Game Review: Mad Max

Box art
[This was originally going to be three shorter pieces, but I changed my mind, so now you're getting one long piece. I hope you like it. 😅]

The world of Mad Max is one of contrasts and juxtapositions: the wide open road and the stationary stronghold; the hot orange sand and the cool blue sky; the harsh ugliness of mankind's metal ruins and the untamed beauty of the shifting dunes.

The same is true of Mad Max, the 2015 video game. Car combat contrasts with melee combat. The orange day contrasts with the bluish-gray night. The open-world roaming is juxtaposed with the linear "levels" of hostile camps. And the good parts stand out in sharp relief next to the bad parts. 

Now, I'm not saying Mad Max isn't a good game. I wouldn't have spent 25 hours with it if it were a bad game. It's just that Avalanche Studios, the developers, executed very well on some mechanics, and not so well on others. So to review this game, I'm going to use a technique my high school art teacher taught me and sandwich each criticism in between two compliments. So without further ado...

Thing I Like: The visuals
I don't care all that much about graphics. I'm not interested in modding hi-resolution textures into Skyrim or optimizing the frame rate of my monitor. But sometimes a game comes along that wows me with its artistic direction, like Fez and its pixel graphics or the comic book style of Mark of the Ninja. Mad Max is one of those games that managed to impress me with its aesthetic. 

The character models and textures are all fine, to be sure, but the two things that really impressed me were the sky and the shadows. Over the course of each in-game day, the sky changes, from pink and purple at dawn to bright blue during the day to pink and orange at twilight to navy blue at night. It's quite beautiful to watch, and helps you connect a bit to the often inscrutable hermit Max, since you share the same admiration for the desert landscape. Or at least, that's my interpretation.

I haven't even mentioned the sandstorms yet. On rare occasions as you roll across the wastes, you'll see an ominous warning, "Storm Approaching: Seek Shelter" and before too long, a massive hurricane of dust will roll in from over the horizon. It's right out of the opening to the recent Fury Road movie.

The shadows are also some of the best I've ever seen in a game. They realistically shift across the dunes as you walk, or as the angle of the sun changes. It adds a lot to the contrast motif I discussed in the intro, since shade is such a precious resource in the sun-soaked desert.

There are also a couple of cool tricks that the game borrows from cinematography, like the lens flare that signals the glint of an enemy sniper, or the way the color palette burns orange when you stand near a fire or burning wreckage. My favorite use of this trick is the way the color washes out when you approach the shrine of Griffa the mystic. And the way his shrine is covered in caveman-like paintings when you approach, but barren after Griffa leaves, is almost chilling. It lends some credence to the idea that Griffa is entirely a figment of Max's imagination.

Thing I don't Like: Audio and Visual Glitches
It's worth noting that I've been playing this game on an Apple laptop, so my experience may not be true for other players. But I feel obligated to point out that the game isn't graphically flawless. I occasionally see the game freeze momentarily, or experience a bit of screen tearing here and there. Max's beard sometimes vanishes if I look at his face at a certain angle. Visual glitches, however, aren't nearly as obvious as the audio mistakes. I have a persistent problem in that certain types of explosions are utterly silent. It's extremely odd, and completely immersion-breaking. But still, it might be a problem with my machine, and not to blame on the game.

Thing I Like: Car Combat

It's a blast - in more ways than one
For those of you who don't know, the post-apocalyptic universe of Mad Max has not enough water and not enough food, but plenty of gasoline and plenty of cars. And the main character, the eponymous Max, is pretty much defined by his car, the iconic V8 Interceptor. That car is stolen from you at the beginning of the game, but you quickly find a lonely mechanic with a new one: the Magnum Opus. It's fully customizable, from the body to the engine to the color of paint. Not to mention weapons, which include Max's classic shotgun, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher called the "thunderstick," spiked rims for your wheels, and even exhaust-mounted flamethrowers called "sideburners." 

And to be sure, once the Magnum Opus is sufficiently upgraded, car combat is a blast, figuratively and literally. Collisions have a satisfying crunch, the shotgun goes off with a bang, and when you've defeated an enemy vehicle, it explodes with a grand boom

Easily the best parts of the entire game are the convoy chases, side encounters where you pursue a gas-toting rig and its caravan of war machines. Smash your way through each of the entourage before firing a rocket or shotgun blast at the leader and claiming its hood ornament for you own. It's reminiscent of the tanker chase sequence from The Road Warrior as well as Fury Road.

Thing I don't Like: Ground Combat

I think it's fair to say that Mad Max's melee combat system owes a lot of its inspiration to the Batman: Arkham series. You press the X button to attack and the Y button to block enemy attacks. Enemies gather in groups, but usually attack one at a time, so as to keep the brawl manageable. It's simple and elegant - in theory. But in practice, it's a bit more messy. This is just a subjective opinion, but I feel that Mad Max's combat system is vastly inferior to that of the Arkham series and its other copycat cousin, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Whereas Batman and Talion, the protagonist of Shadow of Mordor, can move around the battlefield with a dancer's grace and an acrobat's agility, Max steps slowly around the ring, like a boxer still warming up. Whereas the two more agile heroes can backflip over enemies in the event they're surrounded, Max often finds himself crowded. While Talion can break off of an attack chain to parry an incoming strike, Max commits himself fully to each swing, leaving himself open to strikes from behind. 

There are a few more grouses I have with the combat system: a lack of actual combo attacks, the camera zooms in too close to maintain situational awareness, and the overall feeling that enemy attacks inflict too much stagger. It's a passable system, but fights feel frustrating and repetitive. 

And for those saying I just need to "git gud," well, I have only one thing to say...

That's a fair point.

Thing I Like: The World-Building

It's not often that anyone compliments a game (other than an RPG) for something as esoteric as "world-building." But the map for Mad Max is drawn out as sensibly as The Witcher 3's, or at least that of a great D&D campaign, with roads, camps, and strongholds laid around the wastes in a fashion that reveals much about the world of before the apocalypse. 

For example, you begin your journey at the bottom of what was once an ocean bed. Tall cliffs are to your south, where the continental shelf drops off sharply. The roads for miles around are made of packed sand, and there's nothing but dunes as far as the eye can see. All of this region, now called the Great White, was once underwater. Now squatters dwell in the abandoned husks of old fishing boats, and rusty cars roll over dunes where stingrays and flounders once hid. The first stronghold of friendly civilization you find is in the ruins of a lighthouse elevated on a hill which was once an island; the second is in a decrepit tanker ship. To the east is a tall statue, which once welcomed sailors like Lady Liberty, but which now stands as a memorial to a bygone age. To the west lie sulfuric vents, which are farmed for mixing gunpowder.

To your north lies a great concrete wall with only a few known breaches. What's the origin of this? Well, it's the barrier to what was once a harbor. The holes are old sewer drains and canals, which have been barricaded over by warlords looking to protect themselves from the brigands of the Great White. The "friendly" leader of this new region, the Dead Barrens, is called Pink Eye, and she rules from a bombed-out power plant. Roads in the Barrens are made of asphalt, and you can find the ruins of tire shops, seafood restaurants, radio towers, and more now that you're above the old sea level. And the biggest city in the game, Gastown, is smack dab in the middle of a dump. Because where else would the big bad guy make his home base?

See what I mean when I say this world is well-assembled? It'd be a great setting for an Apocalypse World campaign. Maybe it doesn't matter all that much, but it sure is cool to me.


So there it is, my much-prolonged and procrastinated review of Mad Max: the video game. It's a game of highs and lows, good bits and bad sections. But does the good outweigh the bad? It depends on the player, I guess. For me, I think it's a pretty good game, marred by some unfortunate mistakes. I'll keep playing it till the end of the campaign, at least.

If you liked this review, you may want to watch this other review of Mad Max by Noah Gervais, a YouTuber I've been following for a few months now. He covers plenty of relevant topics that I didn't. In fact, I avoided certain topics for fear of accidentally plagiarizing. It's a good video, so why not give it a watch?

Anyway, have a good week, and I'll try to make another post soon!