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Behind The Wheel Of Mad Max's Vehicular Combat

by Tim Turi on Mar 13, 2015 at 09:00 AM

You're road kill if you don't have a vehicle in the cut-throat, wide-open Wasteland. Fans of George Miller's Mad Max films know this, and we learned the importance of being behind the wheel firsthand in Avalanche Studio's game when we visited its studio in Stockholm, Sweden for our March cover story. We got hours of hands-on time driving Mad Max's decked-out car, and came away with a firm understanding of what vehicular combat means in this post-apocalyptic world.

Max has a big, open world of dusty rock and faded road to explore, filled with strongholds to overthrow and raiders who want him dead. Punching and stabbing the scabs of the Wasteland on foot is a significant part of the experience, and the Arkham-style combat works well. However, the most intense combat happens behind the wheel of Max's customizable vehicle, the Magnum Opus.

"At the very high level, we wanted everything to have a very physical sense to it," says game director Frank Rooke. "There's weight to these vehicles. Not pretend weight, but you can actually feel the metal of this car and the impact and sound of the grinding and ripping of steel."

The Magnum Opus is a great way for Max to get from point A to point B in the Wasteland, but things get more exciting when he comes across a wayward raider. During my hands-on time with the game, I came to appreciate automotive throw downs not as high-speed chases, but slugfests on four wheels.

A pair of enemy vehicles waiting to be torn apart or hauled in for scrap

The most obvious way to dismantle enemies early on is good old-fashioned head-on collisions. If you see Wasteland bandits parked off in the distance, they're just begging for you to aim your reinforced grill in their direction, hit the nitro boost, and barrel into them. The sense of the boost's white-knuckle speed is complemented beautifully by the inertia of slamming into a foe's jalopy and watching as metal and burning gasoline flies everywhere.

"Then there's the fragility of human flesh, because that's the two sides," Rooke says. "There is no in between. There's the rusty metal of the car, and then there's this fleshy person inside. Those are the two elements of these battles. We wanted that feeling of those two things playing together which do not belong together when things are crashing and smashing into each other."

As the game progresses, car battles become increasingly more complicated and interesting. Depending on how much time and how many resources players have pumped into the Magnum Opus' suite of destructive tools, players have a variety of options for grinding, dismantling, immolating, and blasting enemy vehicles into collectable scrap. Tire-mounted spikes allow Max to sidle up next to an enemy, grinding into the armor and tires of his opponent's car, like a nitrous-injected Ben Hur scene. A side-ramming upgrade allows you to slam into enemies laterally, delivering a huge hit to their vehicle's health. Further down the line, side-mounted flamethrowers belch out fire that quickly reduces nearby threats to burning wrecks.

An enemy marauder prepares to board the Magnum Opus

Fire and spinning jagged metal are barbarically satisfying means for tearing apart cars, but Max has a few more refined options at his disposal. His trusty shotgun is great for blasting off armor, igniting gas tanks, and popping off drivers. But be careful with how you use it, because shells are scarce in the Wasteland. The harpoon is a more strategically satisfying tool. Max's deformed mechanic buddy, Chumbucket, aims at a vehicle's sweet spot like armor plating or tires, fires a tethered lance into it, then yanks that piece off. Time slows down, allowing players to dial in deliberate harpoon shots. Shuck off enough metal, and you can eventually harpoon the enemies behind the wheel and drag their bodies behind the Magnum Opus. It's also great for reining in a fleeing vehicle, especially when coupled with the nitro boost to close the gap and throttle into the rear bumper.

"There's a cool progression there with the harpoon I think we've discovered," Rooke says. "The car is like an onion that you can start peeling pieces off of, and it becomes more and more vulnerable as you do that."

In addition to firing a harpoon from the car-mounted cannon, Chumbucket can also load explosive spears. Dubbed "Thunderpoons", these rare and deadly projectiles can devastate other cars similar to a blast from a missile. And yes, Avalanche is aware of how ridiculous the name sounds.

"We spent a year trying to come up with a name, but it's the harpoon and we have these other things in the game called Thundersticks, which are sticks with [an explosive] cap on it," Rooke says. "It's begging to be called what it is. It's the Thunderstick-harpoon. The Thunderpoon."

Next up: Commandeering enemy vehicles and we got a great big convoy...

Max better shake this guy loose before he detonates his Thunderstick

Speaking of Thundersticks, players will want to remain vigilant for enemies holding these explosive melee weapons while on the road. These suicidal scabs ride atop other vehicles, and use the pointy end of the Thunderstick to stab at Max. Even worse, they may also leap off their car onto the Magnum Opus and jam the Thunderstick into its chassis, igniting it in a blast of flame and glory. Your best bet for defense is installing nasty spikes that impale would-be boarders. The Boom Bug is another kamikaze driver that pursues Max and lights its payload of gasoline on fire. The team calls them nuclear bombs on wheels, and Max has to find safe ways to take them out without detonating them, like shooting off a wheel.

Thunderstick wielders and Boom Bugs may be suicidal, but Max isn't called "Mad" for nothing. Dismantling big convoys of up to 12 vehicles is one of the big highlights of Mad Max, and it's a death sentence for the unprepared. Seeing a huge plume of dust kick up in the distance is a sign that a bigger, faster brawl is on the way. Unlike other enemies in the game, the convoy's primary goal isn't to kill you – it's to get away safely with its cargo. Enemies near the rear may have flamethrowers attached to the backs of their cars, engulfing Max in fire when he gets too close. Additionally, he may have to dodge out of the way when landmines are dropped onto the road ahead of him. Some enemy drivers tend to peel back from the pack as they surround Max, pincering the Magnum Opus and shredding it to bits. Should the Road Warrior admit defeat and attempt to drive away, a few cars will likely follow him to ensure he leaves the convoy alone before rejoining the herd. Taking on a convoy is an intimidating task, and requires fast reflexes and a complete understanding of your vehicular strategy. Your prize for taking out the leader of the convoy is a new hood ornament that increases the power of the Magnum Opus.

The vehicle on the left looks like it's ready to blow if it takes too much damage

Max isn't limited to just collecting scrap and hood ornaments off enemies, though. He can also steal any vehicle in the Wasteland for himself if he manages to kill the driver without blowing everything to smithereens. If Max can deliver them to a nearby safehouse, then he's rewarded with a healthy supply of scrap. Once collected, he can also drive those vehicles for a change of pace from the Magnum Opus. However, few of these rides come close to matching the power and handling of Max's primary car. What's more, some of their narrow windshields make driving in first-person mode completely impractical. Max can also collect three special golden HVVs (High Value Vehicles) by securing first place in races. Unfortunately, Avalanche isn't diving into details about races just yet.

If you come away from this knowing one thing about vehicular combat in Mad Max, it's that it feels more precise and deliberate than the clumsy ramming and drive-bys of games like Twisted Metal. Max is a brutal man whether it comes to fistfights or demolition derbies, but his actions are always calculated. When players get behind the wheel this September, they'll be able to destroy the rabble of the Wasteland however they see fit.

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