After it seemed like the video game adaptation of the post-apocalyptic Mad Max film series had been delayed into oblivion — having been revealed years ago with no substantial updates since — Avalanche Studios and Warner Bros. stunned audiences by unveiling the first trailer for the game during E3 2013. The trailer left the titular Max faceless, at the time thought to keep his likeness a secret (would it be Mel Gibson’s original Max, or Tom Hardy’s turn in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road?) but in a behind-closed-doors demo the questions were answered.
Avalanche’s version of Max Rockatansky isn’t modeled after either; leaving the developers room to create a tormented, sprawling landscape filled with third-person shooting and car combat that attempts to make a bombed out wasteland — one of the most widely-used tropes in modern video games — feel special. We’re not sure if they’ll succeed, but having seen the game, there looks to be enough done right to offer fans of The Road Warrior a worthwhile experience.
First, the positive: it isn’t hard to believe the developers when they profess their love for the film series, since Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) are some of the most important and influential apocalyptic films around. Whether this game will function as a standalone title or a tie-in to the film (embroiled in just as much uncertainty as the game itself), the risks of releasing a Mad Max game — long-demanded or not — are obvious to even casual gamers.
The most vocal supporters of Max Rockatansky will be quick to claim that the film’s packs of cannibalistic, spike-sporting marauders are what others have simply mimicked, and as such should possess more potential than its imitators. From that standpoint, the concept art displayed for the game is encouraging, featuring ocean-liners half buried in a sea of sand dunes, domed huts built around massive rock mesas to protect themselves from other survivors, and stone canyons with a chained canopy of rusted car chassis.
How much of that inspiration and concept will end up in the game is a complete unknown, but Avalanche was only ready to show a ‘small’ portion of their open world. In Max’s world a car is a set of wheels is life itself, and the gas flowing through it like blood through arteries; a fact the developers have highlighted early on, centering their demo on the Magnum Opus, the name given to Max’s reinforced and rugged fastback muscle car.
To put it simply, Avalanche’s love of open worlds and at-times ludicrous combat and traversal — last seen in Just Cause 2 — seems to be alive and well in Mad Max. The anithero is not only capable of ramming enemy cars and trucks to damage or destroy them entirely, but of defending himself with a firearm while driving. Car combat goes deeper than just ramming thanks to Max’s sidekick and mechanic Chumbucket, who accompanies Max in the flatbed of his post-apocalyptic death machine.
When required to defend himself from leaping enemies, or attacking a convoy in this case, the player can instruct Chumbucket to fire a harpoon at opposing vehicles, blowing out tires, tearing off pieces of armor, or even pulling the driver out from behind the wheel. We were given just a slight glimpse at these attacks, but it seemed to offer an uncommon dimension to driving while staying right at home in the larger movie universe.
The bad news is that although Mad Max doesn’t look to be a straightforward tie-in, it also won’t be stunning players to the same extent of some next-gen games already previewed. The upside is that even games with smaller budgets look more impressive than their current-gen counterparts thanks to the improved hardware, so Mad Max is by no means lacking in graphical prowess. Besides, cutting edge visuals have already proven to be a lower priority in post-apocalyptic settings; Rage had jaws dropping and divided players, where Borderlands stuck with a visual style and players fell in love with it.
The improved hardware has done more than just improve visuals, as the fine-tuning of the Magnum Opus customization and physics was also spotlighted in the demo. With an in-game suspension animation befitting a car as rugged and off-road-tuned as the Opus, and a customization and upgrade system that lets players craft their own mechanical monster, driving across a deserted Australia looks like something plenty of open world fans could enjoy right off the bat.
In the end, it seems particularly wrongheaded to judge Mad Max based on how pretty it looks, since Max never struck as as the vain type. And at this point, Mad Max fans are likely just looking forward to having a video game set in the movie’s world at all, shaped by a no-holds-barred attitude in keeping with the game’s hero. In that regard, Avalanche’s next release is worth some attention as its launch approaches.
Mad Max is expected to release in 2014 for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.