Friday, 9 October 2015

Mad Max - Review

Developer: Avalance Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: Xbox One (version played), PS4, PC 

You have to feel somewhat sorry for Avalanche Studios, the development team tasked with trying to adapt what George Miller has achieved with Mad Max in cinema, and somehow port over the films’ sense of anarchic fun and boundless creativity to video games. The end result is incredibly underwhelming, and it’s frustrating because there’s glimmers of something much better under the hood. 

Taking the typical third-person, open-world adventure template, Mad Max cribs with equal measure from Assassin’s Creed, Arkham Asylum and the Tomb Raider reboot. There’s even a hint of The Last of Us if you squint your eyes a bit; this is a game about survival, and the grim and gritty trappings of the adventure pay a lot of homage to Naughty Dog’s post-apocalypse classic.

But the main focus of the game is on the random “go here and do that” fetch quests. There’s very little story or structure to Mad Max. It has a story line obviously; you’re trying to get a new car for Max to drive off with, but the main focus of much of your play time will be on driving to and from locations completing odd jobs. It’s as much about cleaning up all those icons on your map as it is playing through a story.

Missions primarily take the form of clearing out gang hideouts, where you take down Scaborous Scrotus’ horde and free up locations for rival groups to take over. It’s the typical moreish mission design that Ubisoft has been adhering to for years now and Avalanche Studios replicate it pretty much verbatim. Hot air balloons serve as watch towers, with each trip up into the sky dotting your map with new things to do. Meanwhile, Max’s car is very much Edward Kemway’s ship; a small-fry machine to begin with, but a deadly weapon (hopefully) by the time you’ve reached the end of the game.

Combat, though, takes its cues from RockSteady’s Batman games. Attacks are carried out with one button, counters with another. Don’t expect any of Bruce Wayne’s balletic grace here however. There’s a grungy weight to the scuffles in Mad Max, hits have an impact and oomph to them, with Max even grabbing hold of guys and pinning them to the wall to take them down. Counter attacks are less forgiving, with perfect precision demanded if you want to parry an attack without taking any damage.

It makes for a surprisingly tough game for those first few hours whilst you acclimatise. There’s no regenerating health either, Max instead has to restore his vitality by drinking from his water bottle, which won’t be getting filled all that often. It’s just as well too, this is meant to be a game about survival in a barren, sand-blasted wasteland; it shouldn’t be too easy. 

If clearing out gang hideouts comprises half of the game, the other half is made up of collecting scrap. The rabid urge to gather up every piece of scrap scratches that OCD side of your brain pretty well. It fits better with the game’s focus too. It makes no sense why Lara goes around hoovering up every box of junk in Tomb Raider like a kleptomaniac. For Max though it’s part and parcel of making it through the day; his rig is his life.

Still, the car upgrades themselves aren’t particularly exciting, with most being comprised of the usual “+20% attack/+20% defence” stat bonuses. Likewise, the car combat itself suffers from the same workmanlike approach, with most encounters pretty much amounting to ramming other cars and pulling down structures with a grappling hook. For a game that attempts to bring the focus to the driving aspect, the end result isn’t that interesting. 

The frustrating thing with Mad Max is, the moments that work the best are suddenly undermined by what the game then decides to do with them. The world itself is rather stunning; a nuclear-blasted landscape scoured with sand; there’s an attempt to fill the world with power and scope only to ruin it with the laundry-list approach to level design.

When you’re not taking down gang locations or performing races, you’ll be running errands for various people around the world, and I stress the word errands. Again, rather than create some memorable set pieces, Avalanche Studios seem content with “go here pick up A, go here destroy B” quests. One quest literally consisted of going to a point on the map and turning three levers…and then leaving. No adversity to overcome, no enemies to clear out, nothing. It’s like watching a Mad Max movie and spending the majority of the time watching him fix his car. 

And that’s the major theme you see throughout Mad Max; tons of potential, glimmers of something much better, but squandered on lazy, half-baked, unoriginal ideas. Great names like Scaborous Scrotus, Chumbucket, and Gutgash are wasted on dull, bland character designs. The game’s sub-bosses, which dot some of the more challenging locations, are burly blokes with a bit of florescent paint thrown over them, lacking most of the gleeful madness that George Miller and his team pour into the movies.

There’s a perfectly playable game in Mad Max, none of it is necessarily bad, it’s just utterly forgettable. The game is functional but lacking any sense of personality. It’s not so much Mad Max as it is “Apocalypse Man” – quite frankly the game could be about just any character.
And that’s the real problem that seems to have eluded Avalanche Studios, they’ve made a game that looks like Mad Max, sounds like Mad Max but, fundamentally, lacks the spirit of Mad Max.

In short, it’s a game that completely misses the point. 


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