Mad Max (the game) is one of the best licensed games I’ve played. In theory, it’s a prequel to Fury Road, but I don’t think the story is canon. The game starts with Max getting into a fight with Scabrous Scrotus, losing his Interceptor, and is left in the wasteland with nothing but his torn up clothes.
Enter Chumbucket, the deformed hunchback who believes in the Angel Combustion. He’s a black finger (a master mechanic) and thinks Max is his warrior saint. Max needs a new car, and Chum promises to build him the Magnum Opus—the car you will be upgrading throughout the game.
Max’s goal is to create a car that will be fast, durable, and able to carry enough fuel to get him to the Plains of Silence. As you get upgrades for your car, you’ll meet stronghold leaders, lunatics, scavengers, and a whole crapton of war boys.
The gameplay consists of two major parts, car combat and ground combat. Both are equally fun, but have their own little quirks and issues.
The Magnum Opus’s armour can be reinforced, you can give it battering rams, nitro, speed boosts, and improved weapons like the thunderpoon and side burners (flamethrowers). All in all, beefing up your car is extremely fun and makes you feel powerful as you start ramming war boys into oblivion.
One of the Magnum Opus’s stats is “handling,” which improves the way the car controls. This, I found frustrating. The handling stat makes turning at high speed easier, as well as making it less likely you’ll spin out of control in certain situations. It also makes the car less floaty. A low handling stat means that you’ll be slipping and sliding on what feels like ice.
This shouldn’t be an upgradeable stat. The car should control smoothly from the beginning. I understand why they did it, it’s meant to balance out the other upgrades. Heavy armour, large battering rams, and bigger engines all reduce the handling stat. Ideally, it’s to equal out the benefits of these upgrades, if you want to hit harder than you’re going to have more difficulty controlling your car.
But driving with a low handling stat isn’t fun. Spinning out of control when trying to make a turn is frustrating. This is especially true when driving long distances to objectives. And the more speed you gain, the more precarious your control. There’s a point where it makes sense, but going super-fast with low handling stat means the second you hit a rock you’re going to go cartwheeling through the air.
And you’re going to hit a lot of rocks, or pieces of debris, or whatever chunky bits are littering the wasteland. The Magnum Opus only drives well on the roads, which means the second you take your car off-road you’re going to be slowed down, swerving unintentionally, and be more likely to go spinning if you hit something. This can throw a wrench in the tension of car battles. When you’re on the road, you can side-ram into other cars with the press of a button, shoot them with your shotgun, and then drive through the explosion.
It feels amazing.
Until you hit a piece of debris. Then, you go spinning, end up off-road, and have to sluggishly rev your way onto the road to get back into the action. The Magnum Opus can get turned around far too easily, combined with the movement restrictions of driving off road, it makes amazing car combat devolve into a frustrating experience. I found myself wishing they had somehow applied the principle behind unstoppable movement from Hulk: Ultimate Destruction to your car. Not the running up walls part, but the part where nothing can slow you down. Every instance that I found myself getting frustrated was because it felt like the game was taking away a level of control, and I’d only get that control back by crawling my way back onto the main road.
PUNCHING PEOPLE IN THE FACE
Max spends a lot of time punching people in the face. The combat is similar to Arkham’s style. Press Y to parry, and X to attack. That’s pretty much it. Max’s hits are slow and heavy, giving them a meaty feel. His move set focuses on heavy hits and kicks, and after you build up a combo chain you can do a finisher. These finishers are things like drop kicks, suplexes, and neck breaks. It all comes together to make Max feel like a powerhouse, cracking skulls and breaking the limbs of anybody who gets in his way.
Once you hit Y, Max’ll block the attack, but he won’t attack unless you hit X, and the parry doesn’t stun or stagger the enemy. It’s a little detail, but it adds a lot of engagement and makes following up a parry really satisfying.
The combat upgrades are what make the melee combat especially fun, and it’s a shame they aren’t more varied. The upgrades allow you to do special reversals, instantly kill enemies in certain situations, or disarm them and take their weapon. One of my favourites was the shield shatter, which makes Max kick a shield bearer so they drop to a knee, and then beat the shit out of their shield until it breaks. Another upgrade makes it so if you time your parries perfectly, Max will instantly break one of the enemy’s limbs. All of these come together to make the combat feel varied, weighted, and damn satisfying when it works.
But sometimes it doesn’t work. A lot of these special abilities are context sensitive, and I found the game to be occasionally unresponsive when I’d tried to initiate some of these abilities. It was unclear if it was because I wasn’t close enough to the enemy, or if someone was standing just slightly in the way, or some other reason I didn’t even realize.
Another frustrating aspect was how enemies can hit you while you’re in the middle of a finisher animation. There’s nothing you can do to counteract this, you just have to wait for them to hit you and pop you out of the animation. It turns instances of what should be fun combat into frustrating scenarios.
The wasteland is beautiful. The environments are varied, some craggy, others with rock spires jutting from the ground like teeth, and another littered with derelict boats in a dead sea. There are long expanses of sand, highways and gas stations marking the roads like crumbling guideposts. The amount of variety to the environments is inspiring. It would’ve been easy to make the whole game look like one environment, sandy, old structures, but the creative design shines through here. Mad Max (the game) is beautiful to look at.
And on the horizon, visible from every location, is Gastown. Its steel spires belching smoke and fire are a constant reminder of your end goal. And as you progress, moving through the territories and to new strongholds, the looming presence of Gastown grows. It’s a great detail and helps drive home the ever present threat that Gastown represents to the territories.
Throughout the wasteland are scavenger locations. These are small camps with some loot and a scattering of enemies. They usually don’t take longer than five minutes to clear out and loot. Interestingly, each scavenger location is unique. There are no copy/pasted locations. Individual assets are reused (like barrels, or a ratty looking tarps), but the way these locations are designed are unique. Some are made with freight containers, others hidden underground, or inside a half buried boat, or half buried plane. Their placement is unique too, where one is just beside the road, another is only accessible by a series of rope bridges on the side of a craggy outcropping, while another is hidden in a series of underground caves. The amount of detail in these little quick loot locations is what makes them fun to explore, each one has a different feel and it never gets stale.
DESTROY SCARECROWS, DESTROY CAMPS, GET LOOT
The majority of your time in the wasteland is spent lowering Scrotus’s threat level in each territory. The territories level starts at 5 (lots of threat) and is lowered to 0 (no threat). The lower the threat level, the less Scrotus patrols there will be, making the area overall safer to traverse.
You lower threat by destroying scarecrows, camps, killing snipers, blowing up convoys, and defusing landmines. Scarecrows are large metallic structures that spout flames and have hanging corpses, meant to intimidate the surrounding denizens. Camps are like small dungeons, unique locations that are hand crafted, much like larger versions of the scavenger locations, with a set of objectives (these range from blowing something up, killing a number of Stank Gum’s flunkies, to fighting mini-bosses). To defuse landmines you have to use a unique vehicle that has the dog Dinki-Di hanging out in the back, he sniffs out the landmines for you to find.
I really enjoyed the camps, but the convoys are some of the most fun objectives in the game. To destroy one, you have to blow up the lead car, but it’s surrounded by an entourage that will try and drive you off the road and kill you. Part of why the convoys are so fun is because you really get to use all your car’s new upgrades to wreak havoc, but the convoys also drive in a constant circle. Which means you can always catch up to it if you fall behind or get turned around (the Magnum Opus seems to always be faster than the convoys).
As varied as these objectives are, they can start to feel repetitive after a while. I found the gameplay to be better suited to playing in short bursts of one or two hours at a time. Each objective, depending on how much you dilly-dally, doesn’t take very long, and you can do a couple in a one hour sitting.
And, of course, all of this gives you scrap which you can use to upgrade Max or the Magnum Opus.
Scabrous Scrotus is the main antagonist, the reason Max lost his car and was left for dead with nothing. As an interesting story choice, Scrotus “dies” in the opening cutscene. Max drives a chainsaw right into Scrotus’s skull. But, since so much of the game is focused on lowering Scrotus’s threat levels, it’s not surprising he comes back to hunt Max. Although when he does comeback he still has the chainsaw stuck in his head, so that’s cool.
Scrotus doesn’t do much, though. After that first cutscene, he’s gone for more than half the game. And when he comes back, he just roars and hits things and roars while hitting things. All in all, he turned out to be an uninteresting brute. The most memorable thing about him is his name.
In the pause menu you can access character bios. Scrotus’s bio describes him as being a ruthless, bloodthirsty son of Immortan Joe, and after he gets a chainsaw to the head and is in constant pain, he become even more bloodthirsty and ruthless. This isn’t communicated in the game. Scrotus’s actions in the second half don’t seem to be at all different from how he would’ve acted at the beginning of the game. Ultimately, he’s the same character but with a chainsaw in his head. It’s a shame, because I think Scabrous Scrotus could’ve been one of the most memorable parts of the game.
INTERESTING CHARACTERS WITH NOTHING TO SAY
All the characters have great designs and all seem interesting. The stronghold leaders stand out, there are four of them, and each is unique, but they don’t have much to say. All their dialogue boils down to telling Max to do a thing and get a thing and not much else. It seems like a complete waste of potential. The stronghold leaders never do anything else other than give Max glorified fetch quests. Even their names—Jeet, Gutgash, Pinkeye, Deep Friah—are more interesting than most of what they have to say.
Max doesn’t fare much better in these exchanges. He mostly says things along the lines of you better remember to give me the thing after I bring you that other thing. I get that Max is meant to be emotionally insular, but it come across as uninspired in these scenarios. Max’s character only starts to shine through at the very end of the game (more on that later).
The use of language in Mad Max (the game) is impressive. The game manages to nail down the weird wasteland dialect of the Mad Max world. It’s laced throughout every line of dialogue and it shows in character and location names. It’s one of the aspects that make Mad Max’s world feel unique to any other.
Oddly, I found the two best moments in the game were monologues delivered by side characters. The first was Stank Gum’s final moments before dying, where he taunts Max, and the other is from the blood bag Scab, who thinks that his blood being inside Max means he’ll get righteous revenge on Scrotus for abandoning him.
All this to say that the world is filled with interesting characters, ideas, and aesthetics, but it never comes together to be anything other than superficial.
THE FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE EMOTIONAL FODDER
Tenderloin is one of my favourite characters. She’s a badass veteran of the Gastown races whose addicted to “fumes” (I think she’s literally breathing in nitro?). She replaces Chum on the back of the Magnum Opus to fire rockets at other competitors of the Gastown races. She has some great dialogue and a lot of personality shines through while she’s on the back of the car. More than the two cutscenes she gets.
And then when the race is over you have to beat her to death. A steel dome comes down, and it turns out in order to get the Gastown prize (which is a V8 and Hope “The Concubine”) you have to kill your partner. This is supposed to be a twist, but we get such little time with Tenderloin that it just feels like a waste of a good character. The fact that the wasteland is a brutal world doesn’t excuse poor storytelling.
But Hope and Glory get the worst of it. Glory is the daughter of Hope “The Concubine” and the only reason they’re in the game is to make Max feel. Glory is only in the very end of the game, she’s a little girl, supposedly there to remind Max of his own kid. Glory dies at the hands of Scrotus, specifically to torture Max. When you first meet Glory, you fish her out of a Buzzard’s tunnel, where she’d been forced to search for resources. There’s a weird segment where you have to carry her to a car, even though she can walk just fine—which felt like a contrived way to try and force an attachment to her. And then, after having known Max for less than five minutes, she asks if he’ll be her father. This seemed extremely forced, just showing that Glory isn’t a character but a tool to try and elevate Max’s internal struggles.
And then there’s Hope, Glory’s mother. Hope is repeatedly referred to as “The Concubine,” and she also dies at the same time as Glory, all so Max can fall to his knees and scream to the sky (literally). The fact that hope is a concubine never really factors into her character. You’d think the trauma of being a wasteland sex slave to warlords would be impossible to ignore, but they do ignore it. I’m convinced it’s only there to be sexually salacious. Worse, when you read her character bio, there’s nothing there that defines her, no character traits. Other bios have hints of character in them, Scrotus’s says he’s ruthless and bloodthirsty, Max’s mentions his shattered mind and fixation on the Plains of Silence. Hope’s only described how she “grew to be beautiful” and then spends the rest of the bio telling us all the warlords she was passed from, spending more time describing how each warlord died than telling us anything about Hope. Weirder still, Glory’s bio mentioned that she learned how to “read people’s behaviour from her mother,” and yet this isn’t mentioned in Hope’s bio at all? (I also think this is a lazy explanation for why they trust Max so quickly.)
Hope doesn’t do much either. She spends more than half the game in cages or in chains, giving Max loot missions (is this supposed to endear us to her?). Her entire character seems to be centered around paralleling Max’s dead wife. So much so that Max even has a fever dream about marrying Hope, where first he’s marrying his wife and then the image changes to Hope. And after this Hope gives Max an out-of-nowhere kiss.
I’d say it’s out of character, but by this point we know that Hope is a non-character. Up to this points she’s had a full five-ish minutes of screen time, hasn’t done anything other than ask Max to save her daughter, and then dies.
She has a bladed fan, which I guess is cool. But she only uses it once, barely.
All this without mentioning the weird way that she immediately trusts Max. Going so far as to ask him to stay and make a family with her and Glory, even though they just met and have barely spoken to each other. Some of her passive dialogue even says something along the lines of “a car is just a shell, it can’t take care of you.” Hope leans heavily into the let’s-make-a-traditional-family angle, but there’s no development for it. She just starts spouting this stuff because the game needs us to think there’s some kind of chemistry between them when there isn’t.
Hope has little development and is only in the game to elevate Max’s internal struggle and act as shock value when she dies. Why not have her be more integrated into the gameplay? She could’ve been a mainstay in the strongholds with an active role, or better yet she could’ve been (gasp) one of the stronghold leaders, and maybe her stronghold could’ve acted as Max’s main HQ. Something like that would’ve given her more time to develop, as well as drive home the idea that no matter how hard you try to make the wastelands a peaceful place, it’ll always regress to chaos.
CHUMBUCKET IS THE BEST
Chumbucket is your partner throughout the entire game. He’s your guide, co-pilot, and I’d like to think a friend to Max (though this part is iffy). Chum is devoted to building the Magnum Opus as part of his devotion to the Angle Combustion, a religion of his own devising. Chum sees Max as a “warrior saint” and thinks that Max is there to further the cause of the Angel Combustion.
Because you play the entire game with Chum, there’s a strong personal attachment to him. He has one of the most heartbreaking moments in the game; Chum runs away with the Magnum Opus because he thinks (rightfully) that Max is going to leave him behind to pursue the Plains of Silence. The Magnum Opus is Chum’s life work, and he can’t be parted from it. So he takes the car and runs away with it. This leads to him being found by Scrotus, tortured, and revealing where Hope and Glory are—which instigates their deaths.
Once Chum tells Max that he’s told Scrotus about Hope and Glory, Max is angry. As you drive to Hope’s location (she and Glory are dead, but we don’t know that yet) Chum pleads with Max in a one sided conversation, on the verge of tears. Max never answers, even as Chum is on the verge of breaking down. It’s one of the few emotionally resonant moments in the game.
Chum dies at Max’s own hands. Scrotus’s truck is hanging off a cliff, and Max is about to drive the Opus into it, supposedly sending the Opus over the side and destroying it, in order to kill Scrotus. Chum can’t let Max do this, and sits on the car to try and stop him. Max does it anyway, jumping out of the car at the last minute. The Magnum Opus explodes, killing Chum.
In theory, I like the idea of Chum feeling so intertwined with the Magnum Opus that he dies because of it. But here, it’s executed clumsily. It seems needlessly heartless for Max to murder Chum, your friend for the last 50 hours of gameplay, and there’s a certain dissonance since you have thunderpoons (missiles) and a shotgun along with other gadgets that could just as easily gotten the job done. And then, as the Magnum Opus explodes, Scrotus jumps free anyway, prompting a final fight. Which undermines Chumbucket’s recent death.
Chumbucket is the only character that feels fleshed out, with convincing character traits and a believable single minded focus on the Magnum Opus. The ending does the character a disservice.
THE PLAINS OF SILENCE
Max’s goal is to get to the Plains of Silence, but according to his bio it’s not a real place, but a creation of his shattered mind. He hopes to find peace and quiet there. Throughout the game, it’s not clear what he’s trying to find quiet for. It’s only in the tail end of the game, the last three or so missions, Max starts to show some character. Until then he’d just been doing objectives because it’s a video game and that’s what you do. When Hope and Glory start asking him to make a family, we get a better look at his impulse to push people away. When Hope and Glory die, Max starts to hear their voice urging him to spill blood and get revenge. After Chum dies, his voice is added to theirs. Now, we have an idea of why Max craves the plains of the silence, but it only happens at the very end of the game and is marred by Hope and Glory being underdeveloped.
The voices blame Max for creating this mess, and when Chum runs away Max says “never trust anyone again.” All this comes together to imply Max is reverting to his lone survivor behaviour, and it’s a potentially fascinating way to explore this, but again, it only happens at the very end of the game so it doesn’t have much time to be explored.
Griffa is a wandering mystic who appears at a few odd locations. He provides Max with upgrades, but also seems to know far too much about Max’s personality and past. Whenever Griffa appears, so do odd symbols and a distorting of the light. His bio says he’s just a wanderer, but some fan theories think he’s a creation of Max’s mind, there to help him cope with the loss of his Interceptor, and maybe even help him accept the idea of being reliant on others. But Griffa never gets any closure or revelation. Once you’ve fully upgraded, he just stops appearing (which is especially odd since he narrates the opening cutscene).
Again, there are a lot of great elements here, but none of them seem to be working in tandem, and just peter out separately.
THERE IS NO SENSE OF PERMANENCE
The core of the game is about lowering Scrotus’s threat level to make the wasteland safer. There’s a sense that you’re enacting real, permanent change as you progress through the game. The ending undermines this, once you beat the game there’s a nifty message telling you key characters have respawned so can finish side missions. This ruins the sense of permanence you’ve been working at the whole game. Even the voices in Max’s head are gone, Chumbucket sits oblivious in the back of the Magnum Opus, and Hope and Glory are just chilling in Deep Friah’s stronghold. Even Tenderloin is brought back, lounging around huffing fumes.
It would’ve gone a long way if the game committed to the character deaths, and kept the voices in Max’s head. A couple different character models with a few lines of dialogue for the side missions, and it would’ve added a sense of permanence to the game world.
And as an aside, this would’ve been a perfect reason to keep Tenderloin alive, as she could’ve replaced Chum in the back of your car.
DOES MAD MAX (THE GAME) MISS THE POINT OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD?
The game was made separately from the movie, but I’m still going to compare the two.
Fury Road is all about lean storytelling, giving you just enough information to follow along, with little dialogue, and relying on the visuals and performances to communicate the meat of the story. Open world games, by their nature, are meandering. Trudging from one minor objective to another doesn’t fall on the same spectrum of Fury Road’s compact storytelling. And even though the game doesn’t have a lot of dialogue or cutscenes, it still manages to fail at communicating deeper subtexts. Fury Road communicated a lot of character with few words, the game has few words and not a lot of character.
In Fury Road, the women have agency, and Furiosa is the one driving the plot forward. They aren’t there just to motivate Max, the story is about them. In the game, the women are only there to motivate Max, to die to add to his emotional conflict or for shock value. Going so far as to make Hope a non-character with literally no other purpose than to be emotional fodder for Max.
Both the car combat and the melee combat are satisfying and fun, though not perfect. But driving through exploding cars or breaking war boy limbs never gets old. The story is the weakest aspect of the game, which is a shame. With some restructuring it could’ve been something really amazing. As it stands, it just feels like wasted potential.
If you like Mad Max or the wasteland aesthetic, you’ll probably enjoy Mad Max (the game). Just don’t expect a strong story like in Fury Road.