Sand. It gets everywhere. And in Mad Max, it is everywhere. Before we sat down with Avalanche's new open-world action-adventure our biggest concern was that the dust-covered wasteland would get boring after a while, that there wouldn't be enough variety. And while it's true that they could've added more variation, it turns out our concerns were largely unfounded; it rarely gets boring.
There is undeniable repetition in this ode to George Miller's post-apocalypse, and this goes beyond the sandy landscape that you drive back and forth across. There's a selection of missions and activities that, while individual from each other, are repeated multiple times throughout the adventure. This would be a problem if some of these activities weren't very enjoyable, but nearly all of them are fun.
Better still, the post-apocalyptic wasteland of this particular world plays host to an engaging story that offers up twists and turns, and while it's a limited, it still delivers some satisfying moments. Max Rockatansky is suitably sombre, a constant scowl, and during his journey he meets a selection of interesting, characterful personalities, some more clichéd than others. The one you become most familiar with is deformed mechanic Chumbucket, who's along for most of the ride and fixes your car whenever it comes to a stop; a most helpful ally indeed.
The setting is intriguing and reverent toward its source material, even if there's not a whole lot of innovation going on in terms of structure. You'll find activities dotted around the map that you've seen and done before in other open-worlds. There's convoys to take down, bases to overrun, balloons that offer overview of an area, and characters to meet along the way who'll hand out quests or offer up advice on how to tackle a particular challenge. More interesting than the setting is the tone set by Avalanche; their wasteland does a great job of capturing the essence of the movies. It's harsh and barren, and you'll cross paths with both deadly storms and wanderers dying of thirst, a fitting juxtaposition between the power of nature and the fragility of life.
This isn't a game to be beaten, but rather survived, and although it fumbles its lines at times and doesn't quite capture that fear of living on the edge, there's still powerful moments in there that really hit home. One such moment, something that on its own dragged the game up in our estimation, saw us looting a corpse in search of food, only to realise that we were in the company of frightened child, watching on as we casually went about our business. We too easily slipped into blasé exploitation of the game's survivalist mechanics, but that was an affecting moment that stayed with us.
The star of the show isn't Max or even the wasteland, but rather the car that he's driving, the Magnum Opus. You begin the game losing your previous set of wheels - the Interceptor - and throughout the 20+ hour adventure you spend much of your time building your new ride with the help of your chummy mechanic (and, of course, planning revenge against the man that took your motor, the villainous Scabrous Scrotus). On top of making alterations, you're also able to source new cars and tweak them too. Vehicles are improved by spending the in-game currency - scrap - on new parts and upgrades.
Max gains additional skills and better gear through a mixture of spending scrap on upgrading his equipment and special abilities, and winning races so he can then visit a mysterious character who improves his ability to do things like collect more resources or use melee weapons longer. We'd have preferred a separate resource for personal upgrades so we weren't forced to choose between Max and the car, as having to favour one over the other felt counter-intuitive and thus was a source of early frustration.
Progression snowballs somewhat; the game starts slow and builds up a head of steam over time. As you find more scrap and increase your influence over the wasteland, it's easier to get more, and so over time you get increasingly plentiful upgrades. By the end you'll have a quality car with plenty of improvements, and Max will be more deadly in close-quarters combat. Even then, there's still moments when you're forced to leave the confines of the story and delve back into the open-world in order to work your way up to the required level.
It should be noted that our wastelander went to the Arkham school of combat, and if you've played Batman or Shadow of Mordor recently you'll instantly feel at home with the control scheme that's been implemented here. Max dodges, parries, and then beats his opponents, and often, usually, there's large crowds of enemies that need to be dealt with, something that ensures there's plenty of ducking and diving while the numbers are thinned out.
Outside of the car it's pretty much all fisticuffs, because the only weapon that Max carries is a shotgun and ammo is scarce. You can store a shiv on your ammo belt, but that's it (there is a sniper rifle, but it lives in the boot of the Magnum Opus and can only be fired when you're in the vehicle). Even though you can spend some scrap and unlock a couple of extra moves, there's not a huge amount of depth to the combat system, and after a while you do sometimes feel like you're just going through the motions (this applies to the boss fights too). It's a solid system, and it most certainly works, but it doesn't take any risks.
Vehicular combat is significantly more interesting, largely because of the amount of options open to the player. You can equip pointy deterrents to stop enemies jumping on your car, or put spikes on the wheel rims to shred anyone who dares drive next to you, or toughen up the bumper and ram your opponents into oblivion, or swipe them from the side and use an upgradable harpoon to pull them from their own vehicles.
You can improve armour, speed, boost; all the usual stuff. There's a decent variety of options, and new additions will significantly change the way you interact with your car, the environment, and of course the swarms of enemies you'll encounter on the way (and as this is an Avalanche game, you can rest assured that the resultant explosions are plentiful and satisfying). You can upgrade in different directions and across a range of cars, unlocking the parts you need as you hit certain milestones.
There's a variety of ways to unlock new equipment. Across the various regions you can lower the threat level by taking out sniper nests and destroying menacing towers. Convoys loop around predetermined circuits waiting to be hijacked. There's bases full of scrap (and enemies) that need to be dismantled, and often they contain a very familiar boss just waiting for a very familiar brawl. There's not a huge number of activities, and similar challenges await you across the entirety of the wasteland, the only thing that changes is the difficulty, which ramps the further north you venture.
Familiarity and repetition will be your biggest enemy here, which is why we found ourselves drawn to the story missions over the side activities that are on offer. The story is solid, although unspectacular, but it does enough to drive the action forward, even if Max is enigmatic to the point of being borderline unlikable. That said, even an engaging story isn't enough to mask recurring content and distract from the endless button tapping (press and hold X to activate crate, tap X repeatedly to crack open said crate, press and hold X to pick up item found in crate).
There's plenty to admire in Avalanche's open-world adventure and we had a good time in this literal sandbox, and even several shades of dust and a few technical shortcomings (frame-rate drops during sandstorms, some mislabelled button prompts) weren't enough to ruin our enjoyment. This is a vivid and engaging world, brutal and unflinching in equal measure - just wait until you see what's on the menu for lunch. It might feel by-the-numbers in some respects, repetitious in others, but it also has plenty of personality. There's a good game here, and while it might not have the legs to go on indefinitely, it's a blast while the ride lasts.