PC, PS4, Xbox One
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