Mad Max is not a good game. It’s not an awful game and it’s far from the worst I’ve ever played, but it’s not good. It’s repetitious, grindy, technically flawed, and at times boring, with a bad and uninteresting story and only two real characters of note. It’s the kind of open world game where there are minefields out in the world to clear, but the only way to clear them is to go to one of the “fortress” locations in the world, get a special car that lacks many of the capacities of your main vehicle, drive back to the mine field, and let the dog guide you to the mines to disarm them, which gives you a tiny bit of ammo per mine. The mine fields don’t really block your access to anything and can be easily avoided so getting rid of them doesn’t help you in any significant way. You can’t carry much ammo, and it’s pretty easy to build upgrades to the fortresses that will automatically refill ammunition when you visit, so it’s busy work in its purest form, with lots of filler time spent fetching the right car and driving to the right spot with virtually no payoff.
And that’s the biggest problem with Mad Max. It is jam packed with filler. It’s an open world game that’s jam packed with icons and things to do, and the vast majority of them are pointless. Mad Max takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that used to be Australia after an unidentified disaster or series of disasters has turned the world into a burned out wasteland, where the few remaining humans fight one another over the even fewer remaining resources, mostly remnants of the civilization that once was. The culture, such that it is, that exists in this ruined world is focused around cars and other machines, used to navigate the vast stretches of hostile terrain and for people to fight among one another. It’s a fine, if generic, take on the aesthetic and culture from the movies, that manages to flesh things out a little bit while not actually explaining anything, which is consistent with the franchise.
Mad Max’s gameplay is an amalgamation of stuff we’ve all played before. Much of the game takes place in cars, and the driving controls never feel great. Steering never feels great and vehicles have a tendency to spin out, especially when rammed into by enemy cars, which is a frequent event. Max has the ability to slow time to a crawl and aim from the car with various weapons, which can be cool at first (it’s fun to blow the wheels off an enemy car or detonate its gas tank) but quickly makes most vehicle fights either trivial (if the enemy is vulnerable to your equipment) or virtually impossible (if it isn’t.) In addition to Max’s shotgun and a rocket launcher you get about halfway through, Max’s main car has a harpoon that can be used to tear doors off cars, snipers off their perches, wheels off (some) vehicles, and gates off their hinges. The harpoon is generally fun to use, and has unlimited ammo, making it probably the highlight of the time spent in the car.
On foot gameplay amounts to running around, some basic interactions with things like valves and doors, and an Arkham-lite brawling system that is the game’s primary on foot gameplay focus. Max can punch, counter, dodge, fire his shotgun, finish enemies with shivs, use melee weapons, and use a few upgraded moves that let him do things like break enemy shields or smash enemy’s heads into walls for a devastating finishing maneuver. After a certain number of hits Max goes into “fury mode” and hits even harder, sometimes throwing pro wrestling moves into his arsenal, which looks both silly and cool at the same time. It’s all serviceable but not much more. Sometimes you’ll find yourself fighting close to a dozen enemies at once which can be overwhelming, since enemies swarm Max and interrupt your combos, and also tanks the framerate, but I never found the challenge overwhelming.
The primary narrative drive of Mad Max is for Max to build an awesome car he can use to cross into the “plains of silence” and while Max can collect and drive a variety of vehicles he has one main car, The Magnum Opus, that he can upgrade and improve throughout the game. Max’s skills and stats (such as health and bonuses to things like weapon duration) can also be improved through tokens you gain through completing certain challenges such as taking over a base, winning a race, or killing a certain number of enemies/eating a certain amount of food etc… Outside those skills everything else is purchased through “scrap”, random pieces of metal gathered basically everywhere in the game and eventually earned through passive investment. It makes sense how Max uses scrap to build new armor or weapons for his car, but it’s less clear how scrap is used to give Max a better jacket or teach him how to use a shiv, but the game isn’t really concerned with realism and it fits the world thematically.
There are virtually no plants and animals left in this dried out version of the world where people eat maggots, dog food, and the occasional lizard, but what seems to have replaced them in the world is map icons. These proliferate at an alarming rate, almost like a mold that is overgrowing everything now that there’s no competition, and seem to create almost an ecosystem of their own. There are scavenging locations where you find bits of scrap and “relics” of the old world (documents like photographs.) There are “scarecrows” where the enemy war boys have set up structures to show their dominance of the area and that you have to rip down to lower threat level. There are sniper towers and enemy convoys that circle endlessly on predetermined routes and the aforementioned minefields, and wastelanders to talk to, and races to participate in, and enemy bases to clear out, and hot air balloons from which to survey the area and populate your map with icons of all the other things.
It’s exhausting, and overwhelming, and endlessly repetitive. The world itself is beautiful in a desolate way, and features some truly original and even horrifying designs. There are many games that draw from the Mad Max cinematic aesthetic, including the Borderlands and Rage series, but Mad Max does it really well, with areas ranging from beautiful desert to strange ritual sites full of dismembered bodies, to giant dumps full of the remnants of the civilization that once was. This originality does not extend to the mission design. Beyond the repetitive open world activities, the story missions themselves all feel stamped from a cookie cutter. There are car chases, brawls, and explorations of the ruins of civilization that involve driving around and/or brawling. Light environmental puzzle solving, usually based around turning valves or some very simple traversal challenges, is used to alternate the pacing, but there’s virtually no variety to the game’s dozen or so main missions. Where missions do try to vary things, such as a later game missions that is basically just a series of boss fights, the design feels rushed and incomplete. Bosses tend to be slow and predictable, with most of the challenge coming from how hard they hit and how much health they have, and special car based sequences do not play well with the game’s bad camera and squirrely car controls. Optional side missions almost all consist of descending into some special area and fighting a mini boss (basically all the same) or just getting to some special item or area. One involves turning exactly three valves off. None of it is compelling.
If the mission design is sub-par then the story is something much worse. The Mad Max movies aren’t known for their story or character, being more about action, visual design, and vibe, and the game’s story is one of the worst I can recall from the last 10 years. It’s ugly and nihilistic, full of cliches, and is happy to do things like introduce characters who are kind to Max only to kill them off almost immediately in order to add paper thin narrative stakes to a game that doesn’t have much of a narrative. Every character Max meets save one is painfully generic, and Max himself is a cipher. The only highlight is Chumbucket, Max’s faithful hunchbacked mechanic sidekick who stays in Max’s main car and chatters endlessly about how much he loves the car, which he has a pseudo-religious and openly sexual relationship with. Chumbucket is a deeply weird and original creation, and his presence throughout the game is the only thing that saves the story from being truly dire. Chumbucket is also responsible for fixing Max’s car when it gets damaged, and his absence from vehicles other than the Magnum Opus mean that the game is substantially worse whenever driving another vehicle, since you have fewer weapons (Chum also fires the harpoon), no repair ability, and the game’s best character is missing.
My experience with Mad Max swung wildly throughout my playtime. There were points where I found a very pleasant open world groove, happily tearing through the world in my Magnum Opus, ripping down enemy towers with the harpoon, collecting scrap, taking over enemy bases (which are populated by allies and produce passive income after) and upgrading my car and character. There were points where I was incredibly frustrated by the game’s fidgety controls and bad camera; especially in one vehicle based boss fight that has you driving through tight and crowded tunnels that are very unfun to navigate. There was a point where I legitimately thought that I might try and platinum the game (until I realized just how crowded the map really is) and a point where I thought I might just give up playing before reaching the end of the story. In the end I did neither. I finished the game, got spit back into the open world, and never want to touch it again.
I started these comments by saying that Mad Max is not a good game, but it’s also not a bad one. Instead it’s wildly uneven. It feels overambitious, underfocused, and possibly rushed to come out alongside the Blu Ray of Fury Road. The mission design and especially boss fights needed more time and polish (some of the bosses have animations that feel like they’re from 2008 instead of 2015) while a lot of the game’s side material just didn’t need to exist. Does it need a mine sniffing mini game with a dog and buggy? No. Does it need the ability to drive a bunch of cars that aren’t fun or interesting to use? Nope. The huge storms that make driving or doing things almost impossible are cool to see and make sense thematically but are not fun, and the scrap rewards you can get for venturing out in them aren’t worth the risk. Mad Max is a car game so it needs optional racing circuits, but those races themselves are undercooked and unfun, often making it unclear where you’re supposed to go, or requiring a degree of control over the vehicles that the game just can’t offer. The world should have been smaller and more focused, with some of the game’s vast quantity exchanged for an increase in quality of what you actually do. But there is fun to be had here, and the setting is one of the best wastelands ever offered up in a video game, even if it is directly cribbed from a movie franchise. The generic bits of gameplay are generic for a reason; they work.
Mad Max shows both the limits and the strengths of open world design. It shows how a strong sense of place in a video game can make up for deficits in other areas. It shows the risks of ambition and the limitations of “just good enough.” As a licensed game it feels thoroughly unnecessary. As a stand alone product it feels incompletely thought through. But despite these things it’s not a true waste of time. Just like Max himself sifting through the remains of a fallen civilization for the bits of scrap he can use to build his car, you can sift through the game’s problems to find the fun and interesting things it holds. Unlike, Max, however, you have a choice, and may find your time better spent in a more populated, less desolate, place.