacks that you can’t block and have to roll out of the way. This makes for a pretty jarring barrier to entry, as players will need to have quite a lot of caffeine in them to adjust, but I actually like this. The whole point of this world is that it’s unforgiving, that it’s a struggle to survive. If you could just knock over a settlement with your B.O. it wouldn’t mean much, and it gives it all the more cathartic potential when you increase your stats over the game and can return to entry level missions to break people in half with your massive metal knuckledusters.

However, psychotic skinny people wearing body paint are not your only threat. Perhaps you remember the moment from Fury Road, in which a lightning-tornado-sandstorm obliterates most of a fleet of super-cars without batting an eyelid, like an angry two-year old set loose on his dad’s model train set? For those of you who didn’t know, it looks like this.

Mad Max storm

Holy shit, that puts Hurricane Katrina to shame! And of course, the video game adopted these destructive typhoons as well. Storms occur randomly in the wasteland as you explore, and you’re given a shockingly brief amount of time to get to a settlement and wait it out. Of course, you could always venture back outside to face them, because the rewards are not insubstantial, though you do run the risk of getting fried by a thunderbolt or hit in the face by a piece of corrugated iron that was was being blown past. The profits to be had are large crates of scrap metal, the game’s primary resource, which are blown through the air and can be secured with your car’s harpoon if you get close enough. Cracking these open will get you far more scrap than any other source in the game, which you’re going to need to upgrade yourself, your car, and basically get around in style. It’s money in all important respects, except that it doesn’t have the Queen’s face imprinted in it.

There are other resources, but there’s not much to them, so don’t get your hopes up for yet another survival simulator. Water just functions as a health-regen item you can carry around, and food has the same purpose, it’s just eaten on the spot rather than stowed away for later. The only other thing you can search for is petrol to fuel your car, but it’s so common that I never ran out. A full tank lasts as long in the game as it would in real life, and every base is overflowing with the stuff, not to mention that you can store an entire spare can of fuel in the back for emergencies. I never needed these spares, though, and found them more useful as makeshift explosives, as you can always stick a burning rag in the top and use it to ruin a warboy’s day.

But this is all fringe stuff. The real nail in the coffin, the real reason why it shouldn’t have sidled up to Fury Road and kept smelling its hair, is the story. Fury Road had an epic plot, combining massive action set-pieces and fascinating absurdity with powerful character arcs, heartfelt emotion and a surprisingly nuanced approach to several philosophical questions about faith, patriarchal values and gender attitudes in society.

Max vs stairs

Max bears witness to a shopping mall the day after Black Friday…

So which of these did the Mad Max game bring with it? Um… None of them, or at most makes a few vague shrugs towards them. Even the easiest and most iconic part, the Mad Max weirdness, all feels fairly token. Yeah, the cars have spikes on them and the villain is called Scabrous Scrotus, whatever. It’s surreal, but it feels forced, feels unnatural. It’s entry-level oddness, insanity for beginners. I never felt really startled by any of it, which is pretty much a deathblow.

On top of which, what the hell happened to the empowering presentation of females from the film?! The movie included a badass woman warrior who personally lead a dynamic escape to return to a superior matriarchal society, only to decide that what really needed to be done was to go back and conquer the testosterone-driven civilisation they left behind. And, if that wasn’t enough, she had a robot arm and was called Imperator Furiosa! Seriously, how awesome could she be?

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have her or anything comparably close. The only major female character is an imprisoned prostitute who has to get Max to rescue her daughter, because there’s absolutely no way that somebody without a Y-chromosome could do it herself. Any others? Well, there’s a woman with no legs who needs Max to build her a boat, and a drug-addled lunatic who you then have to murder once she’s done what you needed her to do. Yeah, something feels a bit off about this story.

The weakest flaw is Max himself. The character portrayed in Fury Road was a great deal more sympathetic, as numerous horrible experiences had basically reduced him to a terrified fight-or-flight instinct, albeit one coiled around a sense of stubborn altruism. But the Max in this game is just an arsehole. He’s bad-tempered and aggressive, even going so far as threaten those who are already helping him, which is hardly likely to make him relatable unless they’re marketing this game to loan sharks.

I also don’t get much sense of Max’s motivation. He’s determined to get to somewhere called the Plains Of Silence, but he’s obsessed with the idea that he needs a good car to do that, and for that reason about 85% of the story is Max trying to get hold of a V8 engine, because apparently the V6 he has already just isn’t good enough. And whilst the Plains Of Silence might have held intrigue, his bio in the glossary flat-out tells you from the start that they’re made up in his head, so there’s not much to be had there either. The most development Max gets comes from one poorly-written scene in which you can practically hear the writers straining to make him more human.

Hope

“What do you mean, I’m as good as female representation as this game gets? I’m shit as a character and we all know it!”

But he’s not human. He’s just a vague concept, that of “angry white man with dead loved ones.” That’s a tango we’ve definitely danced before, but like the melee combat earlier, there’s no twist on this or even on him. No charm, no complexity, no reason to follow him except that the camera demands it. And all the bone-crunching finishing moves aren’t going to make me like him any more than the next guy, because a fridge falling off a cliff could accomplish the same thing.

Finally, frustratingly, the ending is a flop. After a disappointing boss fight in which you basically blow up a few vehicles as you’ve been doing before, Max does something truly horrible for no reason, at which point he has to throw spears at a car, and then the game is over. That’s it. Not with a bang, but a whimper, I think is the phrase.

There’s enough good stuff in Mad Max to make it just above average, but most of the game is wasted potential. Story is pathetic, combat isn’t as developed as it should be, driving is clumsy, survival elements are lacking. There’s other stuff, like the fact that climbing is too contextual and the difficulty curve is wonky, but generally Mad Max comes across as lazy. Buy it if you see it for fifteen pounds or less, but don’t feel the need to rush out for it now.


6/10
Good mechanics go undeveloped and the plot is a trial to get through, but there’s enough at the core to make Mad Max basically workable and occasionally enjoyable, though it’s largely unadventurous and won’t stay with you for more than a week.

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