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I’ve been spending a little too much time lately with Mad Max. Not the movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, but the video game from Warner Bros. I’ve wandered the desert with Max, driving my heavily armored car aimlessly because I don’t have anything better to do. I have no idea whether I’ll complete my main mission in life.
The game started out with a serious story. I had to penetrate the frightening Jaws, or steel gates, of Gastown, where vast riches and precious oil awaited. I had a mission. I was Max, on a quest. But I’ve lost track of it by doing a ton of tiny little missions that don’t seem to yield much except some cool new details for Max’s car, dubbed the Magnum Opus. Indeed, what starts out as a quest to escape Max’s past and survive the nightmarish wastelands has turned into a petty hunt for shiny scrap metal.
Sadly, this means that Mad Max isn’t going to produce a “transmedia” bonanza for the movie studio. The Mad Max movie remake starring Tom Hardy has taken in more than $374.7 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. All those movie fans will be tempted to try out the game. But it just isn’t the right game, in my opinion. Warner Bros. and developer Avalanche Studios chose to make it an open world, but I think it should have been much more contained, like the recent Lara Croft reboot, Tomb Raider, from Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics.
This is the blessing and the curse of a narrative game based on a narrative film and set in a wide open world where you can wander anywhere your wheels will take you. It is one of those games where I love the variety of what I can do, but I wish it wasn’t an open world because it never ends. I want to finish the story but I’m so easily distracted away from it. It’s very similar to Batman: Arkham Knight, the other big Warner Bros. hit video game of the summer. Like in Batman, you can punch guys in the face with bone-crushing, brutal efficiency. And you can slaughter annoying War Boys with your Magnum Opus, running them into the ground in pirate-like, side-by-side duels on the dusty roads.
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As Max Rockatansky, you are a resourceful man who wants to cross the Plains of Silence. It feels like you should get somewhere. But by the end of it all, you may wind up with a car that has a V8 engine rather than a V6. It seems like such little progress. I would go on a mission. Fight. Explore. Go on a mission. Explore and fight. Collect scrap. Then I come back the next day, hoping I don’t run out of water or gas.
I feel aimless because Mad Max has a dual nature. The desert is alive. It has a day-night cycle and changing weather. The landscape is brown and yellow, but it has things hidden within it. It’s full of things that can kill you. If you take down the giant scarecrows, attack the fortresses of the bad guys, and drive right through the towers of snipers, you can lower the threat level in a whole region and thereby earn the upgrades that your Magnum Opus so badly needs. You can spend a ton of time exploring.
“The approach to art direction on Mad Max is to show this dead, barren world and still make it exciting to explore,” said Martin Bergquist, the art director at Avalanche Studios, in an interview. “We want to make it a world filled with threats and opportunities for the player. When you first look at it, it feels one way. But you’ll see surprises. It has a dark beauty. It looks and feels hostile.”
You can also just take out as many cars as you can find. I took out two enemy cars by harpooning the drivers with a retrievable, rope-borne spear. Then I smashed their cars to flaming wrecks by continuously driving the Magnum Opus into them. I got out to walk to pick up the scraps. But before I got back, more War Boys drove by and ran me over. When that happened, I felt like the desert was just too teeming with life, with too many threats coming from all directions. I felt the same way when I was about to conquer an outpost, and then a killer storm arrived and I was killed by lightning.
On the other hand, I wanted to see the story progress. After meticulously cleaning out the first region, which belongs to a warlord named Jeets, I started moving faster. I tried to expand quickly from region to region and perform meaningful missions that took me closer to Gastown. As I picked up historical artifacts from Max’s life before the apocalypse, I wanted to learn more about him. But it seems like his soul and memories had been scattered across the desert. I looked everywhere for mission structure, with pointers that could lead me from one mission to the next. But instead, I found random tasks to do, one after another.
This game is a disappointment in part because Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment had a remarkable run this year. It had big hits so far with Dying Light, Mortal Kombat X, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. But Mad Max is the weak link, even though it shares some very high production values with those other games.
The story of the game is different from the movie. It takes place in the same Mad Max universe, but the things that happen in this story and the characters you run into are unique. It draws upon elements from all of the previous Mad Max movies.
The car combat was a joy, but not particularly rewarding. Like I said, it was fun to harpoon the enemy without wasting precious resources like bullets. I enjoyed blasting the enemies with my shotgun when I had no other choice. And when enemy cars pulled along side me, I had to choose whether to take them out or just fire a nitro boost so that I could catch up with the lead car in a caravan. I was able to fight without losing control of the car because it would go into slow motion. That was extremely fun.
But then it would become extremely boring. I could take a car back to my headquarters, or I could collect some loot by smashing my car into the abandoned car about 10 times. In other words, Mad Max was frustrating because I had to constantly shift from a fun activity to something tedious, and I had little chance to survive for a long time.
I enjoyed upgrading my Magnum Opus, getting better harpoons, more armor, a bigger engine, and better performance and handling. But earning the scraps to get those upgrades took forever. Even when I took down an enemy fortress, I didn’t wind up with enough loot to buy something nice. So the game forced me to stop doing the thing that was fun — advancing the plot and taking out enemies — to something that was boring, like breaking down a car into scrap.
You have a mechanic named Chum Bucket, who is along for the ride not because Max is his friend but because he can fix cars on the fly — in the middle of combat — and Max has the driving skills and fighting ability to defeat all foes. Chum Bucket saves you from having to go back to your base frequently. And he provides a little companionship in a game that just doesn’t have enough people in it.
“Life is a savage road,” the trailer for Mad Max says. “Out here, a man with no wheels is a man with no hope. It’s a long, dark passage, from which there is no exit. In these wastelands, the righteous path is whichever road gets you out alive.”
The problem is that I keep dying. I’m stuck on this road for what seems like forever. With no salvation from the desert in sight, I’m still wandering the open roads with Mad Max.
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