Review++: Mad Max (2015)
Avalanche Studios (est. 2003, Sweden) has made a name for itself in the open world action-adventure genre, with much credit going to their Just Cause franchise. And though Avalanche has made the occasional exploration into free-to-play, most of its studio and development culture can be expected to reflect a more traditional pay-to-play studio. With Mad Max, Avalanche continues to leverage their experience with open world action-adventure games. The release comes hot off of the box office success of Mad Max: Fury Road (which netted over $220m), and though the game itself is not an official tie-in to the film, it maintains essential thematic consistencies to George Miller’s iconic dieselpunk IP, including over-the-top character/vehicle/world design, heart-pounding vehicular battlefields, and the titular character’s eternal struggle to find sanity and purpose in a new and savage world.
Mad Max places consistently as a decent game, though not perfect. A substantial amount of attention was given to the game’s signature take on vehicular combat and stunning landscapes, though even the most positive of reviews tended to touch on the game’s repetitive gameplay and derivative mechanics. For this review, I personally weigh in on the vehicle combat and customization systems, and I’ve brought in Valdis Matas to share his expert opinion on what made Mad Max‘s landscapes to die for. We finish off with a solid argument from Tom Vinita on how developers can avoid some of Mad Max‘s repetition with theoretically minimal budget impact.
Vehicle Designer at Wargaming Seattle
Art Director at Giant Enemy Crab
Designer/Project Lead at Uber Entertainment
By far, the most praised feature of Mad Max was its vehicle gameplay. From the addictive customization to the heart-pounding car-to-car combat, almost every reviewer touched on the satisfaction of the game’s use of vehicles. As a vehicle combat designer at Wargaming.net, I personally weigh in to help understand what made this so appealing:
Sheehan: I’ll start by arguing that this is one of those cases where it’s 30% game mechanics and 70% presentation. Mechanically, the customization options for your car give a strong sense of ownership and player identity, and Avalanche designs most of its vehicle encounters to have slightly different solutions. By allowing any vehicle loadout to perform adequately in any encounter – yet still requiring different approaches each time – Mad Max finds that excellent combination of new-yet-familiar with each encounter.
Mind you, it does take a while to unlock enough of your loadout to be effective against large groups of enemies, but most of this hazing period does help reinforce the contrast with the ass-kicking machine you eventually become.
Mad Max also retains one of the satisfying benefits of vehicle combat mechanics; by strategically targeting specific parts or crewmen, you can efficiently eliminate opponents faster than it would take to completely drain their hit points. Except in this case it’s amplified by the satisfaction of plucking the driver out of a moving car with a harpoon.
In addition, I’ll make the note that the choice of vehicle in this game is fairly critical to its appeal. In a marketplace full of games in which players customize mechs, tanks, battleships, and star cruisers, Mad Max instead opts to focus on cars, something more culturally prevalent and relatable. The marriage between the apocalypse-fantasy setting and otherwise very ordinary technology once again elicits that new-yet-familiar dynamic I mentioned before, and helps circumvent constant comparison to similar games.
The game mechanics work well to create a solid basis for phased combat that provides nuanced combat in every encounter, but as I mentioned, it’s the presentation and feedback that completely sells the combat. When you slam into another vehicle as you both soar down the highway at 90mph, the sound effects and visuals ensure that you really feel the hit. When you use your harpoon to rip a wheel from a buggy – causing it to careen off and crash explosively into another enemy as the detached wheel bounces gleefully down the road – you better believe it’s not the game mechanics alone that make the experience so satisfying. By capitalizing on their incredible VFX and sound design teams, Avalanche was able to take what would otherwise have been an *okay* vehicle combat experience and move it leagues beyond its competitors.
The second most cited praise for Mad Max is the game’s breathtaking landscapes, which comes in spite of the game’s post-apocalyptic desert setting. To help understand how Avalanche overcame this limitation and brought their landscapes to critical acclaim, we have Due Process Art Director (and Mad Max IP junky) Valdis Matas:
Matas: Well one thing I know about Avalanche is that they are a sucker for vast landscapes – ever since Just Cause 1 they’ve always pushed the boundaries for view distances and huge playable areas. Mad Max’s environment was interesting because it had a lot of long flat areas that let you see for miles ahead of you – which is not something you get too often in games. Those long sweeping vistas can make for quite a sight as you drive down the road.
But Avalanche also knew not to just make it a vast desert, and despite the post-apocalyptic environment, there’s a lot of variation to be had from area to area, and each world area makes sure to have it’s own specific look. The rocky volcanic area of Gutgash’s territory is covered in angular rock formations and has a cooler color scheme, while in the area around Gastown the sky is red with smog, and industrial structures surround you.
It’s also really clear that Avalanche did their planning well. In many interviews they state that they tackled the environment by building a real place, then hitting it with an apocalypse, so it makes the whole area feel cohesive and real.
The color grading is also gorgeous; the bright orange of the sand during the day, the red moon rising at dusk, and the deep blue nighttimes. Most post-apocalyptic games shy away from any kind of color, but Mad Max embraces it.
But I think what really makes Mad Max’s environments stand out is just the sheer sense of scale to everything. The environment is always so massive and looming.
With Mad Max‘s success aside, the single most commonly reviewed aspect of the game was its repetitive gameplay. After his recent success in livening up the gameplay of Planetary Annihilation with its new expansion, Planetary Annihilation: Titans, Tom Vinita shares some thoughts on how basic gameplay interactions impacted the game’s repetitiveness:
Vinita: The core thing getting in the way of me enjoying the game… seemed to be controlling Max himself. The controls and his motions felt competent and functional, but at the same time stiff and disconnected. This extended in particular to the combat. Whereas many games employing similar combat systems–Assassin’s Creed, Arkham [Asylum]–will often fudge a number of factors to make sure first and foremost combat feels good, Mad Max either intentionally or otherwise makes no such attempts.
It’s my opinion that this is where much of the complaints of repetitiveness come from. Mad Max does not seem like it has any particularly more or less repetitive content than its competitors, but the trouble is large swaths of that content doesn’t seem like it feels good to repeat, because it doesn’t feel good period.
Camps, as an example of primary on-foot gameplay, tend to feature simple yet often unclear traversal puzzles and unsatisfying scavenger hunts on top of a series of frustrating and surprisingly lethal melee combat engagements. You die often and lose nothing for dying, so each combat engagement ends up feeling like a brief stint of banging your head against a wall rather than the exciting and flow-centric power trip that you might find in an Arkham release. Whereas combat in something like Arkham Asylum or Shadow of Mordor can easily carry the whole title for tens of hours without feeling stale, the little bits of confusion and clunkiness added up to make me feel like I was “over” Mad Max’s melee combat inside of a few hours before I had likely even learned every mechanic.
Really I think they would’ve been best served by embracing the absurd avatar strength I think Avalanche is known for. Maybe Max doesn’t have unlimited C4 and parachutes but let him take more than six punches.
Mad Max is a game that pays some solid tribute to the tone of the IP, creates some visceral and satisfying moments of vehicle combat, and features vast and gorgeous landscapes. Much like Tom said, the game’s repetitiveness strikes me as not being particularly due to the game dynamics themselves, rather a result of the fact that we’ve already been doing these same dynamics in an almost identical fashion for nearly a decade with Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry titles. As a strengths-based thinker, I’d address the repetitiveness problem by investing more time into utilizing the successes of vehicle combat in a wider variety of scenarios. Whether it’s more caravan encounters, more interesting vehicle rigs, or more car-friendly camps, I’d imagine that it could only help players feel more attached to the centerpiece of what makes this title a Mad Max game.
That’s all for now, thanks for reading-
Review++ is a developer-facing series of game reviews that dig down on the biggest successes and failures of games. Each review in this series features insights from hand-picked professional developers on what made the successes so noteworthy, and what can be done about the game’s most cited shortcomings.
The topics for each game are determined based on the total number of mentions across a substantial number of professional reviews. Sources are listed below.