The wasteland is hot, gritty, and unforgiving, and in the new PS4/Xbox One title Mad Max, you are tasked with taming it—punch by bloody punch, shotgun blast by concussive shotgun blast, and car attack by gruesome, tire-screeching, harpoon-hurling car attack.
For those who loved this past summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road (i.e., anyone who saw it), Warner Bros. and Avalanche Studios now provide an opportunity to step into the desert-worn boots of Max, the nomadic road warrior who’s here imagined as a hybrid of Mel Gibson’s original noble drifter and Tom Hardy’s rebooted wild-animal desperado.
In this original and largely awesome quest, Max must find a way to travel to a mythic land known as the Silent Plains, where he hopes to finally attain some measure of peace and relief from his inner post-apocalyptic torment. It’s an open-world odyssey in which, as Max, players must build a new vehicle dubbed the Magnum Opus with the help of talkative hunchback mechanic Chumbucket, then clear out legions of War Boys and put an end to their vicious warlord leader Scabrous Scrotus, a hulking giant with a taste for blood. Mad Max affords a novel narrative detached from its cinematic predecessors, even as its look, feel, and preference for action above all else are fashioned after Fury Road.
That’s clear from the outset, when during a stunning opening cinematic sequence, Max clashes with a horde of War Boys and confronts Scabrous Scrotus, depositing a chainsaw into his adversary’s head, albeit not to fatal ends. From there, players assume control of Max as he befriends Chumbucket and sets out on various tasks that involve taking down oil depots, collecting scrap (the game’s nominal currency), and engaging in a slew of side quests that run the gamut from search-and-destroy missions to vehicular races.
In many of these missions, Max must blast his way through hordes of screaming, howling War Boys (as well as more fearsome bosses), with Mad Max’s combat system—borrowed from WB’s other triumphant movie-based series, the Batman Arkham games—allowing him to pummel and counter with brutal efficiency, especially when he transitions into Fury Mode and his viciousness is amplified. For further ass-kickery, Max can acquire tokens (through completing missions) that can then be cashed in with a desert sage known as Griffa for even greater health, endurance, and vehicle-related powers.
The Mad Max films, however, aren’t about fisticuffs; they’re about road-rage insanity. This interactive iteration stays true to those roots. At the outset, Max’s Magnum Opus—which comes with customizable options including the equally stylish Furnace, Shovel Face, Wild Hunt, Death Rattle and Die Rolla—is a rather simple means of getting from point A to B. But as one upgrades it with battering-ram grills, Nitro speed boosters, harpoons (thrown by Chumbucket and which can dismantle enemy vehicles and pull their drivers out from behind the wheel!) and other capabilities, it becomes a beast of unholy fury. Which is not only thrilling, but downright necessary, as traversing Mad Max’s wasteland puts one in constant contact with roving squads of Scrotus’s minions, including some in gigantic convoys that require skillful maneuvering and tactical weapon deployment to take down.
For those familiar with open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, Batman: Arkham City, Borderlands, or Fallout, Mad Max’s structure will come across as rather standard-issue. At times, the game’s refusal to mix up its enemies (who come in only a few varieties, bosses included) and the nature of Max’s errands (go here, collect this, blow that up) feel like a drag. For a game modeled after such an inventively out-there film, there are times when Mad Max plays it too safe. Giving Max more wacko assignments, or bestowing him with a few more weapons—aside from his trusty shotgun, which suffices as his primary non-knuckle means of getting things done—would have made the game feel like it wasn’t just channeling its source material, but augmenting its sense of anything-goes post-nuke mayhem.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to complain about a title whose aesthetics so ably capture the gritty nastiness of Fury Road (and, in the process, prove how indebted Fallout and Borderlands are to the film franchise). Some of the finest touches in Mad Max are the small, quiet ones: when Max navigates a rocky cliff or squeezes through a narrow passageway in a rock wall and the shining sun flares to the point of being blinding, or when a sandstorm erupts during a fight and one can barely make out who’s who and what’s what.
In those moments, or when Max finds historical relics that relate to everything he’s lost or when sand spits up onto the game’s “camera,” Mad Max taps into the harsh, sunburnt beauty and terror of director George Miller’s cinematic universe, where vultures are always circling for bones to pick dry, and chalky psychopaths rage across barren plateaus in search of human “blood bags” to enslave and drain. While providing an experience that’s firmly based in video game territory (akin to a gasoline-huffing version of Red Dead Redemption), WB and Avalanche’s latest feels like a natural extension-cum-continuation of Miller’s movies, replete with the omnipresent sense that death (or worse) awaits around every dune.
That said, if there’s one big, glaring omission from Mad Max, it’s the very component that made Fury Road such a high-octane blast: Charlize Theron’s bald, grease-painted Valkyrie, Imperator Furiosa. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, Furiosa is MIA for this extensive saga. Even more frustrating still, the game does away with Fury Road’s aggro-feminism by making its one female character (who’s named, ugh, Hope) a damsel-in-distress-cum-love-interest for Max. Given the progressiveness of Miller’s most recent film, the fact that women are largely absent, and then relegated to clichéd passive roles, is more than a slight letdown, especially considering the otherwise consistent excellence of Max’s open-world adventure. Which is another way of saying: for Mad Max to truly attain its glory most high and ride triumphant to the gates of Valhalla, WB and Avalanche must get to work on a Furiosa-centric downloadable expansion pack now.