Lackluster Mad Max [official site] presentations at previous games shows had led me to believe Avalanche's open world shooter might be empty, fussy, dull. Then I played it and was pleasantly surprised: my 20 minutes of car combat were fun, exciting, and I'm keen to return to it.
The Gamescom demo was a thirty-minute hands-on set in the game's open world. A mission was marked on your map, but I was handed the pad and told I could do what I want. The measure of an open world game for me isn't its missions, but the open world itself: can you simply explore and have a good time?
I looked at the map, picked a hot air balloon - Mad Max's equivalent of FarCry 3's icon-uncovering towers - and set off in that direction. The car I was driving, which I had designed myself, was bright pink. Max steers while your sidekick, X, sits on the back, automatically repairs your vehicle when needed, and is the person who does the aiming and shooting when you decide to aim and shoot.
I decided to aim and shoot when I came across a convoy, one of the game's roving open world events. These consist of a single large truck followed by at least half a dozen other vehicles, each one of which is full of violent lunatics. The objective, should you choose to engage, is to destroy the truck without being destroyed by the lunatics.
My discovery of this convoy was unscripted, but they happened to be passing through a small canyon in front of me. I sped up the hill that ran parallel with the road, hit a ramp, and boosted over the ledge to land alongside the convoy with a heavy thump.
I fired the harpoon gun I'd installed at a neighbouring car, causing it to explode and twirl into the air. Mad Max's explosions were the best of Gamescom, I think - dirty, smoky, whirling and separating in the wind as cars roll and tumble.
Afterwards, I used the flamethrowers I'd appended to the side of my vehicle to set another car on fire, until I ran out of fuel for the flames. Then I used three of my automatically recharging boosts to catch up to the pack and discovered that there's a button that causes your car to lunge to the side - useful if, like me, you spent money on adding knives to your wheels. As I jostled with the other vehicles, enemies clambered between the cars to attack me inside the vehicle.
Then a similarly unscripted sandstorm hit, dropping visibility to zero and introducing an explosive lightning storm. A bolt struck the car beside me and it lit up briefly before its charred remains vanished into the dust.
Eventually a crash caused me to lose sight of the lead truck in the convoy, and after repairs, I continued on my way towards the balloon. I died almost immediately upon arrival, shot dead by a sniper. My play session ended there.
Car combat is hard to do because cars are not traditionally designed for fighting, but the speed, the handling, and the physics of the cars slamming together created something exhilarating. I'm genuinely surprised. Mad Max seems to have found a better road to travel than Batman: Arkham Knight's strafing, rocket-dodging Bat-tank, instead creating an experience that that conjured images of ancient chariot races, aided by a customisation system that lets you change their speed, their handling, their weapons, and their colour to a flowery pink.
Maybe I've now seen all it has - it could just be thirty hours of convoys and sandstorms, for all I know - but still, I explored Mad Max's open world and I had a good time. Consider my interest piqued.