By Scott Southard. This is LOAD FILE, where we build castles made of sand again and again. This week, Scott drinks from gas cans and does the thing where you breathe into your cupped palm and then violently sniff while playing Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max, published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
We all saw the movie and agreed it was wonderful. Non-zombie post-apocalypse? Forward-thinking feminism? Big cars and bigger explosions? We knew a video game tie-in was an inevitability, especially in an age where corporate doctrine dictates that any new (or renewed) intellectual property must be milked dry and then milked again. But there’s studio interest and monetary backing behind Mad Max (Why didn’t they give it a subtitle? They could have dampened the movie-game confusion so easily) and recently, there has been some faith rebuilt in the film-based game genre. So this could work out, right?
And quite literally, it did. Mad Max came out as an alright game. While technically not directly tied to the film, the game borrows heavily from the lore as well as the look and assets of Fury Road (Our playable Max is much more Tom Hardy than Mel Gibson, for example). The wasteland is an impressively expansive place and has the general feel of the one we’ve seen before. On top of the source material, it also borrows heavily from some other, similarly styled games (cough…Shadows of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed, all of the Arkhams… *cough*), solidifying the current state of the open-world genre. The result is pretty to look at and problematic to play through, but it’s hard to be too critical towards a game that lets you fire rockets from a muscle car that’s flying over sand dunes with the abandon of a whiskey-drunk cowboy. It’s quite literally a blast.
As would be apropos for a game following the most recent film, we meet Max with very little backstory. Some slight hints and nods toward a former life (the long lost daughter that gives us just enough sympathy to follow Max’s violent crusades) and the Interceptor (which seems to be the series’ Alfred or Q or whatever) tie us into the world, but that’s about it. Besides the item descriptions and character bios (a couple paragraphs for each), the wasteland is yours to explore.
Max himself remains the fairly silent antihero (although the first five minutes seems to hold more dialogue than the entire movie), whose desire to survive has been whittled down to something instinctual and frightening. The throwaway violence he commits in cutscenes is indicative of a life spent enduring, and even if Max’s callous brutality isn’t always agreeable, you’re still rooting for him as a much more capable stand-in for yourself.
But besides laying down a rich setting and a pregnant world, the story lays flat. The game immediately lowers the potential stakes by billing its main villain, Scabrous Scrotus (apparently named by a browser-based gladiator generator), as a henchman of Immortan Joe. Just four months ago, we watched Max defeat Joe. What would have changed that would make Joe’s deputy a comparable threat? The whole thing reads like a secondary plot that isn’t even attempting to veil itself as pressing or important. Top this with a slew of side quests that play more like a constant repetition of your daily morning routine, and you never really feel like there’s anything worth getting done in Max’s world.
The narrative isn’t the only place that has a sense of dichotomous paradox. As Mad Max opens, the gameplay is explosive and awe inspiring. You’re immediately dropped into a world that’s gorgeous to look at and fun to exist within. However, as we all know, looks can only go so far, and once the veneer is scratched, some serious flaws begin to show. (To say this game is derivative would be a generous simplification.) Mad Max blatantly copies logistics from Ubisoft and other WB games (towers and map mechanics being some of the biggest offenses) which is not only uninventive, but unfun. We’ve seen all of this before, and they’ve been done in smarter, more innovative games. When I started playing I thought “It’s a shame that the open-world genre has levelled off,” but as I pushed further into the story and repeated the same side quests ad infinitum, it changed to “It’s a shame that such a well respected developer put out something so adjacent to games we’ve already seen.”
It would be one thing if Mad Max was simply a dope, sandpocalyptic skin on top of Shadow of Mordor, but it’s not. Controlling Max is a muddy swamp trek at best. Trying to get him up a hill is nearly impossible. Maneuvering ladders and zip lines is a mess. The camera is chaotic, and the fighting has been seen (and done better) before. This is nothing like the tight controls of previous iterations in the genre, and I cannot count how many shotgun shells I’ve wasted due to the game’s sloppy reassignment of control layouts. It just doesn’t feel good in your hands, and for a game that will obviously be compared alongside a lineup of games that do play incredibly well, this is a cardinal sin.
TIRED AND CONTEMPLATIVELY LONGING FOR MORE
It’s not as if Mad Max is a bad game. In fact, there are some aspects of the game that have a ton of polish. The world is beautiful and it feels very much like the world we’ve seen on the big screen. Barrelling through an empty desert in gargantuan, metal boats on wheels evokes a primal joy not found anywhere else. But these are smaller aspects of a bigger game that is largely uninventive and uninspired. It’s one thing to watch someone shoot and miss, but it’s quite another to see someone barely try.
Mad Max slept on something that could have been special in a way that not much else could touch. I think my feelings toward it are as manic and confusing as the game itself. The sense of aiming relatively high and missing the mark is palpable, and even while I had some fun, I’m left with such a nasty taste in my mouth. It tastes like sand, gasoline, and wasted potential.