Normally, I try not to get excited about movie-tie in games. They have a very bad track record - with only a handful of exceptions. But this Mad Max game wasn't a direct movie adaptation, and it didn't release simultaneously with the movie, implying that it hopefully wasn't being rushed out the door to meet the movie's release. Warner Brothers Interactive had previously released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was also sort of a tie-in to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and that game was actually very exceptional! It had a novel and innovative concept around which the entire game revolved (making it very focused), and it was a very well-polished game that was immensely comfortable to control. So Warner Bros had earned some benefit of the doubt for its next game. I wasn't expecting Mad Max to match (let alone exceed) Shadow of Mordor, but I still had hopes that this one would turn out to be a well-realized game that could stand tall and proud as one of those rare, good movie tie-in games. After all, the concept of an open-world, post-apocalyptic action game about smashing spiky, nitrous-fueled cars into each certainly sounds like a solid premise for a game!
Well, not quite...
Many actions are overloaded to the X button - the game even displays conflicting prompts at times!
Virtually every interaction that I had with the game was either naggingly uncomfortable in some way or was prone to glitches. Even the basics of moving around and interacting with objects in the game world was a constant chore. When one button does everything; it does nothing (see my Assassin's Creed III review). Fortunately, a couple really important functions (like getting in and out of cars) were mapped to different buttons, but virtually everything else uses the X button. So if you're standing in front of a ladder and holding a weapon, it's a crapshoot whether the game will decide to let you climb the ladder or make you drop the weapon, and then it'll be a crap shoot whether the game lets you pick up the weapon again. Oh there's button-prompts to tell you what you can and can't do, but sometimes they outright conflict with one another. Besides, when you're running or fighting, then you're reacting on impulse and muscle memory rather than reading screen prompts. It doesn't help that the character's movement is very fidgety, so it's hard to position yourself properly when trying to interact with objects. I think the developers recognized this, which is probably why they make you have to hold the button for a second in order to perform most actions - to give you time to ask yourself "are you sure this is the action you want to do?".
Not enough space for vehicular combat
Clunky movement isn't limited to walking on foot. Steering vehicles is also very fidgety and floaty, and I found it very difficult to perform any precision maneuvering in the cars. The cars all tend to understeer at high speeds, but then strangely oversteer or fish-tail whenever you let off the gas. Trying to hit a ramp or knock down an enemy scarecrow or ram a sniper tower would often require multiple passes in order to succeed, and doing slaloms through the canyons resulted in a lot of cheap impacts. The rough terrain also leads to a lot of spin-outs. The vehicles feel so weightless and floaty that they can park on nearly vertical slopes, and running over a pebble can send the car hurtling and flipping 20 feet in the air. On a more personal note, I prefer my driving games to have cameras very close to the action, and so Mad Max's driving camera feels like it's a mile away from the action, which makes it harder for me to get a feel for precisely where the car is in relation to the environment. Virtually none of the game's vehicular set pieces really worked all that well for me due to these nagging control and scaling issues. If the map were bigger to accommodate multiple vehicles running side-by-side on a road, then dealing with the low-traction sand or the unlevel rocks wouldn't be so much of a consistent problem. Even having the option to zoom in the camera (an option that I couldn't find) would go along way towards helping me make more precise maneuvers.
The primary gimmick of vehicular combat works fairly well in spite of the map not feeling big enough to support it.
This game really lives or dies based on how well the cars perform. The bulk of the game is played from within your car. You use the car to travel the world, and it's actually your primary weapon thanks to the game's novel vehicular combat. This vehicular combat would actually be really fun if the cars handled a bit better and were durable enough to actually take the beating that the combat entails. Keeping the camera focused on where you're going is a chore, and lining your car up to ram an enemy can often become a guessing game. Only a few hours into the game, even the smallest of enemy cars start to have armor, and so dealing with even two or three of them is often enough to completely deplete your own car's armor / HP, and upgrading the armor of my own car (which is locked behind story progress) seemed to do little to make my car feel durable enough to keep up with the number and strength of enemy cars. The ability to press an "attack" button to veer and side swipe another car takes some of the guesswork out of trying to maneuver the cars, and almost single-handedly saves the car combat from absolute mediocrity. Car combat is also elevated above melee combat by the fact that you have a harpoon that is not dependent on depletable resources or ammunition. This gives you some leeway in how you approach combat that is simply unavailable when brawling on foot.
Chasing enemies (or being chased by enemies) halfway across the map often takes you so far out of your way, or results in being dragged into so many other conflicts that car combat just gets annoying. This map needed to be several times larger than it is in order to really accommodate the speeds of these cars and the distances that you'll travel when battling other cars, and the map would need to be a lot more sparse too. It's really hard to buy into the idea of having to scrounge for gasoline when I'm literally driving circles around an entire game region chasing after a single Scrapulance.
It's not like the map is small though. It's actually a fairly decent size. It unlocks gradually over the course of the game in large chunks. By the end of the game, having the entire map open, and having cleared out many of the small scavenge sites (so that you aren't stopping every five seconds) actually does result in the wasteland starting to feel large, open, and sparsely populated.
High speed pursuits can easily drag in additional patrols, that you rarely have the armor or ammo to deal with.
How not to do Arkham-style combat!
Fighting gets far worse when you're outside the car, even though the game steals its combat system from the excellent Batman: Arkham and Shadow of Mordor games - which are published by the same company, no less. Camera during melee combat is bad (especially indoors), and I'm constantly getting rushed and hit by enemies off screen. Damage rarely felt like it was deserved, as most of it came from enemies that were off camera or who were obscured by junk that was in the way of the camera. There's only one attack button and a counter button, so combat becomes very dull very quickly, and the game just loves throwing a dozen or more bad guys at you during the base capture missions. Granted there's some context-sensitive wall finishers and ground finishers that you can occasionally perform. You can hold down the attack button to perform a charged heavy attack, but the time when it would be most useful (when you're surrounded by enemies and need to thin out the mob quickly) is the time that you absolutely can't use it. The shotgun isn't a very meaningful tool in combat, since you can only hold a couple bullets at a time. You basically just save the shotgun bullets for when there's exploding barrels or a War Crier. The short supply of resources and the lack of health regeneration forces the player into playing each and every encounter with the same optimal strategies. The frequent large mobs leave very little room for error, which means very little room to put my own creative flourishes on combat. But errors will happen because the game drops inputs and the framerate occasional dips, resulting in cheap hits. Because of this, the frequent brawls became tedious and felt like a grind to play.
There's no quick stun attack, no mob-clearing attacks, no way to pull enemies closer or push them away. Aside from the occasional explodable fuel canister or barrel that must be found within the level, there's no grenades, molotov cocktails, or other explosives. You can't even pick up rocks off the ground to throw at enemies (even though they can throw rocks at you). It's just punch, counter, roll, and - if you have the ammo for it - shoot 'em in the gut with a shotgun. Definitely not enough variety to hold up 30-plus-hour open world action game.
Camera and control problems hamper a combat system borrowed from the same publisher's Batman games,
and Fury Mode [RIGHT] often triggers after I've already won an encounter.
Boss fights are even worse. Bosses are just bigger versions of the enemies with an order of magnitude more health, their attacks can't be parried, and they're somehow immune [or at least resistant] to shotgun blasts to the face. You're supposed to roll past their attacks and then punch them from behind - I think. But the camera is so bad at tracking the bosses that I routinely missed the boss entirely with my own attacks and took cheap hits (and cheap deaths due to their heavy-hitting weapons) from the boss standing just off-screen. Some bosses even come with mobs of enemies to distract you, which is video-game-shorthand for "we don't know how to create interesting boss fights", and it's a huge pet peeve of mine. They take so long to fight, and they're just not fun at all. Even worse, one particular boss commits another of my biggest pet peeves in games: requiring you to beat the fight, only to have you immediately lose in a cutscene. Why did I have to waste all that time fighting, dying, and re-fighting the boss if I'm supposed to lose?! Just program it so that if I lose, the game progresses as if I had won, since they're both the same outcome.
It's not that the designers didn't try to give the player fun and creative ways to kill enemies. Blowing away a particularly troublesome enemy with a well-timed shotgun blast can be wonderfully cathartic. You can also blow enemies up with fuel canisters, pin them against walls for finishers, shiv them with the occasional knife that you pick up, or perform a handful of other special moves and finishers that you have little control over triggering. There's the "Fury Mode" that makes your attacks more damaging and unlocks new Kirk-Fu drop kicks and WWE body slams, but half the time this mode only activates when I make the killing blow on the last enemy in a mob, rendering the buff completely moot.
Why can't I take the weapon in the car?!
There's also the melee weapons, which you can pick up and use against enemies. That is, if you can ever pick them up. The half-second delay when holding the button to pick up a weapon can often mean the difference between effectively using a weapon, or being hit while trying to pick it up. It's hard to not take damage when trying to pick up a weapon, and without extensively upgrading Max's melee weapon skills, the trade-off in damage is rarely worth it since these weapons break after only a few hits.
And why, oh why, oh why, can't I take melee weapons into the car with me?! Max just drops them on the ground when you press the button to get in the car! Open the door, and set the weapon on the fracking passenger seat; what the frack is wrong with you?! Aw well, it's not like these weapons are particularly worthwhile anyway. They're powerful, but they all break after two or three attacks. I don't care how strong Max is, or how thick the skulls of these War Boys are: no human being is ever going to hit another human being hard enough to break a pipe wrench.
The levels in which these fights happen are also annoyingly-designed. The bases feel like mazes, and their designs are so monotonous and devoid of recognizable landmarks (or better yet, a mini map) that it's easy to get turned around and lost. Trying to navigate them to find all the hidden scrap and collectibles is a chore of tedious backtracking that slows the pace of the game to a crawl, and the levels themselves are repetitive and ugly to look at.
How not to do resource-limitation
It's also terrible at providing timely healing opportunities and checkpoints. Water sources and food stashes always seem to appear before you enter encounters or bases, at a time when your health (including your water flask) is usually pretty high (if not completely topped off). So if you take damage deep in the base, you end up having to try to remember where it was and then backtrack through the maze-like bases to find it. Waste of time. There was even one point in which the game put me up against a boss that I barely survived. I then had to put up with the de-saturated display that indicated my health was critical while I was trying to search for a way into the next structure in the mission. That by itself was obnoxious. When I finally found how to get to the next waypoint and got in, there was a water pump, but I was ambushed by half a dozen enemies. I parried a few times, but eventually took one hit and died, and then the game had the audacity to reload Max outside the base, forcing me to run through the entire maze to get back to where I had died in order to finish the mission.
Healing opportunities are very inconveniently located.
I don't have a problem with non-regenerative health or lack of resources in principle. It just doesn't work very well with this style of open world gaming. In a game more focused on survival, stealth infiltration, or resource management, this would work. But it doesn't here because the game wants to be an over-the-top action game about body-slamming hordes of bad guys, blowing up oil drums with a shotgun, and throwing drivers out of their nitrous-fueled cars with a harpoon gun.
This focus on action severely undercuts the sense of survivalism that the game is trying to engender. This is further undercut by the relatively abundant supply of resources that the game gives you. Within a couple hours of the game, you can build a stronghold that restocks all your oil, ammo, water, and so on for free every time you return. This just completely undercuts the whole "wasteland survival" gimmick and makes me wonder why they even bothered with fuel and water. Having this abstract "scrap" as currency also detracts from the fun of scavenging. You're not looking for unique or rare crafting components to complete some cool new weapon upgrade like you might do in Fallout 4. Nope, it's just generic scrap, which you can find literally everywhere. And what few unique items that exist which are necessary to create the strongholds' unique projects are marked on the map for you (along with the locations of all the scrap).
Don't worry, there's enough gas lying around that you'll never get yourself stranded in the desert to die.
Fuel is especially a joke. I was worried that something was amiss when I realized very early that you can't siphon gas from defeated or derelict vehicles. That was definitely a red flag. In addition, your car's fuel will be automatically refilled after certain story milestones. Fuel canisters are everywhere, and in most places they even respawn when you pick them up! This is because blowing them up is often a method for solving a "puzzle", and so the game has to provide you with enough to complete the objective. Instead of working around the supply limitation and designing other ways to solve the problem, they just caved and gave you an unlimited supply of a resource whose scarcity is supposed to be one of the underlying sources of conflict in the entire game's narrative!
Fuel seems to be readily available.
Most cannisters even respawn!
Heck, I went out of my way to try to run out of gas by avoiding building the Oil Pump project in strongholds and never refueling my car when I had opportunities. I kept a spare fuel canister in back just in case, but didn't need it because running out of gas doesn't stop your car and leave you stranded in the wastes; all it does is reduce the speed of your car by half and disable nitrous boosting. It took hours of driving back and forth across the map to actually run out of gas. I bet that if you rushed through the story fast enough, you could probably clear the entire game on just three tanks of gas. And since you don't need to eat, sleep, or drink to survive, running out of gas (and getting stuck in the desert) is only a minor inconvenience anyway.
Cover from the storm
The only time that I ever felt stranded was when one of the strangely-long sand storms showed up. It seems that you're supposed to take cover from the storm; otherwise, you get blown around by wind and occasionally zapped to death by lightning. The storms come on very suddenly, and you're alerted to their imminent arrival with a large prompt on the screen. There's never enough time to find cover before the storm hits though, so you have to hope to get a little lucky as you scramble for cover.
That is, if you can find cover. This is actually a feature that I have mixed feelings about, because it's exactly the kind of thing that I proposed to make Skyrim's overworld more interesting, and to give the player a reason to go into the multitude of caves and dungeons. Mad Max's map isn't loaded down with caves and dungeons every 10 steps like Skyrim was, so there's often nowhere for you to go. And even if you do find some place to take shelter, there's nothing at all for you to do there. If you're lucky, you'll be near enough to an enemy base that you haven't cleared yet, and you can stop by to take the opportunity to clear it. Otherwise, you're stuck just sitting under an overpass or an empty base waiting for the storm to pass - which takes several minutes. So the storms are a good idea, but the lack of anything to do while you wait just makes them an annoying inconvenience. And when a storm shows up in a boss fight and saps your health to death (even though you're inside an enemy camp), it goes from being an inconvenience to feeling outright broken.
Storms come on suddenly and last a very long time, giving you very little to do in the meantime.
I feel like this sort of mechanic is best combined with other mechanics that put pressure on the player to have to proceed through the hardship of the weather. You either need to feed yourself, and must find food (or hunker down with a large enough supply of food), or you have some time constraint that means you have to weigh the cost of waiting for the storm to pass against the risk of being late to where you need to go. Mad Max doesn't have either of those, nor does it have any way to fast forward time to skip to the end of the storm if you do find a safe place to hunker down and wait.
Other minor interactions with the game are also plagued by poor control, stupid design, or bugs. Remember how there's no "wait" command for storms? Well, later in the game, there's also missions that can only be completed during the night, but you can't "wait" for night. You literally have to stand there and wait in real time for the sun to set. Then there's the fact that you can upgrade Max's health, and the amount of water that he gets from water pumps when he refills his canteen, but you can't upgrade the canteen's capacity or the amount of health that gets healed by drinking water. This means that the canteen becomes less and less valuable as the game goes on, as it can only ever recover a portion of your health bar. Not that you can ever use it in combat anyway... The camera loves to whip around (both while driving and in melee combat), which obscures your view of what's happening. And I noticed that sometimes when you die, the game restarts you at a checkpoint with less ammo, shivs, and water than you had when you died!
The tutorials come from the same school of thought as Grand Theft Auto V's: they pop up in tiny boxes in the corner of the screen, usually while something exciting is happening on screen that demands your attention. In one early mission, the game started telling me that I could use the dog to detect landmines, but I missed the part about how to find and disarm them because I was focused on driving my super-twitchy buggy car through a narrow, winding canyon at high speeds. So when a minefield shows up on the map, and I drive over to test out the mechanic (expecting more tool tips to pop up and tell me what to do), I promptly get blown up. I happened to be in a mission in which I was supposed to be delivering my car to a stronghold, so this actually broke the mission. The car tipped over on its side and caught fire. I couldn't enter the car, and the game didn't bother giving me a game over for destroying it. I had to exit out to the menu and restart from the last checkpoint in order to continue the mission. And when I tried to go into the game's menu to look if the tutorial messages about detecting and disarming mines had been saved, I was frustrated to find that the tutorial logs were sorted by category rather than by the most recent ones. I couldn't easily navigate to the last tool tips that the game showed me, so if I had missed the tool tip entirely, I'd have no idea what to even look for.
The map actually does start to feel large and appropriately sparsely-populated once you've unlocked it all.
There were also times when the game bugged out during conversations. I met up with someone who was supposed to give me intel on an enemy stronghold. The cutscene of the wastelander telling me the intel played, but without the dialogue audio or subtitles! Fortunately, it's easy enough to see a summary of the intel. In another instance, I killed a rat in a cave in order to eat it and heal. But the cutscene of eating the rat warped Max through a cave wall. When the cutscene ended, the game gave me control on the back side of a cave wall, and I couldn't get back out into the actual game world. I had to reset the game (which took me all the way back to a stronghold) and drive back to the edge of the map to finish what I was doing. This sort of stuff wasn't an isolated incident.
At least it uses the PS4's touchpad! You can click the touchpad to bring up the in-game map, and then use the touchpad to scroll the cursor. It's nice to see a game actually use this function of the PS4's controller. Also, like Shadow of Mordor, this game uses the controller's built-in speaker for certain sound effects. They're kind of weird when they happen though, and aren't used nearly as well as in Mordor. Sounds like stowing fuel canisters in your car or sliding down a zip-line come from the controller instead of the TV. This is something that seems much more useful for sound effects coming from some kind of hand-held tool or an internal monologue (which is how Mordor uses it). Environmental sounds coming from the controller just sounds weird and jarring.
Picking up where Fury Road left off?
The narrative comes close to salvaging the game, as the game's setting and the characters that inhabit take on a life of their own with much of the attention to gritty detail that helped make Fury Road such an exceptional movie. The game tries to follow the precedent of Mad Max II and Fury Road's narrative structure by using Max as a vehicle for telling a story about something else. In this case, Max's struggle is framed within the universe Fury Road in which various gangs are fighting against the reign of Immortan Joe's warlord son Scabrous Scrotus. It's not a bad premise; the execution is just a bit silly, and the flow of the narrative is completely screwy.
So this is apparently a pseudo-sequel to Fury Road? Or maybe a prequel?
Max's part of the plot revolves around trying to procure the parts necessary to build a kick-ass new super car after his prized Interceptor is stolen by Scabrous' gang and apparently scrapped for parts. Not a bad start - other than why the heck wasn't the prologue sequence playable? This creates an inherently personal motivation that allows the player to explore the map at their own pace and do only the missions that they care to do. That's fine for a sandbox game, but the fact that the whole game is framed as a giant scavenger hunt makes everything feel so tedious and unrewarding. So Max had better have a good reason for needing that car, right? Like, some place important to go? And the car's going to feel very weak and underpowered throughout most of the game (like the ship in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag), making the player feel like we need a new car, right? Well, not really. That's where it all kind of falls apart. I never saw any reason why my moderately-upgraded car half-way through the game wasn't sufficient to meet Max's end goal. It was perfectly sufficient to beat the game's challenges. Max is so obsessed with building this new car that he puts up with an annoying, cultish tag-along character [annoying to Max, but I rather liked Chumbucket], and he puts his life on the line to do favors for the various warlords on the vague promises that they'll help him build one component of the car or another. And for what? Because he's a transient and just wants to drive away into the sunset?
I really like that the tag-along character has a valid ludic function. He acts as a gunner for your vehicle-based weapons, and he can also drive the car when you can't. Chumbucket gives you a flare gun early in the game that you can use to summon him (with your car) to your location if you ever get separated from your car. It means that when you leave your car out in the desert in order to go fight your way through a fortress, there's actually a reason why you can expect the car to show up on the other side. You can even hijack and drive another vehicle and meet Chumbucket (with your car) back at your base without wondering why you didn't have to remember where you left your car and go retrieve it. Maybe Rockstar could learn a lesson or two for its next Grand Theft Auto game.
The other warlord characters are actually a colorful bunch of characters that perfectly supplement the wonderfully-realized and personable game world. Each character has interesting physical attributes and aesthetic designs, and their own goals and desires that makes them feel like believable parts of a bleak, lived-in world. It's just a shame that none of these characters ever show any initiative to act without Max to babysit them, nor do they ever actually do anything. In fact, Max basically only shows up, asks for help, reluctantly does one favor for each of them, and then moves onto the next. There's no long-term partnership or trust-building exercises. Do one task for each warlord, and suddenly you're their ally and have permanent access to their base and resources with little excuse or need to interact with them until a story mission suddenly and arbitrarily locks itself behind a requirement that you go back and finish a side mission or two.
The various warlords that you'll work for are a colorful cast of characters that are sadly under-utilized.
This also allows you to rush through the story very quickly. The game occasionally locks story progress behind the completion of ambient tasks or other missions given by the warlords, but it's only ever one or two small tasks. Once I got the Water Tower and Scrap Collection projects done in the first warlord's base, I felt little need to do any other side activities. I had no reason to do any more projects in their bases, I had no reason to go out of my way to scavenge for more scrap, and I had no reason to not just power through the story missions. I tried to do some of the game's side activities when it was convenient, but I never felt any overwhelming obligation or desire to do them. Max even earns character upgrades surprisingly fast, which allowed me to challenge supposedly "high-difficulty" enemy bases within ten or so hours of starting the game.
Is this game supposed to be dull and un-fun?
I can pinpoint the specific moment in which this game went from "alright" to outright "bad" in my mind: it was the Gastown races mission. Previous set piece missions had already caused me a lot of frustration, but I could clear them all in one or two attempts. This mission exacerbated all the nagging problems with the game's driving mechanics and came close to making me hurl the controller across the room in disgust. It puts you in a tight, constrained, and dark arena with no mini-map to give you any idea of the lay of the road ahead of you [correction: the first time I played, the mini-map bugged and did not display the track route. When I loaded it up the next day, the mini-map worked], and you have to barrel ahead at full speed to catch up to a boss character who drops mines out the back of his car, all while infinitely-respawning grunt cars try to get in your way and slow you down. Every little impact seemed to send my car careening into a wall or spinning out completely. I took more damage just from running into walls than I did from enemy attacks - with no way to repair, and there was so much shit being thrown onto the screen that I could barely even see what was going on. This was supposed to be one of the game's exciting, climactic action sequences that should have closed out the third act with one of the highlights of the whole game! Instead, it was such a miserable and aggravating event that I just couldn't justify continuing to play the game. This is the best you've got, Avalanche Studios?! Prior to this mission, the game was sitting at a solid C rating for me; after this mission, the game's a D at best. As I continued to play more missions in this [clearly unpolished] last act of the game, it just kept getting worse.
The "climactic" Gastown Race completely soured my opinion of the entire game.
I can't help but ponder the possibility that the developers of this game were deliberately trying to make a game that is miserable to play as some sort of symbolic representation of the difficulty of Max's life in the apocalypse. If that was their intent, then bravo. But I think the truth is that Warner Bros. rushed the game out the door without giving the team the extra three-to-six months that this game probably needed for polish and QA testing. Either way, the game is so close to earning my respect. The underlying principles are solid, but poorly executed, and occasional moments of fun and brilliance are far overshadowed by near-crippling problems at almost every step. The stylized open world is gorgeous and remarkable; it's really a shame that there isn't a better game to support it.
Unless you're really, really heart-set on smashing spiky, turbo-charged cars into each other in a desert wasteland, then I really can't recommend Mad Max. You'll get a better wasteland survival experience from the likes of Fallout 4 or - better yet - Fallout: New Vegas. And I've heard that Rage is also pretty good, but I've never played it. But if smashing spiky, turbo-charged cars into each other really is your cup of tea, then Mad Max should entertain you for a while. Just don't expect it to pull you in for a 100 hours like better open world games can, and don't expect to walk out without suffering mounds of frustration.
On the funnier side of things: I felt pretty self-conscious the entire game about how I kept entering the car from the passenger seat (because Australians drive on the opposite side of the road as in the United States). The game even eventually began teasing me about it. Touche Chumbucket. Touche.
The game eventually began harassing my inability to remember which side the steering wheel is on.