[Cleaning the Backlog] Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road and Mad Max, the videogame, were released the same year, in 2015. Nevertheless, it is said that George Miller wasn’t involved in the videogame production, and there is no direct connection between the projects. Does it matter? No. The game has all the essential things that elevate Mad Max into a cultural phenomenon as precious as petrol in its post-apocalyptical chaos: Max, style, and a dramatic spectacle of vehicular manslaughter.

Max Rockatansky is not a hero. He is a full-time anti-hero. Traumatized and haunted by his past failures, he is an aimless wanderer, depressed and seemingly hollow. His fate is crooked, though, and his nature is cursed—despite his utter reluctance, he is constantly forced to make moral choices. Of course, Max always chooses to help the weak—but like a Western hero—this doesn’t bring him peace, and he remains traumatized, depressed, and alone. Continuing the parallel with Western movies, Max should find himself pretty comfortable in revisionist Westerns of the end of the Twentieth century—an aging ranger who saw some chilling shit in his youth reluctantly rides for the last time, showing that there is no glory in violence. But unlike this ranger, Max is never relieved by the death in the end—he is cursed to roam the wastelands forever.

While Fury Road takes pity on Max and blesses him with a redemption story, Mad Max, the videogame, opens up his old wounds with a vengeance. While during the game, Max’s actions do eventually lead to a somewhat better world—several villains less, I suppose, can qualify as an overall improvement—Max himself ultimately returns to his miserable status quo of eternal torment. He fails to close his gestalt by saving a mother with her daughter—a simulation of his own family that he had lost; moreover, his whole in-game journey leads to nowhere—he ends the game exactly where he started.

Mad Max begins with Max’s iconic vehicle getting stolen, so throughout the game, we find, upgrade and customize a new car, along with a personal mechanic Chumbucket. Mad Max ends with Max’s iconic vehicle returning to him, while Chumbucket, along with a new car we worked so hard to build, perished during the game’s showdown. The game’s narrative leads the protagonist nowhere and brings him nothing—a mere detour utterly devoid of character development.

Such narrative detour is pretty common for noncanonical spin-off stories—they mustn’t disturb the canonical narrative flow. But in the case of Mad Max, this also suits the hero himself. In the best traditions of Conan the Barbarian, we can insert the game’s story anywhere between the original Mad Max of 1979 and Fury Road—effectively canonizing it without disturbing the overarching narrative.

Mad Max’s post-apocalypse is probably one of the most stylish among dozens of various post-apocalyptical versions of the future scattered throughout the pop-cultural landscape. Iconography alone is immensely influential—vast deserts, sawed-off shotguns, mohawks, leather jackets, crazy-looking people, and even more crazy-looking vehicles. Lore vagueness helps create limitlessly stupid but spectacular things without risking them seem unfit or unsuitable to the surrounding world (ask From Software—they know how it works).

Everything goes—giant stages on wheels, vehicular cults, children tribes, Humungus as the legitimate villain name—Mad Max’s universe is pretty elastic. The game successfully uses this to its advantage, presenting spectacular locations—Gas Town, ship stronghold, the underground airport, The Jaw—as well as undoubtedly cool characters—Deep Friah, Crow Dazzle, Pink Eye. Strong style serves as a substitute for substance—especially in videogames, a medium that lets players interact with a spectacle. Many things happen throughout the plot of Mad Max, and none of them may be memorable, but the iconography is certainly unforgettable.

In summary, Mad Max’s narrative flaws are effectively neutralized by the combined strength of style and the protagonist’s specific characteristics. However, the game’s systematic flaws are more difficult to smooth out.

Although the game is focused on vehicular means of transportation, it’s structurally closer to a Ubisoft-style open-world game in the vein of Assassin’s Creed than to the Grand Theft Auto formula. The vast world map is divided into locations, littered with activity icons—totems to destroy, strongholds to capture, convoys to ambush, etc. Basically the same old busywork instead of gameplay, or so it seems.

Mad Max is the only Ubisoft-style game that I don’t find burdensome to play. The reason is not what busywork you have to perform but how you do it. A dramatic spectacle of vehicular manslaughter—the third essential Mad Max component—comes to the rescue. The formula is irresistible—a vast desert with topographic variability, a rich arsenal of weapons and tools of destruction, an adequate physics engine, and not annoying camera behavior. The rest is the pure magic of motion and chance. No wonder Max wanders endlessly in this post-apocalyptic desert without changing his routine much—it’s such an unapologetically fun routine!

The game would be better without non-vehicular sequences with Batman: Arkham Asylum-like hand-to-hand combat system—they are weak compared to vehicular combat. Most of the time, riding to the grand fistfight is more fun than participating in it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of fist-fighting to do, which makes the game flow limp. Nevertheless, the mad driving itself compensates for everything.

Mad Max is not a masterpiece. It’s an inherently flawed game that does one crucial thing right—understanding its source material and using its strengths. There could have been dozens of ways to do it wrong, but Avalanche Studios did it right.

Anyway, I need more Mad Max games.

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