I wrote about this game four years ago – I loved it then, and I still love it now. Is it a perfect game? No. Are there things I wish it could have done better? Yes, because this second question is redundant. I wish the survival mechanics were fleshed out – it’s too easy to upgrade strongholds which grant you refills to your health, your fuel, your water, and your car is instantly repaired. It makes all those features pointless, even fairly early on in the game if you’re completionist about map markers. Those features work best in the early game when you’re really struggling for scrap and chugging down maggots between breaks in combat, and late-game where you’re ridiculously over-powered and really feel like the terror of the wasteland at the point in the game when it’s appropriate.
If I were being brutally honest, I would have to concede that the gameplay in Mad Max is pretty shallow – it is essentially a very brief story, interspersed with a collection of repetitive “go here, beat up a load of people, collect scrap and the occasional car part” tasks. It is, therefore, quite the testament to the quality of the world design and rendering, car controls, and combat that those repetitive tasks are so enjoyable. And while the story was never going to win any awards for its complexity and nuance, it absolutely nails the tone of Mad Max in its bleakness and ends pitch-perfect (spoiler: it is not a happy ending).
Where Mad Max shines is in it’s world design, scale, and environmental effects. It’s always a bit silly to directly compare world sizes in videogames since the sense of scale mostly depends on how quickly you can travel around it. Skyrim, for instance, is mostly navigated mostly on foot and, while its world certainly feels big, I can’t shake the feeling when I play it that when I stand atop the Throat of the World that I’m not really that high up and the sensation of scale is more due to the fact that objects stop rendering at that distance which removes any way to really judge. In Mad Max, obviously an equivalent level-of-detail system is going on, but it’s not noticeable to the same degree. That giant bridge down in the south-east is visible from a high enough vantage point right the other side of the map. Cars are visible as little dots on the roads. Even though there are no mountains which are supposed to be as enormous as the Throat of the World, I suspect that in places I am standing at least as high, looking out over distances far greater. It certainly feels that way at least, because even though almost all worlds in videogames are shrunken down facsimiles of the real world with towns and cities, forests and rivers artificially small so you can cram more variety into your map, Mad Max’s apocalypse is perfectly suited to this without it being so apparent.
A settlement in Mad Max is what remains of a lighthouse or the shell of a ship rather than a hamlet pretending to be a city. And while those settlements in Mad Max are similarly far too tiny to sustain any more than a handful of people, you can get away with that in a grim dystopian future where it’s entirely reasonable that whatever survives of the population is crammed into one of a handful of remaining structures. You don’t have to suspend your disbelief to the same extent as when your brain has to pretend that this Jarl of about twenty people has any sort of power or influence. In other words, Mad Max as a framework is perfectly suited to the realising of a solidly believable game world in a way that games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto (V does do an incredibly impressive job in creating a city but it’s still considerably smaller than real cities), and probably even Cyberpunk 2077 aren’t. The important thing with those other games is to make them feel the same as what they represent, Mad Max sidesteps those issues.
All of this makes the map in Mad Max, to date, my favourite videogame world. The different regions, while distinct, vary in more subtle ways. Roughly half the map is what was once the sea bed, complete with the bones of whales and sulphur vents and the other half, what remains of a city – the occasional petrol station remaining, roads poking in and out of the sands, and an entire buried airport beneath the dunes. As you traverse from one region to another, the sand transitions from a clean corral white to that classic evocative Australian red. It’s not as massive a difference as travelling between woodland and snowy peaks but it feels more natural and its subtlety masks the collection-of-biomes that videogame worlds often are.
In the years since I first played the game I’ve been fascinated by many of the critical reviews. Many focused on criticisms I’ve mentioned above, and some – in the wake of the success of Fury Road, on the short-comings of the action. Things you can’t do – the game has two types of combat, on-foot and in-car without any cross-over barring the ability to shoot at an on-coming car with your shotgun. No jumping onto cars, no combat on the roof of speeding vehicles. A lot of the action which the developers of Just Cause were known for, absent. Ultimately perhaps this is part of why I view the game differently. I have never played Just Cause and, for that matter, I have never seen Fury Road. I may be in the minority here, but my favourite Mad Max film is the first one, followed by the second. If I could make my ultimate Mad Max movie, it would be the plot of the first film in the locations of The Road Warrior. I’m more into Mad Max for its grimness, how bleak and just awful the world is than for its spectacle. To make me feel like Max you need to allude to past tragedy, have him be beyond weary with life, dangle a nugget of hope in front of him that he knows is false, have him be reluctant to reach for it and then, when he does, punish him for his error. The videogame does this and so when I’m at the end of the game and there’s a fury meter which fills as I’m pounding on the heads of psychopaths, that’s Mad Max rage. That’s my rage. In this game, I am Mad Max and I love it.