Like any Mad Max fan thrilled by the film Fury Road, I approached Avalanche Studios' new video game translation hoping to find echoes of the film's anarchic spirit. And while the full game may deliver -- we won't know until review time -- the current demo feels more like a mundane snapshot of Max's offscreen life in that post-apocalyptic world than an adrenaline shot from Fury Road. Mad Max, due out this fall for PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One, just doesn't have the same level of enervating detail.
It couldn't, though! Fury Road is a two-hour movie, while Mad Max is an open-world video game a la Grand Theft Auto that can be played for much longer. Fury Road's greatest strength is its specificity and that's something Avalanche couldn't possibly match. Every frame, every second of the blockbuster film's full of fittingly mad detail. Take, for example, sinister despot Immortan Joe and his altars of individually designed steering wheels: each one fitted to a different car; each car fitted to a specific War Boy.
Both new Mad Max entries sport similarities: The film and game share the same heroes and villains; they share the same physical components of action like crazy battle cars and mean fistfights. But the game requires variety on a scale the movie doesn't. The movie's heart is in its individual, spectacular stunts that last only a few minutes, whereas the game needs to give players a huge desert wasteland to explore at leisure, full of specific missions to complete. Otherwise, why would people play it for a dozen or more hours?
In the "Magnum Opus" demo I played at a pre-E3 event, much of the gameplay revolves around scavenging for spare parts and scrap metal to customize Max's war car. As you drive around the game's desert and canyons -- the looks of which impressively evoke George Miller's world even if they don't quite match the fidelity of other WB games like Batman: Arkham Knight and Shadow of Mordor -- you find fortresses and hideouts, and get in many fights with other cars and survivors. It's these battles that reward you with new car parts.
On the road, Mad Max feels as desperate as it should.
Those fights, at the very least, feel pretty awesome. My jalopy, kitted out with some stock parts provided at the beginning of the demo, looked like a bruiser straight out of an Ed Roth Rat Fink trading card. It rumbled as I tore over the flat roads in the sandy wasteland, and when going off-road to outrun attacks from enemy cars, it chugged. On the road, Mad Max feels as desperate as it should; resources are used up quickly and you have to be smart in how you use them. When I had ammo to fight back, I could blast the baddies with explosives or flamethrowers, but my bombs were in short supply and the flames used up precious fuel. I could collect more of both, sure, but only if I could find them on felled enemies or in some rough shanty.
That driving desperation is profoundly affecting, and it's something that's helped Max's world endure these past few decades. He's a lone, honorable toughie driven to survive on his own in a dying world! In the game, though, that stoical badassery doesn't last. One thing that dilutes the Mad Max-ness of your trip is Chumbucket, Max's scavenger partner who goes everywhere with him in the demo. Chum functions as both comic relief and Mr. Fix It, repairing your car if you need it and endlessly commenting on what's happening. But by my third random fight against roadsters, I just wanted to abandon him out in the desert so he'd stop with the incessant quips. [I'm trying to have a lone adventure here. Mad Max needs to keep it down to maintain the flow.]
The thrill of the open, and lonely road also fades a bit when Max gets out of his car. When you're driving around, running away from marauding convoys, it feels like you can do anything as long as your car doesn't explode. When you get out of it and start throwing punches against Scrotus' armies (Yes, as in all Max stories, the big, bad evil guy has an absurd name), Max feels slow and trapped in the landscape. Fighting Scrotus involves taking out other smaller warlords in their ramshackle fortresses and weakening his overall power, then stealing their resources to power up yourself and your car. Drive up to a base, wrench off its doors with a harpoon attached to your car and then wander in and just beat up all the War Boys inside.
The thrill of the open, and lonely road also fades a bit when Max gets out of his car.
Speaking of which, the War Boys are about as varied as those in a '90s arcade game like Final Fight. Some I fought were bald and pasty just like the War Boys in Fury Road, but the ones employed by old Stank Gum (the warlords are at least awesomely named) were purple. Why? Just to differentiate themselves from the other, nearly identical thugs from before. Max beats them up with a combination of heavy punches and "fury" finishing moves. The brawling's repetitive, but ultimately satisfying, which isn't surprising as it mimics the flow of the fights in WB's Batman: Arkham City and Shadow of Mordor identically.
Is it a bad thing that WB seems to have a house style for these games? Not necessarily. Mad Max is especially well-suited to the Arkham City-style open world structure that sends you around collecting stuff and beating people up. Amusing as it can be at times, though, that rote gameplay eventually became numbing during my half-hour demo. When I drove past a wanderer who informed me of the warlord Gut Noose and his weaknesses, I found myself wondering which primary-colored dudes I'd have to beat up next.
In its translation to an open-world video game, Mad Max: Fury Road's unique charm's been traded in for monotony. This is, indeed, what it must be like when Max wakes up and just goes about his everyday business. For fans addicted to the steampunk world of Mad Max, this game may be exactly what they want: more time with Max, and an opportunity to tinker with his war car. Who knows? Maybe with some extended playtime, I'll discover that I'm that guy; that I just want to fill Max's dusty shoes.
After this demo session, though, I still wanted to live in Max's world, albeit the one with the stark, propulsive detail of Fury Road and not the game's cycle of purple people to punch.[Images credit: WBIE]