With the critical and commercial success of Mad Max: Fury Road, it's no wonder that the video game adaptation of the Mad Max universe has been so highly anticipated. Then, when you consider the fact that publisher WB Interactive has also had a rockin' year of releases – Batman: Arkham Knight, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Mortal Kombat X being the highlights – it makes even more sense that expectations have been higher than they normally would be for a tie-in of this type. What could've easily been a slopped-together licensed game ends up amounting to a commendable effort from Avalanche Studios, as Mad Max brings both the fury and plenty of road to Xbox One. It doesn't quite reach Road Warrior status, but there's certainly a lot to like about this one.
Mad Max is an open-world game that's built around exploring, scavenging, and pilfering a post-apocalyptic environment in an effort to pimp Max's ride, called the Magnus Opus, to the, err, max. But why are you doing this? To weaken the grip that a tyrannical warlord named Scabrous Scrotus has on the region, aptly referred to as the Wasteland. Scrotus and his gang of War Boys are extremely dangerous, and they control the most valuable resource in the land – gasoline. By empowering the Magnum Opus with one part or enhancement at a time, Max, and his mechanic companion Chumbucket, are aiming to have a vehicle fortified and offensively capable enough to bury Scrotus in the sand – that way Max can acquire what he needs to leave the Wasteland once and for all.
The Wasteland is enormous, and it's practically bursting at the seams with activities to participate in. There are story missions, optional side quests, infiltration missions, races, and many enemy structures and hang-outs that simply need to be leveled or cleared – and that's only about the half of it. As an open-world experience, it's clear that Mad Max borrows heavily from games of its ilk and makes no attempt to cover it up. So in a way, it wouldn't be unfair to say that it's kind of a by-the-numbers open-world game, in that it mostly adheres to a format that is familiar. But because these pieces come together so well and are mixed with a bundle of brilliant touches, the game avoids feeling stale; it helps that all of the borrowed mechanics and concepts make sense in the context of the license.
Like Fury Road, Max isn't exactly the star of the show. Well, he is the focal point of the story and you do play as him at all times, but it's actually the Magnum Opus – accompanied by Chumbucket – that steals the show. Serving as a method of transportation, a weapon, and a tool, the Magnum Opus makes interacting with the surroundings much deeper and more rewarding than most vehicular-centric open-world games. At first, it's practically a barren shell with ravaged parts and meager stats, but by gathering scrap throughout your travels, this rust bucket can be upgraded and gradually transformed into something very empowering. Long story short, it won't be long before the Opus can respond to chaos with an even greater amount of chaos.
Because the vicious gangs of the Wasteland are always on patrol, it's not uncommon for a short drive from one objective to the next to turn into a tense round of demolition derby. What makes these encounters so great is how much freedom there is when it comes to attacking and defending. The harpoon is the most dynamic option, featuring a number of practical uses; not only can certain parts of enemy vehicles be removed with a well-placed shot, but the drivers can even be ripped right from their seat and sent flying off into the distance. If you prefer getting up close and personal, ramming maneuvers work to whittle away health, while Max's shotgun serves as a one-shot-kill method for vehicles with gasoline tanks strapped on the back. There are numerous ways to approach any situation, making this dynamic car combat a real adrenaline rush.
When it comes to the camps inhabited by enemy gangs, the entire spectrum of gameplay mechanics is put to use, which is why camps are arguably the best component of the Mad Max experience. Because these camps are well protected with snipers, molotov launchers, and other intimidating defenses, merely gaining access is a game of its own – one that's massively fun. One option would be to steal an enemy vehicle to disguise your arrival and then locate a small opening somewhere on the perimeter that allows you entry without raising suspicion or alarms; the other option is to go to war with the defenses outright. We tended to hang back and pick off the snipers before moving in to ram down or blow up any problematic towers. There's a lot of satisfaction when all perimeter defenses go down before you've even been detected.
Once inside a camp, it's all about hand-to-hand combat and exploration. These areas feature fantastic multi-tiered, interconnected level design, with plenty of verticality both above and below ground. The primary goal is to clear the camp of its enemy presence and blow up any fuel reserves, but there are also a set number of optional collectibles to find to obtain 100% completion. When the basic objective has been met, allies will take over the camp and begin scrapping what they can, which eventually ends up residing in Max's pocket. Even after 40 hours with Mad Max, we relished in these missions and couldn't get enough, and thankfully, there are plenty to keep you busy for hours upon hours – we counted roughly 70 of these camps spread across the map.
While many folks may malign the hand-to-hand brawling for being a watered-down version of the combat found in the Batman: Arkham series, we found it to be repurposed in a fitting way. For one, it's mostly a two-button affair, bouncing between throwing fists and countering incoming attacks; however, despite the apparent accessibility, combat is less forgiving than it is in Arkham. In Mad Max, you can be hit during parries and takedown animations, so you need to be very mindful of enemy proximity and attack patterns. Holding down the attack button will even slow Max's punches while putting more weight behind them, resulting in a heavy attacks. This also requires careful application as it briefly leaves Max vulnerable. Add on a few extra layers – melee weapons, Max's shotgun, unlockable finishing moves, and enemy variations – and there's a healthy amount of depth to keep you engaged and on your toes.
Taking over and owning locations all over the Wasteland plays into a significant sense of progression outside of story missions, and it helps cement the player in this sandy dystopian world. With each enemy structure that's demolished or evacuated, a progress meter lowers and the hostile presence in that territory begins to dissipate. By assisting friendly gangs throughout the region, Max is provided access to Strongholds that can be enhanced to replenish gas, health, ammo, and water upon each visit; there's even an option to hire a gathering crew that will pick up scrap from demolished vehicles and obtain scrap while the console is powered down. Finding the necessary pieces to beef up these Strongholds won't be to the taste of everyone, but, because the payoff is actually worth it, we often found ourselves consumed by it. Slowly gaining control of the Wasteland we felt was sufficient reimbursement for our efforts.
If there's one underwhelming aspect of Mad Max, though, it's the story. (For the record, the game has its own self-contained story – it's not based on Fury Road.) The missions themselves are solid and make good use of the various types of gameplay to keep things fresh, but the plot developments are inconsequential and do little to establish a connection with the player – at least not until late in the game. It doesn't help that Max is a pretty generic guy who doesn't make for the most compelling protagonist. Thankfully, the supporting cast of oddball Wasteland dwellers, along with the intriguing setting, help to keep the game interesting throughout its 25+ hour runtime. We aren't saying the story kept us from getting the most out of Mad Max, but we will admit that it was a minor disappointment when all said and done.
There are other foibles to address as well, and these come in the form of technical oddities, control imperfections, and camera hang-ups. Now, let's be clear: none of these issues graduate beyond being slightly intrusive, but they are there. Technical hiccups include dialog that isn't spoken despite subtitles appearing on the screen, as well as the very rare instance of environmental assets jittering in place. When it comes to controls, Max and the Magnum Opus – despite being somewhat unwieldy at the start of the game – handle just fine, but there is a touch of unreliability when it comes to context-specific interactions; also, Max's jump is awkward and doesn't have much of a purpose. And the camera? It's mostly disciplined, but sometimes it causes problems during hand-to-hand combat, zooming in too close and obstructing the icons that alert of attacking enemies. Again, none of these problems are massively shameful on their own, but they do add up to a small dent in the finish.
Though as a whole, Mad Max comes together nicely. There's an eclectic mixture of borrowed gameplay elements, sure, and it doesn't deviate too far from an established open-world formula, but there are enough unique touches to make it an explosive action-packed adventure. It's the way violent storms roll into the Wasteland out of nowhere and temporarily impede your agenda. It's the way vehicles need to stay fueled or risk stalling and leaving you vulnerable to hostility in the desert. And it's the way a nearly unnoticeable lizard can be stomped on and eaten for a small health increase. While the developer may have bloated the map with too many icons and activities – a handful of which aren't all that substantial on their own – with a bit of self-control, Mad Max offers a road trip that's quite gripping.
Mad Max's frame may be built from familiar parts, but that doesn't mean there aren't enough surprises under the hood to make for a furiously enjoyable ride. We've spent over 40 hours crusading through the most inhospitable regions of the Wasteland and don't yet feel ready to retire the Magnum Opus to the garage, which might just be the ultimate compliment. Mad Max isn't a perfect game, and it probably won't win over anyone tired of the open-world formula, but this is an instance where we feel pure fun trumps any minor disappointments. Hit the road and find out for yourself.