Bi-Weekly Update: Mad Max

Did you know that “Bi-weekly” can simultaneously mean “twice a week,” and “every two weeks?” That seems very poorly designed.

Two weeks, and all I managed was this video game. That’s less a mark of how good the game was, and how exahusting this week was. I’m starting to watch Adventure Time, and I’m continuing through Schindler’s List, but the one is a very long, quirky show (and my Hulu subscription doesn’t run for much longer), and the second… I read in the mornings on the bus, and lately I’ve been too exhausted to do anything except sleep.

Also I’m now applying for new jobs, so there’s that.

What I’m Playing: Mad Max

Because there are too many video games for me to possibly play all of them, I subscribe to a number of vloggers who review various games and provide lists of Best Characters, Best RPGs, Best Metroidvania’s, Best “Hidden Gems” that no one knows about, etc. One game that kept popping up as a lesser-known open-world gem was Mad Max. The game was said to offer a lot of customizability, varied challenges, intense action, and to have been overshadowed by bigger-name games on release.

All that may be true, but I, with my utter lack of gaming development experience, have determined the true reason why it failed: its open world is boring.

Weird thing to say, I know, especially when the world is populated with with cripples and ultra-violent oddly sexual villains (the chief villain is “Lord Scrotus”), but the world is a giant desert and deserts are, well, boring, long stretches of sand with little to distinguish them. The game tries to spice it up with different zones that are rocky, sloggy, crowded with ruins of ships, crowded with ruins of highway signs, but ultimately they’re all variations of yellow and brown. Contrast this with Breath of the Wild’s brilliant and beautiful landscape, or Witcher 3’s magical and varied world. Mad Max’s world is bare and empty, and even though there’s a lot to do, it feels boring. The enemies are virtually indistinguishable from each other–even the minibosses are the same model and attack format with different paint jobs.

This is especially a problem in the Mad Max world, which is ultimately a world where the utter randomness and manic insanity of each character is part of the appeal. Fury Road had some standardization amongst the warbois, but Road Warrior was definitive in how each of the baddies had their own bizarre, weirdly sexualized style. By the time you’ve punched out the 30th gimp-costumed mook with a shield and spiked club, it no longer seems weird or twisted, just silly.

Maybe this is just an inherent problem with trying to make a game (which relies on standardized models) out of Mad Max in the first place. You couldn’t actually design several thousand enemy types, though Shadow of War did an excellent job of randomizing orc appearances. But again, could at least the minibosses have been mixed up a bit more? Without any variety, they’re just another enemy type. No personality, no real threat.

That being said, what is good about Mad Max–what is highly satisfying–is the fortress upgrade system. As you meet various allied warlords across the landscape (which to their credit, are individualized and distinctive), you can get the parts to give them upgrades like a water collection system and a maggot farm. As you do, the fortresses become nicer, more developed, and the people inside–who are often rude and sick when you arrive–become healthier, happier, and more respectful.

It’s a highly satisfying feeling, akin to when you develop planets in Mass Effect Andromeda. (I assume it’s also similar to the development of settlements in Fallout 4.) It’s a feeling more satisfying that the sort of gratuitous sex appeal that a lot of games rely on (there’s only one character who could be considered a love interest, and while she IS a concubine, she’s a pretty average-looking one.) I’m firmly of the opinion that respect and acknowledgement matter a lot more to most guys than sex, and Mad Max definitely leans into that.

There are two other elements of gameplay–understated, and interesting precisely because of how understated they are. In base assaults there’s an opponent called a War Crier, who hangs above “battle arena” type areas and shouts encouragement to your opponents. It’s best to take him out early before he “buffs” the attackers, but it is possible to fight and defeat all of the opponents without touching the War Crier. Once that’s done, the War Crier will awkwardly try to convince you not to kill him–not quite begging for his life, but also clearly nervous about it. You can shoot him, or you can just walk away and leave him hanging there. The game offers no benefits either way.

Another element–water in the game is a semi-precious resource, a health-pack of sorts that helps you recover after battles. It’s not nearly as scarce as it ought to be in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s not easy to find, either. But as you’re driving, it’s possible to find, scattered across the wasteland, bands of survivors walking, half-dying of thirst, who you can give water to.

I at first was under the impression that this had literally no impact on gameplay–you didn’t seem to receive any benefit, no stat that was upped, no faction that you gained reputation with, no hidden story that was unlocked. It seemed to be just helping for helping’s sake. I later learned that was not the case–helping these wanderers made it more likely that they would later offer you information about the fortresses and opponents scattered across the landscape. It was slightly disappointing to learn, and actually made me less inclined to stop and help.

Overall the game was entertaining, but not particularly groundbreaking or interesting. It held my interest and was a fun game, but it’s not terribly memorable and I doubt I’ll revisit it.

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