Why Mad Max suffers more than most from sandbox shopping-list syndrome
To say that earning 100 per cent completion in Mad Max will take some time is to wildly underestimate the scale of the task. There are 128 challenges to complete, 103 history relics to find, 37 camps to liberate, 32 vehicles to steal and steer back to base, and 13 hood ornaments to rip from their owners. The tokens you earn from completing challenges will be spent boosting Max’s longevity, judgement, volition, attunement, munition, metabolism, essence, adaptation, channelling and intuition, each of which has ten levels. And that’s before you consider upgrading his knuckledusters, jacket, wrist armour, ammo belt, head, shotgun, skills and tools. As for the 18 categories of augmentations for the Magnum Opus, well, that’s a lot of scrap to pick up.
This kind of open-world bloat is hardly new. But is it really necessary? Sales figures suggest that audiences don’t mind too much, though completion statistics for these games indicate that they would benefit from losing some flab. So why so many activities? The simplest answer is that people like it. There is, admittedly, a certain neat-freak pleasure in mopping up those unsightly icons. But there’s more to it than that. Games are expensive, and consumers want value for money in terms of playtime. With that mindset, something that’s serviceable for long periods and occasionally brilliant is preferable to something consistently great but comparatively brief.
Consider, too, the developers’ point of view. Games are expensive to make and fresh mechanics are costly to introduce. Little wonder, then, that many opt instead to focus on a relatively narrow range of objectives and repeat them with subtle tweaks in the hope that players mightn’t always notice.
Perhaps, then, the trick is not necessarily to shed any side content, but to make it more meaningful. As ever, Rockstar handles this sort of thing better than most: the Grand Theft Auto games briefly introduce you to a range of activities, then allow you to leave them alone entirely. Its missions, meanwhile, find ways to guide you towards extracurricular activities without simply pinning yet another marker to a part of the map you couldn’t conceivably have visited before.
Alternatively, there needs to be a compelling reason to wander off the beaten track. For all that more recent entries have introduced collectibles for the sake of collectibles, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s Lairs of Romulus contained optional parkour challenges that were enjoyable in and of themselves, taking place in uniquely attractive environments while offering a tangible reward for their completion.
The problem with Mad Max is simply that it doesn’t do any of this particularly well. Pulling down scarecrow towers with your harpoon presents no challenge and offers scant reward. Most scavenging spots see you defeat a small handful of enemies for a meagre amount of scrap. For each new stronghold, you’re encouraged to install facilities that will automatically top up your health gauge, your ammo belt and your canteen, and recruit a crew that will retrieve any scrap left behind by storms and car-on-car encounters. Essentially, you’re investing time in the short term so that you can delegate the game’s most boring jobs. It’s telling, too, that Avalanche relies upon the constant positive reinforcement of congratulatory messages. ‘LOCATION 100% LOOTED’ it booms after you collect two pieces of scrap and one historic item, all by holding down the X button for two seconds.
Incredibly, all of this comes after an apparent early moment of self-awareness, as Chumbucket offers what seems to be a metacommentary on the frivolous nature of side quests. “Let’s just leave all holy missions,” he mutters sarcastically, “and wander away on some aimless private crusade.” Let’s not, eh?
Without the clutter of the HUD, the wasteland has a stark beauty. It’s a pity you only see it like this in Photo mode