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This summer, director George Miller showed up every other big budget Hollywood blockbuster with Mad Max: Fury Road. It was more than merely another popcorn action flick, but a resounding war cry against how antiquated, boring, sexist, and trite the mainstream action film is. The same can’t be said of the long-beleaguered Mad Max video game, which never had a chance to reach the same levels of ass-kicking social awareness.
Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t really about Max at all. Max was a witness to the actions of others and occasionally a participant, but really, it was about the world—and, especially, Furiosa. Max was a beaten down, severely depressed guy with no direction, but still some semblance of a conscience. It’s rare to see a modern mainstream video game even attempt to do what Fury Road accomplished, so it’s no surprise that Mad Max, the game, lacks so many of the vital elements that made the movie great.
Mad Max is also a game that has been in development hell for years—thrown around between different creators like a hot potato rigged to blow. The movie clearly forced someone’s hand, so Avalanche Studios ended up with the unenviable position of cranking something out.
But Avalanche has a history with the sort of insane wide open world that Max plays in. They created the Just Cause series, which has been brilliantly bonkers. It’s a shame that not nearly enough of Just Cause’s insanity is at play in Mad Max. The game lacks a lot more than Furiosa’s imposing presence, even if it’s not a total wash by any stretch. For those excited about the strides the movie made, however, the game repeatedly misses opportunities to make this style of game—now done so many times before—something greater.
Anyone looking for a feminist bent in the Mad Max game will be especially disappointed. Granted, the only reason you’d want that in a Mad Max anything is because the film was so surprising in that way, and it’s not really the game’s or the developer’s fault that they didn’t choose the same route. But the fact remains that some players will be looking for that when they boot up the Mad Max game, justifiably or not, and they’re not going to find it.
The game revolves solely around Max (which, again, should be expected), while the wasteland’s many other wandering denizens exist only to die or provide Max with a new mission. Men and women are used interchangeably here—none of them matter—but virtually all the enemies you fight look like clones of the same War Boy. There’s a nearly complete homogeny to the population of the wasteland, with the single exception of Max’s main companion—a Quasimodo-like mutant mechanic named Chumbucket who hangs out on the back of the car spouting Christianity-meets-gearhead pseudo-sermons, like a gleefully politically incorrect preacher.
The game opens with a remarkably entertaining, but bizarrely non-interactive battle against the warlord of this particularly vast piece of post-apocalyptic real-estate. Bearing the hilarious name of Scabrous Scrotus—which sounds like the best Dr. Seuss character ever—he’s a tough bastard; when Max drives a chainsaw into Scrotus’ skull, it only pisses the guy off.
Then, there’s Griffa, the so-called wandering mystic intent on treating Max with intense psychotherapy. These segments are, mechanically, the means by which the player improves Max’s stats and abilities—greater health, more combat options, and other such mundane things. They play out as a taxing attempt to get Max to reconnect with the world after losing his family. It’s an odd, drug-fueled addition to a game that is otherwise so narratively shallow. Max is a deeply damaged character—that’s the main narrative thrust, but it’s not a particularly interesting one.
IMITATION AS GAME DESIGN
Mad Max strips other, better games like Far Cry 3 and the Batman: Arkham series down to their core elements. Its combat, in particular, is a heavily dumbed-down version of Batman’s (it’s mostly just punching the shit out of war boys, with little to no finesse, though it still manages an amazing amount of visceral brutality).
Car combat, meanwhile, goes from hilarious to frustrating and back again. Cars impact against each other as if they were made of rubber. Handling is unpredictable, and the lack of a proper handbrake makes the turning radius of these cars murder. On the other hand, Chumbucket shoots a mean grappling hook, which (while riotously over-powered) is thoroughly entertaining.
There are cars to collect, endless obstacles to run down, races to win, supply convoys to destroy, and things that go boom for the sake of going boom. Despite huge flaws, there’s a significant zen quality to just driving around looking for scrap metal, water, and gas without any real purpose.
This is not a terrible game. But unlike the movie, the only statement Mad Max really makes is that imitation is the cheapest form of game development. At times, Max even tries to invoke some emotional resonance, but largely it’s just about driving around murdering people while jacking their stuff. The sad fact of video games, unfortunately, is that that description would fit equally well with many of the superior games Mad Max tries so desperately to clone.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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