Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dave Critiques - Mad Max: What exactly was accomplished?


Hey hey, folks, Dave here. Just a friendly reminder that this is a critique. I will be talking about Mad Max in depth. If you have not played the game and are worried about spoilers, it’s best to close the video now and to come back later. For everyone else, let’s continue.

Now I don’t play a lot of AAA games these days, mainly because of my budget, but also because after so many years playing games, I’m always on the lookout for something new and different. It seems that over the last generation or so, there has been a template for open world AAA game design. I call it the Ubisoft map. While playing a couple hours of Mad Max for an impressions video, however, something caught my interest. At the very least I thought that it had been a few years since I played a game full of achievable goals broadly laid out for the player, and it might be worthwhile. At the very least, it might be nice to experience a game where the map acts as a checklist, removing the thought of what I was going to do next each time I loaded it up.

Every node on the map of this open world is there for one overall purpose, and that is the magnum opus. The whole game revolves around Max building the ultimate car so he can cross the plains of silence. All the upgrades are paid for by scrap that you get from scavenging locations, and overtaking enemy bases. Lowering the threat of an area makes it easier to travel around in (to scavenge and upgrade), and building up the bases awards you with resources that make scavenging easier. Technically you only need to upgrade one base as there is a fast travel system in place, but once you get yourself into a rhythm of clearing bases, removing threat, and enhancing the magnum opus, you tend to keep that going for each new location… or at least I did.

Basically, the magnum opus gives you a reason to engage and complete all the “map stuff”. The elements that may be superfluous or busy-work in other games ties into the core motivation for the player. Yes, the car is more important than even the story missions. What really struck this home for me was while clearing the third territory of Pinkeye’s domain, I suddenly had no more upgrades to purchase for the magnum opus (everything else was locked behind missions or achievements). Almost instantaneously the map and all this side content lost its appeal, and from that point on I stuck to the main storyline and the wasteland missions. At that point, I was already quite a ways along in them anyway, so it only took a few more play sessions before I saw the end credits. The only other comparable situation in my time with the game was when travel was starting to get very annoying because of all the warboy patrols, so, I played a few story missions, and I received the thunderpoon which completely revitalised the game for me.

And speaking of Warboys and the thunderpoon, let’s discuss the combat. On its surface, Mad Max uses the Arkham Asylum battle mechanics. You’re surrounded by foes, you can wail on them, and parry incoming attacks, and then once you start to get into a rhythm, more abilities open up until either you or your opposition is dead. The two games play quite differently using that base. Mad Max’s attacks have a real sense of weight to them. Unlike Batman, Max is not a perfect fighter. The camera is pressed close to Max’s back, and every attack, parry, or dodge you make, you’re committed to as Max puts his all into the movement. Even at the end of the game with all my upgrades, I would still get attacked. Part of this is that the game keeps throwing larger groups of enemies at you. The inclusion of weapons and shields means isolating and quickly dispatching certain foes, lest you get overwhelmed and destroyed. I will also easily admit it could be that I just suck at the combat. The adrenaline Max feels as he builds over into fury mode, I felt with each punch, suplex, weapon grab or shiv attack. Earlier in the game, I found myself needing to meditate after I played the game, just to settle down from the violence I had spent time perpetuating. Then I kind of got used to it. The effect didn’t lessen per say, but I understood the fighting and was able to enter and leave the headspace I needed to be in to enjoy and be successful at it.

So, Chumbucket… For the entirety of the game, he is your stalwart companion, repairing your car and upgrading it into the magnificent beast it eventually becomes. He’s also a strange grease stained hunchback who speaks of you and your vehicle with zealous spiritual reverence. A friend of mine was playing the game at the same time I was and made a joke about Chumbucket being the Gollum of Mad Max. Obviously, the magnum opus is his precious. I then joked about the end of the game being that Chumbucket would plunge into the fires of Mount Doom with the car. Turns out I ended up being right. Chumbucket lays on the hood of the magnum opus as you drive towards Scrotus’ truck, to push it over the cliff and end his terrorising reign. It’s a poignant moment actually. With all the time you’ve spent with Chumbucket, and more importantly, how the game revolves around building this car, to sacrifice it at the end carries a lot of weight.

Then the game immediately undercuts that weight, twice. Firstly by having Scrotus survive your attack, leading to the final boss fight. After you dispatch Scrotus and get your old car back, the credits roll. After the credits, Chumbucket and the magnum opus are waiting right next to you. This is an open world game after all, and you can’t deny the player the opportunity to drive around the world and finish up everything awaiting them on the map. While initially repulsed by this, the end game unlocking of Mad Max’s leather jacket and double barrelled shotgun pulled at me to at least liberate one more base.

So finally let’s talk about Griffa and Max. The mystic who grants you upgrades when you visit him is trying to get at the heart of who Max is, and what he’s running from. Those familiar with the movies will know the answer to this question, and the plot-line of the game you’ve just played will remind you if it hasn’t become apparent (it has to do with a wife and child). What’s interesting is that Max seems just as haunted by his future as he does by his past. He’s afraid to let anyone close to him, and all he wants to do is to keep driving. I’ve often wondered about the timeline of Mad Max. It doesn’t seem that it took that long for society to completely disassemble, although it seems heavily hinted at that Max is less a person that has been driving the wastelands his whole life, and more an idea. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Max is violence and solitude, and the game ends exactly as it starts. Future games and movies will likely be the same.

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