The "golden age" of movie-licence video games is long behind us, but the current console generation has provided a platform for a handful of excellent experiences based on franchises familiar to cinemagoers. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor turned Tolkien's famous fantasy fiction into an open-world stab 'em up, setting its story between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The newly released Batman: Arkham Knight (reviewed here) is the final chapter in its developers' own interpretation of DC's comic universe. And in September, Avalanche Studios' Mad Max will appear, riffing on the lore laid down by director George Miller way back in 1979, when the first Mad Max movie turned a A$400,000 budget into a US$100 million box office.
Like Arkham Knight and Shadow of Mordor before it, Mad Max the game isn't based explicitly on cinematic depictions of its titular antihero and the violent, post-apocalyptic wastes he inhabits – which means that, while the timing would seem perfect, it bears no narrative similarity to Miller's reboot flick of earlier this year, the critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road. Movie and game developed independently of one another, despite the roots of the two projects originating from the same place. When I speak to the game's director, Frank Rooke, at Avalanche's Stockholm headquarters (the privately held company's also got an office in New York, currently finishing up Just Cause 3), he tells me that, once upon a time, this game was supposed to be a movie tie-in.
"At some point in the past, this movie got green-lit, and it felt like the right thing to do to put out a game attached to it," Rooke tells me, adding that he wasn't a part of the development team while these explicit movie-to-game adaptation discussions were happening. "I don't know what happened before my arrival. But for me, this is a perfect IP to make a video game from, so I'm glad that someone, somewhere along the line, made the decision to go for it."
The foundations for a fourth Mad Max movie, what would become Fury Road, were laid as far back as 1998. Years of development hell followed, so at what point precisely a video game revival for the franchise was given the go ahead isn't entirely clear. Miller mentioned the possibility of a new game in 2008, and there was the intent to base it on an animated Mad Max movie, but that all came to nothing. The Mad Max I get to spend a fair few hours in the company of, the first Mad Max-based game since a 1990 release for the NES, was given its debut public reveal as recently as 2013 and shows all the signs of being shaped over the course of several years.
One, it's absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, visually. Like, ridiculously pretty, which is really saying something given a whole lot of what you see on screen is sand and dust. Two, even in a demo build, the gameplay is tight, responsive, rewarding, and most importantly of all a shit ton of fun. You fight antagonistic War Boys both in-car and on-foot, and the offensive options available in both modes lead to some spectacular action. Three, the way that its makers talk about it, outside of formal interview situations, is akin to how someone might describe a long-term romantic relationship. It's in the blood, pumping through the hearts and minds of these men and women day in, day out. This really means something to Avalanche's relatively sizeable – there are over 200 employees in the Stockholm studio – but seemingly super-connected team.
As an open-world game providing potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay, the look and feel of Mad Max's environment was of paramount importance to its makers. After all, sand, sand and more sand might be a pretty depressing prospect for anyone about to embark on a new interactive adventure, in a medium where artistic possibilities are near endless.
'Mad Max', Eye of the Storm trailer from E3 2015
"Our artists were scared stiff at the beginning of this project," Rooke says. "When you look at what Mad Max could be, you're looking at a 100-hour game, basically made out of sand. I mean, seriously, there were a lot of sleepless nights over how to make an environment where the player's interest can be sustained over a long period of time. But one day it dawned on us that this wasn't about sand, at all – it was about what this place used to be, and once we started thinking along those lines, everything fell into place."
This is no ordinary desert that your Max – not quite Gibson, definitely not Hardy – finds himself in, left for dead at the beginning of the game by a warlord by the name of Scrotus (who loosely ties the game with Fury Road, as his dad is, apparently, that film's Immortan Joe). He's had his car nicked along with all of his supplies, so must explore the wastes in search of both sustenance – water, maggots, half-eaten tins of dog food – and a new car, and gas, with which to proceed on his way to "somewhere quiet". A set of (heavily customisable and constantly upgradeable) wheels comes his way via an encounter with a supporting protagonist, the borderline insane "blackfinger" Chumbucket (he's a mechanic), and the pair take the Magnum Opus on a wild ride across a landscape once only traversable by something that floated.
"So, this area used to be an ancient seabed," Rooke confirms, "and within that seabed, you'll see heavy coral areas, places where lighthouses stood, or where docks once were. Your initial reaction is just: sand. But when you look closer you see these hints of other things, and you begin to unravel the mysteries of this place, which is a very satisfying feeling. In your own mind, you can work out what these places used to be."
As I play through a relatively compact but challenges-loaded section of the game, some way on from its start and with the essential story components turned off (or else: spoilers), I pass rusted boats, decayed oil tankers, delicate skeletons of long-dead coral. This world was once alive, and as the sand is picked up by the game's dynamic wind system, shifting in volume from place to place, so the movement of the present reveals the beauty of the past. A half-collapsed lighthouse, now a monument without purpose, has become the base for a crew of bandits bearing brightly coloured paint and wielding primitive but deadly weapons – something sharp on the end of something stiff, mainly. I clear it out, and Scotus' influence on the surrounding territory shrinks a little. "Allies" (or, at least, men and women who don't immediately want to kill Max) move into the camp, making it their own. They provide scrap to upgrade the car – this scrap is everywhere, too, picked up from junked motors, abandoned settlements and wrecked War Boy transports alike.
And how you take these enemy cars out is a joy. I was sceptical of Mad Max's vehicle combat going into hands-on time (what are we looking at here, I wondered; Road Rash meets Desert Bus?) but I really needn't have been, as Avalanche has made the physicality of these encounters so very palpable that they can't fail to impress from the first chase of a War Boy convoy through to the last head-on collision with a weaponised Volkswagen. Sometimes you'll come across just a couple of low-armoured opponents, which can be dealt with by rams, or disabled by harpooning a rear wheel and snapping it from its axle. When you're pinned between two rivals, you can spray fire (at the cost of fuel, which isn't always easy to come across) from the sides of the Magnum Opus, setting drivers and rides alike aflame. Alternatively, you could get real close to your target and take aim with a shotgun, eliminating the human threat before the mechanical one – but, again, ammo isn't exactly abundant, so it's best to pick your shots very carefully and vary your attacks.
"We wanted the heaviness of these cars to feel right," Rooke tells me. "We wanted real muscle cars. We looked back at how George shot vehicle combat in the movies. He goes from this macro thing, a huge convoy with all this dust, to suddenly being in very tight on the action – on the fan belt, or the sweat on someone's forehead. And it's also very directional – it always goes forward. In the movies, cars are these heavy, metallic beasts, with raw power. The engines are huge, bare metal everywhere – there's no fibreglass anywhere, or anything like that. So that's how we began to approach our car combat, to look at those elements. The directionality of the combat is important, too. You can get into a 'dogfight' situation, but you'll soon learn that you become more efficient at car combat if you take it to the road."
Not that there are any roads, as such, out here in the wastes that Avalanche have crafted – but there are well-worn routes, marked by tyre tracks, and the game has a mini-map in the bottom left corner that'll be very familiar to anyone who's played an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 4, full of waypoints and markers of interest. What shows up on your larger map needs to be discovered, and there's two ways to do this. Firstly, point your car at the horizon and see what you drive across. Mines, probably. (Seriously, watch out for mines.) Or, more sensibly, find a tethered balloon – this game's take on Assassin's Creed's viewpoints, or the Far Cry series' radio towers – and hop into the basket. Up you go, binoculars out, get spying. Everything you see gets marked for future investigation.
When you arrive at a War Boys-held stronghold, you need to step outside the car and get furious with the fists, and it's here that Mad Max shows its strengths as a brawler. Hand-to-hand combat is very Arkham-series of design, with counter attacks a necessity for thinning out enemy numbers. Build your combo meter and you activate a more powerful Max, where a single blow to an attacker's face is enough to put them permanently in the dirt. Each base has secondary objectives, beyond the essential requirement to do away with all the angry, antagonistic types screaming bloody murder from its walkways and tin sheds. These include foraging for essential scrap, discovering relics from the world before this one – postcards, photos, letters and the like – and busting up gang insignias. Max, like the Magnum Opus, can be upgraded, gaining extra health, increased strength and so on, and he receives these perks by visiting a strange, mystical man by the name of Griffa. This supporting character is a little like an outback version of Resident Evil 4's merchant, only rather more at one with the spirits.
Mad Max plays great, looks ace, and sounds sublime – from the roar of engines to explosions to the raw percussive punch of the soundtrack, the audio's generally excellent, even if some of the dialogue is on the stiff side. But what's Max's, and by turn the player's, motivation for doing any of this? Max is selfish, insular, a man deliberately withdrawn from whatever society is left in this fuel- and water-scarce world. His sole goal is finding a place where the noise of survival is drowned out by silence. He begins the game without much hope, in a do-or-die situation. But are we, come the end of the game, likely to have seen him rediscover aspects of the human spirit that we consider essential, but are absent here, buried under the dunes? Compassion for starters, and also empathy for other people in dire straits, those suffering under the tyrannical rule of Scrotus?
"Max would never do something purely out of the kindness of his heart," Rooke explains, "and he definitely would not try to build himself up as a legend, or a saviour. But he does have this wake behind him as a result of him getting what he needs, and how good he is at surviving. And that can lead to him helping people around him."
The Max of 1979's original movie left fellow men to die, horribly. He acted with cold, definitive precision. The Max of 2015's game sets out the same way: to get what he needs he'll have to go through hell, but go through hell is what he's prepared to do, as it's either that or just give up and die. And yet, I get the distinct impression, as friendly forces gather at once-hostile camps and the along-for-the-ride Chumbucket rambles on about him being some sort of saint, sent to aid his creation of the Magnum Opus and do away with the warlord menace, Avalanche's Max is a more nuanced creation than previous iterations. Perhaps he's one who might, ultimately, want to change the world around him.
"Compassion has been completely stripped away from this world," Rooke tells me. But that's not to say that the player can't inject some of it back into this wonderfully realised expanse of never-looked-better dust and widescreen skies that mesmerise. Now, all Avalanche need to do is hope that this very accomplished game resonates positively with a public already spoiled by the excellent Fury Road, and that it can hold its own, sales wise, against the released-the-same-day Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, another open-world affair supported by no little previous form. Two very different challenges, both equally tough, but from what I've seen Mad Max deserves a chance to stand on its own terms. And with such polished promise evident, it could yet prove to be an unlikely champion of open-world gaming in 2015.
Mad Max is released for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (version tested) on the 1st of September.
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