It’s not so much “bring me the horizon” as “smash into the horizon really fast” in Mad Max
“Returning to Mad Max is a joy – it hasn’t aged, because very few other games copied it”
There’s something beautiful to me about looking across Mad Max’s blasted horizon. It’s not Avalanche’s still-unmatched work in turning the colour brown into a genuinely gorgeous palette with which to work, nor the dust clouds kicked up by one of the sparse world’s endlessly racing convoys, or even the occasional roiling, genuinely frightening desert storm ripped straight out of Fury Road. It’s that there’s almost never an icon to clutter the view.
The game doesn’t dispense with the scattershot storytelling and goalsetting of its open world peers – far from it – it just chooses to dispense that information a little differently. Passing a point of interest doesn’t flash anything on your screen until you’re practically inside it, setting a waypoint adds nothing more than a green line on the mini-map. The closest you’ll get to the pebbledash UI of your common-or-garden Ubisoft game is a single, small marker, hovering above the hood of a nearby convoy leader to help you identify the right car to smash. There’s a respect for the horizon in this one-off open world, and it goes beyond a simple aesthetic choice.
Among the first things you’re shown in the game is the ending – it’s the giant belch of black smoke coming from the North, signifying Gastown, your new nemesis, Scabrous Scrotus, and the last known resting place of your beloved, stolen car. The entire game, in other words, is a push to reach the horizon.
It goes further. By removing icons telling you where to look, looking suddenly means more. A plume of smoke is an obvious tell, but what about circling birds, the back half of a car wreck poking from the sand, a rusted oil pipeline that suddenly just ends? What would usually be nothing more than set dressing suddenly becomes rich in possibility, just because the game refuses to confirm or deny whether you’re right. The map follows suit. Mad Max might have its own equivalent of towers to climb – pleasantly quiet tethered hot air balloons – but once you get to the top there’s no radar pulse or eagle vision. You whip out your binoculars and spot things yourself. Even then, not everything’s automatically marked, meaning that you need to keep your bearings once you’re up in the air, so as to visit what you saw from a bird’s eye view at ground level. For once in an open world game, you’re not concentrating on the minimap, following magical lines drawn on the floor, or speeding towards columns of light you’ve placed down. You’re just going where you think you should go, whether that’s something as grand as “reclaiming what was rightfully mine”, or as prosaic as “I hope there’s some water over there because my HP’s low and I don’t want to watch Max eat maggots again”.
This strange, exploratory feeling makes returning to Mad Max a joy – it hasn’t aged, because very few other games copied it. It also makes Mad Max a more ponderous game than others of its ilk – and that probably affected its reputation when it arrived. But in a world where the latest Zelda, or Red Dead Redemption II exist – both games that put a premium on quietness, and player-led goals – Mad Max suddenly looks forward-thinking, even visionary. And do either of those games feature a cackling hunchback who sits on the back of your car and screams at you to ram passing dune buggies? No they do not. Head back, and see what the horizon holds for you.
PublisheR Warner Bros / Developer Avalanche / Format Xbox One / release date September 2015