Mad Max shouldn’t exist.
Starring a vaguely Australian-sounding Max in search of his “Black on Black” Ford Falcon Interceptor, Warner Bros. and Avalanche’s Mad Max the game attempted the same hat trick for its titular former cop turned road warrior as Warner Bros. and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum accomplished for Batman. It’s not attempting to translate a single, specific film. Rather it aims to reinvent a film hero and franchise as a video game. It largely failed.
If, like me, you grew up watching the previous era’s Max roar and stumble his way through accidental acts of near heroism — then re-enacting those dynamic chase scenes on bicycles, endlessly intoning to friends “Just walk away!” — Mad Max provides an unusual thrill. With developer Avalanche deeply involved in id Software’s upcoming Rage 2, and with nothing to play until Red Dead Redemption 2 hits, I recently decided to give Mad Max another spin. What I found was a treasure trove of gifts to game design wrapped in a lackluster and confusing gameplay experience. The perfect terrible game.
Tallying all of the strikes against Mad Max, the project sounds as mad as it’s hero:
A franchise title made by a studio which had never made one.
A game based loosely on a film that had been in development hell for almost 20 years.
A release date slipped a year beyond the release date of the film which had slipped 20 years (see above).
A vehicle combat game made by a studio which, again, had never made one.
A cinematics-heavy game made by … you get the point.
What Avalanche had made by the early 2010s was two installments in the surprise whackadoo open world acrobatic action hit Just Cause. With a third Just Cause on the way, and George Miller’s genre-bending Mad Max: Fury Road yet to bow, Avalanche and Warner Bros. announced Mad Max at E3 2013. The response was a collective shrug.
Much like the film it was planned around, Mad Max had gotten a rough start. Originally announced in 2008 as a Cory Barlog (God of War) collaboration, the title’s re-emergence at Avalanche felt, at the time, like a sign of trouble. Nothing had yet been seen of Miller’s sprawling re-imagining of the film franchise. Its last entry, Beyond Thunderdome, although a commercial success, hadn’t aged well. And Mel Gibson, the franchise’s star turned box office magician, had been embroiled in years of Hollywood scandals. So you would be forgiven if your response to 2013’s grand unveiling of Mad Max the game was, like mine, a whispered “What?”
And then Fury Road happened.
Revealed at Comic Con 2014 and premiered less than a year later, Fury Road struck box office gold. It scored ten Academy Award nominations. Critics hailed its radical upending of traditional action movie stereotypes as well as Charlize Theron’s portrayal of one-armed wasteland warrior Furiosa. Fury Road cemented its place as the definitive modern interpretation of Miller’s wasteland epic. And Furiosa, Nux and Immortan Joe earned their place amongst the original Mad Max trilogy’s larger-than-life characters: Toe Cutter, Lord Humungus, and Aunty Entity.
Avalanche’s Mad Max had none of that.
What it did have is a massive, open-world wasteland, unlocked region-by-region using gasoline-powered hot air balloons. A variety of terrain that is nonetheless all desert. And a new, terrifying enemy: Scabrous Scrotus, Immortan Joe’s heretofore unmentioned “third son”. Your ally is a hunchbacked “blackfinger” who worships engines as angels and considers you a saint. Your weapons are your fists, a sawed off shotgun (with a frustrating lack of ammunition), and a variety of vehicles you can build and customize as you grind to unlock spare parts and accumulate “scrap.” There’s also a dog. It barks at landmines.
The quest to establish Mad Max as a video game franchise akin to Batman, much like the film it followed, is a resounding TBD. Earning a spot in the top ten games sold in 2015, Mad Max nevertheless turned off many potential players with its grim narrative, survival-horror trappings, lackluster quests, and car-heavy gameplay. It got so much wrong, in fact, about how to make a trend-setting game, that the myriad things Mad Max got right about Mad Max have since been forgotten.
Wandering the wasteland, scavenging fuel, food, and water from wrecked vehicles and makeshift huts sounds like the kind of thing that could easily become tiresome, but somehow in Mad Max it’s sublime. Uncovering just enough ammo to blast one out of the next five war boys you have to fight, tapping a rain collector to fill your canteen just enough to keep from dying, munching maggots; it all boils the standard video game exploration and discovery tropes down to a rabid, post-apocalyptic core. Much like how the same mechanics set in different world, with different aesthetic twists, help both God of War and Spider-Man create similarly essential character experiences.
As in Spider-Man, though, traversal is where Mad Max truly shines. Although the collecting of spare parts and scraps with which to build cars is tedious, the thrill of driving those vehicles is pure high octane fun. Smashing into other cars, running over enemies, whizzing past anything standing still perfectly captures the essence of Miller’s vroom vroom shootem cinematography. Missing an attack, having to slow down and hang a U — while everyone else does the same — before roaring back onto the blacktop for another go feels so much a part of the Mad Max film world that it’s almost unbelievable the overall effect of the game fails to live up to it’s faithfully recreated moment-to-moment thrills.
Ultimately the film franchise itself is the potential game franchise’s worst enemy. Through the latter three films, Max isn’t so much the hero of his story as a hapless bystander somehow caught up in other people’s adventures. He can’t really be called a hero in the debut, either. Having abandoned his duties as a police officer, he only returns to the badge in order to exact revenge. (And for a sweet-ass ride.)
In a video game, you expect to do things, be someone, and thrive. Max doesn’t thrive. He begins most of his films having been robbed, captured, or beaten (or all of the above) and by films’ end, he’s hardly better off. How’s that for a tough video game sell?
“Over the course of exploring the game’s 70-plus hour open-world adventure, you will struggle to survive against low-level enemies, get repeatedly captured, run over, and shanked, and finish the game having lost everything you’ve so far accumulated! Also graphics!”
And yet, setting aside the impossibility of capturing the essence of an antihero from an anti-adventure film series in an entertainment genre that all but requires actual heroes and actual adventures, the purity of the translation of Mad Max into Mad Max makes the game’s many large-scale flaws fall away.
Playing Mad Max, blasting down the dusty road in a spike-encrusted, supercharged, nitro-boosted road-war machine, I can’t help feeling Avalanche has created the purest distillation of the essence of Mad Max ever captured in game form. That it was captured in such an otherwise forgettable game is one of video games’ lasting tragedies.