Mad Max

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

Fit­tingly, Max’s first post-Fury Road out­ing opens with a jolt of ul­tra­vi­o­lence. An en­counter with a group of War Boys con­cludes in a cred­itable draw: Max’s car is stolen, but their leader ends up with a chain­saw em­bed­ded in his skull. Yet as Max sets about try­ing to re­cover or re­place his ve­hi­cle, there’s a more in­trigu­ing mys­tery in the form of an enig­matic drifter. He’s a spo­radic, near-spec­tral pres­ence whose gnomic ut­ter­ances punc­tu­ate the early game. “Come find me when your spirit is ready,” he says. We do – well, once the mis­sion marker ap­pears, at any rate – and as we ap­proach the man on a craggy out­crop, the colour bleaches from the world as dark whis­pers and muf­fled screams pour into the mix. A cryptic con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows and the stranger blows sand in Max’s face. The rid­dle is promptly solved as a ra­dial menu pops up: this is Griffa and he’s our up­grade shop.

This se­quence is Mad Max in mi­cro­cosm. It’s a game that con­stantly threat­ens to be more dar­ing, but al­most al­ways takes the road more trav­elled, set­tling for the safe path of es­tab­lished open-world con­ven­tion. Max’s quest is un­usu­ally self­ish and sin­gle-minded – his aim is to build a pow­er­ful V8 ve­hi­cle that will take him to the Plains of Si­lence – but it re­sults in a lan­guorous sprawl of a cam­paign that spreads it­self far too thinly. The waste­lands might make for an im­pres­sively des­o­late sand­box, but its map still be­comes a mass of coloured icons as dense as that of any As­sas­sin’s Creed.

You sense that Avalanche isn’t sure whether to celebrate or curse Ge­orge Miller. Fury Road nat­u­rally proves an im­pos­si­ble act to fol­low, and if the game bor­rows a few el­e­ments from the film, it rarely man­ages to cap­ture the an­tic energy of its car­toon­ish ex­cesses. That might have grown weari­some over 30-plus hours, of course, but even so we were sur­prised to dis­cover that its tone of­ten hews closer to the grim ni­hilism of David Mi­chod’s The Rover, es­pe­cially in its vi­o­lence, which is abrupt, bru­tal and loud.

It’s ragged, too, es­sen­tially one long fetchquest frag­mented into dozens of sim­i­lar pieces. Whether you’re scav­eng­ing for scrap or in­fil­trat­ing an en­emy camp, the ap­proach is broadly the same: set a way­point, drive there and beat peo­ple up. Hand-to-hand com­bat takes its cues from the Arkham games – one but­ton to punch, another to block, and another for an eva­sive roll – and if it’s less fluid and re­spon­sive, there’s a pal­pa­ble ur­gency and heft be­hind Max’s blows. Shot­gun rounds and shivs are re­li­ably deadly, and sparse enough that you’ll only use them in dire cir­cum­stances, but while up­grades ex­pand Max’s range to in­clude weapon par­ries and wrestling fin­ish­ers, the rhythm doesn’t re­ally change from first minute to last, only the num­ber and va­ri­ety of op­po­nents. And if the bat­tles against the war­lords that rule over each area are of­ten hand­somely staged, they set­tle into pre­dictable pat­terns that re­peat

over the course of the game. Some are strong and slow; the re­main­der are fast and ag­ile.

Ve­hic­u­lar skir­mishes fare bet­ter, even if, like melee, they ex­hibit the re­verse dif­fi­culty curve that af­flicts many sand­box games. In the open­ing hours, you’ll be in­vited to take down con­voys by pur­su­ing them round cir­cuitous routes, their pres­ence for once her­alded not by a coloured icon but a cloud of dust. In its in­choate state, Max’s op­ti­misti­cally named Mag­num Opus is barely ca­pa­ble of tak­ing out the cars pro­tect­ing the lead ve­hi­cle, but with up­graded ar­mour, a more pow­er­ful grap­ple hook and spikes to dis­suade po­ten­tial board­ers, you’re a force for even a five-strong pa­trol to fear. Once you have a fully loaded shot­gun and an elec­tri­cal har­poon, you’ll al­most be­gin to feel sorry for your tar­gets, if not enough to re­sist mount­ing their hood or­na­ments on your car as tro­phies. Af­ter hours of scav­eng­ing for food, wa­ter and base sup­plies, these set-pieces are a cathar­tic thrill, the growl of en­gines and hy­per-sat­u­rated ex­plo­sions at last match­ing Miller’s film for vi­brancy, in­ten­sity and vol­ume.

And then there are the storms, de­ployed with un­com­mon re­straint yet spell­bind­ingly fe­ro­cious when they hit. At one stage, a dust tor­nado fin­ished off a con­voy leader we’d re­duced to a sliver of health; as we clam­bered out to claim our prize, we were blind­sided by a fly­ing scrap of me­tal that sent us rag­dolling into a rock. Eight hours later, we fran­ti­cally dodged sear­ing forks of light­ning, rac­ing to find shel­ter with the en­gine ablaze, know­ing that one more hit would end us. We wouldn’t want to see them more fre­quently, since their rar­ity makes each oc­cur­rence feel spe­cial. Yet it’s a pity the one ex­am­ple of sur­vival mean­ing a des­per­ate fight against heavy odds, rather than repet­i­tive busy­work, is the ex­cep­tion in­stead of the rule here.

Else­where, it’s a mess of con­tra­dic­tions and ar­bi­trary in­con­sis­ten­cies. Why, for ex­am­ple, is a base alerted to our pres­ence not when we shoot down two snipers guard­ing its gate, but when we care­fully drive off in the op­po­site di­rec­tion? Why can we up­grade Max’s com­bat skills from the garage menu but need to seek out Griffa if we want his wa­ter can­teen to fill quicker or his melee weapons to de­grade more slowly? There’s a litany of mi­nor tech­ni­cal and me­chan­i­cal is­sues be­sides: you’ll find your­self be­ing at­tacked off-cam­era at close quar­ters, watch cars van­ish just as you’re about to ram them, and curse con­text-sen­si­tive con­fu­sion that might see you throw a melee weapon from the top of a rig in­stead of smash­ing a me­tal in­signia as in­tended. For all its faults, there is a cer­tain mor­eish­ness in the sand­box struc­ture to which Avalanche re­mains doggedly faith­ful. But the game’s high­lights hint at a more in­ter­est­ing game that never quite ma­te­ri­alises; in the end, Mad Max sim­ply isn’t crazy enough.

It’s a pity the one ex­am­ple of sur­vival mean­ing a des­per­ate fight, rather than busy­work, is the ex­cep­tion

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