Here's an easy recipe for disappointment: take one of the awesomest, most refreshingly nuanced and thoughtful action movies of recent times, Mad Max: Fury Road, and turn it into a generic find-and-destroy open world game. That's exactly what I envisioned when I first heard of the Mad Max game, which is set in the same universe and stars the same titular character, but is otherwise divorced from Fury Road. I'm glad to say I was wrong.
WB Games has brought Mad Max to Gamescom here in Cologne, and I was among the first to try it at the show. My fretful apprehension going into the demo was quickly replaced by fascination: you wouldn't think there'd be much diversity to what you can do in a vast desert world with only a few scraps of metal lying around, but Mad Max belies expectations in many ways. The game's centered on Max's automobile, which isn't his iconic Interceptor but rather a Frankensteinian concoction of post-apocalyptic detritus.
Mad Max is full of explosive, gleeful, destructive fun
My first task in the game was to tear down some structures, which I did by deploying a harpoon gun and mashing the accelerator. Explosions are fun and all, but literally yanking a tower down with brute force just felt so much more satisfying. The gameplay had a surprising amount of depth to it, and after only a short while I was stumbling my way into cinematic combos: pulling down towers one moment, shooting baddies off my rusty hood the next, and then diving out of the car as the damage it took began to hurt my precious Max man. Outside the vehicle, I shot down one enemy with my last shotgun shell, picked up his wrench to whack another over the head, and then applied a special finishing move to complete the kill in gory fashion. The fluidity of that entire sequence, and the fact I could perform it with negligible training, is what impressed me most about Mad Max.
We can (and should) have debates about the proper place of violence in video games, but once you accept that Max's world is a violent and brutal one, you have to credit the game's makers for bringing it to life so ably. Mad Max is the product of Avalanche Studios, the same gang of explosion-loving coders that's responsible for developing the Just Cause series. Open world gaming is this team's specialty, and that's apparent as soon as you inhale your first breath of dry desert air.
The game looks great and plays just as well
Instead of feeling bland and characterless, the game's full of subtle details that draw you in. Realistic dust swirls are actually an important feature in a game where the primary activity is driving through desert. And unlike slower-paced titles like Fallout, action in Mad Max is never more than a few moments away. You just get into your trusty car, and if you don't find trouble, trouble soon finds you.
Beneath its exaggerated veneer of adrenaline-filled chases and chaotic battles, Mad Max also has a sophisticated customization and upgrade system to entice players into side missions and other loot quests. More powerful engines, fiercer hood ornaments, spiked rims, side-mounted flamethrowers, and various paint jobs and insignia can all be unlocked and purchased through the acquisition of scrap, the de facto currency of the game. Max can also be customized and upgraded, which doesn't make quite as much sense as the vehicular improvements, but whatever, it's a game. One small detail I like is that the healing potion in this game is literally water, which is faithful to both the Mad Max canon and real life.
On reflection, I think any attempt to recreate Fury Road as an interactive fiction would have been doomed to fail. The narrative force of the movie would have been lost in the open exploration of a game like Mad Max, so I'm actually relieved that this game has its own, unique take on the wasteland that Max inhabits. Mad Max is full of beautiful, immersive visuals and it has a few original game mechanics that are enough to make it feel fresh and exciting. It has already earned nominations for best PC game and best action game of Gamescom 2015, and on the strength of my experience playing it, I think it's merited both.
Mad Max will be released on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on September 1st.