Mad Max: The Dangers of Safe Game Design

I am going to start off by saying, I have never seen a single Mad Max movie. In fact, my only knowledge about the movies is that they take place in a post apocalyptic wasteland. With that said, I went into this game with an open mind and zero expectations. I came away from Mad Max with utter disappointment, feeling as though I had been duped into playing a cobbled together mish-mash of half baked mechanics stolen straight from other games. Every bit of my experience was mediocre and disjointed.

Every mechanical system in Mad Max is uninspired and derived from games that usually did it better. The melee combat follows the three button approach made popular by the Batman: Arkham games, the car combat is no different from MotorStorm: Apocalypse (albeit with a harpoon that mimics the grappling hook from Just Cause 2), car upgrades are just skill trees, and the open world ideas are identical to those found in every Ubisoft open world game. While this isn’t an issue in itself, most of the systems are far less engaging than they were in their source game. The problem isn’t really that Mad Max borrowed heavily from its inspirations. The problem is that it combined all of it without thinking about how they might compliment each other or what they might add to the Mad Max experience. For example, the combat uses Batman’s attack/counter/dodge trifecta but lacks Batman’s gadgets, which add just enough nuance to make the combat “feel” like it has depth. Mad Max’s only “gadget” is his shotgun which, mechanically speaking, is just a limited use one shot kill in combat.

This piecemeal approach has a secondary effect on the game as well, it makes it feel segmented. The majority of the game is driving and these sections have zero areas where melee combat is useful. Then there are the fortresses and bases that Max must take over but these are entirely composed of melee combat. The game forces the player to constantly shift between these two sets of mechanics without any overlap and it hinders the user experience, especially given how forgettable the on foot sequences are. The real heart of the game is in the vehicular combat and being forced to play through uninspired on foot combat sequences is doing nothing more than taking time away from the much better aspects of the game.

It isn’t even that the game is mechanically underwhelming either, the story is just as thoughtless. The main plot is revolves around Max wanting to break into GasTown so that he can load up on fuel and head into the “Plains of Silence.” This goal is cemented in the lore of this universe and focuses on the fact that resources — specifically gas, food, and water — are difficult to come by and GasTown has stocked up on all of them. However, gas tanks and sources of water are littered throughout the game world. Food was a bit rarer but mechanically served as an instant use life restore, an inferior item to Max’s canteen of water that restored health when the user wanted to use it. The world of Mad Max is perfect for combining the action and survival genres. Without the scarcity of resources however, the story falls apart as everything Max needs could be collected within the first few minutes of the game.

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This was my map when I was about halfway through the game. Every single icon was a constant reminder that this game has a huge checklist of meaningless actions to preform.

Then we have the wanderer Griffa, who acts as a sort of spiritual guide for Max. He speaks with a sort of faux depth that sounds more superficial than profound. He provides Max passive bonuses in exchange for Griffa tokens, which are earned by completing challenges (“kill x amount of enemies” or “drive x amount of miles”). These bonuses range from extra health and dealing more damage to getting more water from sources and using less gas while driving. Which basically boils down to Max magically using less gas simply because he beat up a bunch of guys. Or, Max gets more than 100% water from a source because he drove around a lot. This system feels like a last minute addition as it doesn’t add anything substantial to the game and exists only to present the player with a third skill tree, only this one uses a new currency. The narrative around it doesn’t make sense, mechanically it doesn’t make sense either, and Griffa’s ridiculous dialogue doesn’t do anything for the story.

Combine all of these unexceptional aspects with a shallow upgrade system and an empty wasteland and you have Mad Max in a nutshell. That doesn’t cover anything outside of the main story though. Hundreds of icons will span across your map indicating chores to be done, a digital checklist of wasted time. Most of these consist of 2 actions. Either destroy a tower or collect everything in an area. While those are the two most common actions there are also races and enemy camps. Races are run of the mill checkpoint styled events and enemy camps are on foot segments where Max is tasked with destroying everyone, or everything, in the camp. Since the layout is the only real difference between the base takeover missions they tend to get boring quickly and become, like everything else in the game, just another chore. In fact, most of the content in this game is there only to pad out playtime. I finished the game in ten hours but the average playtime seems to lean more towards 20-40 hours. Those extra hours are almost entirely comprised of vapid collection errands, simply driving from location to location ticking off boxes on a checklist.

There is nothing redeeming about Mad Max. It is the epitome of trite AAA game design that centers on focus tested mechanics instead of making a unique game. None of the systems mesh well with each other or with the narrative and the result is a game experience that has no soul of its own. Worse yet is that the Mad Max universe seems like an interesting setting to have mechanics built around, instead of being shoehorned into working with a smorgasbord of disjointed ideas borrow from other titles. Maybe one day we will have a real Mad Max game.

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One response to “Mad Max: The Dangers of Safe Game Design

  1. Pingback: Mad Max: The Dangers of Safe Game Design | doddthoughts

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