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Wot I Think: Mad Max

Piccolo Opus

After some impressions of the first few hours of Avalanche's Mad Max [official site] open-world action-me-do, I return having spent another week with the Road Warrior, ready to tell you wot I think.

Mad Max is the most peculiar combination of the compelling and the mundane. A third-person open world game built of very, very many little ideas, but no big ones, it provides you with a vast post-apocalyptic playground, thousands of things to do, and a gradually improving combination of melee and vehicular combat – and yet no real sense of purpose. Your goal, appropriately vague for the franchise, is to reach the other side of the map. To get there, you need to improve your car such that you’re capable of tearing down defences that obstruct your larger path. Along the way people ramble unintelligible nothingness at you in Australian drawl, which invariably ends in your being asked to drive to somewhere on the map, hit something or pick something up, then drive back. And that’s it. And I rather enjoy it.

I wrote previously about how flat I found it. That flatness really hasn’t gone away. But it’s wormed its way in to that part of my brain that enjoys hoovering up itty bitty activities marked on a giant map. And as you get deeper in, the game’s opening flimsiness begins to slightly solidify.

That flimsiness is significant. It’s in everything from the story to the fighting to the driving to the challenges. Everything is immediately far too simple, far too flighty, far too tissue-thin. You immediately meet a mutated creature of pure tedium, Chumbucket, who unfortunately accompanies you absolutely everywhere for the entire game. His role is useful – he fixes up your car whenever you get out of it – but his unending stream of drivel is beyond maddening, constantly barking out the same damn lines about the same damn things, or nagging you to get on with the dreary main quest when you’d rather be having fun looking for underground tunnels.

What makes things less flimsy is the upgrades, which initially dribble in slower than a junkheap fresh out of gas, and then suddenly pile on top of you in an avalanche. At first you’re maybe upgrading Max’s punch, or adding some defences to your car, but not both because the game’s in-game currency, Scrap, is too scarcely added. Fifteen hours in and you’ve got special abilities coming out of your ears, your car a tank, and Max’s two sets of upgrades pretty much maxed out. And yet half the game left to play.

However, with a solid car, a stronger main character, and enough gadgets to make vehicular combat and base infiltration more interesting, the game finds its own. Its own is a very familiar place of your Far Cries, Mordors, Assassin’s Creeds and so on, where you dart about the sprawling world to find hidden treasures, clear out enemy bases, and very occasionally remember there’s a main quest of no import.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the apparent difference between critics’ response to Mad Max, and that of Steam users, etc. Much of that comes down to misunderstanding – given a binary choice of Yes or No, the Rotten Tomatoes syndrome, even the most critical reviews would still fall into “Yes”. Polygon’s 5/10 is on the borderline, sure, and everywhere else has marked higher. But another part of it is born of a critical issue with a game like Mad Max: It’s fine, and occasionally lots of fun. But there are many, many games that are similar to it, and a lot better than it. And in recognising why other games are better, or indeed did exactly the same thing earlier, it’s necessary to identify how Max is so similar or worse. It creates a narrative bias towards the game’s negative features in justifying why it falls short of, say, Shadow Of Mordor or Far Cry 3.

So it is that I find myself wanting to rail against the frustrations that just aren’t present in sleeker games. How the grappling hook should be the game’s best feature, but in fact it’s a miserable pain in the arse to aim, doesn’t seem to fire at what you were hoping for half the time, and seems to be entirely random in its range. Yes, it’s great fun when you successfully sling it out to catch a scarecrow (metal towers that stand as totems to enemy gangs) and tear it down as you drive past. But then there were the other four times when it wouldn’t sodding lock on for no bloody reason, and then the car just span on the spot for no given reason and slid off a cliff.

Driving, once you’ve upgraded the main car (the Magnum Opus), to a high enough level, becomes satisfying. But beforehand, and for such a long time, it’s way too floaty. (Any time you have to drive another car after getting the Magnum to a decent place is ghastly and frustrating.) And vehicular combat also becomes a lot more entertaining once you’ve got your car covered in spikes, with a powerful grapple, and chucking out Thunderpoon missiles. Still, it’s thwarted when the grapple madly won’t aim at the one car you’re after.

Oh, and the FUCKING sandstorms. How this made it to the final game will never be satisfactorily explained. At entirely random points the game declares, “Get inside, a storm’s coming!” and you have to stop whatever you’re doing and find somewhere to shelter for literally ten goddamned minutes while it blows over. If you drive to a Stronghold, it magics away immediately, but that’s often not possible thanks to the destructive nature of the storms. It offers nothing to the game, other than to interrupt whatever you were presently doing with a pointless period of no fun. It’s bewilderingly stupid.

And yet I’ve been playing all week. I’m very happily darting about the map, spotting yet another Scrap stash to discover, punching the mans in the face, and then driving off to the next. Clearing camps is an awful lot more fun once there’s some actual fight to it, albeit desperately repetitive. Well, everything about the game is repetitive. Even the boss fights are all exactly the same. Literally. Each boss figure at the top of certain camps wears the same facemask, carries the same weapon, and attacks you in the same pattern. It gets so idiotically simple that in the last one I encountered, I killed him before he’d taken a single swing of his weapon.

And that’s the other big problem – Mad Max is too easy. And I say this as someone who frequently argues that games are too hard. If you lose a fight, it’s far more likely because the bloody sodding block didn’t arsewanking work when you pressed it, or Max decided to interpret your 93rd pressing of A in that fight to mean to do an elaborate non-optional move that left him vulnerable to attacks from behind. Or the camera span itself into a position where both Max AND the enemy are off-screen, because oh good grief it’s right that this game has been criticised...

Easiness, that’s what I was saying. At one point things were getting much tougher, and I thought it was finally challenging me, before I realised I’d forgotten one of Max’s two upgrade trees. It involves visiting a man who wears a boat on his back (sure, good) who rudely blows in your face and then you can increase your health, melee weapon abilities, ability to find ammo, etc. I’d gotten fifty upgrade points behind. Yeah, after that, it went back to being super-easy to play.

It doesn’t live up to the franchise, which has only been used as an excuse to create an open-world mission-em-up. But that matters none – the movies still remain unharmed. Of course, it’s certainly disappointing that the extraordinary tone of the most recent film isn’t present, from its wildly surreal presentation, to its glorious enemy design (there’s been no sign of anything close to those dudes up poles, nor guitar-wielding psychopaths strapped to the front of remarkable mobile rigs), to the remarkable passion within. All of that is absent here, including the notion that women could be a force in the apocalyptic wastelands.

However, it’s bloody beautiful. Incredibly stunning, the vistas stretching impossibly far, and while pop-up does occur, it’s only occasionally overt. Each region has its own subtle tones, or even ludicrously unsubtle ones, and the particle effects are incredible. Huge clouds of dust, rolling weather, sunsets and rises that make you want to stop and stare. The character faces are embarrassing, but the constructions and cars all look amazing. While I’ve occasionally had some issues with its staggering when something like Chrome is running, it’s also been technically very steady at settings far higher than I thought I’d get away with.

Less impressive for PC are the menu controls. In typical Warner fashion, they’re a ridiculous muddle. It’s Q to go back, not Esc, and sometimes you can click that Q symbol with your mouse cursor, sometimes you can’t, even in the same chains of menus. Menus are hidden behind others, so deeply that you’ll forget they’re there. The whole Archangel system for building particular cars gets entirely forgotten once it’s stopped nagging you to build the first one, because it’s just so fiddly to get to, and so bewildering to understand. Still, the map’s nice.

I can keep listing frustrations. The tiresome balloons, the rubbish way Max can’t pick something up without dropping a fuel can. And worst, the absolutely ridiculous way it insists that every time you pick up some food, fill your water, talk to a person, and so on, has to be a cutscene, complete with a fade-to-black at the end each time. Oh lordy, that’s annoying. The sort of annoying that leaves you wondering how it wasn't picked up during playtesting.

But no, because while Mad Max is a litany of faults and shortcomings, it’s still just entertaining to play. If you haven’t played Shadow Of Mordor, don’t even hesitate to get that before this. But if you found a copy of Max's adventures in your birthday cake, you’ll have a good deal of fun mucking about in its dusty playground.

What you have here is a decent, if flawed game. And it’s been released into a market with some really stunning games in the same genre. If you’ve bought it, and are playing it, the chances are you’re having fun and not regretting the purchase. You would, of course, tick Yes when asked if you like it. So would I. Days of playing and I’ve still a third of it to go, which I could quickly plough through, or continue meticulously clearing the maps and ignoring the deathly dull and empty main plot. A plot which is invariably just an excuse to have you drive to the next Stronghold rather than any actual narrative exercise.

So yeah, it’s seven out of ten epitomised. Pretty decent.

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