Mad Max: Post-apocalyptic survival meets internal combustion.

So, you’re Avalanche a studio with two third-person open-world games, two publishers and, as it turns out, one year to release both titles. You have to convince a legion of gamers short on time and attention spans that both are worth buying. What’s the pitch? “I’d say that  Just Cause ’s thing was about having too much to play around with, Mad Max is about having too little.” So says Max ’s director of narrative content, Odd Ahlgren. Much to any preview writer’s chagrin, he’s pretty much nailed it.

Research the new Just Cause  and you’ll find that it’s the game equivalent of Dick Cheney in an ordinance store you run from one weapon to the next fighter jet with literal abandon, dropping everything to try out a new toy. Mad Max , on the other hand, aims to make every little find mean something, from eating maggots to scraping together enough scrap metal to stick spikes on your car.

At first glance, it could be seen to be a triple-A addition to the ever-more-crowded survival-game genre you’re tasked with finding food when you can, keeping a canteen of water filled, even carting jerry cans of fuel into the back of your car in the event you run low  at a crucial moment. The reality, however, is a little more in line with what we’ve come to expect from Avalanche by this point.

Food is an instant health boost, water is essentially an inventoried medpak even those jerrycans can be used as makeshift grenades. “The  Mad Max  universe is over-the-top; it’s big stuff,” says game director Frank Rooke. “Big explosions, big personalities, big everything. So to swing from that and go down into micromanaging, that was not what we were trying to do. When you think about that resource management, yes it’s there you need to be conscious of fuel, of water, of health but that’s not driving you solely. You want to be thinking about building a kick-ass car, [who to go and fight], what camp to take on next just stuff that gets you going through this wild and crazy world.”
The Mad Max universe is over the top. It’s big stuff. Big explosions, big personalities
That feeling of never having enough isn’t the be-all and end-all, then it’s the first step.  Mad Max  aims to keep you moving constantly. Running out of fuel isn’t an Oregon Trail unexpected death, it’s a cue to sling out some binoculars, hike up a sand dune and see who could be most efficiently brutalised and stolen from. Every distraction is another reason to engage with Avalanche’s now-trademark open-world style; gigantic landmasses peppered with toyboxes full of physics-enabled structures, outlandish vehicles and squishy little people.

Central to all of this is Max’s new car. Avalanche claims that this is its most story-driven game yet, rebooting the Mad Max franchise (including the new Tom Hardy film) in an entirely new wasteland and that includes having Max’s Interceptor, the V8-powered star of the show, taken from him by a big man named Scrotus. The game revolves around Max and a hunchbacked mechanic building an entirely new car from scratch Max begs, steals and widows for the pieces, and his pal puts it all together.

Think of the Opus as a sandbox within a sandbox everything from the engine to the hood ornaments can be tinkered with, and there’s no optimal loadout. Say you’ve taken a liking to firing harpoons into armoured tanker trucks, and peeling off their metallic skin to expose vulnerable gas tanks you’d best cover yourself in armour to weigh down the car, and invest in some grippy road tyres. If you prefer a close-up approach, tune up the engine, whack on some wheel grinders and cover your chassis in spikes to impale any cheeky boarders seeking to interrupt proceedings.

Car combat is the heart of the game impromptu chases open up as enemy raiding parties ambush you from nearby camps, you chase after convoys, or you spot a scrap-laden hauler ripe for nabbing and driving back to your own stronghold. That would explain why the feel is so precise at its best, Mad Max is as much a driving game as it is an action one (and the effort to make it so is, in part, why you won’t see any of Just Cause’s aerial fun here).

“It’s all grounded in physicality,” says Alex Williams, senior game designer. “We’ve got a good handling system, and when you’re steering into a car, depending on your mass and speed, that’s how much damage you do.” That applies to enemy cars, too all of which can be stolen and driven.
Firing harpoons into armoured tanker trucks, and peeling off their metallic skin
“We’ve designed distinct enemy types,” Williams continues, “where there are better ways of taking out each guy. If you see tonnes of boarders on a car, it’s a good idea not to get close. You want to burn them or blow them up with [the unfortunately named DIY rocket launcher] Thunderpoon. Grinding cars come up beside you with spikes on their sides, so you might want to use the harpoon to yank off their side panels. We’ve also got the Boombug, which is a suicide car if he comes up next to you and sets all his fuel on fire, you might want to take out his wheels so you can get away.”

It’s the kind of ersatz class system that drives combat in games like the Arkham  series every combination of enemies has you prioritising targets and playing in different ways, forcing you to learn every necessary technique. Which is an apposite comparison, considering how much Avalanche draws on Rocksteady’s fine work in its own melee-combat sections.

Befitting a game that takes place, at least in the beginning, at the bottom of a vaporised sea, ammo is not exactly plentiful in  Mad Max . As such, Max himself is all fists and fury, a take on Batman who is both less agile and less worried about dropping goons in the most permanent way. While getting out of your car in the wide-open world is rarely advisable, enter one of the dozens of enemy camps (each one entirely unique, I’m told) and you’re suddenly thrown into miniature mazes, stuck somewhere between my-first- Zelda dungeon puzzle solving and Colosseum combat, as courtyards lead you into 12-on-one brawls with tooled-up loons.
Weather systems will create catastrophic dust and lightning storms, forcing you off-track
It begins as familiar punch ’n’ parry stuff, before building up to include  Shadow of Mordor -like instant executions (early, horrible highlight: Max using a shotgun to compromise a man’s stomach), context-sensitive kills and, apparently, the ability to stick explosive javelins into bad guys’ chests. It’s cumbersome but satisfying; you won’t be pulling off any of the Dark Knight’s weird-looking, 20-foot horizontal leaps, but a low health bar on both sides makes every fight a short, sharp shock.

As you’d expect, Max has an upgrade tree of his own, although this looks far more straightforward than his car’s there are four stages of knuckle duster power levels alone. More worrying is the Legend system, which improves Max’s stats based on actions performed in-game, flashing up notices when you’ve, say, punched 50 people’s faces off. Considering The Elder Scrolls  realised the folly of that simplistic a system some years ago, I’d question how Avalanche has made it much better, but that’s something that will no doubt be revealed over more than the couple of hours’ play I’ve had thus far.

Like any open-world game, there’s much you won’t see until the game timer’s up into the tens of hours. Its two-hour day-night cycle promises to bring new factions of enemies and ambient events, depending on when you’re playing. Weather systems will create catastrophic dust and lightning storms, forcing you off-track, if only to watch your enemies get caught in the maelstrom. Bringing the concept of over-stuffing a game to its extreme, even the edges of the world map are apparently only ‘soft borders’, so God only knows what you’ll find beyond them.

Avalanche has always taken glee in making its worlds the real stars of the game helped by a history of characters so dumb, it’s a surprise they’re able to put on clothes but the studio’s come up against a challenge in the wasteland. Turning a desert into a compelling place to spend a few real-time days in has been a matter of imbuing it with a sense of history you begin in a long-since-gone ocean, your first stronghold a broken lighthouse that sits surreally over the undulating landscape. Further to the north, there’s the old coastline; then, apparently, more recognisable remnants of civilisation; and, finally, Gastown, home of Scrotus and, here’s hoping, the Interceptor.

If it comes together, it won’t be the vistas you’re travelling for, it’ll be the stories behind them. And that brings us back to that first question of how you differentiate this from  Just Cause . Where that game revels in the surface level a beautiful world and lots to play with Mad Max  seems to be aiming for something below the surface, keeping you fighting for the next upgrade worth using, the next place worth going to. The fact that you get to harpoon gates off their hinges and engage in gut-tighteningly exciting car chases along the way is the best way to get you there.

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