The post-apocalyptic wasteland is probably the best setting for any open world game. As developers try to construct narratives and plots involving contemporary settings , too often their best intentions are tossed by the wayside because of the Bacchanalian sense of freedom sandbox games gift players.
In other words, how are onlookers supposed to view the protagonists of games like Watch Dogs or L.A. Noire, when they can veer offroad and mow down pedestrians, simply because the player feels like doing so?
It’s a problem that the script writers at development studios face so often, there’s even a rather pretentious term for it: ludonarrative dissonance.
Happily, this isn’t a problem creators who set their stories after the collapse of civilisation face. The reason is that, after the collapse, basic survival becomes the be all and end all for anyone left, and so all bets are off. In a burnt out dystopia, the player – and by extension, the game’s protagonist – can be as cold-blooded, light-fingered and sociopathic as they like without breaking the narrative at all (see: Fallout 3, I Am Alive and Tokyo Jungle).
Mr Rockatansky’s arrival
It clearly isn’t a problem for the creators of Mad Max, the latest example in a long line of post-apocalyptic open world games. In fact, Mr Rockatansky’s arrival in a massive sandbox game feels rather long overdue; everything about the film franchise – the vast wasteland expanses, the brutal violence, the outlandish vehicles and the erratic characters – practically screams out for the videogame treatment.
The story in Mad Max exists apart from the events of the recent Mad Max: Fury Road movie, although it does contain a couple of nods to Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron’s latest vehicle. After an opening in which Max is ambushed and his precious V8 Interceptor is stolen and subsequently wrecked (yes, again!) he comes across a skittering freak called Chumbucket, who offers to build him a new car.
Chumbucket talks about vehicles the same way a born-again Christian talks about God, and he views Max as something close to divine, referring to him again and again as ‘Saint’. Max, for his part, isn’t particularly concerned with his new mate’s beliefs but he’s not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so the pair of them set out into the wasteland to find parts for Chumbucket’s car – The Magnum Opus. Hilarity ensues.
In terms of its structure, Mad Max borrows heavily from Ubisoft’s open-world template; players are let loose in a giant environment and their progression depends on their ability to take out camps and strongholds, lower threat levels by destroying totems and watchtowers, and open up the map from raised vantage points. In this case, hot air balloons and Max’s binoculars stand in for Far Cry’s Radar Towers and Assassin’s Creed’s Eagle Viewpoints. Alongside the different locations that players can loot for resources, there are races, time trials and the odd convoy to take down – so there’s plenty in this world to keep the player busy.
Prepare to mix it up
Naturally, the wasteland is a hostile place filled with tons of enemies itching to kill their fellow man “over a tank of guzoline” so it won’t be long before players are mixing it up hand-to-hand or vehicle-to-vehicle. In the case of the former, developers at Avalanche Studios have lifted the basic set-up from Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series; players use a couple of buttons to attack and block and they flow between opponents, racking up hit-streaks that offer attack rewards. However, the combat in Mad Max has none of the free-flowing grace of the Arkham games. Rather, fights here put a premium on looking eye-wateringly brutal.
Vehicle combat has a certain chaotic charm to it. The variety of cars available in which players can tool about in the wasteland don’t exactly hug the road (or any other surface) and tend to bounce around erratically. So car battles are rambunctious carve-ups in which cars, engine parts and occasionally drivers are sent flying in all directions. Early on in the game, Chumbucket builds Max one of the most delightful weapons available – a gas-powered harpoon gun, which players can use to pull down structures, rip doors off cars and pull drivers through the windshields of their cars. Chum, incidentally, rides everywhere in The Magnum Opus with Max and is able to carry out on-the-spot repairs should she become a little too banged up.
To avoid the trap that Twisted Metal fell into – where car battles became wars of attrition due to lousy physics – the on-road action slows down when players use either the harpoon gun or Max’s sawn-off to draw a bead on enemy drivers and vehicles. This means blasting enemy drivers or hitting the odd gasoline drum in the back of an enemy car aren’t tasks that require the reflexes of Mr Miyagi.
The Magnum Opus is a ride that begs for modifications right from the off – being, as it is to begin with, a rusty chassis on four wheels. Over the course of the game, however, players will add all manner of augments like better armour, bigger engines, flame-throwers under the runner boards and spikes on the wheels to shred enemy tyres. Just the sort of accoutrements anyone would want for their daily morning commute.
Desolation: Nailed it
What Avalanche absolutely nails in Mad Max is the overriding senses of desolation and desperation that hung over all the original films. Resources in this world are scarce; players will have to scrounge and safeguard any of the water, maggots, dog food, scrap metal and bullets they find – and then consider very carefully how and when they are going to use them.
Visually, the wasteland in Mad Max is a huge, sprawling expanse of sand dunes and cracked earth, pock-marked here and there by forts and outcroppings and smashed remnants of the earth that was; broken, sand-filled ships and gutted pipelines look gorgeous in their humbled states. In the distance, players can always see GasTown, the main goal of Max’s efforts, belching steady plumes of pitch black smoke into the sky. It’s a vista that threatens to swallow all hope – especially when the player finds themselves running low on resources and forced to trundle its seemingly endless roads on the lookout for food, parts and the oh-so-precious fuel to keep Max’s ride running.
Like its world and its protagonist, Mad Max boasts more than a few rough edges; missions can feel repetitive after a fashion and the wasteland isn’t too varied in terms of the challenges and characters it offers up. The car combat could also use some tweaking; seriously, who releases a driving game in which there’s no handbrake turn available in any of the cars?
Mad Max, then, can be guardedly recommended. It isn’t very innovative and it owes a debt of influence to better-realised and altogether stronger games. But it excels in planting players in the boots of George Miller’s road warrior and the scorched earth he inhabits beautifully. Given how many games have mined those iconic films for inspiration, perhaps Mad Max has earned the right to borrow “a piece from here and a piece from there”.
Mad Max was reviewed on PC, but is also available for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Recommended retail price is R799 on console and R599 on PC.