Mad Max PS4 review: Fascinating set pieces made dull by simplified mechanics
I've spent 20 hours in the Wastes, and I'm at an impasse. After hours of tearing down mountainous scarecrows, facing down hordes of brightly painted War Boys and basically punching my way through the Apocalypse I have met my match.
It's called a "Barrel Bash" and it's a check-pointed race in the Mad Max game. It is one of the most unpleasant gaming experiences I've had in a year and it stands between me and the end game.
I've raced this exact race easily a dozen times, and I've only managed to complete it twice without bursting into a shattered wreck. The game demands that I finish it. This is the last in a final line of inequities.
Mad Max has broken me; I can go no further.
A Mirage in the Sands
The franchise that ultimately lends its name to this endeavor was founded in 1979 on the back of a violent, dust-choked, gasoline fueled film. The original trilogy gained back its grit this year with the simple and brutal Mad Max Fury Road. It's a film I saw four times in theaters.
If you're hoping to see anything having to do with Fury Road, then keep your dollars. Mad Max has all the lore of the film but misses some of its efficacy.
Mad Max is not a cheap, film tie-in. It has built its story around the denizens of Gas Town and the chainsawed face of Scabrous Scrotus. There's none of Immortan Joe or his wives to be found here, nor the Vulvalini. But the language of the film is still present in the video game, and fans of the series will get a fix in that regard.
But one of the elements of Fury Road that made it stand out in the world of action films is its simplicity. The lead character says maybe a handful of lines in the entire movie; the aesthetic is stark and brilliant. Things are not handed to you in traditional film fashion; you're instead asked to imagine and build. Mad Max fails at this in frankly epic regards.
Griffa is everything wrong with this game
This is Griffa. He speaks in what could best be described as "shamanistic, moralistic bullshit." He is also necessary for you to level your character up. Want to have better health or to get more out of your melee attacks? You talk to Griffa.
I found him so tedious that I let 33 points rack up before bothering to go talk to him.
Griffa is every negative stereotype of a "shaman" character, combined with your overly philosophical drug dealer.
Griffa is every negative stereotype of a "shaman" character, combined with your overly philosophical drug dealer. At the end of each of your encounters, he blows some powder in your face and you wake up to find it's now day and you're crouched in an empty field.
What is truly problematic about Griffa is that he is a) mandatory to talk to and b) speaks only in metaphor. The lesson that Mad Max failed to learn from Fury Road is its straightforwardness. Dag might've only spoken in bizarre phrases in the film, but you got the gist of what she was saying. Everything in Mad Max is a tedious blend of affected dialect and extended vague metaphor. When Max gets annoyed and asks for it straight, a request that is never granted, you're right with him.
Take the introduction of a female character I will refer to as "Boobs." I honestly have no idea what her name is, or why I'm supposed to care about her, but the game makes a point of introducing her and then trying to establish her importance. But I can't care about Boobs -- I need to get Chumbucket to add a new V8 to the Magnum Opus. And I can't honestly understand why Max is interested in her. Max doesn't really seem interested in women. He doesn't seem interested in men either, and he doesn't seem interested in cars the way that Chumbucket is. He seems interested in survival. Boobs doesn't really factor into that, but the game shoehorns her in anyway.
It's an example of overwrought story. Fury Road excelled because it kept things simple -- in the film Max wasn't moved to help the women because he wanted to sleep with them or because he was a good person. He did so because it helped him at the time. That sort of mercenary attitude isn't carried through in the game, even if it tries.
Because of this, the plot drags until you're skipping through vague cutscene after vague cutscene and missing nothing. Every moment stuck talking to a Wastelander or listening to Pink Eye's plans for a sail is a moment that could be spent wreaking havoc in the Magnum Opus.
Be one with your Angel Combustion
If there is one thing that saves Mad Max, it is the driving.
The controls are weighty; you can really feel the handling of the car when you go around curves. Vaulting off the tops of canyons feels appropriately badass, both in terms of the visual effects and the slight whoop your companion gives you when you do so.
A great deal of effort was put into the feel of the controls. Highlights in the game involved harpooning a scarecrow, then boosting off the top of a rise into the air. Upon landing, the car skids to a stop. Every aspect of that felt organic and exhilarating in a way that few non-racing games have managed.
Additionally, car combat was on par with Assassin's Creed Black Flag's ship combat. Throughout the game, you're often bullied into a fight where you pull around several blind curves in an attempt to break your tail while simultaneously throwing explosive thunderpoons and harpooning tires. There is a violent satisfaction to harpooning a driver off their own vehicle, an effort that often sends them sailing across the hood of your own car.
Throughout the game you're often bullied into a fight, where you pull around several blind curves in an attempt to break your tail while simultaneously throwing explosive thunderpoons...
Convoy missions are particular strengths in this regard. Every region, and the map is populated with many, has its own convoy that travels a circular path. Destroy the lead car and you gain access to their supernaturally powered hood ornament. It's in keeping with the universe and the deification of cars therein, but it's also just entertaining mechanically. I began to actively seek out these missions, even in areas where I was vastly under leveled. If there was a convoy on the horizon, I became determined to seek it out.
After explaining this, you would be understandably confused to find out that the hand to hand combat that makes up the game is boring and that the racing is borderline impossible.
To fight, hold square
In games, we might need to start branding BAA or AAA. Arkham Asylum shook up the industry with its own unique brand of combat which really made the user feel like Batman. Since then, several games have made their own iterations including the popular Shadow of Mordor.
Mad Max continues this trend, but somehow manages to neuter the concept.
Almost all combat is done by repeatedly bashing the "square" button. Counters are triangles and dodge rolls are executed with the right bumper. All of combat can be distilled down to basically those three buttons (and the occasional "O" gut shot, or prompted "X" for shiv attack). There are few animations for the punching, and maybe only one animation for shivving someone. In fights, especially in ones that take place inside bases, you are mobbed by about ten War Boys and effectively pinball your way around the room. Get smashed by a shielded warrior? Max is now stunned for a solid second, which should be just in time to get hit again.
By the end of the fourth region, I was beginning to feel the slog of combat. There is limited satisfaction to repeatedly button mashing without finesse and making sure to have correct timing on the "triangle" key. I would ignite a gas can into a crowded room and detonate a swath of War Boys and then charge in, often to be bashed around like a teammate in 4v4 Rocket League.
Since ammunition is limited in the Mad Max universe, almost all combat is hand to hand and unavoidable. Fascinating set pieces, such as an encampment on an abandoned bridge or the interior of a dune-covered airport, were made dull by simplified mechanics.
Dropping all the frames
One of the greatest failings of Mad Max was in its performance. I played the game on the PS4 and quickly found situations where the framerate would begin to chug. Fight scenes became just shy of stop motion, and moments with high particle effects would stop the PS4 cold.
This is a problem I've never encountered on a PlayStation title. I'm one of those rare birds that can't tell the difference between 30 FPS and 60 FPS and I found Mad Max's framerate issues so bad as to render the game unplayable. Eventually, I was forced to restart the game to clear the issue, a solution I was loathe to do because of another problematic feature.
The game is burdened by cutscenes and long load times. Death is easy in the Wastelands, and when you die you are treated to minute long load screens advertising Rockstar skins. Several times I would find myself pin-balled to death in a base only to have to sit through a minute long load screen, die, and then repeat the process. Loading up the game takes a long time as well, and having to reload every time the game gets a bit sloppy with its framerate is an exercise in frustration.
Choosing style over function
The game is riddled with unnecessary cutscenes. Want to refill your canteen? There is a cutscene for that, and it actually fades to black before returning your control. Talking to a Wastelander (just another NPC) is a cut scene. Every interaction that breaks from walking around and smashing things is often a cut scene.
Not only does this break the natural flow in your own actions, this is further exacerbated by the games love affair with cinematic angles. The camera will whip around outside of your control whenever an action takes place to best orient you for maximum visual appeal.
This is one of the primary reasons I found the racing components unplayable. If you choose to attack any of the other vehicles in the race in any fashion (and this includes another car smashing into yours), the camera would reorient itself to give you the best "cinematic" angle. This often results in your smashing into a wall that you couldn't see.
While Mad Max is ultimately a series of films, the player doesn't need to be reminded of cinema every time they try to harpoon another character in the face.
A dusty fail in the Big Nothing
Mad Max attempts to deliver gritty combat and the allure of the latest blockbuster addition, but falls far short. High points in the game -- such as a nerve wracking quest for Christmas lights -- are far enough between that the tension is impossible to build. Plagued by poor performance and baffling design, Mad Max is a hard sell to any gamer and is maybe a worthwhile bargain bin investment a year down the line.
It rests like a bridge carcass on the horizon, a monument to failed dreams and potential.
Mad Max was reviewed on a code supplied by the publisher.