What do a lush tropical paradise and a washed-out post-apocalyptic desert wasteland have in common? Avalanche Studios, that’s what. As we all learned at E3 2013, the Just Cause developer turns its attention now to the rich universe created by George Miller in The Road Warrior and its hard-bitten, titular hero, Mad Max.
Mad-ern Max. The principal focus for Avalanche with its open-world spin on Miller’s universe is to deliver a modern take on the Mad Max character for an audience that might not be familiar with the series of classic dystopian sci-fi films. There’s no sense yet of how the larger story takes shape; all we know is that Max has lost his trademark Interceptor and is now allied with a shirtless, hunchbacked gargoyle of a mechanic named Chumbucket.
The road to Gastown. Avalanche’s too-brief E3 theater demo showed off a slice of game that sees Max and Chumbucket trying to pass through a heavily defended bandit encampment known as the Jaw, the main obstacle lying between them and their destination, the resource-rich safe haven settlement of Gastown.
There’s more than just a gang of heavily armed bandits protecting the Jaw, however. Max must also find a way to break through a huge, heavy gate that earns the bandit encampment its name. This requires a special harpoon weapon called the Talon, and getting that involves taking down an armed and armored convoy.
Tricking out your ride. Chumbucket lends his talents as a mechanic to piecing together an appropriate ride for navigating and surviving in the wasteland. Mad Max features a mixture of on-foot and vehicular play, with a heavy emphasis on combat in both.
There are more the 50 different vehicles in the game, but the one that you’ll spend the most time at the wheel of is the one Chumbucket builds for you. An assortment of upgrades can be applied, to the body and inner workings, to various weapon hardpoints (such as the harpoon), and even to Chumbucket himself, boosting his repair time and effectiveness. Upgrades impact vehicle performance, and players are encouraged to swap parts in and out to suit different situations.
Bandit beatdown. Max is a capable hand-to-hand fighter, with the E3 demo offering a glimpse of what appears to be a timing-based combat system. He’s got his trademark shotgun as well, and can also make use of helpful items scattered around the world.
One such found weapon is the Thunderstick, a staff-like pole with a cylindrical serrated blade at one end of it. In the demo we see where the first-half of that name comes from when Max plunges a conveniently placed Thunderstick into the chest of a nearby bandit and kicks the enemy back mere moments before he explodes. There’s also a collapsible sniper rifle tied directly to your vehicle that can be used to pick apart enemy patrols from a distance.
The road warrior. Vehicle combat appears to be considerably more involved than fans of games like Twisted Metal might expect. Upgrades like enhanced armor and ramming grilles improve survivability and are occasionally necessary for breaking through certain parts of the environment, but your ride is much more than a blunt-force ram ‘o death.
Pursuing enemy vehicles frequently spit out brave bandits that leap toward Max and attempt to make the fight more personal. Your shotgun is handy for clearing off these hop-ons, though it’s equally effective for firing at enemy vehicles…especially when said vehicles carry explosive containers.
Then there’s Chumbucket, who spends most of his time standing in the rear well of your vehicle, riding along like some mad, muttering charioteer. Tires and other points of interest on enemy vehicles glow white, indicating that they can be marked as targets for Chum’s harpoon attack. Think Empire Strikes Back here. Or Fast & Furious 5. A well-timed swerve with a harpooned enemy attached can easily flip and knock out a pursuing vehicle.
A cluttered wasteland. The world that Max, Chum, and the rest of the Mad Max occupy is a wind-swept post-apocalypse dotted with the crusty, rusted ruins of human civilization. This isn’t a busy environment that pops with video game-y diversions at every turn, but it’s one that seems to reward exploration.
A peek at the larger world map reveals that there are multiple regions that are all connected by an elaborate network of roads and well-worn paths. A map legend points to some diversions – various convoys to take down, “High Value Cars,” unidentified challenges called “Scarecrow” and “Top Dog” – but it’s mostly called up in the demo to show off the size of the environment.
With only 18 months of active development behind the Avalanche team and a 2014 release planned for Mad Max, there’s still plenty of… ahem… road to cover before the game ships. The slice presented at E3 was clearly gussied up and spit-shined to near-perfection for the gathered crowds, but it offered a promising look at what to expect from the studio’s fresh take on this beloved classic.