It’s not that Mad Max is bad. It’s just the latest in a long line of Ubisoft-template open-world games.
If you were to ask me “Is Mad Max a bad game?” I would, immediately and adamantly, answer “No.” If you were to ask me “Is Mad Max a good game?” though, you would see me pause, maybe blink a few times, and then—again—answer “No.”
I’m stuck in this limbo, this grey area, because here’s the hard truth about Mad Max: None of it is bad. All of it is familiar.
The definition of insanity
It’s an important distinction to make because the two are not mutually exclusive, least of all when it comes to Mad Max and other open-world action games. Mad Max is clearly a hodge-podge of elements from other games—the map and “tower-climbing” of an Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs or any other Ubisoft game, the requisite Batman combat, the compulsive box-opening of Borderlands.
Put another way: This is Shadow of Mordor, one year later and minus the tech behind the Nemesis system—a piece of “Don’t look behind the curtain” trickery I’m convinced saved Shadow of Mordor from similar ambivalence. The best/worst thing you can say about Mad Max is “It’s another Ubisoft-style open-world game with a lot of stuff to do.”
I frame it as “best/worst” because it’s entirely dependent on your own circumstances—how many of these games you play every year, how much you love the Mad Max setting, et cetera.
But give due credit to the developer, Avalanche: Mad Max is one of the smoothest open-world experiences I’ve ever played—not least because it’s incredibly well-optimized, running on Ultra at a rock-solid 144 frames per second on my 980 Ti at 1080p.
And moment-to-moment it’s a fun game. Player feedback is excellent, whether it’s gunning nitrous and watching blue flame blow out the end of your car’s oversized exhaust pipes or ripping a sniper from the “safe” confines of a nearby watchtower by shooting a harpoon through his chest. It never quite reaches the same heights of absurdity as Avalanche’s other open-world series, Just Cause, but you can tell the two crawled from the same primordial ooze.
Unfortunately the two share more than just a penchant for fast cars and explosions and fighting The Man. Just Cause 2, while one of my favorite games, is not something you play for the story. Nor is it, really, a well-designed game. It mostly consists of “Go here, blow everything up, repeat.”
Mad Max is similarly shallow. At the beginning of the game Max’s Black-on-Black Interceptor is stolen by the cartoony villain Scabrous Scrotus (who has an enormous spike sticking out of his groin) and Max left for dead.
He doesn’t die. Spoiler alert.
Instead, manic mechanic Chumbucket ordains Max driver of a most-perfect work of art, the Magnum Opus—a wreck of a car, all rusted bones and a tiny V6 engine. Over the course of the game you’ll upgrade Baby’s First Car into a V8-equipped beast with spikes on every surface and a top speed that outstrips every other car in the Great White. But you do it with pretty much no guidance from the game whatsoever. The main story thread won’t pick up again until you’re 90 percent done.
That sort of freedom is admirable, in a way. I’ve long complained about open-world games forcing a false sense of stakes on the player—saying “The world is literally ending right now and we need to save it,” and then letting you head off and play poker for six hours before ever addressing the meteor on a crash-course with Earth.
To its credit, Mad Max gets out of the player’s way. The game consists of three-and-a-half primary regions (the last being 1/5 the size of the others) and after the short story-heavy intro, you’re pretty much left to explore the map at your own pace—clearing out enemy camps on foot, tearing down Scarecrows and sniper towers in your car, attacking convoys and occasionally sweeping for minefields.
I wouldn’t necessarily say these side missions are any worse than what you find in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry or whatever. I would, however, say they make up a distressing amount of Mad Max.
There are two issues, as I see it. One, most Ubisoft-template games seemingly aim for a 40:60 or 30:70 ratio of Story to Filler Content. I played thirty hours of Mad Max and I reckon approximately 24 hours of that was mindless busywork—or approximately a 20:80 ratio.
But, and this is number two, part of the problem is the game is abysmal at signaling when you’re ready to move on. It reminds me of when Dragon Age: Inquisition released last year and there were dozens of articles imploring players to “Please, for the love of all that is holy, leave The Hinterlands.” The Hinterlands is the first zone in the game, and it’s both light on story and extremely boring. But with little-to-no reason for players to leave, some ended up stuck there for upwards of twelve hours clearing out Content-with-a-Capital-C that mattered very little in the grand scheme of things.
Except in Mad Max, Content does matter—the game encourages getting bogged down by tying the best upgrades for the Magnum Opus to lowering the threat level in various zones, a.k.a. tearing down those Scarecrows, capturing convoys, et cetera.
The harpoon quickly became my favorite tool, both for impaling enemies and tearing down structures. Upgrading the harpoon to maximum efficiency requires clearing every side-objective in the first region. So I did, and that easily took up eight or nine hours of my time. And while zone clearing gets more fun/tolerable once you’ve upgraded your car and Max to take more punishment, it never feels important.
What’s most irritating to me is that in other regards, Avalanche has packed Mad Max with an overabundance of variation. The map is incredible, seamlessly transitioning between rolling white salt dunes and red canyons and the trash-strewn oil fields of Gastown—and each with its own bit of lore, hidden three menus deep. There is plenty of story implicitly conveyed through the scenery, like the fact the first stronghold you encounter is a decrepit lighthouse surrounded by a sea of sand.
And Avalanche took similar care with enemies. There are three different factions for Max to vie against, and each has its own design language, its own cars, and even its own enemy types. That’s an impressive amount of variation, considering Assassin’s Creed has relied on the “Light, Heavy, and Ranged” trifecta for almost a decade.
If only the rest of the game held the same amount of variation, I think Mad Max could be something special.
As it is, Mad Max is a victim of circumstance. 2015 is on track to be one of the best years in gaming history, not least because so many titles have pushed what we expect from open worlds. The Witcher 3 proved you can make a 100+ hour game full of bespoke, story-driven side content.Metal Gear Solid V took the Just Cause 2 route of turning an open-world into a playground. Fallout 4 looks like…well, Fallout 4 and everything you’d expect from a next-gen Bethesda game.
Mad Max can’t hang with that crowd. Is it a bad game? Absolutely not. On the contrary, Ubisoft’s open-world template is perfect for churning out market-friendly games that tick all the boxes of “What People Want.” Or, perhaps, “What You Want.”
And honestly, Mad Max‘s formula is still to some extent “What I Want.” Just not as much as a few years ago.