One of 2015’s most anticipated big-budget games, “Mad Max” ($59.99; rated M) is the de facto companion title to the feature film sequel “Mad Max: Fury Road,” released back in May. The long-delayed game isn’t technically a tie-in – it’s a standalone story with its own characters and plot, years in the making.
But just as “Fury Road” is one of the year’s best films, “Mad Max” is one of the year’s best games.
Like the movie, the new game throws you straight into action from minute one. Players assume the iconic role of Max Rockatansky, former police officer and traumatized survivor in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Australia. The game’s cinematic intro depicts Max facing off against the main villain, a sadistic warlord named, um, Scabrous Scrotus.
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Max is left for dead, and when he comes to, the player is precisely in the middle of nowhere. The game weaves all tutorials directly into the main story line. Within seconds, you’re fighting for your life.
Vehicular combat is tops
“Mad Max” is a third-person action/adventure game with closely integrated vehicular combat. Players familiar with the recent “Batman” games or last year’s “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” will find themselves right at home.
Hand-to-hand combat is essentially identical to the “Batman” and “Mordor” games, with a relatively simple parry-and-strike system. Max can use improvised melee weapons or his trusty shotgun, but ammo is scarce and the game encourages straight-up fisticuffs throughout. A delightfully weird menagerie of faction-affiliated baddies – War Boys, Buzzards and Road Kill – serve as Max’s sparring partners.
It’s the game’s stellar vehicular combat, however, that will keep you coming back. Out there in the wastelands, it’s a lethal, 24/7 demolition derby and the clever combat system is spectacularly over-the-top. Max can ram and grind with enemy vehicles at high speed, or deploy harpoons that rip rival drivers right out of the car. Later options include exploding spears, sniper rifles and flamethrowers.
Max levels up as the game progresses, earning new abilities for both his vehicle and his person. The open-world structure gives players the option of speeding through the main story line, or lingering in particular areas to assist allies and bring down Mr. Scrotus’ strongholds one by one.
Excels at storytelling
In terms of design and game mechanics, “Mad Max” is a high-octane product all the way. The leveling and collectible systems are nicely balanced, the infiltration missions provide interesting tactical challenges, and the lethal racing elements never get old. The massive electrical dust storms that blow through are one of the coolest things I’ve seen in any game – a triumph of graphical and sound design.
There are a few conspicuous glitches. Snipers out in the wastelands have ridiculous range, and it’s frustrating to get killed by a bullet out of nowhere. Resource scarcity is a little off-balance, too. Fuel is too easy to come by; ammo too difficult.
But “Mad Max” excels in providing those storytelling elements that make everything else sing. The supporting characters, friend and foe, are all well-drawn and appropriately bananas – with names like Chumbucket, Crow Dazzle, Stankgum and Pink Eye. Dialogue is minimal, but the language has that odd sing-songy rhythm of director George Miller’s feature films.
In fact, the spirit and tone of the game are right in line with the source material – and that may be the game’s ultimate achievement. It feels right. As much as I admire the “Mordor” game, which is very similar to “Mad Max” in most regards, it ultimately does not match the tone of the “Lord of the Rings” movies – and certainly not the books.
As a video game, “Mad Max” hits that sweet spot where subject and style click together cleanly. The constant brawling and homicidal driving don’t strain credulity, because that’s pretty much what would be happening in the movie version of this story, too.
A final note for parents: “Mad Max” is rated M for intense violence, some language and references to drug use. It’s about the equivalent of a strong PG-13 movie, I’d say. There’s nothing here teenagers haven’t already seen, but it’s a pretty dark vision for younger gamers. Check out the online trailers and parents’ guides for more information.
Mad Max is available now on Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.