That Mad Max Game Rules, Actually

The 2015 Open-World Game Is a Gritty, Dirty, Overlooked Gem

Games Features Mad Max
That Mad Max Game Rules, Actually

One of the things that’s been lovely about the Mad Max franchise is that there just isn’t that much of it. Especially when you consider that the first movie released in 1979, two years after Star Wars landed in theaters. You don’t have the time to count up just how much Star Wars there is now, 47 years later, but calculating how much Mad Max out there is simple. There’s Mad Max, of course, and The Road Warrior, as well as Beyond Thunderdome. There was a single videogame released on the NES in 1990—also called Mad Maxfive years after Thunderdome, that took elements from all three movies without basing itself off of any of them. And then, there was nothing for decades, until 2015’s all-timer, Fury Road, which was followed nine years later by the Iliad to its Odyssey, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. 

You can’t get bogged down by the sheer volume of Mad Max out there, is the thing, and the fact that the lone tie ins out there—besides a couple of videogames—are film novelizations, and that the movies are meant to be legends not even necessarily told from the protagonists’ point of view, that it’s not a series obsessed with canon and filling out a Fandom wiki page. It’s refreshing, in this day and age, to watch a master storyteller at work, telling the kinds of stories he wants to tell, and not those that we’ve been—sometimes against our will—trained to consume. 

Or, at least, it is if you bother with what Mad Max is out there. It’s hard to overstate how influential Mad Max’s whole deal is—its visuals, its post-apocalyptic setting, the messages spoken by its dystopian vision—but there’s also some “your favorite band’s favorite band” business going on here. The original Mad Max was extremely profitable, but that had a lot to do with its budget: it cost just 400,000 dollarydoos to make, and grossed $5.355 million ($23 million accounting for inflation) in Australia alone. (The Guinness Book of World Records claims Mad Max made $100 million worldwide, which made it the most profitable movie ever for a time, but considering it pulled in just $8 million in the United States and was banned in a few countries like Sweden and New Zealand… I’d like to see the sources for that figure, is all. Regardless, a not insignificant chunk of that $100 million figure includes rentals, which shot up after the more easily quantifiable success of The Road Warrior, so it’s not as if it was an instant hit, either way.)

Fury Road is the weirdo of the bunch, in that it was an undeniable hit in theaters, pulling in a verifiable $380 million in 2015 (that doesn’t involve citing Guinness). And while that’s significant, it’s also the kind of bank that Disney fires people over. There are 10 opening weekends for superhero movies that match or exceed that figure. Venom, another Tom Hardy vehicle, made $856 million, and people act like, compared to many others in the genre, that it’s some cult classic of comic book films. 

This is all a long way of saying that talking about box office isn’t the right way to discuss whether a Mad Max movie was a success. There has been more discussion out there about the money Furiosa wasn’t making than how incredible the film is, how worthy of a prequel/successor to Fury Road it is, despite being in a completely different style for both its storytelling and its visuals, and in spite of discarding the series’ protagonist (almost) entirely. And it’s also a long way of pointing out that what constitutes financial success for a Mad Max film says a lot about the size of the audience for additional Mad Max productions—like videogames—and explains, at least to a degree, why there have been just the two. There was a time where you might get a licensed game for any old property into production, but that was decades ago, when the machine was also tuned to do things like release a RoboCop cartoon for children, just in case it worked out. Nowadays, a game that ties into an existing product needs to have some ridiculous pre-existing cache and audience behind it for that to occur, which is, to go back to these wells again, why so many licensed titles in today’s world are of the Star Wars and superhero variety.

Mad Max, released in 2015 for the Xbox One, Windows, and Playstation 4, failed to sell enough copies for Warner Bros. Interactive to even bother releasing its finished downloadable content. Does this speak to the quality of the game? Of course not: like with Furiosa, anyone who has bothered to spend time with Mad Max knows that it’s absolutely killer. The issue is that not enough people have bothered with either, but it’s their loss. Yes, even those of you who went out on day one to get Metal Gear Solid V instead: you always could have come back for Mad Max after playing that gem, you know!

Luckily, like with everyone who sees Furiosa in their living room through streaming, digital rentals, or by buying a physical copy for their collection, Mad Maxs moment doesn’t have to be over. For the zeitgeist, sure, it’s too late, but the game is still available to play on current-gen consoles, and can be purchased through the digital storefronts of the Xbox Series platforms, Playstation 5, and Steam, as well. If anything, the ambition that made for some technical issues of the original release finally shines through on these more powerful successor consoles: Mad Max plays and looks like a dream on my Xbox Series X, with incredible visual details of landscapes, characters, explosions, and cars that had me forgetting it wasn’t actually built for the system I was playing it on.

Now, if you’ve been reading for a while, you know that I tire of endless open-world games. Of the endless scope that can’t necessarily justify itself with things to do, with the mess of icons that litter these maps, with the gameplay systems designed to force you to play an unwieldy percentage of these games in order to progress against enemies you might not even feel like fighting against. Of the sameness, from game to game, the Ubisoftification of it all. Mad Max lacks these issues: it’s an open-world game with an expansive map, yes, but it has more in common with, say, Breath of the Wild than with a modern Assassin’s Creed. There are vast, open spaces with little in them, with few distractions to take you off the path that you’re on. The distractions that are there, though, are compelling ones, borne out of curiosity to see what’s over that ridge, that dune, rather than being just another icon on a map full of them. The empty space is inviting rather than daunting: it wouldn’t work as well with a smaller, crunched map, but since you spend your time driving through a massive chunk of what used to be Australia and also the Pacific Ocean, it absolutely does. 

The closest analog to Mad Max is the underrated Red Faction: Guerilla, as the two share a gameplay loop to a degree: you’re driving around looking for shit to blow up in satisfying ways. It’s very rinse and repeat, yes, but the satisfaction doesn’t lessen as the explosions and things to blow up get bigger and more involved. And, unlike with too many present-day open-world titles, you also don’t need to do everything on the map in order to see the end of the game. You can leave so much of Mad Max unfinished and still complete the story. You can go back to the game itself afterward, to complete whatever other missions or exploration or challenges that you want to, or you can just call it a game. There’s a base threshold for how strong both Max and his car, the Magnum Opus, need to be in order to progress, sure, but you can reach those thresholds without much additional effort beyond what you’re doing just because you’re having a good time, without coming anywhere close to completing 100 percent of what’s here, or having to max out either.

It helps, too, that the focus is on driving instead of running around or fast traveling all over the place to get around. Mad Max is Red Faction: Guerilla, except for when it’s a version of Forza Horizon where everyone is trying to kill you, and oh, sometimes you need to eat maggots to survive. It has similar combat to another Warner Bros. Interactive series, the Arkham games, except you get to admit that the bone-breaking, skull-crushing attacks you’re crunching these dudes with would actually kill them instead of just pretending that Batman is being nice about it because no one dies. Granted, it’s harder to pretend otherwise when you’re pinning guys against the wall with exploding spears or blasting them at close range with a sawed-off shotgun, but the honesty is still appreciated. 

Speaking of that shotgun, just like in the films, ammunition is limited. You can carry more shells and shivs as you upgrade your ammo belt, but you’re not about to confuse Max for Doom Guy or B.J. Blaskowicz at any point here. The gun is almost better just for setting off chains of explosions or being fired from the driver seat to damage the car of a War Boy or Buzzard, as your fists pack plenty of power. Especially after you’ve created a set of gauntlets made out of wrenches, and enter the powered-up rage mode following enough consecutive, uninterrupted hits and parries. People aren’t supposed to be hit in the head with a fistful of wrenches, you know.

As fantastic and smooth as the on-foot combat feels, it’s the vehicular combat that makes Mad Max a special title worth a second look. The Magnum Opus—the replacement you’re building for Max’s lost V8 Interceptor—will start out fairly weak and not particularly fast, but as you upgrade it with the help of your extremely odd mechanic partner who everyone in the Wasteland is pretty sure has tried to date a car before, it’ll be loaded with armor, with weapons, with souped up engines, and become the most dangerous vehicle on the roads of what was formerly known as Australia. The first time you spot a convoy—a dust cloud seen from a distance, kicked up by a lead car protected by another four or five vehicles, all designed to keep you from doing exactly what you want to do here—and then successfully take it down… it’s one of the best feelings I’ve gotten from a game in some time. You learn to pick off the cars one at a time, without losing sight of the convoy or its dust cloud, in order to keep it from filling in the gaps you’ve created in its defenses. You learn to wait for them where they can’t see you, to set traps, to power up your car in a way that’ll make pushing you off the road difficult. You learn how to be able to navigate the small fleet of war vehicles without even destroying them, gunning right for the lead car, and taking it out as the rest of the cars helplessly attempt to stop you… it’s the best. 

I’m not a car guy at all. Hate the things, really. But there’s an artistry here to Mad Max’s vehicular combat that can’t be denied, and it just feels incredible when it all comes together, in the same way that it does in the great action games where you’re normally equipped with a sword, or high heels with pistols on them, and so on. 

Like with Furiosa, Mad Max deserved to be the biggest thing on the planet when it came out, but that’s just not how it was received. There’s still time to go back and have this realization for yourself, however, as I did while waiting for my chance to see George Miller’s latest in theaters: don’t make the same mistake twice, as you’ll understand exactly what you missed out on once you finally do dive in. And that’s one of the great games of its generation, for those who will know to appreciate it.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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