Imagine going back in time to some late 70’s grindhouse and showing this to the folks who just got out of a screening of the 1979 original Oz-ploitation classic Mad Max. Thanks to this year’s beloved sequel/reboot/re-imagining Fury Road George Miller’s Aussie asskicker is once again big business but that wasn’t always the case, the original film being just another life-is-cheap, blood-and-guts cheapie for rat hole theaters to play in between porn flicks. Next I want a fighting game based on Last House on the Left, or a Ninja Gaiden-esque stylish action take on I Spit On Your Grave. At least 70’s kids had the Atari 2600 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…
This isn’t the first time Mad Max has been a video game, there was a 1990 NES version that, like most movie based NES games, wasn’t very good. But we’re not talking about that shit shingle, we’re talking about the shiny and chrooooooome new Xbox One/PS4/PC Version that Warner Interactive dropped last week.
2015’s Mad Max (no time for subtitles) takes the licensed sandbox aesthetic pioneered by the Batman: Arkham series and perfected by last year’s critically lauded Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and drags it down under to the film series’ iconic post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland. Beginning similarly to Fury Road, Max is stripped of his car, clothes and dignity by ghostly white clad and emaciated War Boys, here not in service to skull faced silver fox Immortan Joe but a similarly hulking warlord with the colorfully lovely moniker of Scabarous Scrotus. Instead of being kidnapped and imprisoned by the War Boys as he was in the film, Max takes on Scrotus right then and there and seemingly kills him (or at least grievously wounds him) with his own chainsaw-on-a-pole weapon, before being flung from the tyrant’s vehicle and left for dead in the desert.
It is there we meet the game’s breakout star, Chumbucket, a Gollum-esque “blackfinger” (that’s mechanic to you) who subscribes to some sort of strange car based religion and sees Max as his saint. They join forces to build the ultimate four wheeled war machine, the Magnum Opus, a car capable to overthrowing Scrotus’ iron grip on the resource-rich Gas Town. Gameplay is heavily centered on the Opus and it’s construction, reinforcement and weaponization. She starts out barely able to defend herself against the roving War Boys in souped up jalopies that litter the landscape but soon becomes death incarnate, armed with a harpoon, sniper rifle, spikes aplenty and the delightfully named Thunderpoon. It’s as deadly as it sounds.
Driving isn’t just about getting from point A to point B, though there is plenty of traveling to be done across the game’s epic vistas. Car combat, destroying convoys, and locating hidden settlements on the map all provide opportunities to gather glorious scrap, the world’s catch-all form of currency. Scrap can be used to upgrade both the Opus and Max himself, beefing up his attack, defense, armor, health, endurance, etc. for the game’s bevy of on-foot missions. Shadow of Mordor will immediately come to mind here as that game’s War Chiefs are supplanted by Top Dogs, leaders of camps that must be defeated to lower the threat levels in the territories controlled by Max’s reluctant and uneasy allies.
If there’s one complaint I have it’s that these mechanics are a LITTLE shallow, but it’s also commendable that developer Avalanche didn’t just lift SOM’s Nemesis System whole cloth. Top Dogs you meet have nowhere near the diverse appearances and personalities as the War Chiefs, (they all pretty much look identical, stand-ins for classic Max villain Lord Humongous, with only their color schemes, which you can then appropriate for the Opus upon their defeat, to differentiate them) even more disappointing when you consider that there’s only five of them in the whole game.
I might not even care so much if the hand to hand combat wasn’t so goddamned fun. Adapted from Arkham’s now standard “free-flow” model but nowhere near as forgiving. The usual counters, reversals and finishers are here, but require more precise timing than any of the Dark Knight’s outings. Take too many hits against a group of foes and it’s lights out for Max. Good thing the checkpoints are so forgiving. Max also has a trick up his sleeve in the form of a Fury Mode similar to Dante’s Devil Trigger in the Devil May Cry series, where he becomes a suplexing, brainbusting, DDT-ing unstoppable tank of destruction after filling a meter in the top right corner of the screen. In addition to the Top Dog Camps there are various Oil Wells and Transfer Camps to overtake as well, very similar to the fortresses and towers in SOM. Again, somewhat repetitive and not the deepest thing in the world, but oh so satisfying to systematically dismantle as the game’s natural progression powers Max up from cowering wuss at the outset to desolation on two feet by at least the midpoint.
These really are only “side” mission though, as the bulk of the game’s actual story is most squarely focused to building up the Magnum Opus for the raid on Gas Town, and the odd jobs Max can do for Chumbucket’s various “friends” within the world in order to get the parts needed to get her there. The story isn’t going to change anybody’s life but it’s the perfect distillation of the franchise into modern video game form in my opinion. When representing a society whose life or death struggles are so tied to the control of their precious, limited gasoline, the focus belongs squarely on the car.
This game has been getting a bit of a beating in the media since its release last week and I can’t really understand why. Sure, it’s not as deep as Shadow of Mordor or polished as Arkham Knight but what games are in this day and age? If being compared unfavorably to the high watermarks of the genre is going to be the kiss of death for all AAA game releases from now on then everybody in development better get their resumes together and gamers should get used to buying only one or two games a year. Way to kill the industry even deader than it already is. Lighten up, guys. Despite its shortcomings Max is a hell of a lot of fun, a nihilistic romp full of hard driving, bone breaking combat and endless exploration through its post nuclear hellscape. Don’t let the bad press scare you away.