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Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: Mad Max (Sony PlayStation 4)


Fans of free roaming games with lots to do will no doubt come away pleased by what Mad Max has to offer. It is a brutal world that you'll be thrust into which is just interesting enough to help you to forget that we have seen most of what Mad Max has to offer in other games previously.

The world of Mad Max has always interested me, as I am a sucker for post-apocalyptic experiences and the Mad Max films were among my earliest recollections of the genre. Like the most recent movie, this game is big, fun and there are plenty of explosions that make the game entertaining, but at the same time somewhat lacking in the polish that makes similar recent titles like Batman or Shadows of Morder stand out.

Related reading: Nick's review of Batman: Arkham Knight, which Mad Max borrows an awful lot from.

Things get off to a rough start for Max as he is hunting down gasoline so he can take his cherished 'black on black' car to the Silent Planes. Things of course go awry immediately (it would make for a rather dull game if they did not, no?) and he has his car taken, is stripped of his clothing and left beaten and for dead in the sand by a gang of thugs. Max proves resilient as he manages to get to his feet, kill another thug and take his clothing and then stumbles onto a strange man who calls himself Chumbucket. Chum is a physically broken man (Max refers to him as 'the hunchback' early on in a monologue) who is a talented mechanic. He has a vision for a great car that he wants nothing more to build - his Magnum Opus.


While the world is firmly established through the gritty visuals and brutal sound design (which is often times complimented by the use of the speaker in the controller to make some effects just a little closer to home), the narrative could have used some greater depth. Perhaps part of the issue is that Max is already an established character, and in trying to avoid making changes to the character, the developer has opted for a protagonist that is really quite shallow as a consequence. There's some sense that Mad Max is meant to be more about the world itself as a "character", and the idea that Max is a product of this broken world. This concept works in the films for certain, but here Max is the too-typical brooding protagonist, showing minimal emotion or personality as he wanders around.

The one attempt to build out Max's personality is in the way he interacts with the relics from the past that he finds throughout the game. We have seen this sort of narrative device in other post apocalyptic games. Max finds a photo, or a sign, or similar object that reflects on the past, and the way he reacts to these helps to ground the character as something human - nostalgia being a distinctly human quality, after all. For example when the game starts and Max is driving the 'black on black' he has a picture of a wife and child on his dashboard. When he raids the compound where his car was taken and scrapped, he finds the picture and makes a remark about them, which is a nice touch.

But these little reflections don't go nearly far enough and ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the man's psyche. Other moments work far better, such as a picture of a young child with a new dog, and when you flip the picture over you can see writing - presumably from a parent - saying that the puppy was so cute that they could just eat her up. Max makes an off-hand remark that people didn't have to actually eat dogs back in those days. More moments of black humour like this to punctuate the grim realities of that future would have served the game's narrative better.


Anyhow, narrative musings aside, Max is in need of a car as well since the gang scrapped his 'black on black'. The problem is, for his talents in being able to build a car, there is very little Chum can do to scrounge up the necessary parts - most of which need to be acquired by force. This is something Max is more than capable and willing to do, so he sets off to start gathering scrap, and the necessary parts to complete the Magnum Opus and take revenge on the gang that nearly killed him.

On a technical level, Mad Max is a very pretty game most of the time. The voice acting is solid and the music is appropriate, but more than those two things the graphics really help to sell this dry, desolate landscape. The lighting effects as well as the visuals during sandstorms all hold up and really sell this as a dangerous, dying world that Max inhabits. The framerate is excellent, making for an immersive experience. The first time I had to trudge through a sand storm, Max instinctively holding his arm over his face to protect it, I was sold on the setting.

For anyone who has played Shadows of Mordor, the game's structure will immediately be familiar as you have a large map, broken down into smaller sections. Within each section are multiple different things that can be interacted with, from hot air balloons (fast travel points), salvage locations (good for finding scrap, ammo and other memorabilia from the days of old), races, fortresses and more. Completing objectives within each section lowers the area's threat level, making it safer to operate within. Lower it completely, and Max claims the area, having completely run the rival gangs out. Everything about this is very similar to how maps and objectives were handled in Mordor. You can choose to continue on the proper main story or spend time running around doing side quests and beefing Max and the Magnum Opus up instead. Since there is no difficulty adjustment, you will want to spend at least some time buffing up in order to beat the game's end content, because it can get tough, though there's no reason to think you have to complete it all. 


Because Shadows of Mordor and the Batman games have been played so often and are similar to Mad Max in many ways, I cannot help but compare the titles. To that end Shadows of Morder fares better because of the nemesis system, which made the various war chief encounters far more engaging than any of the battles that ran into with Max. Certainly there were some memorable throw downs and the combat in Mad Max has a weighty, brutal feel to it that is right in line with the world's visuals and setting. Unfortunately, however, those same fights are another area where the inspirations are clear but somewhat less polished. Employing the same combo and counter heavy systems found in both Mordor and the Batman games, Mad Max is capable of and often expected to deal with hordes of enemies at a time. The fighting is fast and fluid, but the timing is too loose compared to what I am used to from those other games. I enjoyed the combat, but it wasn't executed to the same precision as those other two titles.

Even Max's movements feel clunkier than those of Mordor or Batman. In part, this makes sense. Despite his considerable fortitude, Max is a man. So is Batman, but Batman is a man of many tricks and gadgets and years of honing his body. There is an elegance to the way he grapples around the screen and dive attacks enemies. Ranged combat in Mordor as well as the ability to scale walls are acts of incredibly agility and dexterity that feel natural. Max has a rather awkward jump that seriously looks like he is maybe a half foot off of the ground and he clambers awkwardly up to heights of four or five feet - if and only if there is a proper board or stepping stone right in front of him. As a consequence, the way Max moves about the world almost feels like a stripped down version of those games it borrows so liberally from, making it somewhat hard to believe that it is the newest of the titles at times.

To its credit, Mad Max expects you to spend very little time on a specific path when you're driving around its world. There are roads to be certain, and you can take them, but you can take far more direct and scenic routes as well. The vehicular combat is quite intense, too. Racing alongside another car, thrusting the Magnum Opus to the side to run them into rocks and causing a fiery explosion just behind you is cinematic gorgeousness and just a whole lot of fun. I was also impressed with how the vehicle and the driver are not one. You can use a sniper gun or a harpoon to target the driver of another vehicle and end the the threat that way. I laughed with delight the first time I realised that I could harpoon a driver and then hit reverse - dragging that squealing thug out of his car and then running him over before he could get up and do anything about it. I did mention that it was a brutal world, right?


What it might lack in finesse, Mad Max more than makes up for with its different systems. Ammo is limited, as is precious water (what is actually a healing resource). As you unlock points of note in the story, Max can spend scrap to upgrade his tools and gear. Maybe he becomes more durable or can hit harder. He can also improve the Magnum Opus, improving its weapons, armour and even make it harder for the bad guys to climb onto during the driving scenes. Completing specific objectives also gives you coins that you can take to a strange wanderer who will give Max additional perks such as the ability to find extra scrap, ammo or water when scouring about - or a larger health bar or an increase in reputation. This kind of character progress is flat out addicting - I found it entirely too easy to just want to complete one quest after another just for the rewards.

While the world is firmly established through the gritty visuals and brutal sound (which is often times complimented by the use of the speaker in the controller to make some effects just a little closer to home), the story could have used some greater depth. Perhaps part of the issue is that Max is already an established character. We do not delve deep into what has made him tick up to this point, with the narrative broad and sweeping at the beginning as it sets down the foundation for what is to come. Yet that foundation is more about the world itself that Max occupies, and the feeling is that Max is a product of this broken world. Max is however, the typical brooding protagonist at most turns, showing minimal emotion throughout most of the game. Parts of the world are explained - but more in the sense of: this is how it is. I would have appreciated seeing more of the: this is how it got to be this way. It is a small distinction, but something that I missed nonetheless, because the world itself is well-realised in the way it is laid out and presented.

The one thing that the team did get right with Max's personality is in the relics he finds throughout the game. We have seen this sort of narrative device in other post apocalyptic games. Max finds a photo, or a sign - something that reflects on the past. When the game starts and Max is driving the 'black on black' - he has a picture of a wife and child on his dashboard. When he raids the compound where his car was taken and scrapped, he finds the picture and makes a remark about them, but it feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the man's psyche. Other moments work far better, such as a picture of a young child with a new dog, and when you flip the picture over you can see writing - presumably from a parent - saying that the puppy was so cute that they could just eat her up. Max makes an off-hand remark that people didn't have to actually eat dogs back in those days. More moments of black humour to punctuate the grim realities of that future would have served the game's story better.


Mad Max's greatest strength is in many ways the title's most significant weakness as well. It is immediately familiar, reminding of the Batman titles and Shadow of Mordor - games that I am very much a fan of. Unfortunately on the whole, Mad Max is not as good as those titles either, coming up short in its narrative, controls and combat to create a less engaging overall experience than those titles.


- Nick H.
US Editor



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Review: Mad Max (Sony PlayStation 4)
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