Mad Max does so many things right. It snags some of the aesthetics from the beautiful Mad Max: Fury Road and melds them with game mechanics that make perfect sense within the context of the Mad Max universe. Features like vehicle customization and combat are exactly what fans would expect of a Mad Max game.
Mad Max is easy to dive into and is easily one of the best movie-based video games I’ve ever played. But sadly, it doesn’t have much soul — it doesn’t make me feel much of anything about the characters or story. In my article about Dark Souls, I wrote about games that just follow conventional wisdom — Mad Max is one such game. It’s an enjoyable game that does little to make waves or innovate, and loses touch with what it means to be a Mad Max game in the process.
The game opens with Max losing his Interceptor to the legions of Scrotus. Shortly afterward, he happens upon a wastelander named Chumbucket, who is a quintessential Mad Max type character and spouts religious lingo like a Puritan minister in a church devoted to the automobile. If the wasteland has taught us anything over the course of four movies, it’s that possessions are fleeting — Max frequently loses his possessions in the films. At first, the game appears to imitate this trope adequately, but with the assistance of Chumbucket — who reveres Max as some type of messiah figure due to Max’s driving skills — Max almost immediately acquires access to the game’s first base and a new car.
Max traverses a dried out sea bed acquiring upgrades to his car and himself until he finds another base. And then another. And then another. It feels a bit redundant and gamy after not too long. Max even comments on how he’s going to earn one warlord’s trust just as he did with the others. Warlords in the movies are daunting, unpredictable creatures best left alone if one could avoid them. But in the video game, they’re all tough talkers left helpless and incapable by Scrotus and his minions.
Each warlord’s base is in shoddy condition, and of course, each of them is unable to improve their own condition. However, Max can easily upgrade these bases to provide benefits such as fuel and bullets. This means supplies are never more than a fast travel away, and that’s sad. Scarcity of resources is such a common thread that runs through the movies that it’s unfortunate to see how quickly Max finds himself sitting on top of heaps of bullets and gasoline, and never too far away from a full canteen of water.
Bullets need to be in constant supply because the game seems to think that wasteland snipers should be a common occurrence, and the player needs a way to take these nuisances out. And that’s precisely what they are — minor nuisances. Either they take pot shots at Max’s car every time you drive by or Max is forced to stop the car and shoot them. Of course, they’re generally so incompetent that they won’t notice Max if he’s any reasonable distance away, so they don’t actually pose any sort of challenge as long as bullets are in supply. Wasteland snipers could’ve been easily made scarce or just removed from the game entirely and I doubt anyone would miss them.
The gas situation is even more unfortunate it’s such a prime concern in the series that it’s even the direct focus of Road Warrior (and the indirect cause of the antagonism in the original Mad Max). But gasoline was never a problem for me — it’s available throughout the wasteland, and it’s so copious that Max doesn’t mind using countless portable tanks of petroleum just to blow things up.
It’s stunning because, at times, Max appears to be more of the villain than the wasteland marauders because he destroys oil pumps and reserves — the only capabilities the people have of long distance transportation across a hostile environment. This is some sort of short-sighted total warfare if everyone believes the best way to eliminate Scrotus’ faction is simply to destroy all the resources in a region. Yes, Max burns up an oil camp out of spite in Road Warrior, but the settlement was under seige — in the game, he destroys oil rigs to liberate a settlement and allow allies to take over.
I’ve often allowed my real life car to basically run on fumes just because filling up is costly and inconvenient, but in Mad Max, I never let the Magnum Opus’ tank drop even as low as three-quarters of a tank. The fuel mechanic is basically just a vestigial piece of gameplay designed to remind us that gas is important in the movie series. But its affect on how people play the game is virtually non-existent.
Mad Max features a mysterious sage-type person, Griffa, who resembles a grown up version of one of The Diggers from Recess. Griffa advances Max’s abilities in exchange for Griffa tokens. The problem is that these tokens make no sense in terms of the game’s narrative — they just magically appear on Max and he can trade them in when he visits Griffa like he’s at a Dave and Buster’s for soul-searching. This is an uninspiring video game-type of way to handle the issue of advancing Max’s abilities. Just referring to them as tokens invites players to ask questions about their appearance and origin and method of reaching Max that the game isn’t prepared to answer.
Mad Max is a concentrated shot of video game conventionality; it’s one tiresome video game trope after another alongside uninteresting attempts to gamify the movie series. This is so egregious, in fact, that it’s difficult to lose yourself and forget that you’re playing a video game and lose yourself in George Miller’s incredibly imaginative world.
As problematic as this is for the experience, maybe the greatest sin is that this game loses what it means to be “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Namely, this game borrows heavily from the Batman: Arkham series with its combat. But first off, Max’s powers are a slightly more grounded in reality than Batman’s, and his tool belt is not nearly as extensive, so the moves he can utilize are severely limited. The combat just can’t be as cool as swinging from one structure to another, pouncing on an enemy, using some other cool gadgets, and then zipping out again. And if the combat is just going to be an underwhelming version of the combat in the Arkham series, why bother?
But more importantly, in four movies, I’ve never seen Max fight like he does in this game. He flees from large packs of War Boys in Fury Road, and the car gives him the ability to outrun the terrors of the wasteland. But because he can take on hordes of them in this game, they don’t instill fear like they do in Fury Road — they’re just more grunts to be dispatched. In fact, I found that car combat is completely unnecessary if you’re able to park the Magnum Opus on a rock or ledge and force the enemies to get out of their vehicles and get into a fist fight with Max. Basically, Max’s super hero brawling skills make it preferable to circumvents some of the vehicle combat.
Ultimately, the problem for me is that this is a fun game that bears similarity to the Mad Max films. If the names were different, this could almost be Rage 2. This experience spends far too much time trying to follow conventionally popular mechanics instead of utilizing mechanics that suit Mad Max. It’s a fun game, but it’s just not a Mad Max game. And that’s heartbreaking; the world that Mad Max survives in is captivating — somehow this inhospitable world and pervasive insanity are still beautiful and captivating. I hope we will have more opportunities to explore this world in movies and video games that are true to Miller’s vision.