Game review: Mad Max for PS4

I know, I’ve been away a long while, and in the last few weeks I dusted off the Xbox to play every Bethesda game from hubby’s collection to completion. (We’ll just skip those reviews, m’kay?) I’ve played Fallout 4 six times now, and I finished that last run with a melee build and took a stack of games to trade them in. I got Mad Max because I guess I’m not totally sick of post-apoc games, but I felt like maybe they were missing some driving quests. So, what would I define this game as? A real shit show, that’s what.

It’s hard to know where to begin in listing all the problems with this game. I feel like all the work went into making the game look as pretty as possible, but actually being fun or diverse wasn’t on the checklist. And to be sure, this is a game designed by checklist. It’s got an open world, (check) pointless side quests, (check) endless piles of collectible crap, (check) completely forgettable NPCs, (check) and copy pasta enemies and bosses. (check, check, checkity check.)

The story starts off with Max losing his car again, something consistent with every one of the movies. The big bad, Scrotus Scabrous, takes a chainsaw to the brain, but somehow survives. Max gets led by the boss’ cast off dog to a hunchback named Chumbucket, who has a plan for building the ultimate car, the Magnus Opus. Off to a good start, so how could this possibly go wrong? Every way possible.

To begin with, the controls are terrible. For the most part I was willing to forgive the car controls. I’m driving on sand with bald tires, so yeah, handling is going to be iffy. But on foot, Max controls like a tank with a busted tread, and everything has to be pressed and held for a long, long time before he actually responds. I lost count of the number of times I hammered on a button repeatedly with no effect until it was too late to do me any good. Max is also apparently incapable of doing anything with his left hand. If he’s holding a weapon in his right hand, almost any other task will make him drop it. Keeping a weapon is a tedious affair. It’s so tedious that until I got to the middle of the game, I just ignored most melee weapons unless I was nearing a boss fight.

And there’s lag, and it never fully goes away. The game makers spent a ton of time making sure the game looked so pretty, but between the volumetric dust clouds and all the random particle effects, the frame rate can often dip so low as to reach a pathetic ten frames a second. This means the visuals are hindered by stuttering whether on foot or in the car, and it also means that sometimes button presses don’t register at all. They just get eaten up somewhere in the lost frames.

When lag isn’t an issue, there’s texture pop in problems. It’s hard to know if I’m on the road or not because the road textures may or may not be there. I’d end up having to watch the compass in the lower left corner most of the time to make sure I was still on the road, and so that means most of the pretty surroundings were lost on me. I rarely had time to appreciate the game’s visuals because my gaze was always trapped on that one little circle in the corner.

Even if I wanted to ignore the missions and just drive around, I can’t because there’s always some patrol showing up to trash the car and make me run back to a home base for fuel and water. One of the loading screen hints says to reduce the number of patrols, I needed to lower the threat level in a region. But even reducing it to zero has no effect on the patrols. I could roll four feet out of a base and be attacked every single time. Which might be fun, except again, lag makes the car combat a chore. Half the time, I just got out of the car and forced the baddies to stop and get out to fight me on foot, where the lag was reduced, but not removed.

The car combat is also wonky because enemy cars are all light and nimble in the enemy’s control, but slow and pathetic if I drive them. There’s all kinds of weird rubber banding going on, where enemies running a four banger can catch up to my car even if I have the fastest engine and lay on the nitro repeatedly. Conversely, if a car is running away from me, it can outrace my car no matter what speed I’m going.

I will say that the enemy AI has one improvement I feel is sorely lacking in most games, and that’s a survival instinct. While being pursued by a group of cars, I could blow one up and watch the others run for their lives. That’s something most games never consider, and I think it’s worth mentioning.

Of course, that only applies to car combat, and enemies on foot will all swarm in to the last man, even after I’ve wasted most of their allies. There’s a checklist of enemies that every game seems to need. There’s the brawler, the guy with the shield, the suicide bomber, and the feral crazy. Every faction has their own variations on the same themes, so once you’ve seen one flavor of bad guy, you’ve seen them all.

Then there’s armor. An enemy driving an armored car has two health bars, one representing the armor plating, and one representing the car’s health. But if I get in the same car, there’s no second bar, and the armor becomes tissue paper thin. The same problem applies with adding armor to my own car. It adds to the overall weight and makes acceleration and handling harder, but provides no protection. I should also mention that with an enemy driver, even the highest armor rating has zero effect on their driving. They can turn on a dime and outpace my car even if I have a lighter build with a beefier engine. It make-a no sense.

One of the armor features is boarder spikes, which the upgrade claims “makes it virtually impossible for boarders to jump onto the car.” But in truth, even with spikes all around, boarders almost always jumped on my car to stab Max through the front gap where the windshield should be. It makes the cost of upgrading feel useless.

But then that’s the case with several upgrade options. Some of them were useful with just a few points spent into them. Stuff like making water collection and fuel conservation more efficient had a tangible effect right away. But then there’s stuff like collecting bonus ammo from loot crates. I spent one point in that, and I might get one extra shotgun shell. But then I spent the maximum number of points…and I might get one shotgun shell. What’s the point of upgrading a skill to its maximum value if it never seems to do anything useful to begin with?

Oh, and Cumbucket never stops talking, and his small repertoire of quips gets grating fast. “Aim for the gas tank!” he yells out, despite the fact that there’s no enemy remotely near me. “Oh, here it comes, the mighty duster!” Yes, I can see that weak ass tornado just fine, Cumbubble, please shut the fuck up. I got so tired of him that I turned off the dialog soundtrack for around twenty hours before turning it back on because I also couldn’t hear the bad guys alerting me to their presence. This made ambushes more frequent, and while this was rarely fatal, it did get slightly more annoying than hearing about the mighty duster for the thousandth time.

Each region is run by a fort holder, and Max has to help each of them in order to use their bases. In each base, resources have to be gathered to build projects that will provide ammo, water, and fuel for Max, but there’s also projects to pick up scrap from wrecked enemies, eliminating the need to get out and pick stuff up all the time. This might sound fun, but it’s actually quite tedious to look for the project parts and drive back to assemble them. Each base requires building the same projects over and over, so really it’s a lot of make busy work to pad out the game with extra hours.

To get most of the project parts requires sacking enemy bases, and the way the game wants this done is to drive to an intel source nearby, and then take the base using sneaky side entrances and the like. But it’s not like skipping that step changes anything. Once you’re in the base, you still have to blow everything up and kill everyone. So it really makes no difference going through the front door, the back door, or the crack in the side.

Once inside the base, the game also has optional challenges to look for hidden scrap and “Scrotus Insignias.” What this amounts to is spending twenty minutes looking for those last few hidden objects. Again, more make busy work with no tangible benefit.

Another source of information is hot air balloons, an idea hampered by two problems. First, it’s entirely possible to look all the way around and still not have stuff show up on the map. You have to stumble over landmines and bases to know where they are, and because they all have to be eliminated, sometimes you can waste several hours driving around to look for that one last threat.

The other problem is that the game makers add more and more steps just to use the balloon. In one case, I found a balloon out of fuel with no gas can anywhere near it. I had to drive to an ally camp, pick up a gas can, and then drive back to use it. Then in another case, I fought through a horde of enemies to find the balloon up in the air, with the wench control across a long bridge back the other way. The wench control didn’t work because the generator was out of gas, requiring another long walk to get a gas can at the front of the camp, another walk to refuel the generator, another walk back to the wench to fetch the balloon…and the balloon is out of fuel, so keep walking, yo. This doesn’t make the process harder, just longer. (I feel there’s a dick joke in there somewhere, but I’ll leave it alone.)

The enemies inside the bases are all pretty much the same in every region, and combat is a one button affair. They get different colors of face paint or different clothes, but nothing else changes. This also extends to the so-called top dog camps, where the boss is the same guy over and over and over. The intel gatherers will tell you each one is different because they have a supposed weakness, but those weaknesses apply to every boss. Oh, this boss doesn’t like fire? They all don’t like fire. This one is weak to shotgun shells? EVERYONE is weak to that. This one is weak to being stabbed with knives? You don’t suppose that’s the case with everyone? Maybe? You can safely ignore the advised attack methods because the same tactic works for every boss. Wait for them to charge, roll out of the way, and then keep hitting them until they shove you off. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over.

It’s only near the end of the game that there are different boss fights, but guess what? There’s only three unique fights in the whole game, and one of them is you on foot versus a car. Ugh. There’s a race story mission too, but the race is dreadful, a victim of lag, bad camera controls, and constant enemy spawns that make reaching the boss’ car a pain the the gas can.

I haven’t even touched the story, because I’m just not sure what to say. There’s information in the character bios that suggest this is a sequel to Fury Road, as Immortan Joe is named dropped, and his war boys are the dominant fist fodder. But if I’m understanding the time line, that would put Max in his fifties or even his sixties, and he looks younger than Max from the first movie before the world completely fell apart. I suppose there’s some reason he’s damned near immortal. Maybe a dose of radiation made him live longer? I dunno.

And here’s something I don’t understand. When did Max have a daughter? This is in the game and in Fury Road, but in the original movie, Max had an infant son. Yet in the flashbacks of both the game and the most recent movie, Max had a daughter of around nine or so. When in the timeline does this happen? Is it from a book that never made it into a movie? What’s the deal, doh? Buh, I dunno.

There also has to be something said about the lack of any compelling female roles. There’s four women in the entire game, and fort holder Pink Eye is hardly an Auntie Entity. Her story missions revolve around sending off half her camp to die on a suicide run out through the big nothing. (AKA: the dry ocean floor) The others are a slave and her child and a junkie who Max has to kill in a thunderdome, apparently so they can give a knowing wink to that film. There’s further nods to Auntie with many war boys calling Max raggedy man, and clearly a lot of this plot is taking cues from Fury Road, a film which had a lot of strong women. But there’s no women in antagonist roles here and only a handful of women NPCs, most of whom die to service the weak plot.

There’s the glimmer of a possibly good game in all this mess of fetch quests and laggy car combat, but it’s bogged down by technical problems and endless repetition. There’s no fun to be had in freeing the regions of all threats, no fun to be had in looting a few more pieces of scrap to build the perfect car, nor even in the offering of death run races. Playing this was a chore, and if I wasn’t flat broke, I would have happily tossed this aside after the first few boss fights. It’s a shame, too, because with more polish and variety this could have been an epic game.

In the end, I have to give Mad Max 2 stars. It’s a dull and tedious game that gets bogged down in mundanity far too soon after the start. I’d have a hard time recommending it to anyone, even fans of the Mad Max films.