The world of Avalanche Studios' recently released Mad Max is desolate even by the standards of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Where a game like Fallout 3 puts you in and around a recognizable major urban space, packed with the crumbling ruins of skyscrapers, large office buildings, and even the Pentagon, Mad Max's expansive environment is essentially a fucking massive desert with very few identifying features to inform the player about the civilization that stood here before everything went dramatically south.
What this does is heighten the sense of this world being a wasteland rather than just a bunch of buildings that were blown apart by some bombs. It works brilliantly well. Just like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the game of Mad Max doesn't waste its time establishing what actually ended the world, and instead thrives on a sense of mystery. What came before this sand, this dust, this nothing is an unknown, highlighted only in (admittedly crap) relics that the player-controlled Max finds dotted around, which attempt to give some environmental storytelling to the world. There is threat all around: from other humans, doing whatever they can to survive, their minds fixed on mayhem, to the scorched land and the devastating storms that blow across it. Mad Max establishes your car, the Magnum Opus, as the safest place in the game, in a way that reminds me how Elite: Dangerous treats its ship—your ship. When you get out of your car, you're immediately in danger. Exiting the driving seat is a risk, always.
When danger eventually and inevitably arrives, it's fast and explosive. The chase can be long, stretching across entire portions of the desert as multi-car convoys converge for battle. Metal crunches metal. Entire cars get blown to smithereens, drivers still in their seats. Max satisfyingly whips out a shotgun, goes into slow-motion, and shoots a gas canister on a car's rear end. It ignites. So good. Photo Mode does the rest.
The Big Nothing that Max finds himself in is, well, big. And despite being virtually empty, the wastes of the Great White are incredibly dense. Everything is sandy, dusty, and hot—Mad Max has the best video game sand since Journey, only this time there are explosions. Exhaust fumes and heat haze makes the air feel thick, and the clever people at Avalanche swirl it all up into an arid dustbowl that makes you sweat just watching Max trek up a gigantic dune. I suppose it had to pop. With nothing but sun, sand, and sky to look at, there needs to be a reason to stick around in this world. But it's not without variety: Max's journey takes him from the bottom of an evaporated seabed, through coastal towns to highways and canyons.
The air changes as you travel further inland—not that there's a sea shore to comprise a starting point. It's almost clean at the bottom of what was once the seabed. It feels light, serene, and the only thing that disturbs it is you, revving through it in an armored war-machine traveling at 80mph. It's a weird sense of connection with the world, sand, but making the lovely hot clean air thick with dust is one of Mad Max's most satisfying elements. So many games—driving games—put you on asphalt roads with recognizable physics and tire degradation. It's rare you get to race through something as thickly resistant and alive as sand and dirt and mud. It drifts and it billows and gets in every crack and crevice. I fucking love it.
Sand and dust is never more apparent when a sandstorm sweeps in. These are violent, apocalyptic random events that your on-board mechanic, Chumbucket, will spot in the distance—towering dust clouds that move toward you at relentless speed. Trying to outrun one is pretty much impossible, and when they hit driving around becomes a case of trying to avoid lightning strikes that'll rip your car to shreds. Find shelter, or be prepared to struggle.
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The sky changes everything, too. Skyboxes are wonderful tools for making you feel absolutely tiny, and Mad Max uses them bloody brilliantly. Dawn, day, dusk, and night all feel completely different, and cloud cover affects the mood as you travel from point to point. Even with a ginormous, practically empty play space, the fact that the manual act of driving feels so good, beneath these widescreen skies, keeps your attention locked.
You rise above sea level the further north you travel. Up in the Heights you can turn around and look over the entire landscape, all the way to the horizon. And drive into the northeast of the game's ample map and you'll reach The Dump, an endless scrapheap with mountains and mountains of scrap metal and unwanted shit. The structures of the old world provide some of the only means of traversing across the dump, forming tunnels through the hills of rubbish. Furthest north is Gas Town, a perpetually smoggy industrial hub that plays host to a warlord.
With so much of the world a barren waste, Avalanche makes incredibly good use of its rare larger landmarks. These are the wasteland's reminder that this was once a populated and bustling place. Crumbling towers, wide overpasses, wrought iron oilrigs and abandoned docklands are all that protrude from the dense dust. And just like the desert itself, they feel huge.
But as well as shrouding civilisation, the apocalypse uncovered things, too. Once-underwater sulphuric vents are now exposed on the evaporated seabed, and one particularly brazen warlord has fashioned a fortress from a vast volcano that rises out of the sand like a rocky Godzilla, craggy and angular. The world has been drained.
Avalanche has created so much with so little. The inhospitable nature of Max's world never stops. Even after the sun sets, the world continues to change. It feels dynamic, and despite so much nothing it's unquestionably a living, breathing place. Great world building in games is often separate from great game design, and this is certainly one of Mad Max's problems. Repetition creeps in. It falls victim to the usual open-world game traps of running around on fetch quests and taking out mostly meaningless small objectives to progress the story proper. But when you're driving, just driving, through Max's world, all that stuff doesn't really matter. It's simply one of the best road trips I've ever taken.