Is Mad Max One Of The Top 50 Games Of 2015?
Born on the silver screen in 1979, George Miller's Mad Max captivated audiences with its potent take on the end of days. The earth is scorched, resources are scarce, and all it takes to survive is a nice car and a general lack of empathy for human life. Our guide through this dangerous world was Max, a former Australian police officer who has a little humanity left in him, but is mostly resourceful and relentless. He also has a bad-ass car. After disappearing from cinema for decades, Max return this year in arguably his best film, Mad Max: Fury Road. His story continued a few months later in Avalanche Studios' video game Mad Max.
Although Game Informer's critic Matt Bertz found Max's interactive adventure a little too repetitive for his liking, I had a great time scavenging the desert and clearing it of raider threats. I enjoyed the nicely paced progression systems that made Max's car more of a destructive force, and Max himself a combatant fit for the Thunderdome. Avalanche established a strong arc that begins with Max barely scraping by, and concludes with him rising to the stature of a wasteland juggernaut. I also enjoyed the side activities, such as hunting down components to create thriving settlements. On top of it all, how cool is it that your car is basically your companion? You care about that thing almost as much as you do Max.
After spending a few weeks with Mad Max, I walked away from it pleased. Avalanche delivered a unique open world experience that honed in on the pulse of Miller's theatrical tales. Every few years I find myself falling for open world games that don't gain much traction. Sleeping Dogs was the latest one. Before that was Saboteur. I think Mad Max fits nicely with these great (and wildly underappreciated) titles.
I challenged Game Informer's Jeff Marchiafava to play Mad Max for a few days to see if he thinks it deserves a spot on Game Informer's Top 50 Games of 2015 list. The competition is stiff this year, but a list without Max just seems silly to me. Here's Fava's take:
Reiner: First off, are you a fan of the Mad Max movies?
Jeff: Uh, yeah Reiner, what do you think I am, a heathen? I’ve seen the classic trilogy about a million times, and plan to see Fury Road a million more times too. “We Don’t Need Another Hero” is my ringtone! I tried to convince my brother to let me dress up with my baby nephew as Master Blaster for Halloween! I could go on...
Reiner: Well, seeing that you’ve watched the movies more than George Miller has, what were you expecting of the video game prior to playing it?
Jeff: I was completely on board with the concept of a Mad Max video game, but the run up to release resulted in a lot of mixed impressions from other editors. I went into playing the game with tempered expectations, but still hoping for a good time.
Reiner: When I played it at E3 in, what, 2013 or 2014, I didn’t like how the vehicles felt, and I thought it was strange Avalanche demoed a sniping mission as one of the first things we saw from a Mad Max experience. As it turns out, after another year-plus of development, they honed in on what makes this universe tick, and polished up the gameplay nicely. I was pleasantly surprised with the final product. To cut to the chase, what are your early thoughts on the game?
Jeff: I still have to – and more importantly want to – play a lot more, but the criticisms I’ve read have rung true so far. I do think the driving turned out just fine; the car combat is as visceral as a Mad Max fan would want it to be, and you’re right about it capturing the essence of the universe. I’m less in love with the melee combat, which feels like a clunkier attempt at Arkham’s combat. In fact, almost everything about controlling Max on foot feels clunkier than it should be.
Reiner: Your early impressions echo mine. I wasn’t a fan of Mad Max’s combat in the first few hours of playing – it was surprisingly shallow and free of challenge. I also couldn’t believe how bad the climbing mechanic was. It just didn’t make sense to me. I can only climb certain surfaces, but can’t grab onto a waist-high ledge?
Jeff: Exactly! It has been a lot of little things like that – Max is extremely picky about interacting with things in the environment. Stand a little too close to a weapon on the ground, and he won’t recognize it. Try to scooch a bit back and he’ll be facing the wrong way or too far away from it. Basic interactions with pickups and the environment shouldn’t be this clumsy, especially when exploration is such an integral part of the experience.
Reiner: They needed to get on the phone with Monolith Productions, the team behind Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. If you’re already aping the fights from one Warner Bros. game, why not mine the basic movement from another Warner game that nailed it?
My impressions of the climbing didn’t change, but I did warm up to the combat. The one thing that sets it apart from the Arkham games is the Fury meter, which grants Max a short-burst of powerful (often fatal) attacks against his foes. Other purchasable skills add dynamics like wall-specific techniques and the like. I thought it ended up being a nicely balanced combat system in the end, but it takes too long to get to that point. I think it was seven to eight hours in where I finally felt Avalanche achieved a groove with it. Stick with it. What do you think of the wasteland? Creating something as barren as it should be is obviously a challenge.
Jeff: That’s good to hear, I’m not quite that far yet, so I’m hoping I warm up to the combat. The wasteland is interesting; it definitely captures the vibe of the movies, but has been pretty monotonous so far. I think that was the big question everyone had going into the game – can Avalanche inject any kind of color into the environments. Is there any visual variety later in the game? Because I haven’t seen much yet.
Reiner: Yes. I think Avalanche did a tremendous job making an ordinary desert look interesting. If you drive all the way across the map (which is surprisingly moderate in size for Avalanche) you’ll see a variety of regions. Gas Town is an ominous looking city with fire blazing at all times; Dead Barren Pass is suffocating in its design; The Great White shows us what a dried-up sea looks like. I like the variety here. I just wish it wasn’t so densely packed together. Yes, I’m saying I wish I spent more time driving between destinations. I wanted more of the hopelessness to come through. It probably would have made the game worse, but it would have made the world seem like a more menacing and unforgiving place. I never once felt the need to hunt for gasoline. I almost always had a full tank.
Jeff: Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that too – my tank is almost always topped off, and fast travel makes your fuel concerns seem trivial. These are the kinds of problems that seem fundamental to trying to make Mad Max into a game, but nothing has struck me as truly lacking yet, and it seems like there are plenty of things to do.
Reiner: I think the game offers plenty of variety, but it may not seem like it, as many of the smaller challenges can be completed in the blink of an eye. Hence, you aren’t hit with the sense of accomplishment. Towers can be taken out while driving to a destination. The same goes for convoys. They didn’t really register as victories since they flew by, yet removing them from the world is a huge thing, both for his safety and giving him power over regions. The real fun comes from veering off of the beaten path to explore the wasteland. The same can be said of most Bethesda games. The hook of finding rare resources to build up settlements is a strong one. Yes, it does get a little repetitive as you have to do the same thing for each zone, but the payoff is a good one. Have you gotten into this aspect of the experience yet?
Jeff: I just scratched the surface of that aspect of the game. My initial impression was that it’s awesome – I can go on missions to collect special items that give me all these cool bonuses back at my base? I was totally on board. Then I got to Gutgash’s hideout and realized I would have to repeat all the same tasks. Not so awesome. One of my biggest questions at this point is how quickly the tasks will start to feel repetitive, but launching my car through giant flaming scarecrows hasn’t gotten old yet…
Reiner: My time in Mad Max felt a lot like the experience I had with Far Cry 3. I spent so much time doing one particular side activity (be it hunting or seizing an outpost) that I was sapping the fun from the game. Don’t play it like that. If you just focus on one thing or one region, it can get stale fairly quickly. Mix up the story missions with the open-world exploration. I recommend doing all of the outposts if you can. Basically, pace yourself in removing threats from each region. I know that sounds odd, but I think a lot of people burnout on games of this ilk because they take a completionist approach to collecting or eliminating threats. Bounce from task to task.
Jeff: Definitely, and I have already started to ween myself off of doing every single task and visiting every scrap location. The outposts do seem like the most thoughtfully design missions, so I’ll be sure to keep taking those on, but I’ll try to jump around with the other missions.
Reiner: Do you like your car?
Jeff: That’s another big question mark at this point. Right now, yes, I’ve purchased enough upgrades to where I can feel the difference, and that has been satisfying. I am a little daunted by the sheer number of upgrades, which makes me feel like I might by wasting scrap on unnecessary parts that might be rendered moot by future upgrades. Does it pay to be conservative, or just keep buying upgrades as they unlock?
Reiner: Buy all of them. By the end of the game, I felt bad for my adversaries. My car became a real a--hole, capable of ramming anything to death quickly. That part of the experience never gets old, by the way. Smashing cars is a blast, backed by eye-popping explosions and screams of despair.
Jeff: And that’s exactly what Mad Max is supposed to be about – I’m glad Avalanche nailed that aspect, and I look forward to playing more.
Reiner: I even got into the conflict between Max and the awesomely named Scrotus. Yes, Max is mostly a silent protagonist, and the main arc doesn’t have much meat to it, but there’s a good feud here. I think you’ll enjoy how it concludes.
Jeff M's Verdict: 2015 offered no shortage of sprawling open-world games that were driven by player freedom. When compared to its competitors, Mad Max is a bit of a tough sell. So far, the early hours have exemplified the idiom, "death by a thousand cuts." Navigating on foot and interacting with objects is clumsier than it should be, which puts a drain on exploration, and the combat, car customization, and outpost-building all take time to get going. While I've enjoyed what I've played so far, I can't call it a slam dunk for our Top 50 list. There have been lots of better games this year – in fact, there might even be a better Avalanche game. I do still see Mad Max as a potential candidate, but my support depends both on the latter half of the game, as well as the latter half of our Top 50 list.