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Impressions: Mad Max

Bleary Road

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I’m trying to work out what I think of the early hours of Mad Max [official site] through a fog of flu and headaches, which is something I’d hoped might help enliven an interpretation of George Miller’s ultra-violent feverish post-apocalyptic peculiarity. Oddly, I’m increasingly convinced that my fever is the closest this massive open desert world will get to capturing that distinct tone of the films. But what about the rest? The driving, the punching, the quest for silence?

We’d love to have provided you with a more detailed review of game by now, but unfortunately Warner only provided PC code after release, meaning we didn’t get our blood-encrusted hands on it in time. So instead I shall ramble semi-articulately about the atmosphere it sets in its early hours, and the odd mix of other people’s fun ideas delivered in a strangely flat way.

Coming from Avalanche, the assumption was that comparisons with Just Cause would be drawn. As it happens, the game it’s most like is Warner’s 2014 hit, Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. Except without the wonderful Nemesis system, and most of the ingenuity. What we’ve got here is an enormous open world of bits and pieces, scrappy things to do, and nothing to cohere it into something meaningful.

It feels like, so far, a game made of the left-over sidequests from other open world games. Fetch this and bring it here, search that bunker for loot, drive that car off the road, and perhaps most significantly, clear this enemy encampment and take it as your own.

That last part sounds the most Just Causey, but again, is far more Mordor. Pockets of enemies clustered in various pseudo-arenas betwixt walkways and passages littered with gubbins to pick up. Before you go in, with a hefty dose of Far Cries 3 and 4, you can pick off particular enemies from afar, before alerting the camp to your presence, then storm the barricades and start punching everyone else in the face. Unlike Far Cry, there’s no option for a stealthy approach beyond this, especially as ammo needs to be very carefully preserved. Instead it’s a punch fest using the oddly limited melee combat of pressing X a lot, and sometimes Y. (Assuming you’re using a controller, which I am, as it clearly prefers it. Mouse/keyboard works fine, however.)

I thoroughly enjoy this sort of thing. Clearing out bases – it has that therapeutic tidying aspect, where you’re told you did “100%” of something, and afterwards the base is filled with good guys fixing the walls. I love gathering loot, and ticking off ridiculous kleptomaniac sidequests. I cleared Far Cry 4’s map entirely and thought, “Well, I guess I’ve finished the game then,” before remembering there was the main quest to do. So I’m trying to work out why it is that Max is leaving me feeling so flat.

It’s certainly to do with the combat. It’s so simplistic that Max’s extraordinary acrobatics and brutal finishing moves feel mostly like a mockery of my just tapping at the same button over and over. If you’re in a camp with a War Crier, and don’t take them out quickly enough, they buff the enemies making them tougher to fight. I’ve found the game is much improved if I deliberately allow this to happen, because then the fighting at least offers something. They dodge better, they’re tougher, and they’ll attack you harder. Instantly more entertaining.

The gathering is frustrated, too, by poor marking on the map, and an underwhelming result. You’re mostly after Scrap, which is essentially the game’s currency, spent on upgrading your main vehicle – your Magnum Opus – and Max’s abilities, as well as improving Strongholds. But you pick it up in such silly quantities, 3 here, 7 there, with an average early spend around 300, that it feels hollow. Having bases cleared means you regularly produce lumps of Scrap in the background, which arrives in piles of 50 to 100, again making the looting – so enthusiastically flagged up by the game – tiresome.

And then the driving. It’s mostly pretty good. You can steal enemy cars and bring them back to your stronghold if you want them, but apart from making you less likely to be spotted by the psychic snipers when scouting an enemy camp, there’s little incentive. For the most part, you’re driving your main car, which – demoralisingly – also forms the core plot.

Max loses “Black On Black”, the Pursuit Special that appears in Mad Max 1, 2 and Fury Road, right at the start, and believes it scrapped and gone. But he meets a hunchback mutant – Chumbucket – who offers to build him a new car (for some reason), based on his religious zealotry for vehicles. His “Angel”, the Magnum Opus, is to be Max’s ideal car, which he rather rudely demands must also be a V8 like his old Interceptor. Parts must be gathered, Scrap must be accrued, and missions must be completed (because, um, they just must, right) for important features to become available, to make the car strong enough to survive Max’s aim to reach the Plains Of Silence so he can find his peace. Or whatever.

As someone who generally loves games providing him with busywork, Mad Max is turning me off by being nothing but busywork. And yet, it’s wholly unfair to just write the game off because of it.

In many ways, this is an extraordinary game. Five years ago – good gracious, we’d have been organising parades in the streets for a game that offers so much freedom, so much to do, and so much driving cars off cliffs. They’ve built so much. I’ve barely scratched the south east regions of the map, and have already encountered 21 different enemy types, 12 different enemy car types, 13 of 64 locations, augmented my car with all manner of parts, given Max a long shaggy beard, and distracted myself on any drive to a mission by exploring a grounded shipwreck or gotten into a car-bashing road fight.

But it’s all felt like distraction, not meat. That grounded shipwreck – it had a marker on the map for an item I needed to find for some gathering quest or other. Despite looting everything in the region, the marker won’t go away, and I keep going back to find whatever it is I’ve apparently missed to no avail. That’s happened a couple of times, meaning the map markers are increasingly unhelpful. And those car fights – well, they are as annoying as car fights have been in every game that’s ever featured them.

You can either just headlong ram into enemy cars, or using a muddled method, slam into them from the side while pressing a corresponding button. Their health-markers go down, and eventually they’ll either blow up, or drive off at such a speed that chasing after them is either futile or takes you way off your path (and possibly into territory you won’t survive). Neither proves at all satisfying. At best they’ll drop a hood ornament or similar, but mostly you then have to get out of your car to pick up the five or six pieces of Scrap it earned you, and wonder why you didn’t just drive off the other way.

It’s odd which corners have been cut throughout, too, like no cloth physics. Dangling material is rigid like metal. Jumping is, well, it’s the funniest jump in gaming history. Max does a little pointless gallop as if skipping across stage in a children’s ballet. It’s there presumably because it would have been weird if he couldn’t jump, but it’s never used or useful. His inability to climb is also deeply odd – Max can only scramble his way up something if it has a whacking great yellow bar on it. Otherwise rocks half the height are impenetrable barriers. And his sprint – it’s negligibly faster, and weirdly, causes him to slow down when he starts it.

While the Magnum Opus has some sort of clumsy grappling hook, there’s nothing to compare with Just Cause’s sense of fun and freedom. And with ammo rightly rare, the game is very dependent upon its melee, making it strange how over-simplistic it is.

I’ve no great investment in the Mad Max series of films, so I’m not suffering from the old film-of-the-book frustrations of seeing something precious to me presented differently. But at the same time, it’s such a shame that none of the surrealism of the recent brilliant film has made it across. Where Fury Road felt like the feverish imaginings my addled mind might create for me tonight based on this input, Mad Max The Game feels plain, ordinary. Yes, there are severed corpses all over, and mutants with disfigured faces and bodies – hell, it’s a video game. But there’s none of the wildness, the sense that it could be a terrible dream, the madness.

And unless something changes dramatically in forthcoming stages, the angry hordes who launched their furious protests at the recent movie’s subjugation of men – by the gallish presence of an actual woman – will be much relieved. Max is the unquestionable solo hero this time out, and the only women I’ve seen have been stood around a stronghold griping their three or four repeated lines of nothing.

I’m conscious how overtly negative this piece is, and it’s a strange phenomenon of Mad Max that to describe it is to find fault with it. But, in reality, it’s enough. It’s a huge undertaking, a massive game stuffed with things to do, and it’s mostly competently delivered. (The physics get a touch odd in places, especially in the form of eternally spinning pots.) The issue is that nothing shines, and absolutely every single aspect of it feels distinctly derivative of better games from recent years.

This may all change as things move on, and it opens up into something far more magnificent. But in those first few hours, the madness is very much missing.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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