Mad Max

FBT tucks into some Dinki Di. One man enters, one man doesn't leave.

Games based on films usually fall into two groups; the first, ‘tie-in’ games supporting a movie release – cheap, quick and nasty, there’s a special hell is reserved for them alongside child molesters and those who talk at the theatre (When is that Firefly game coming out?) The second, games based on past movies fare better but generally we get less The Warriors, more Jaws Unleashed and middling exceptions such as Enter the Matrix, Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza and Avatar; you had to really love the film to forgive those. There is a third way, games acting as spin-offs, but The Thing, Stranglehold, Butcher Bay etc. worked only because they reference the original then do their own thing; but again, for every Alien Isolation there’s an Aliens Colonial Marines. And don’t get me started on TV-series tie-ins; 24, X-Files, CSI even The Shield and Sopranos have been digitally ruined. Movies based on games don’t fare much better and there’s a reason both fail to emulate the other; the experience. Games can be cinematic but they’re not cinema. Films can be involving but you’re not involved. They should just leave each other alone.

If the game-based-on-a-movie tag wasn’t enough reason to avoid Mad Max the video game, the bigger problem is we’ve already played it - not the 1990 NES game, that was Max in name only, but we’ve gamed as Max-by-proxy for years; any apocalyptic wasteland game is Max-inspired the same way a rain-soaked neon future is Bladerunner (which had two games). We’ve never gotten to be Max, never driven the Pursuit Special while acting out Fifi’s immortal line ‘People don’t believe in heroes anymore? Well damn them! You and me Max, we’re gonna give ‘em back their heroes!’

Plus, do we want to play Max? He’s not exactly the kind of character you want to inhabit. He’s too complex -for all his simplicity- to be reduced to a game perspective, and even the movies played fast and loose with the continuity and motivations, which makes a game adaption tougher; what kind of game is it? It can’t be a driving game, it can’t be FPS, that only leaves RPG - Which makes sense in that Max lives in a wasteland, but still, he’s the very definition of linear; he drives in a straight line, always away from his past - he doesn’t make a home, he doesn’t join guilds and he’s not the kind of guy given to helping Randoms. Max on a side mission? Sacrilege! Yet that’s exactly the genre that developers Avalanche decided on. And the bad omens continued; it was delayed for nearly a year then a teaser revealed Max with an American accent. Later trailers announced in full-screen text ‘you are Max’ – If a trailer for Mad Max has to spell out you’re Mad Max, it’s in trouble and the gameplay looked like it was Fury Road based but they couldn't afford Tom Hardy. This is a tie-in isn't it. Shit. Looks like we’re headed for another Rambo The Video Game.

But the thing is, while Max never thrives, he does survive; survived Toecutter, Immortan Joe, Lord Humungus and even Tina Turner. Can he survive a Tie-In?

Fittingly, we first find Max behind the wheel of the V8 PS Interceptor. Eyes locked on the horizon. Like Fury Road's opening, Max is ambushed by Warboys - but this time led by a giant called Scrotus, who wants a V8. Left for dead and without his Interceptor, Max inherits a dog, thrown from Scrotus’ War Rig for failing to tear Max’s throat out. The two scavenge along until meeting a deformed and clearly unstable mechanic named Chumbucket; Chum has been designing the ultimate wasteland car, his Magnum Opus, and after seeing the fight with Scrotus, believes that Max is a Saint sent by the Angel of Combustion to make Opus soar. Okay then. We can go along with that if it means getting a new car.

Problem is, not only is the Opus unfinished, she’s not a V8. Chum explains there’s various local strongholds under threat from Scrotus and they will have the tools he needs to finish the Opus; and we’ll need the Opus battle-ready to reach Gastown, the only place we’ll find a V8. It’s standard RPG to create a situation where various hoops must be jumped through to gain the final prize, but those hoops, this prize works for Max. It’s minimalist, there’s no distractions and it justifies tearing about in the Opus. We slide behind the wheel. Cue engine roar. Cue shiver-down-back as I, Mad Max, drive into the wasteland.

A Fury Road prequel of sorts, we’re in what’s left of a world ravaged by a resource war, that triggered an environmental collapse, which lead to a worldwide plague, resulting in a societal breakdown. Now that’s an apocalypse. Huge rusted ship hulls litter the land as we drive through bleached coral, dusty seaweed and the occasional whale skeleton – we’re in a dry ocean bed; the Grand Canyon meets the Great Barrier Reef, and it has a sickly sense of death to it; whereas Fallout suggested humanity was at least surviving, rebuilding, all we find here are bodies; things are not going to get better. This is the end. But the end looks great, it’s a detailed, believable-looking game.

And as a game, MM is as stripped back as it’s possible to make an RPG. Max travels light. There’s no backpack full of junk to sell, no wardrobe choices beyond upgrades; he takes only what he needs and gets it by scavenging derelict camps – but stepping outside the safety of the Opus comes at a cost. The wasteland of Max is incredibly dangerous; not Borderlands gimme-a-break dangerous but you’re never going to just wander like Elder Scrolls. Factions run rampant in the wasteland and will come running when they hear the Opus pull up; leaping, punching and kicking at Max, throwing stones or worse. Others burst out of the sand in sneak attacks or wait in the shadows; expect to fight for that tin of Dinki-Di.

Strictly speaking, MM is a brawler game; he does have a rudimentary shotgun with a few shells and a couple of one-stab shivs but he’s mostly a fist man. He can also momentarily arm himself with a melee weapon, including the ‘Thunderpoon’, a type of bang-stick that can be thrown or melee’d with awesome and messy results and uses gas-cans as explosives but most of the time Max is battering heads into walls or the Opus’ hood if not throwing some mean WWE moves; the fights are desperate scraps but it’s not a button-mashing scrum. Reminiscent of WB’s Arkham City (Okay it’s not reminiscent, it’s blatantly the same mechanic and Max has a ‘fury mode’ to unlock quick finishes ending in slow-mo take-downs – I’m Batmad), it’s more of a ballet than a brawl; it’s all about anticipating and timing the beatings you throw down.

Besides the two-legged risks in the wasteland, there’s obviously the four-wheeled ones. The Opus isn’t invincible, but this is where MM becomes something really special. There’s raiding parties patrolling and they don’t just ram, they work together, clamber out of their cars to leap onto yours or lob things to make you crash. It is the most thrilling drive experience in an age, better than any 5-star wanted moment in GTA. It’s terrifying, exciting and random; you get that panic as cars appear on the horizon while you’re scavenging. You race back to the Opus and they give chase; suddenly the Opus is damaged, you’re out of shells, you’re trying to ram one into a cliff-face while avoiding another adorned with spikes, there’s a raider on the hood and you’re running out of road. The Opus bursts into flames and you’re rolling in the dirt trying to avoid them making you their hood ornament, then they pull up, jump out and mob you as the commotion attracts yet more. It’s fantastic.

Each faction has a different style of car, attack and attitude but they’re all insane. Sometimes you’ll find them parked up and catching some rays. Run them over. Sometimes you’ll run them over and then realise they weren’t Warboys but Wanderers desperate for water. Sorry. Destroying cars also yields precious scrap – everything is a commodity in the wasteland. Driving around you’ll come across oil-stained paths criss-crossing the sand. Follow it and you’ll find a truck ferrying Gas to the nearby outposts. Taking on the convoy is just a huge, breathless, desperate fight-on-wheels as you whittle down the convoy to just the Gas rig. Besting it nets you a hood ornament which gives mini power-ups. You’ll need it.

The Opus is just great fun to drive, easily one of the best in-game vehicles gaming has produced. It’s so compelling you often get yourself into trouble just to push its limits. The Opus is your home, a Sacred Place as Chum calls it, and as level-ups unlock it’s potential, you tinker with it as much as Chum does to get it just right for your style. It can be a bullet or a bomb and Avalanche have put a huge amount of work into making sure we love it as much as Chum does. Everything from the muscle-car feel, the growl, the fire it’s exhausts spit, just the feel and thrill of throwing it around; perfect. Max however stays stoically silent on the subject. He's not a silent hero but he is taciturn and minimalist, only saying what’s necessary, only doing what’s needed. Sticking to the attitude we know from the movies, you’re an MFP Officer, the road warrior, the raggedy man. My name is Max.

Despite Max’s focus, we’ve got some exploring to do. Tethered hot-air balloons let you pinpoint what needs doing to lower the Scrotus threat such as giant flaming scarecrows with bodies flayed on them that need to be pulled down, and for that we get a Harpoon gun that can also be used on the cars, or the occupants of cars, gates outside enemy camps, pretty much anything destructible. It’s great fun. There’s sniper posts as well, but Max gets his own car-mounted ‘lead slinger’ as Chum calls it; I’d assumed Chum would take on the role of mission-giver but he rides with Max, hanging on for dear life. Chum isn’t nearly as annoying as I first imagined; he gets nervous around camps and concerned if we’re not tending to the Opus’ needs. He’s chatty, pointing out locations or dangers (he’s a big fan of the ‘mighty duster’ sandstorms) and he’s also cheeky, asking why you got in the Opus on the wrong side and he’s geeky; when a wanderer marvels at some event saying "Surely that wasn’t you?" Chum pipes up with "It was, and don't call him Shirley!" – he even quotes Aliens.

Chum will help fight off faction interlopers when they climb aboard and repair the Opus when you exit, meaning you’re not forced to limp to a garage after every battle; you’re often exiting the flaming Opus though, then distracting the factions long enough for Chum to repair her. Hurry up! You control the Opus’ Harpoon gun via Chum and he’ll drive while you snipe which is a nice touch, he really grows on you but he’s not Max’s only companion; if you take Chum’s buggy into the wasteland, Dog will come along to sniff out locations and mine fields. Disarming them will lower Scrotus’ threat level as will accidentally driving into them (irritating Chum as he repairs the flaming Opus). Best way to deal with mines is luring in a Warboy then watch him become a Was-boy.

They have missed a trick with choosing your companion though. Waiting for Dog to sniff out a mine is laborious and he never leaves the buggy, and without Chum to repair the car it's dangerous too. I know Max is a lone hero n’all and doesn’t have the best history with doggos but if they can't both fit in the Opus it could have been interesting to at least position it as choosing a defensive or offensive pal when you roll out into the wilderness; Chum can repair the Opus but can’t fight while Dog can’t hold a wrench but he’ll come along and chew through Warboys.

When we’re not thinning out his troops, we’re ruining Scrotus’ businesses. In each area there’s refineries, oil dumps and re-enforcement camps. They can be entered by using their own vehicles, but we’re not gonna do that. Once the Opus has weakened the camp enough to enter, Max is on his own and they know you’re coming; Prepare for some serious Batmaning. Most camps will have a War Crier, a lookout suspended from a crane who also beats a drum to Buff up the Warboys like Max’s Fury Mode. Great. If you take everyone out before him, he’ll drop the bluster and half-heartedly suggest you don’t kill him too. On occasion Criers can be reached from outside with the harpoon/sniper, which is very satisfying. Each region always has the same requirements – scarecrows, minefields, snipers, and Camps have the same ‘ruin this’, ‘blow up that’ parameters, but they’re all laid out differently and never a push over; and then there’s the Top Dog camps. Mini bosses. Taking out their mega-camps is a painful process but a good challenge and it’s only the Top Dogs themselves that are disappointing; they all follow a variation on the same fight technique and it’s a shame they’re not as unique an experience as their bases.

As Max barters for Opus tech by doing Stronghold missions that aid whatever ails them, he can also help make them better – but they always benefit him. Finding the plans for a water-catcher, oil containers etc. mean Max gets refilled upon re-entering a stronghold, making them invaluable upgrades. They’ll also collect stray scrap for Max, saving you constantly exiting the car to pick up materials. Stronghold missions revolve around typical RPG ‘go somewhere really dangerous to get something’ missions, but they’re always fun and often reference key points from the movies. About the only truly RPG side mission is one where Max performs legendary leaps to inspire the locals and he does come across races but they’re optional - although racing allows you to return for a free gas top up. The races will have set criteria and some require different cars entirely. Throughout the wasteland Max can find high-value cars and add them to a garage; it’s the only element that doesn’t feel right. Why does he care, where’s he storing them, why isn’t Chum stripping them for the Opus? Taking a faction’s car does mean driving without drawing that factions’ attention but it’s hardly worth it and even ‘legendary’ cars are no match for the Opus. That the locals would deify cars and oil makes sense, but not Max.​

No RPG would be complete without Levelling Up. When Max reaches a Legendary reputation level (from Road Kill to – of course – Road Warrior) a mysterious drifter called Griffa appears to give you a headache. He reflects incomprehensibly on the past and seems to know Max and his pain in intimate detail. It’s implied he might be a figment of Max’s, his conscience trying to let go of the past; or he might be some drifter who had a similar experience, helping Max take on Scrotus. Either way, Max gets upgrade options – nothing new to RPG but we also get to upgrade the Opus. Now this is fun. Everything you need to turn the Opus into a monstrous demon car that actually intimidates factions. A lot of the upgrades are related to the main missions so you feel like you’re preparing for the Gastown showdown, not gadding about gaining xp. It helps that you become invested in the Opus, feeling that while once it was little more than a frame on wheels, now it’s something special.

​Eventually, by way of a launchable Thunderpoon (which is even more fun than it sounds) Max and Chum make it inland and Max’s world changes. A bit. It’s still a sand-soaked, rotten world but there’s roads, or at least broken asphalt snaking through ruins, broken bridges, dry river beds, gas stations and so on, but the further inland you go, the more the desert has encroached until it’s all you see. Mostly we see more Scarecrows, Snipers, Encampments and Top Dogs. And bloody land mines. It’s a bit of a stumble on the game’s part; after all that work in the Ocean, the build up to reaching ‘land’, it’s the same challenges on the other side give or take. Still, off to Gastown, right? Nope, there’s another stronghold, a junkyard that surrounds Gastown that we need passage through.

By now, I’m the Road Warrior, ready for anything but the junkyard is something else. After flinging the Opus around all that open space, I’m trapped in close-quarter alleyways, car-catching trash and dead-ends and constantly reduce the Opus to a burning wreck. Well, I wanted a change. Chum, fix up the Opus. We’re going to Gastown.

Naturally there’s a few more hoops between Max and the V8, and one is the best mission in the game; recover something from a buried Airport. The Opus crawls through the tomb-like airport interior as sand slips and we catch shadows. Chum is not happy and neither am I. It’s unnerving, then scary, then scary-fast as the Opus drives for its life, terrorised all the way back to Gastown. It’s a great mission just as our madness is starting to slip after one too many scarecrows. That it’s for a completely trivial reason adds to the mayhem of Max’s mad world too.

It’s an incredible moment when the V8 is revealed - Max is utterly captivated by it and so are we, seeing what the V8 means to him; he’s staring so hard he barely registers the other prize, a concubine in the shapely shape of Hope, a woman we helped (a bit) a while back. She’s owned by the maniac Stank Gum – who we have to beat to win the engine. Hope also had a daughter, Glory, now nowhere to be seen which is troubling. Max doesn’t seem to notice though because V8. That’s my V8.

​​After everything, it’s no spoiler to say the V8 is a bit disappointing. I’m sure it’s just my uneducated ears, but once Chum has it installed, it’s nowhere near as dirty, guttural; I miss the bang when Max turns the V6’s key. It hums rather than spits. It’s also a let-down that the V8 has a load of upgrades. We just went through all that for something that can be better? It should have been Get The V8, Angels sing, Opus soars, Chum cheers, end credits. But it’s not over yet. After a Thunderdome fight that left me exhausted, we’re thrown into a monumental brawl so epic and unfair that even Borderlands would have said ‘calm down mate’, what could possibly be next? Another exceptional mission to begrudgingly help Hope find her Glory of course, and it feels right that Max would eventually agree to do one thing for someone other than himself – that’s a constant in every Mad Max movie since Road Warrior; someone gets under his madness and briefly reaches the man beneath.

So we’re good to go, yeah? Not quite. It’s a desperately sad moment when Max takes off rather than stays with Hope and Glory. Glory gets in the car only to be lifted out like Feral Kid. Max barely glances in his mirror before taking off. But then, absolutely everything spirals faster than a V8; An insane sequence of events unfold, sending Max so far into the Madness that it’s hard to watch let alone play - and it couldn’t have ended any other way. We'll ignore a completely ridiculous final twist/fight tacked on to spoil it. It's that good a game that even a logic-breaking boss fight can be forgiven. Max drives, always away from his past; except now he has even more past to drive away from. Including me. It’s been a ride being Max. And surprisingly, it’s been emotional being Max.

With the Opus purring like a hybrid, I reflect on how well Mad Max the films were woven into the game. And it’s not just fan-service. There’s ‘two men enter, one man leaves’, Max eats Dinki-Di dogfood, the Lost Tribe is referenced, Max is called Raggedy Man and so much more; it might be a prequel to Fury Road (might be) with the Warboys, the huge storms and general look and feel, but the entire series’ DNA is woven in without turning the game into some sycophant greatest-hits tour. This Max can stand proudly alongside it’s cinematic bros - and manages the impossible; a brilliant tie-in. I would love to be Max again and it’s a shame WB didn’t throw enough support behind this game to warrant a sequel; well damn them. Avalanche gave us back our hero.​

2015 | Developer Avalanche Studios | Publisher WB Interactive Entertainment

Platforms; Win, XO, PS4