Worth dipping a toe into the wasteland?
This is a new series looking at those titles that went under the radar and the reasons why they were overlooked.
A Whole New World
Mad Max might have been the crashing of a wave. The open-world sandbox of fetch quests, incremental RPG-lite buffs and 360-spinning-camera towers that reveal the map are common as muck these days. As with basically any videogame trope ever, they begin as good design choices or even ‘innovations’, until they start to become tired and then they turn into a shorthand example of unimaginative triple-A design.
You might blame Ubisoft for their existence; but it’s difficult to make a compelling argument against design that sells well, is reusable and usually puts you around the 75+ score on Metacritic. Like the regenerating health and iron sights that came before them, these systems exist to solve a problem. With modern open-world games, the problem they are solving is longevity by creating a system that drip feeds incremental rewards for sinking time into repeating the same tasks. So where does Mad Max fit into this? With 23 hours of gameplay under my belt, it’s remarkable how little there is to say about Mad Max – the game itself. Then it occurred to me – the most interesting thing about it is just how derivative it is. Mad Max might be the most derivative game I’ve ever played. The word ‘derivative’ is often used as a negative when you’re discussing a game. This is justifiable because as critics and gamers alike, we strive for innovation. It’s worth noting that a game can take the best elements of other games and produce something good but rarely exceptional. With the strength of a license like Mad Max only stretching so far, we need a hook. To go a bit further into what makes Mad Max so derivative, I’ll tell you about a typical couple of hours spent with the game.
What do you do?
You begin at your upgradable safe house, get into your car and head out into the large open world. You want to improve your current engine to one that will increase your acceleration by 15 percent. However, this upgrade is locked until you reduce the ‘threat level’ in your current region. In order to do that you must eliminate various things marked on your map – for example Scarecrows (totem poles of the antagonist) can be knocked over, a minefield cleared or a sniper nest destroyed. Each of these tasks takes away a small piece of an overall threat level, until it falls to a lesser number which you then continue to deplete. You could take a more sizeable chunk off the threat level by taking over an enemy outpost. This involves driving to it and killing everyone inside using the fighting system from Batman: Arkham Asylum. In order to not get your ass handed to you in these fights, you’ll need to upgrade your armour and knuckledusters. This costs scrap – the game’s universal currency (the same thing you’ll use to level up your car). The result of this micro economy is what I imagine it feels like wading through a thick swamp.
Even if the gameplay were more compelling than solid vehicle combat and the Arkham-fighting-style, this micro economy is the reason this is a 60+ hour game. The best open-world games offer you the choice of optional quests while nudging you towards the larger story. Mad Max subtitles almost everything as ‘optional’, while presenting the upgrading of your car as the central focus of progression – something you can’t do until you amass a gigantic amount of scrap – the thing you’ll only get enough of by ploughing tons of hours into ‘optional’ quests.
It’s frustrating how easily Mad Max functions as a case study in artificial longevity because if it weren’t for systems refined by Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, the developers would be forced to look at the different ways you could make a Mad Max game. As things currently stand, of course Mad Max would use these systems – when you look at them and the Mad Max license it makes sense.
It seems clear to me that a big reason why you missed Mad Max is because it arrived on the same day as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (1st September 2015). It’s hard to dispute the fact that MGS V, one of the most anticipated games in a generation was always going to impact the sales and general mark left by Mad Max, but if you look at the titles that came earlier that year it’s obvious that a fatigue had begun to set in with ‘these kinds of games’ unless they were truly exceptional. The preceding months saw the releases of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Batman: Arkham Knight. With Batman: Arkham Knight, we had the twilight of a series that defined third-person action, shifting to an open world and a reluctant admission that perhaps the Rocksteady foundation was getting tired. With The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, you had one of the best role-playing games ever created, a living open-world with meaningful side-quests and a combat system that added challenge and complexity to the Arkham-model.
So then, maybe it’s worth asking the question: “Was Mad Max, a few months away from being worthwhile?”. Perhaps, and it’s probably unfair to compare the ambition of Mad Max with The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, or even the faltering Batman: Arkham Knight (a series that had already produced excellent titles). In isolation, Mad Max is a fun game that’s polished and engaging, worse games have probably made bigger impacts and I think the lesson here is pick your release date better or bring something new to the table. When I’m chasing down a convoy in a lightning storm I’m struck (no pun intended) with a feeling that there could be something great here and frustrated at the missed opportunities. This frustration is only amplified when you remember that this is a game developed by Avalanche Studios – you know, the guys that did the Just Cause games.
Is Mad Max Worth Coming Back For?
I picked Mad Max up for £5 on Steam and I will probably see it through to completion. If you’ve finished all the better games that Mad Max is copying it’s just about worthy of your time.