Republished on Wednesday 28th March 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of April's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
With the recent cinematic success of Mad Max: Fury Road, there has never been a better time for a game based on Max Rockatansky's particular brand of vehicular chaos. With Avalanche Studios – the masters of mayhem behind the Just Cause series – handling development duties for this PlayStation 4 title, confidence was high that this mix of source material and talent would result in an experience that was much more than the usual licensed game – or identikit open world.
Not directly based on the recent film, the game tells its own tale, while still borrowing the odd detail from its cinematic sibling. Haunted by the loss of his family as the world fell, Max travels the wasteland searching for the Plains of Silence. This isn't a journey of hope but one of survival, as for this unhinged hero, driving in search of the plains – which may or may not exist - is all that he has left. Unfortunately, the brakes are put on his search when his car's stolen, and he's left for dead following a run in with the unfortunately named Scabrous Scrotus. Never one to take this sort of thing lying down, Max must work to rebuild his car and get the V8 engine he needs to continue his journey.
It wouldn't be much of a Mad Max game if you spent it running around on foot, so it's not long before you come across Chumbucket – an exiled mechanic from nearby Gastown – who sees Max as a saint who'll help him build his 'Magnum Opus', a car that'll be the best the wasteland has ever seen. Starting with a basic chassis, most of the game is spent working to add more and more parts to your increasingly powerful ride. As a result, there's a decent level of customisation available, and you can go whichever upgrade route you want, whether you're after a fast, lightly armoured car or the four wheeled equivalent of a tank, that's a beast to try and keep on the road.
Fortunately, you're never locked into one type of car, and can switch out individual parts easily depending on the situation, even changing your whole ride between different unlockable car templates – known as 'archangels' – if you fancy big change. While you can also steal cars from the war parties you battle, you'll be spending most of your time in your own personal ride, as you'll have invested a significant amount of time in making it more like a car Mad Max would drive by adding weapons and modifications.
Upgrades to both your car, as well as Max's own equipment and fighting moves, predominantly require scrap – the game's currency – to unlock. Some have other prerequisites, such as reaching a certain character level or completing a particular mission – but mostly you'll be paying out your hard scavenged metal to acquire them. With some of the later upgrades going for a steep price, there'll be times where you feel like the wasteland's main advocate for recycling, as you dutifully stop and pick up all of the scrap you've created during your battles. This unsurprisingly manages to become a little tedious, and while you can unlock clean-up crews to automatically hoover up the scrap that you've created, you'll still spend a hell of a lot of time on litter duty.
As you work your way through the main story missions, you'll start to unlock access to strongholds run by some friendly factions, who are happy to see someone standing up to Scabrous Scrotus. These factions also offer their own missions, as well as the chance to find parts littered around the wasteland that complete projects at each of these bases. These projects are a big help, whether they're for the previously mentioned clean-up crew to automatically pick up scrap or for replenishing your limited supplies of ammunition, water, and fuel. As such, it's worthwhile spending some time building them up.
As you explore the map, the sheer volume of quests, activities, and locations becomes quickly apparent, and your early impressions are likely to be good, as you'll have fun visiting scavenging locations to collect scrap, using balloons – the game's equivalent of climbing towers – to survey points of interests, and destroying enemy camps and watch towers, which have the added bonus of lowering the presence of enemy war parties in a region. The trouble is that most of the side activities become very repetitive, and after a few hours none of these tasks will offer much of a surprise, with only the convoys – with their breakneck vehicular battles – keeping you coming back for more.
This would be fine if you could choose whether you wanted to engage with the side content or not, but at various stages in the game your progress in the main story missions becomes blocked until you've satisfied certain criteria. This can be anything from collecting an amount of scrap to lowering the threat level in a certain region, and can be quite annoying if you just want to move the story forward.
This is a real shame as the game's core mechanics are actually pretty good. Racing around in your supercharged death machine, drifting all over the place while smashing your rivals up, is very satisfying, and with Chumbucket riding in the back of your car, always on hand to provide some much needed repairs, it helps to keep you in the action for quite a while. Things get even more interesting when you get your hands on the harpoon, which lets you rip panels, wheels, and even the driver from a car, while also tearing down weaker enemy structures. Pulling a sniper from atop a tower using the harpoon then dragging them behind your car before flinging them far into the distance is a level of mayhem that anyone can get behind, and when you add the thunderpoon – which fires explosive tipped harpoons – to the mix, the level of destruction you can perpetrate gets even greater and more enjoyable.
As mentioned before, there are also a number of enemy camps to destroy, some with lieutenants known as 'top dogs' for you to takedown. Destroying the perimeter defences to these bases requires the use of your vehicle, but to finish it off you need to head in on foot for a bit of fisticuffs. Anyone with familiarity of the combat system from the Batman Arkham games will find themselves right at home here, with a combination of light and heavy attacks, finishers, as well as the ability to counter enemy attacks, by pressing the triangle button just as they're about to take a swing at you.
The similarity to the combat found in the Batman games only goes so far, though, as it doesn't come close to having the same level of depth, which makes these hand-to-hand encounters a bit one note after a while. Fortunately, all is not lost, as what they do have is the brutality that you'd expect from a man called Mad Max. There's no finesse to his attacks, they're all about laying into enemies with as much force as possible, and this can still make your rampage through a camp fun – even if the fighting system ultimately turns out to be far too repetitive.
In terms of its graphics Mad Max succeeds more often than it fails, so while the character models aren't great and the framerate struggles at times, when you're tearing through the wasteland in the Magnum Opus it manages to look absolutely stunning. Dust trails signal the path of enemy war parties, cars explode into fiery pieces, and the sight of a storm racing towards you as you head for cover is a real sight to behold.
Creating a visually interesting open world when all you've got to work with is essentially a wasteland is quite hard, so Avalanche Studios should be commended for creating a playground that's varied, taking you across a landscape that has you racing through rocky valleys one minute and over a sea of sand dunes the next. That said, there are occasional bugs that have an impact on your time in the world, and while most are minor, there was one that broke the scripting in a particular camp that left us unable to complete it – even after reloading the game.
Like the titular hero's travels across the wasteland, Mad Max has a fair amount of tedium, punctuated by bouts of exciting action. Having a huge amount of side content is never a bad thing, but the moment that you're required to dive deeper than you'd like is when it becomes a bit of a turn off. As you wander the desert on the lookout for pieces of scrap, your enjoyment will feel like it's on a downward trajectory the longer that you play. As a result, you'll try to spend as much time as you can racing across its beautifully realised wasteland, while avoiding anything that pulls you from behind the wheel.