Mad Max is a game whose good open world can't quite compensate for its generic design and story

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bigsocrates

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Edited By bigsocrates

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.

You rescue a dog early in the game. It's a moment that's supposed to humanize Max, but it's soon forgotten in the game's story, unless you really love clearing mines.
You rescue a dog early in the game. It's a moment that's supposed to humanize Max, but it's soon forgotten in the game's story, unless you really love clearing mines.

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.

Brawling with nameless generic goons is the game's focus, and yes, there is a combo counter because of course there is.
Brawling with nameless generic goons is the game's focus, and yes, there is a combo counter because of course there is.

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.

Much of the game takes place in Max's car, the Magnum Opus, and the story is focused around upgrading it and completing its construction.
Much of the game takes place in Max's car, the Magnum Opus, and the story is focused around upgrading it and completing its construction.

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.

There are no towers to climb in Mad Max. Instead you ascend in balloons. Often you need to clear out goons and refuel or untether the balloons before you use them. It's open world busy work! But in a balloon!
There are no towers to climb in Mad Max. Instead you ascend in balloons. Often you need to clear out goons and refuel or untether the balloons before you use them. It's open world busy work! But in a balloon!

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.

Chum certainly has a way with words. He's the only character given enough depth and time in the story to really stand out, and when he's not in the game it badly suffers.
Chum certainly has a way with words. He's the only character given enough depth and time in the story to really stand out, and when he's not in the game it badly suffers.

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.

At least the game has some striking visual design when you're doing generic stuff like breaking up enemy insignias scattered through the dozens of strongholds you're supposed to take back.
At least the game has some striking visual design when you're doing generic stuff like breaking up enemy insignias scattered through the dozens of strongholds you're supposed to take back.

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.

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NTM

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#1  Edited By NTM

It's one of the few games I bought this generation that I haven't beat. I played many hours of it, but the game is just too repetitive and the story is sorely lacking. I enjoy the combat just fine, and I didn't hate exploring the environments and picking up collectibles, but it became tiresome. It's a game that I wish I would finish as it has parts that I enjoy and I wouldn't go so far to call it a bad, or even mediocre game, but couldn't ever find enough motivation to do it. Any time I've tried to continue, I ask myself, is any of this worth the time sink? Then I move on. It's an okay game with good parts to it but is long enough without giving enough variety to make it worth the time.

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bigsocrates

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@ntm: The critical path of the game is not long at all and other than one specific vehicle boss fight is kind of ridiculously easy with reasonable checkpointing (though bad loading times.) There are some roadblocks where you need to upgrade the Magnum Opus to be able to advance, but if you've played a bunch you might be closer than you think.

On the other hand the story is...bad, so it's likely not worth the small amount of effort to get to the end. I like to finish games, but this one has a seriously 'meh' ending.

This game really could have used some streamlining. Did it need like 8 or whatever bases with the same boss fight to unlock colors of the car? Did it need 13 areas of the wasteland with the same stuff in all of them? Did it need four separate NPC strongholds to upgrade when none of them stand out as interesting or fun?

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TheRealTurk

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I don't know what, if anything, it says about this generation that the two most "alright" games were Mad Max and Rage 2. A couple of post-apocalypse games with a lot of driving and some kind of overdrive mode the character enters into. My achievement list says I beat both of them, but I couldn't for the life of you tell you very much about either one.

I distinctly remember thinking that Mad Max would have been better if there had been much more focus on the car. They give you this huge upgrade tree for it, but you only need a few parts to actually progress through the game and like 90% of the time relegated to "the thing you use to get across the map."

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bakoomerang

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I liked Mad Max. It's often called out as an example of a game that has lots to do, but not a very compelling reason to do it, but I liked it. It could have been better for sure, but what it ended up delivering was exactly the type of experience that I think some people are looking for. It's a video game-ass video game, and I like that those can still exist. I don't need every game to be a grandiose experience with groundbreaking gameplay and life-altering story telling.

I've tried multiple times to play Witcher 3, and bounced off every time. I've tried multiple times to get into Mass Effect and could never stick with it. I actively disliked RDR the first time I played it, though I eventually came around on it when I went back to it a few years later, but I wouldn't put it anywhere near my top 10 games of all time, and so far I've felt no compulsion to play RDR2. TLoU was one of the best pieces of story telling in a video game I've experienced, but it wasn't exactly happy-happy-fun-times (I haven't played TLoU2 but as I understand it, it only doubles down on that). I guess my point is, even though "better" games can provide experiences that are more meaningful or rewarding in some way, sometimes, I just want something uncomplicated that I can have fun with for a while, and then move on.

Also,

It’s an open world game that’s jam packed with icons and things to do, and the vast majority of them are pointless.

Not to get all deep and philosophical or anything, but isn't pretty much everything you do in every video game ever ultimately pointless? :P

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bigsocrates

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@bakoomerang: There are plenty of video-game ass videogames out there. Mad Max is okay at that but there are much better examples of the genre. It's not awful (as I said) and if you just want a game to play it is that, but even the video-game ass stuff has been done better elsewhere. The games you listed all are either much longer or have much more complicated mechanics, but I would compare Mad Max to something like Arkham Knight (another licensed brawler.) Mad Max arguably has better vehicle combat (depending on your preferences) but Arkham Knight has better combat, a deeper story with more interesting characters, a more interesting world to explore, more interesting activities etc... It's still a video game ass video game, but with more care and polish.

If you want to get philosophical then everything we do is pointless because the Earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun and the universe will eventually die a heat death and nothing we will have done will have mattered. What I meant here was that the activities aren't inherently fun, don't have any real reward attached, and don't advance the game in a meaningful way.

Again, I don't think it's a terrible game. There were definitely parts of it that I enjoyed and aspects that are interesting and above average. But even your defense of the game amounts to "it's not very ambitious, and I like that!"

If all you want is a video game that's mostly competently made (there are frame rate problems and other bugs) and is playable then sure...it's that. But that's just saying that there's a place for games that are 'not bad' and...yes, there is, but it doesn't make those games good.

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bakoomerang

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@bigsocrates: Fair enough. I just think what constitutes a game being "good" really depends on the person playing and what they're looking for out of it. It's kind of a nebulous thing, because on the one hand I know exactly what you mean, but I also know I enjoyed my time with it. I should probably also mention that I got the game on sale for like $11 CAD, so I didn't exactly have much to lose!

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bigsocrates

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@bakoomerang: I got the game for about $10 too.

There are definitely good and enjoyable aspects to the game. I finished it, and I don't tend to finish games I think are really bad. I pointed to some of what I liked in what I wrote (the harpoon is fun to use; Chumbucket is a cool character; the world design is a good take on the apocalypse.)

I'm not saying that there's nothing enjoyable there. I specifically said you can sift through the problems and find the fun stuff...and I did! I just think it's ultimately kind of generic as a whole product. Which could be another way of calling it a "video game ass video game." Maybe sometimes you like to turn off your brain and play something that's kind of generic but has some highlights. There's nothing wrong with that.

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cikame

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I love this game, i'm not ready to dissect it and criticise some of the more "generic" aspects of its gameplay loop i'm just not in that headspace at the moment, i played it 3 years ago and it was one of the best games i played that year.

I love this combat
I love this combat
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#10  Edited By Tordah

Maybe it's just that I haven't played many modern open-world games in recent years so I'm "unspoiled" by the standards set by other games, but I just got into Mad Max recently and I've had a blast with it (32 hours played so far).

I think the game looks beautiful and plays very well, which has made me not mind the repetitive nature of the activities so much. I actually really like both the driving/car combat and the normal ground combat. The game is very much a big checklist of things to do but the way the designed the game to pop up that "Location 100% cleared" message every time you've done and collected everything in a bandit camp is like catnip to a completionist like myself. It feels very stable and technically polished and I've not encountered more than 2-3 very minor bugs in my time with it.

The game is also super easy which I thought would get boring but it's been the opposite, actually. Like 20 hours in and you have a fully upgraded Max which is more or less like a walking tank in human form.

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ToughShed

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#11  Edited By ToughShed

This game has like 2-3 good elements and looks amazing and the rest is crushingly mediocre, lifeless, and derivative. You nail that part of it, how uneven and incoherent it feels. It's incredible really.

The icing on top is the shadow/bizarro/half assed Mad Max mash up storyline to it. Such a weird game.

Avalanche has been such a bummer after Just Cause 2. They seemed on the cusp of greatness. To me they still have zero feel for making real feeling open world games more than just making a big ass map you can drive around in. While Rockstar and others have pushed that, their games still feel like PS2 open world games in how you're just driving around a big lifeless map. They suck at story completely and they haven't made a game that has fun shooting yet at all.

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antime

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Mad Max is exhibit A for the cost difference between creating large worlds, and creating the contents to fill it. I was actually a bit upset when I realized that every area had exactly the same number of the same activities.

I have wondered if that was a particularly ugly compromise solution; since they had so few side mission types, they might not have wanted any customer to feel slighted that the one they liked was left out in favour of one of the others.

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OurSin_360

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I forgot about this game. Bought it at launch and hated it. I remember everybody praising it too and I just was bored silly.

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mikewhy

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Tried to get into this game a couple of times but it just never gripped me. Now I look back on it as another nail in the "avalanche really just got lucky with JC2" coffin.

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For me the real sin of Mad Max is it followed the wrong character. I get that you need to be able to sell the game with a 'known' protagonist, but the game would have made so much more sense to me if it had followed Furiosa's backstory instead. It would explain the involvement with Immortan Joe/his kids, makes more sense for her to have someone on the back of her vehicle chucking javelins than companion-averse Max. I mean, she has a robot arm for goodness sake: there's your upgrade tree right there! :)

That said I found the game enjoyable enough to play through it a couple times. You really have to get past the flaws others have mentioned in this thread to enjoy it though.

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I actually really like Mad Max a lot, but it's far from perfect.

First, I actually really like the on foot combat. Yes, it's just batman combat, but I had a hard time getting into those games for other reasons (despite loving Batman TAS). So it's not really anything special within the space mechanically. But the animations and the pacing of the combat, all the little details, made it so much fun. It felt like it had a weight and impact normal Batman combat doesn't, even if they're almost mechanically identical. I'd argue it's the best of the Batman style combat systems.

However, for a Mad Max game, it felt like it had a split of 50/50 melee and car combat, but it probably should have edged more on the side of car combat. 65/35 maybe.

Speaking of car combat, I loved it, until it did the thing all open world games with character progression do, make you so overpowered you trivialize all combat encounters. The thunderpoons really just make the combat a joke later in the game, and kind of spoil the earlier car combat loop of using the grappling hook and ramming people. The shotgun is limited enough to avoid this issue, and I think having both the thunderpoons and the shotgun was a bit unnecessary. The grappling hook was already incredibly powerful, and overpowered itself once it's upgraded a bunch.

Also, honestly, the game should have just focused on those convoy encounters. More of them, more often, even maybe have convoy encounters where you're on the defensive (which is the way the movies play out). They are, bar none, the best part of the game.

I started to get a little tired of it towards the end in the way that all open world games with upgradable stuff just start to run out of fumes, but man, the first 75% was a complete blast for me, and I loved the world of Mad Max enough that exploring was always interesting to me.

Honestly I've been thinking about replaying it.

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Ulfhedinn

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@cikame said:

I love this game, i'm not ready to dissect it and criticise some of the more "generic" aspects of its gameplay loop i'm just not in that headspace at the moment, i played it 3 years ago and it was one of the best games i played that year.

I love this combat
I love this combat
No Caption Provided

I loved it as well, the exploration, combat, world, vehicle combat.
Imho it's a true Mad Max game.


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NTM

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@bigsocrates: Okay, I will take your word on the critical path aspect. I am referring to the entirety of the game though and checking every question mark off of the map if you will. To me, that took too long, and there just wasn't enough variety to sustain my want to get through it. I generally like to hit the majority, if not everything you can do in a game before I reach the credits.

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regularassmilk

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Here's my big take on this game: fuck crafting. fuck crafting big time. fuck that. I wish this game could've balanced some smaller open world sections with a linear design. Like any open world game I've played in the last ten years, it was just way too much of nothing.

In the world of Arkham Asylum-like games, I thought it could've been among the top tier. But it's bland man. Even the world design was weak for me. I'm a big fan of Mad Max first and foremost, but I so wish this could've been at least modeled after The Road Warrior instead of being modeled after Fury Road. If I remember correctly, didn't this game end up getting re-worked in some major way because of Fury Road? As in, it was in development for a long time and then all of a sudden Fury Road was happening?

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superslidetail

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@bigsocrates Man I've gone back and forth in my mind on buying this game when it goes on sale but have yet to pull the trigger. I love post-apocalypse anything, i.e. movies, games, books. I like the Borderlands games, the first RAGE(didn't play the second), everything Fallout, etc. I also like open world games.

I may have missed it in your review but how does driving the car feel? Does the Magnum differ from the other cars or do they basically feel the same? How do the upgrades work, do they just unlock with the scrapping or can you pick the parts on the car?

Also, did you play Days Gone?

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bigsocrates

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@superslidetail: If you love everything post-apocalyptic and love open world games then you'd probably like this. It's not terrible and it is both of those.

The driving feels...okay? Cars spin out too much and sometimes the game asks you to navigate very tight areas, which the driving isn't ideal for, but most of the time it's fine and even fun. The Opus feels similar to other vehicles but after being upgraded is faster and more maneuverable with better traction and more nitro (some vehicles other than the Opus have boosts but none have multiple that I can remember.) There are some other vehicles with special properties, like one that can drop mines behind it, but most are just kind of crappy versions of the Opus. You spend the vast majority of the time in the Opus though. It is the only car with a harpoon or that can be fixed by Chumbucket.

The car has a lot of upgrades and you choose what you upgrade. Some of the choices have to be unlocked through story or other progression (like lowering "threat" in a region or doing a side mission.) You pick each part you upgrade from the engine and tires to the harpoon etc...

I did play Days Gone. I liked it more than Mad Max.

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superslidetail

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@bigsocrates: Thanks for the reply. I will check it out when it goes on sale again, maybe Days Gone too.