The first time it was done, it was an unexpected gem. Now that it’s been done again, although perhaps to a different degree of effectiveness, one must wonder if games based on movies are seeing a resurgence.
When Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment published Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor last year, it shocked those in the gaming industry who had written off any game built around licensed cinematic material. They had good reason to be skeptical – licensed games scheduled to be released alongside Hollywood blockbusters have a tarnished track record at best. However, the modern foray into Lord of the Rings territory was evidence that a game based loosely on a movie franchise can deliver thrills as well as a standalone intellectual property can.
Although it’s arguable that lightning has struck the same place twice with Mad Max, which hit the shelves earlier this month, it is indicative of a pattern from Warner Bros.; one in which movie franchises are being mined for original stories and gripping gameplay experiences. With Mad Max, developers Avalanche Studios have made an admirable effort of bottling lightning in the same way Monolith Productions did with Shadow of Mordor.
It’s easy to assume the Mad Max game is intended as a companion piece to Mad Max: Fury Road, this past summer’s critically-acclaimed box office smash that returned the classic movie series to the forefront of pop culture. However, it’s never made perfectly clear where the game fits into the movie universe, though it can be argued it is effectively a sequel to Fury Road.
When we join the unwilling hero Max Rockatansky in the game, he is burning gasoline toward a quasi-mythical place he calls The Plains of Silence, where he believes he will find peace from the relentless pangs of regret, sorrow and anger in his head. Inevitably, his journey hits a roadblock in the form of Scabrous Scrotus, a wasteland warlord and son of Fury Road villain Immortan Joe. Max’s prized Interceptor is scrapped and he is robbed and left for dead.
With the help of a wandering hunchbacked mechanic named Chumbucket, who sees Max as the messiah of his enigmatic automotive deities, Max sets out to build the Magnum Opus, a vehicle Chumbucket promises will be the fastest, toughest and deadliest the wasteland has ever seen. From there, the player sets out to improve their equipment, skills and car to survive the perilous stretches of post-apocalyptic Australia.
Players will spend the majority of their time driving along dust-swept roads to points of interest, sources of salvage, wasteland races, missions, strongholds and more, facing off against hostile drivers in explosive road wars. Car combat consists mostly of ramming enemy cars into pieces or using Max’s shotgun or other weapons to devastating effect on exposed fuel tanks or drivers. The learning curve can be steep for those unaccustomed to driving games, but the payoff for mastering the road is great. Few feelings can compare to the satisfaction of running a War Boy’s buggy off the road and watching it burst into beautifully-rendered flames and debris as the wrecked chassis tumbles end over end.
Upgrading and customizing the Magnum Opus is a smartly executed strong point in Mad Max, with a variety of components to tune your vehicle into exactly the type of engine of survival you wish to drive; whether you prioritize speed and handling, armor and ramming power, a balance of all attributes or anything in between. Many parts of the car offer drawbacks as well as benefits. A new engine will boost acceleration but may also decrease handling. New tires and suspension may offset this, but it’ll cost a hefty pile of scrap. These decisions add a welcome level of depth and personalization to the game. The resulting relationship between car and driver feels akin to building and commanding The Jackdaw, the formidable pirate vessel from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Making deranged bandits “die historic on the Fury Road” with the Magnum Opus is only half of the combat equation. On many occasions, Max will need to take care of business on foot. Hand-to-hand combat follows the formula seen in the Arkham games and in Shadow of Mordor that should be familiar to many by now. One button throws punches, another parries when prompted with visual cues above enemies’ heads, another dodges attacks and another triggers special attacks when possible. With some minor tweaks, the Mad Max combat system feels well tailored to the new game and setting, including a new “fury mode,” some slight adjustments to counterattacks and an overall greater focus on action over stealth.
The combat is done well, as each bone-crunching impact or brutal finisher feels sufficiently visceral, but comparisons to other Warner Bros. games are unavoidable and the system may ultimately feel stale to some players.
The game world of Mad Max is expansive and a visual marvel, with eye-catching landmarks, extremely detailed animations and a powerful sense of exploration. With so much ground to cover in Max’s ever-improving steel chariot, there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Add to this the several allied strongholds that Max can improve through side activities and players can expect to lose dozens of hours to the wasteland. On the flip side of the many missions and activities that dot the map, some objectives can quickly become repetitive.
Characters aren’t terribly complex but do come with unique characteristics that add color to every interaction and effectively drive the story forward. Among the most gripping scenes of character development are the talks between Max and Griffa, a mysterious wandering wasteland guru who explores the innermost depths of Max’s psyche, helping him uncover his hidden potential.
Mad Max succeeds at providing high-octane action and adventure, but doesn’t necessarily exceed at much else. And that’s perfectly acceptable for a game loosely inspired by a major motion picture. In fact, it’s a relatively rare feat compared to most movie games of the past. Fans of car combat and Arkham-esque beat-em-up escapades will likely be satisfied if not blown away.
If nothing else, this entry begs the question: what will be the next movie universe to be granted a proficiently entertaining video game adaptation? Provided this trend continues and Warner Bros. hits a stride with balancing source material inspiration and well-execute game mechanics, we all win no matter which franchise is chosen.