There's a good reason why the new Mad Max game occasionally resembles this year's Mad Max: Fury Road: it's a canonical prequel that pits you against Scabrous Scrotus--son of the film's sinister Immortan Joe. Mad Max's wasteland is greasy and dusty, a place where mechanical monstrosities clash against the natural beauty of the desert. You play the part of Max, an unfortunate wanderer with a troubling past. You charge across open roads in search of redemption, running over those who stand in your way. Driving is central to life in the wasteland, and it's the basis for the game's best moments, too. The combination of an intriguing world and great car combat make Mad Max an occasional joy to play, but shallow ground combat and a handful of other missteps ultimately drive the game off the road.
At the start, you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time when you're assaulted by Scrotus and a pack of his sinewy war boys. They steal your beloved car, the Interceptor, leaving you empty-handed. However, fortune smiles upon you when a Gollum-like mechanic by the name of Chumbucket crosses your path. He's convinced that you're a hero of legend, the "Angel," and he's a whiz with both a wrench and a harpoon, making him the perfect companion in the hard-driving and violent wasteland. You and Chum fend off desperate tribes and push back against Scrotus' forces as you take contracts and hunt down fresh parts for your new chariot, the Magnum Opus. Your ultimate goal is to build a vehicle that's strong enough to cross the void known as the Plains of Silence, where you'll either find freedom, or death on the other side.
Together, Chum and Max are fast and lethal in the Magnum Opus, with Chum manning a small cache of weapons in the rear while you steer the car. Picking apart enemy vehicles and guard posts is a cinch with your harpoon, which is the most important weapon in your arsenal. While driving, press one button to slow down time and highlight nearby objects and people, and press another to launch a harpoon or explosive lance. Alternatively, you can tap the circle button to auto-fire at the closest target, but it's an unattractive option when it's vital that you target specific objects; there's no point in ripping off a car's tire when you can just as easily yank out the driver. It's normal to be confronted by three or four cars at once, and though some carry enemies that will try to hop onto your car, you can purchase spikes to deter hop-ons, resort to your trusty shotgun, or pull over and fight it out with your fists.
Even when surrounded by enemies, you're an effective and brutal fighter. Watching Max man-handle thugs can be entertaining, but the part you play--controlling Max--isn't very interesting or rewarding. Mad Max's combat borrows from Warner Bros.' recent Batman and Shadow of Mordor games, where mashing one button dishes out contextual attacks, and another, when pressed while an icon appears over the head of an attacking enemy, initiates a parry maneuver. You can attack using your shotgun, but you rarely want to because bullets are hard to come by. You also have the ability to roll and evade incoming attacks, but only a few enemies ever justify the effort. The combat system is so simple at its core that nearly every fight can be won by alternately tapping attack and parry, save for a few boss battles where unblockable attacks are introduced. Watching Max make quick work of enemies is occasionally impressive, but when the majority of fights in the game can be easily exploited, there's no challenge to overcome, and no sense of accomplishment. When put side-by-side with car combat, which is complex, full of possibilities, and requires precision and skill to succeed, Mad Max's ground combat feels shallow.
Mad Max also doesn't do a good job of imposing desperation upon you, a feeling that is necessary if the wasteland's threats are to be taken seriously. It's true that water, fuel, and food are hard to come by, so when you find a can of dog food, you eat it. When you come across a family of maggots feasting on a corpse, you take advantage of your rank in the food chain. Water can come from many sources, but never in large supply. Eating and drinking are the only ways to revitalize yourself in the game, but you quickly learn that carrying an empty canteen isn't that scary. For one, beyond the occasional barrage of explosives that come from fortified camps, you rarely face dire situations, and though it may seem like you would need to rehydrate from time to time because you're going full-throttle in the middle of a hot desert, I never noticed any gradual, deleterious health impacts from exposure. Emergent vehicular battles in Mad Max's open world can jeopardize your car, but Chum quickly fixes it whenever you aren't moving, and a generous fast-travel mechanic lets you magically skip the experience of driving through enemy territory. It may be convenient, but adding fast travel to Mad Max is like adding a "skip" button to a fighting game that automatically takes you to the next round.
You can purchase new parts for the Magnum Opus and upgrades for Max that impact your abilities and appearance. You earn new car parts from the leaders of various regions, either by completing fetch quests or dismantling enemy outposts. After a new part is unlocked, you have to purchase it using scrap metal that you collect around the world. You'd think that any old metal would qualify as scrap, but you'd be wrong. You can occasionally collect large amounts of scrap by taking an enemy car back to base, but you normally acquire it from glowing piles of metal that are sparingly strewn about the wasteland. These piles can include items like a muffler, which you conveniently stick in your pocket. I suppose it's helpful that you can carry multiple cars worth of metal on your person, but it doesn't make much sense. We don't mind this in games where fantasy trumps reality, but Mad Max tries to sell you a world where characters are defined by their abilities and limitations, yet it constantly introduces things that contradict this message. It's also disappointing that Chum can't help you collect parts while you're driving the car. He can hang on to the back when you're driving incredibly fast, and repair the Magnum Opus when it's falling apart, but he can't hop off and help you gather items. Having to stop the car, get out, pick up the pieces, and get back in before hitting the road is a frustrating process that slows you down and exposes you to nearby enemies.
It may be convenient, but adding fast travel to Mad Max is like adding a "skip" button to a fighting game that automatically takes you to the next round.
As you perform certain feats in the game, such as killing multiple people using your car or pulling down enough sniper towers via harpoon, Max's reputation rises, and he can pick up new gear, facial hair, clothing, and an upgraded shotgun. More importantly, Max can increase his efficiency as a scavenger by trading in coins to a mystic that resides on top of certain cliffs. He's an odd duck, but like Chum, his peculiarities add to the world's mythology in a great way, as he speaks of your past and buried emotions. Save for a mother and daughter duo that you meet briefly towards the end of the game, this if the only time Max's past is a topic of discussion. The mystic always departs by blowing noxious powder in your face, putting you in the proper state to receive his "gifts," such as the ability to magically receive bonus portions of water when you refill your canteen from the game's limited water sources. The mystic is a worthy cast member, but his gifts stand in the face of your struggle to survive. A character stat shouldn't determine how much water you get from a small pail in the desert; the pail itself should.
There are similar issues found throughout Mad Max, in fact. Fuel, like ammunition, is a rare commodity, or at least it should be according to the story. Oddly, it's not unusual to find fuel cans that repeatedly respawn in front of your eyes. You'd also think that being run over by a car would kill you outright if not seriously injure you, but Mad Max puts more weight behind the punch of a withered nomad than it does a three-ton war machine. If you're playing sloppily during a fight, a few punches is all it takes to bite the dust. Stand in front of oncoming traffic, however, and you can endure getting run over five or six times before you start to worry about your health. In fact, I got so good at being struck by cars that I eventually learned (unofficially) how to jump into the windshield of an oncoming car and perform a triple-misty-flip, landing gracefully on my feet. It's impossible in theory, silly to witness, and easily repeatable. You can also stand in fire without getting hurt, but only some fires; experience taught me that a burning car in the open-world isn't as hot as a flame-thrower that blocks your path during a mission, for example.
Other rules are randomly imposed upon you by the game that take away your freedom with no justification within the story. You have a large, boundless open world to explore, but venture off the map for a few seconds, and a warning screen tells you to turn back, or its "game over." A particular mission wants you to explore an underground tunnel, but if you try to navigate narrow corridors on foot, rather than in your car, a similar warning screen appears. An open-world Mad Max game should force you to contend with the wasteland's harsh elements, but also give you the freedom to go where you please.
Mad Max fails to mix story and gameplay with finesse, but there are elements of the game that stand out as impressive, nonetheless. Raging, electrical storms set a new bar when it comes to weather effects, as fast winds carry tons of dust and debris. The chaos creates a deafening and blinding atmosphere that's occasionally illuminated by lighting bolts and the fires they light on the ground.
A late battle forces you to chase down a convoy and dismantle Scrotus' massive war rig. Regular car combat is fun, but the scale of the war rig and the relentless nature of Scrotus' horde make this battle truly memorable. You pick off small fries one by one as you try to keep up with the war rig. Occasional breakdowns may cause you to pull over and repair your car, which makes the chase all the more thrilling. The story sequences that follow attempt to teach you the cost of pursuing your dreams in the land of nightmares, and it's the best moment in the game's story, though that's not saying much.
Soon after, however, dead characters are magically brought back to life and your journey continues onward. The ending, like many of the game's minor faults, devalues your struggle to survive in the harsh wasteland. It's a shame because Mad Max's world in the game is beautiful, grim, and fascinating. Some interesting characters, impressive environments and great car combat draw you in and incentivise you to keep going, but it's when you get out of the car that things fall apart. Mad Max's combat system is too dumbed down to enjoy, and repetitive activities such as searching for scrap and invading small enemy camps gets old fast. Mad Max offers some great experiences, but for a game that tries to impose the realities of survival on you, it does a poor job of following up on this pressure. Mad Max is too focused on providing you with an open-world that's filled with missions, and not focused enough on making those missions worth your time.