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Mad Max review: A wasted land

Mad Max nails the grit and atmosphere of an apocalyptic wasteland, but sluggish controls and uneven pacing prevent the game from revving up enough to see the road trip all the way through.

Jeff Bakalar
Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
5 min read

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Mad Max

The Good

Mad Max is a gorgeous open-world wasteland sandbox game that provides some big thrills in the vehicular combat department.

The Bad

In general, the controls in Mad Max aren't very good. The game's pacing feels off, its difficulty seems uneven and some of the missions and driving can begin to feel like unwelcome chores.

The Bottom Line

Mad Max has a fair amount of issues that are guaranteed to frustrate, but there's a handful of delectable chaos inside that's worth being exposed to -- just maybe not at full price.

It's an unusual set of circumstances the Mad Max game finds itself in. It narrowly escapes the video game kiss-of-death by not being based directly on the "Mad Max: Fury Road" blockbuster that hit theaters this past summer. Sure, it does capture a lot of the same aesthetics, but the game's story lives on its own.

Mad Max also saw its share of adversity throughout development. It shaved platforms from its release (the PS3 and 360 versions were scrapped), was delayed for a massive revamping and has seen at least one other completely different iteration on its long development road.

The right stuff is packed deep within Mad Max, it just doesn't show its face often enough. The entire experience feels unbalanced and erratic and you'll need to bite your tongue and train yourself to kneel to the game's shortcomings and frustrations to make it worth playing.

Avalanche Studios

The story is simple enough. After a brutal run-in with a warlord, Max must remove the warlord's legacy from the wasteland, flushing out campsites, tearing down his paraphernalia and killing his followers whenever he gets the chance. At the same time Max and his loyal blackfinger friend Chumbucket must work together to restore a viable car for the job, Max's Magnum Opus.

There's a lot to like in the wasteland but there's a similar amount of odd gameplay choices that hold it back from being something exceptional.

Playing Mad Max hits all the right tonal notes. The desperation is there, the scarcity of it all weighs heavy on the player. Ammo is nearly impossible to find. Scrap (the game's currency) is peppered finely throughout the empty void.

Avalanche Studios

I swear I could smell gasoline during a session of Mad Max. I'd want to shower after playing. The grit, the oil, the blackness. The game nails everything Mad Max represents. But it's the failure to fully complement that articulation in presentation that really disappointed me.

There's just a handful of unevenness to the whole thing. As he progresses through the world, Max unlocks strongholds that act as bases of operations. These areas spawn side missions and eventually provide access to the meatier story missions that move the game's narrative along. At the start of the game I'd find myself taking on a story mission that felt much more difficult that it should have been. At about five hours in I found a balance emerging from the otherwise rocky start.

Perhaps the most glaring of letdowns in Mad Max are the controls. It's not just the loose steering, but also the copious camera slack that really detached me from immersing myself in the game's world. Outside of the substandard driving controls (driving makes up the majority of the game, mind you) there's a fair amount of annoyances that show up when controlling Max himself.

Avalanche Studios

For instance, the same button that tells Max to drop a fuel can is also the one that makes him climb a ladder. You'd be surprised how many times that set of commands is required in Mad Max. Everything in the game is a "hold button for" kind of logic, which just feels like the wrong control scheme.

And don't get me started on the whole jumping situation. Max, warrior of the wasteland, the ultimate survivor, can't jump over something as simple as a waist-high obstacle. Instead, he has to run around like an idiot searching for areas that are marked "surmountable." Occasionally you can get lucky glitching on top of a rock or something similar, but it feels more like the discovery of a bug rather than genuine gameplay.

Along the way Max can obtain intelligence about how to break into a camp unnoticed, but you'll spend 45 minutes trying to figure exactly how to reach a specific point that would very attainable if he jumped like a normal person.

Avalanche Studios

If you do attempt to attack a particular camp or enemy area through the front door, you're bombarded so quickly that it's tough to really form a plan, let alone make a single move. A few times in my playthrough a set snipers seemed to appear out of nowhere. If they connect back-to-back you're done for -- and that's a cheap death you don't forget.

Engaging in melee combat is mostly a generic affair. Max has two moves: punch and parry. You switch between the two buttons and time a parry just right to counterattack. It's basically a watered down version of the Batman: Arkham fighting system, but much less fun in practice. If an enemy drops a weapon you'll need to take out the rest of the horde before you grab it, since it takes two seconds longer to pick up an item than it rightfully should.

Of course, you're juggling this shakiness all while attempting to upgrade your car, which really takes some time to get going. Because scrap is so scarce to start, the earlier sections of the game can start to feel more like chores.

Avalanche Studios

Dying in the wasteland causes you to spawn back at a stronghold -- which can be a huge pain if you haven't unlocked a fast travel spot near your objective. It takes a good amount of grinding before you can start to enjoy the fruits that Mad Max can offer.

It may be a desolate hellhole, but some of the wasteland's inhabitants are really uniquely designed characters with their own strange charm. Most of these people are leaders of the various strongholds you'll frequent. The other poor souls you'll come across in the world have forgettable sob stories that you'll quickly skip over just to get some intel or loot.

But what about the fun stuff in Mad Max? Where's that at? Well, a lot of the thrills inside Mad Max play out during the vehicular combat scenes where Max can use his Magnum Opus to ram other cars on the wasteland's roads. Timing the right shunt to send a warboy's buggy off a cliff is pretty spectacular. Everything has a satisfying weight to it, which usually results in the right amount of explosions and demolition. With Chumbucket riding in the back he can harpoon certain structures or people in the world, or throw an explosive-tipped spear at a targeted enemy.

Avalanche Studios

Oh, and the wasteland is actually gorgeous. I know that sounds crazy to throw compliments towards visuals that are mostly filled with nothingness, but this game looks fantastic. I loved how everything in Mad Max seems so far away and impossible to get to, like a bunch of fuzzy oases. The entire package is really eye candy, from the gradual day to night transition to the blackout dust storms that roll in and out of the land.

But alas, my problems with Mad Max rest within its sluggish controls, odd pacing, jarring spectrum of difficulty and general sense of roughness around its edges. I think there's a handful of delectable chaos inside that it's worth being exposed to, I just don't know if it's worth full price.

Avalanche Studios

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