After playing Mad Max for over 18 hours during the launch week of the title, I’m still bewildered by how many negative reviews I have seen. The night before the game released I had the displeasure of reading Polygon’s review which consisted of more of the same typical gripes about the game feeling “bland” and “boring” and all the areas “feeling the same”. The irony of a game review dialing in cliché statements about how another game just didn’t “offer anything new” is humorous, at least until you see their final score of 5/10. To me, it’s almost an insult to the intelligence of the readers to expect acceptance of what amounts to a score of 50% for a game that on the outset of the review is described as having, “a sprawling 30-hour campaign with a giant map littered with hundreds of sidequests and bonus objectives.” This is just one more review written against the backdrop of expectations and willful displeasure rather than measuring the quality of the game as it is. In this review I have a few gripes, but overall I have thought this game is a home run, as well as my twitch viewers who have watched me play the game 4 days in a row.
Even after 18 hours in the game world I can’t stop bragging about the graphics. A joke even started in my stream because of how often I said, “That fire though.” But seriously, that fire though. Everything looks surprisingly rich and lifelike, which is a great juxtaposition for a barren wasteland. The fire, sunsets, sand and dust clouds, rusted cars, and gritty withered environments are beautiful cryptic remnants of the world before. With only a few frame rate drops during some driving sequences I have been thoroughly impressed by the graphics on the XBOX One. There were times I was reminded of my excitement about how good Ryse looked, and I honestly haven’t felt that moment of awe over graphics on the XBOX One since. There were times in Shadow of Mordor and Batman Arkham Knight where I appreciated their graphical prowess, but this game is far more consistently impressive. Almost every time I take out a few cars and the rubble is scattered and engulfed in blazing flames, I’m impressed how real it looks, especially during the darker times of day. Needless to say I am in disbelief at people saying the game looks “bland” or “monotone”. I think these people need to get their TVs or eyes checked.
I’ve played a lot of different types of games, so I picked up on the various titles that obviously influenced Mad Max. There are clear similarities to Assassin’s Creed and FarCry with map clearing, Batman with combat, and Tomb Raider with some of the movement, puzzle solving, and searching. I’m sure fans of racing games with find similarities in the driving and car modification aspects of the game as well. As someone who does not enjoy racing games, I have found the driving to be a blast, albeit frustrating at times. Similarily to why I enjoyed the Arkham Knight and FarCry 3 and 4 so much, there is always something to do, and those things are wonderful diverse and different. If you’d like to race across the dessert against other cars you can. You can clear the map and take out snipers, scarecrow towers that decrease enemy influence, base take downs that will remind you of FarCry and Batman all at once, or have a bit of Tomb Raider searching, it’s all there for you to do if you want. And when I make references to these others games, it is only reminiscent, not a carbon copy at all. This game has its own gritty identity firmly established. The hand to hand combat is rugged and far more challenging than even most of the harder fights in Arkham Knight on the second playthrough. The driving and the item searching, however, can get a bit frustrating, in ways that aren’t fitting. For example, the sand causes the car to be difficult to control, which is a fitting frustration. But the AI can be infuriating in car battles due to their sudden burst of speed and impeccable driving simply because you’ve gotten their health really low or the seemingly psychic abilities they have when protecting the lead car in a caravan. But that isn’t the only issue I have with driving…
Driving is supposed to be somewhat sloppy and chaotic given the nature of the cars and that you are driving on sand. But often times the battles with cars get a bit silly as you pull the driver out with a harpoon and then have to slowly reverse and slam the car to blow it up for scrap. Then you have to get out of your car and slowly pick up each piece of scrap which is especially jarring and boring if you’ve just had a really epic takedown. And the item searching in bases gets a tad too mazey for the game they are in. There were numerous bases where I simply could not find the last piece of scrap which grated against my desire to clear the map and get crisp little check marks. And since Max’s movement isn’t the most agile, running back into areas where you’ve already explored isn’t a swift or fun process. To me, these are minor gripes that can be overlooked given how large the game world, campaign, and side quest quantity is.
I’ve said a few times that this is a game of a thousand distractions as I would forget where I was going after spending 30 minutes chasing after a caravan or investigating a loot spot on the map. The infrequency of gun ammo, water, and gasoline is also right in step with the pacing of the game. I never felt completely hampered by limited resources, but like The Last of Us, I had to monitor my gear because staying fully stocked with shivs, water, gas, shotgun shells, and sniper bullets has a direct impact on your success in the game.
I will grant that the story is a bit lacking, but this is where I think the game shines in an unusual way. Given that the world is now the embodiment of a decaying corpse, with ships, buildings, and fortresses rising from the sand like withered bones, I don’t think a narratively strong story could have been done in any significant way. The Last of Us pulled this off brilliantly, but it’s a different style of game, and almost felt episodic at times. Mad Max thrusts you into a barren wasteland with dangers and death around every corner. It’s subversive and immersive in that you wouldn’t get a ton of explanation and back story for what is presently going if you were actually living it. And they could only have done a stronger narrative with a ridiculous amount of flash backs that would probably be too disjointed to pull in the player in any meaningful way. I could even see players skipping flash back cut scenes as the characters and stories would be so untethered from the present day. But what the game does to create backstory is cryptic, fragmented, and in my opinion, brilliant. I will admit, many gamers are probably going to miss out on this, because it comes in the way of collectibles.
Items known as “history relics” can be found in almost every lootable area. About half of the time these relics were photographs with a reasonable amount of text on the back. Each time I took the brief moment to read over what was written I was always glad I did. They are tiny glimpses into the past, with hopes people had for the future or predictions about how bad things were going to get. Max tends to make fairly broody remarks after each one, and while I could have dealt without him holding my hand narratively, I think this is the better option in building a dark and cryptic story behind the vast and treacherous world contained in Mad Max. The large open world, clearable map, and vanishing horizon is begging you to just go out there and do something. Having a protagonist that is always looking back and brooding over memories would have been disorienting and uninteresting.
I’ve put over 18 hours into this game and feel like I have barely scratched the surface when I look at a giant map that is only 30% cleared. In the same way I found a rhythm early on in Arkham Knight, I’m finding my footing and looking forward to slowly completing this game in a similar fashion to how I slow walked FarCry 3 and Arkham Knight. Some have said it reminds them of Shadow of Mordor, and I can see that comparison. But I got bored and felt stagnant very early in Mordor because it didn’t feel like I was moving anywhere. Mad Max has a clear sense of progression and growth as a character, so I’m always anxious to dive back in and descend once more into the wasteland. At my current place in the game, with a few minor gripes, I give this game a 9/10.
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