It's been a big year for the once dusty and slightly forgotten Mad Max franchise. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is probably the best film I'm going to see this year, with sequels on the way and burst of relevance I don't think the franchise has ever known thanks to it's treatment of it's female characters and lurking themes behind the exploding cars. On top of that, it's also gotten a big-budget, AAA gaming release in the "open world" style, promising the power to let you wander the wasteland and gruffly right wrongs. It's called, simply, enough, Mad Max, and I finished it over the weekend.
So there isn't a great deal of continuity in the Mad Max films, being as they are a loosely collected myth cycle, a series of tales of an iconic wanderer rather than a narrative continuity. And that's pretty great, actually, as it allows them a lot of freedom to tell stories that don't have to worry too much about what has gone before, and leave them open at the end. Fury Road embodies this as well as any other - Max wanders into someone elses story, is instrumental in assisting them acheive their hopes whilst gaining some degree of his humanity back, and then wanders off again. The game takes a similar view - it opens as Max loses his precious V8 Interceptor and is stranded, forced to bargain for aid to get a new set of wheels that will allow him to move on. That loose narrative is all the game needs to set you loose on the vast open desert to do, well, "stuff".
After about an hour or so of tutorial and plot setup, you get a car, and a hunchbacked passenger named Chumbucket who will fire a harpoon gun for you and fix up your new ride - the Magnum Opus - when you inevitably get it banged up. You'd better like Chumbucket because he's a near constant companion in the game, chatting away at the back and generally telling you how great you are. Max, of course, is mostly silent and pretty gruff even by modern video game protagonist standards, but in fairness that's pretty true to the films. Anyway, you and Chumbucket drive around a desert landscape littered with small camps, debris, landmarks and larger camps you can loot, blow up and capture as appropriate.
So yes, it's a "busywork" game. Doing the work lowers the "threat" in an area which reduces enemy patrols and unlocks upgrades you buy at the various allied strongholds. I found a pretty solid level of enjoyment just doing this stuff, regardless of the main quest objectives, just riding around getting into fights and clearing out whatever I found. The core gameplay will be pretty familiar to anyone who played the Arkham series or Shadows of Mordor, and the games main innovation is the genuinely fun vehicular combat, especially the staged convoy takedowns, which I always looked forward to. I'd pretty much cleared out the whole map before I started pushing onto the actual plot, which is probably a good thing, because the plot is pretty rubbish.
Lacking the emergant narrative possibilities of Shadows of Mordor's "Nemesis" system, Mad Max falls back on cutscenes and objectives, built around a small cast of characters - a damsel in distress (dammit!!) and powerful central villian. The main issue with both of these characters is that they only turn up in certain quests, and therefore you don't get to know them, connect with them or care. A late-arriving child character only really exists in one mission, spouts some horribly written dialogue, and then gets used as a big emotional prompt which falls pretty flat - I've spend more time with the car, or Max's dog, for god's sake, so the grand wasteland operatics are disconnected from the main gameplay.
Where Mad Max works best then, is out in the wasteland, amongst the broken wreckage of a lost civilisation. Here he really can be the drifter he is meant to be; aiding settlements in return for small favours, travelling across the world in a cloud of smoke, dust and blood. Thats what kept me coming back, in the end. As a final shout out, though, I must mention the games "capture mode" that let you freeze the action, pan the camera around and add filters for a screenshot - that was really cool in a game as good looking as Mad Max is.