With 2024 on our doorstep I have had some free time during the holiday season to look at my backlog and, purchased on some Steam sale long ago, I spotted Mad Max with zero installs and zero time played since being acquired years ago.
Released almost a decade ago, Mad Max is particularly interesting to me as I recently played Batman: Arkham Knight for the first time.
These two games actually share a lot of similarities: a 2015 release year, Arkham-style brawling when on foot, a huge focus on vehicle mechanics, an open world, RPG elements, a licenced universe, and I am sure there are a few smaller ones like a revenge-fuelled warpath based on dead family and a deep, gravely voice for the protagonist.
Unlike Arkham Knight, Mad Max doesn’t have a franchise of previous games to build off of, instead coming into the world as a standalone offering from developer Avalanche Studios and publisher Warner Bros.. While it doesn’t have a game series to iterate on there are the movies, especially Fury Road which released in May 2015, while the Mad Max game arrived later in the year come September 2015.
Unfortunately the movie and the game are not connected, but share many similarities. While this was almost certainly done for licencing reasons as I’m sure Tom Hardy is expensive to use the likeness of. That said, in a meta sense, it does work. For those who haven’t watched all the Mad Max movies going back to the original in 1979, this franchise is less about subsequent entries building on each other, but rather the legend of the Mad Max character as this tragic spectre of death that haunts the wastelands.
Putting all that prelude aside and booting up the Mad Max game we’re treated to an intro cutscene where Max is beaten almost to death by the main antagonist Scabrous Scrotus. This awfully named villain also steals and destroys Max’s familiar Pursuit Special / V8 Interceptor / whatever you want to call it.
This famous movie car is referred to as the “Black on Black” by another main (and arguably best) character in the game, Chumbucket. This character – also sometimes called “Chum” or “Blackfinger”, the name for wasteland mechanics – gets Max rolling again in a new vehicle known as the Magnum Opus. This car is barely a frame and a small engine (a V6 no less, something Max truly despises) and throughout the game upgrading it will be your main purpose.
In this introduction to the game you get a good feel of the mechanics that you will be spending several hours with. We know the Arkham combat is less tolerated today but Avalanche really pulled it off. You will be doing a lot of fighting in Mad Max and we never got sick of it even after I finished most of the game’s content at around 40 hours.
The melee is incredibly smooth and satisfying with Max being more grounded in reality compared to Batman who would sometimes ice skate across the battle field or pull off insane fat ballerina acrobatics.
Changing up the Arkham combat formula of attacking and countering is Fury, a meter you build up in combat that, when filled, grants you extra strength and the ability to pull off some moves that you can’t usually like attacking bosses directly and punching right through unblockable attacks.
Fury mode is also where we see something that is rather clever used throughout the game – NPC dialogue. When you go into Fury mode the enemies will remark on your new insanity and express fear and warnings to others. It doesn’t change how they actually play against you, but it is a really nice reaction to player input.
Another addition in the on-foot combat is Max’s shotgun. I forgot to mention that Scabrous Scrotus steals that from you too so you’re left with a cobbled together pipe shotgun instead. It still does the job though but you’re limited by scarce ammo so you can’t just shoot your way out of every encounter.
The Magnum Opus is another area of the game where you can’t just shoot to solve all your problems… at least not yet. Initially all your new ride can to do damage other vehicles is slam into it, but that will change as the game goes on. It’s not long before you get a harpoon that can be used in combat to ride off armour, wheels and even to pull enemies right out of their cars. This can also pull down gates, destroys towers and more. It’s a versatile tool and a lot of fun to ragdoll enemies with the quick pull feature.
Other upgrades include nitrous to go faster and do more damage with rams, spikes on the wheels for grinding damage, spikes on the car to prevent being boarded and even flames on the side to burn up enemies. Your handheld shotgun can also be fired out of the window to target vehicle weakspots like the driver or exposed fuel tanks.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you choose to play, all the vehicles upgrades pale in comparison to the Thunderpoon. This is essentially a rocket launcher that can one shot most other vehicles in the game. Even the most armoured of enemies go down quickly when faced by this. Like the shotgun you’re limited by your ammo reserves, but this is solved in short order by Stronghold upgrades, something we will get to soon.
The Thunderpoon basically invalidates all other combat options in Mad Max. The other ways to do damage are not only exponentially slower, but they don’t have a lock on like the Thunderpoon does. Because of this the game’s vehicle combat becomes far too simplified after just a few hours of gameplay.
This is a real shame but, on the upside, that does leave more Scrap (the game’s one universal currency) to upgrade other parts of the Magnus Opus such as the engine, armour and aesthetics.
Strongholds, basically your camps of operation, are another place to dump Scrap and take on missions. The camps will reward you with health, water (your way to heal when in the wastelands) and most importantly – ammo. Once you complete a simple mission to retrieve a character that can make gunpowder the game takes another nosedive in difficulty as visiting the camp at any time using fast travel refreshes your entire ammo stock.
The game does try to limit you in this regard by putting a timer on how often this refresh can be done, but by the time you have killed enough enemies to deplete your ammo that timer will have expired and you can restock your ammo for free.
Avalanche should have taken another hard look at how it balances ammo and combat unlocks in the game. One very simple change would have been to make Thunderpoon ammo you can carry halved. This small change would have forced players to engage with other vehicle combat options even with multiple camps that can all refresh ammo.
Right now, however, I had so much fun with Mad Max. There’s a reason why I only gave Arkham Knight around 20 hours of my time, but Mad Max got double that. I’m not saying that one game is better than the other, just that Mad Max is more rewarding in the moment.
Not only are new upgrades and things to do given out at a very satisfying rate, but the Scrap currency always gives you something to collect and strive for. I am very aware that this is part of the human brain that loves to see numbers go up, but I have one of those dumb human brains and yes I do indeed like to see the numbers go up.
The gameplay loop of open world exploration, combat, resource gathering and upgrades which allow you to do that all again but better is especially fantastic in Mad Max and I never found myself being too bored.. with a few exceptions.
The map of this game is relatively fun to engage with thanks to the threat system. The threat of Scabrous Scrotus in any given region, and the amount of goons roaming around, can be lowered by doing certain objectives. Killing snipers, tearing down monstrous “scarecrows” made of human bodies, clearing enemy camps and more fun side missions all bring this down. Many later game upgrades are also hidden behind low threat ratings so if you want the best stuff you need to get them this way.
The problem is that one particular activity is so annoying and boring that it should have been scrapped. Clearing minefields is the only task players need to do where you need to leave the Magnum Opus with all its cool upgrades you have been grinding for and exchange it for a slow, weak buggy. The buggy houses a dog that can sniff out mines and you will need to listen to this barking little mutt scrape against your eardrums for hours to clear the mines for the best unlocks.
I love dogs, I have all my life. I don’t think a home is really a home without a dog in it and I’m a big “man’s best friend” proponent, so congratulations to Mad Max for instilling in me a deep hatred of this one specific dog and the endless, slow mine clearing missions I had to endure just so I could make my fictional car marginally better.
Aside from the mine sweeping I have few other real complaints for Mad Max. I can definitely say that the story is a real stinker and you could skip all the cutscenes without really missing anything.
The voice acting is horrendous too and I would have loved if they got someone a bit better for at least Max himself. That being said this voice actor did pull of one of my favourite videogame line reads of all time. In this game you can recover health by eating one of three things, aside from drinking water from your canteen. That’s maggots from dead bodies, meat right from dead lizards you can shoot and tins of dog food.
After scarfing down what must have been hundreds of maggots and a few lizards, on top of dozens of cans of dog food, Max hit me with the line “this better be real dog food” and got one of the most genuine laughs out from all the years of games I have played.
One last niggle I want to mention is the Scrap economy. As mentioned I really like this system and how rewarding it is but it has been kneecapped. One way to earn Scrap passively is by unlocking a certain upgrade at Strongholds where NPCs will collect Scrap for you while you’re not playing. That’s great and very much appreciated in the late game where upgrades cost thousands. The problem is that the game used to track your offline time with a server, and that server was shut down in 2020. Because of this you have less ways to earn Scrap and, again at the end of the game, we were hurting for more.
Still, as a game you can play right now Mad Max comes highly recommended. It is available on PC and playable on PlayStation and Xbox through backwards compatibility. Wait for a sale to pick this up and have a blast playing one of the most iconic movie characters of all time.
If you’re not a fan of the open world RPG flavour of games from a decade ago you may still find yourself having fun here as you beat back the wastes to upgrade Max and the Magnum Opus.