A little more than 10 years ago, not long after I quit my job to become a freelance writer, a colleague warned me that sometimes the work could be grueling and unrewarding. “I want to talk to you when you’re writing a story only for money,” he said. It took a decade, but I finally found that assignment: reviewing Mad Max for Kotaku. I never would have finished this game if someone wasn’t paying me to do so. If this were Thunderdome, I would have let Mad Max win.
Not everything about Mad Max is awful. The wasteland is austerely pretty, and driving through it can be pleasant. The car combat is reasonably engaging, especially once you unlock the Thunderpoon, a shoulder-fired missile used by Chumbucket, your mechanic and near-constant companion. Moments in the plot surprised me. There are five campaign-based achievements/trophies in the game, and I kind of enjoyed working to get the last two.
Those modest satisfactions are not worth the time it takes to complete the journey. It begins with a series of dull multi-minute cutscenes—before the menu, then after you press start, then the opening credits, then some more narration—involving an antagonist known as Lord Scrotus. (A silly name, yes, but this is a movie franchise with a character who goes by the Doof Warrior.) Things go downhill from there. One of the very first missions is to run about 20 feet so that you can watch another cutscene.
Once things actually get underway, Mad Max is a sprawling and bloated open-world game with story missions and side missions and to-do lists—destroy some enemy towers, invade some enemy camps, collect some items—that would take scores of hours to complete. It’s not a Ubisoft game, but it feels like one: Watch Dogs in the desert.
When you do get to interact with the world, the game is larded with short animations that play when Max takes important actions: when he fills his canteen with water (which he can drink to restore his health); when he bends down on one knee to eat dog food or maggots (another way to increase his hit points); when he refills his car with gasoline (which he must do to avoid being stranded); when he ascends in a balloon to scan a new region with his binoculars (which marks new locations on his map).
This commitment to realism is sort of impressive but also a little silly. Drinking water and eating dog food don’t actually make you more impervious to violence, after all. Nor do these animations make the game more “cinematic.” Mad Max: Fury Road was not filled with dozens of identical shots of Tom Hardy emptying a gas can. Instead, they interrupt the action and repeatedly break the player’s identification with the game.
The controls are even worse at making you to feel connected to the world. I played on PlayStation 4. You use L1 to aim and the O button to shoot, which is off-putting but reasonable, given that you spend so much time driving, and the triggers are used for braking and acceleration. Except, of course, when Max is using the sniper rifle. Then you use R2 to fire. (Why?) Most frustrating, the X button is used for almost everything. You break down doors with it. You loot for scrap with it. You mash it to jimmy open lock boxes. You destroy winches with it. You pick up weapons with it. You start climbing up or down ladders with it. You drop your gas can with it. This led to repeated moments when Max was carrying a gas can and I wanted him to go up or down a ladder with it, but instead he put the can onto the ground. He also loses his grip on the fuel can or his melee weapon when he refills his canteen or picks scrap up off the ground.
And yes, you will be picking up scrap off the ground, over and over. Max needs scrap to upgrade his car with better armor, weapons, tires, and the like. For much of the game, you collect the stuff by getting out of your car after you’ve destroyed something, often an enemy vehicle. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this once you’ve collected the parts to build a “cleanup crew” at various strongholds; they’ll come along behind you and pick up the scrap off the ground. Except it’s slightly more complicated than that: You must go collect the parts to build the cleanup crew, then return to the stronghold, then wander the interior of the stronghold looking for the transparent outline of the machine that serves as a metaphor for the cleanup crew, and then press a button to build the cleanup crew. You must do this for each of the game’s four territories that have strongholds. (If some interactions in a game are so annoying that one of the rewards for laboring through the game is to remove those interactions, maybe some fundamental elements of the game should be rethought.)
Mad Max is bursting with this kind of busywork. Upgrading your car must wait until you’ve completed a checklist of tasks, like driving around an area with a dog to look for mines to defuse (which you do, naturally, by exiting your car, pressing X, and then watching a short animation). There’s an RPG tree, but in order to use it, Max must drive across the map and listen to a character called Griffa spout philosophical mumbo jumbo about Max’s identity and relationship to violence. Doing something—like taking over an enemy camp or ascending in a balloon to unlock the map—is often delayed by obstacles that are not worthy of the word “puzzle.” Once, I drove back and forth between a gas station and a balloon outpost three times while trying to select the gas can that wasn’t half empty, which I needed in order to refuel the generator that powered the balloon.
The fights are simple parry-and-punch encounters, cribbed from other, better Warner Bros. games, especially the Arkham series. Once Max has landed enough blows, he enters “Fury Mode” and overpowers everyone.
The connection to George Miller’s Mad Max series is loose. You play as a driver named Max in a dusty, barren wasteland that is filled with enemies who prefer a fashion aesthetic that combines mismatched athletic equipment with the look of grease monkeys and World War I pilots (and, unlike George Miller’s movies, maybe a little Gears of War). There are some misguided attempts to imbue Max—who is most compelling as a drifter, loner, and cipher—with pathos and longing, especially when he comments on the game’s “historical artifacts,” which are photographs and documents from the world before the wasteland.
If anything, this game is hurt by its license. The ecstatic, transcendent sensation delivered by the car chases in The Road Warrior and Fury Road would be difficult, if not impossible, for any video game to match. But games have their own pleasures, and Mad Max has too few.