Review: 'Mad Max' takes a bumpy ride beyond the apocalypse
There's a reason Mad Max is so peevish. Ever since the original movie blasted out of Australia in 1979, designers of post-apocalyptic video games like "Fallout" and "Borderlands" have drawn inspiration from its bleak vision. But all we've seen of Max himself has been one crummy 1990 Nintendo game.
"Mad Max" (Warner Bros., for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.95) at long last puts us behind the wheel with the wandering maniac. It's not quite as satisfying as this year's film reboot, "Mad Max: Fury Road," but it does a good job of re-establishing Max in his proper place in the post-nuclear age.
As the game begins, Max is attacked by a warlord named Scabrous Scrotus and his gang of War Boys, a fight that leaves the hero bruised, bloodied and carless. Fortunately, he's rescued by a hunchbacked mechanic named Chumbucket who wants to help Max build a powerful new vehicle: a monstrosity so overloaded with armor, spikes, flamethrowers, harpoons and other weaponry that it's worthy of being called his Magnum Opus. Max's job is to scavenge the wasteland in search of enough scrap metal and spare parts to make that dream come true.
The four areas of Max's world are each controlled by a leader who has good reasons to want Scrotus and his minions dead. They'll help the drifter out, but only if he'll go out and hunt down the equipment they need to reinforce their fortresses.
Those open-world missions make up the bulk of the 40-hour-plus running time. Some are simple, like tearing down the garish skeletons paying tribute to the warlord. More challenging are attempts to infiltrate and sabotage his fuel-pumping facilities. And of course, you can hop in your car and race other road warriors.
The most exciting missions involve chasing down convoys, disabling enemy cars one by one and hijacking the lead vehicle. Here's where "Mad Max" feels most like "Fury Road," mixing white-knuckle driving with explosive mayhem. Throw in blinding sandstorms and you have some of the most thrilling racing sequences since the "Burnout" games of the previous decade.
Unfortunately, "Mad Max" bogs down with some of the problems endemic to sprawling, open-world games. Too many of the missions feel like busywork, with dozens of sites that appear worthy of exploration — until you discover the only reward is a couple chunks of metal. The overarching story falls flat, too, never veering from the obvious goal of weakening and then destroying Lord Scrotus. You know that look in Tom Hardy's eyes when he realizes how insane everything in "Fury Road" is? You won't get that here.
Still, there are those scenarios when you find yourself driving blind through the desert at 100 miles per hour while lightning bolts crash and enemy racers spit fire. "Mad Max" has its high-octane moments; you just need to cross some bumpy pavement to get to them. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten.