Beauty in the barren: Revisiting the world of 2015’s Mad Max

“What in the world possessed us?” That’s the question I imagine developers at Avalanche Studios have asked themselves countless times in the seven years since its Mad Max game launched on the exact same day as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Talk about setting yourself up to fail… Because for as much confidence as a studio might have that its passion project will be good enough to cut through the noise and connect with players, the fate of 2015’s Mad Max was sealed well before the eponymous anti-hero could even get his key in the Magnum Opus’ ignition.

Revisiting the wasteland today, it’s apparent that, while nowhere near as in-depth or nuanced as Hideo Kojima’s stealth series send-off, Max’s jaunt still has its merits – not least because it does a lot with very little. Said approach feels surprisingly refreshing now, at a time when modern open-world adventures seem to regularly suffer from too much clutter.

As a faithful interpretation of director George Miller’s beloved quadrilogy, Mad Max presents a dust-bowl version of America where water is a scant resource, cannibals roam, and civilised life is almost as rare as oil. The map, therefore, isn’t densely populated with meaningless activities. There are things to do, but nearly all put you in positions that further highlight the kind of acts necessary to exist in such a cruel reality.

Only the bravest – or most malicious – can survive here, and Max himself sits somewhere in between. You feel this whenever he hazes his trusty companion Chumbucket for not repairing your vehicle fast enough, his general callousness towards NPCs (even those trying to help), and the vicious kill animations you can activate whenever Max’s Fury meter is full. Much like the movies it’s based on, Mad Max isn’t particularly a story-driven experience, yet it absolutely nails the character of Max as a ruthless wanderer willing to do anything to restore his car to its former glory.

Speaking of which, this wouldn’t be a Mad Max game without some tight vehicular combat, and in that department, Avalanche delivered. Cars are something to be worshipped in this universe, and nothing communicates this idea more than having you gather scrap and explore new regions to build up your death machine after your previous one was stolen. The game’s opening mission starts off simply having you select the car’s body. Before long, though, you’re improving its effectiveness in battle by upgrading the engine, swapping in spiked tyres, and improving the chassis. The studio was quick to recognise that while watching Max slowly improve with new abilities was essential, the same treatment had to be given to the Magnum Opus.

A good thing, too, as car combat grows more essential in Mad Max as the narrative progresses. Whereas initially it’s almost impossible to catch up with a convoy and ram buggies and trucks off the road due to your starting vehicles’ limitations, taking their resources eventually becomes second nature as you have Chumbucket regularly launch fire spears from the roof to attack at range, and persistently slam bonnet against boot to watch enemy vehicles take off in a ball of flame. Having so many options available when behind the wheel is an effective way of letting you create unique in-game action set pieces, not too dissimilar to the ones seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, released that same year.

Admittedly, the hand-to-hand combat hasn’t aged quite as well. Whereas Mad Max feels in its element with its protagonist behind the wheel, getting up close and personal with enraged warboys comes over as a tad rote – it often devolves into standard button-mashing fare. Not surprising considering the game takes some not-so subtle inspiration from the Batman: Arkham school of melee, as you’re encouraged to fend off groups of enemies and build up as high an unbroken combo as possible when filling up your rage meter. Max never dances across the screen in order to land a punch as the Dark Knight does (thank god) and some semblance of groundedness is maintained. The only real novelty to brawls is knowing when to best finish a foe off using a gunshot, as ammo is a rare luxury.

Mad Max is at its best when you’re revving your engine across the sand dunes in pursuit of the next vehicle upgrade. Are there side missions, collectables, and areas of interest to distract you from this inherent purity? Yes, but it’s far from as egregious as other open-world games from the era. Avalanche Studios instead stays true to the sparseness of this setting.

More so than almost any other video game environment, it’s hard to make the desert wasteland constantly interesting, but Mad Max manages it thanks to engaging car combat, a thickly bleak atmosphere, and by (mostly) focusing on character rather than story.

It took the original Mad Max movie years to be recognised as the cult masterpiece it is. I’m hoping that the same might one day happen to Avalanche’s affectionate adaptation.

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