First of all, let me get one thing straight out of the way, so you know where I come from. I did not like the recent Mad Max movie. Like, not at all. Not that I mind the post apocalyptic theme. I used to like the older Mad Max’s just fine (probably the first one the best). The new one…meh. The Max character had virtually no back story (as thin as a sheet of paper) and he was just acting like a crazy person from beginning to end. The story’s premise was boring and just an excuse for endless and not so impressive action scenes. So there was nothing redeeming it. I know this is not the mainstream opinion of the movie (everyone apparently thought it was the best thing ever since sliced bread) so I can only attribute this phenomenon to either mass hysteria or simply a clear decrease in movie expectations. The Force Awakens‘ success, despite being a mediocre movie and certainly underwhelming compared to the original trilogy, certainly echoes the same trend. I guess you cannot beat nostalgia. Just tag a Millennium Falcon on and you get a free ride no matter how incoherent the story or the characters are.
Anyway. Forget about movies for now. This is about the Mad Max game, by Avalanche Studios and ported to Linux by Feral Interactive. Honestly, I am genuinely surprised by how good a game it actually is. It certainly did not make up the headlines when it was released on Windows and I am not sure it has even sold very well. Yet it is probably a game at the level of Shadow of Mordor for that matter, or better still. Shadow of Mordor was fun but the Tolkien references made the Tolkien fan in me cringe many times – it was just a poor adaptation of the world described in the original work, and certainly taking too much from the movies and not enough from the book (not books, because Lord of the Rings is a single, unified book that was published in three parts). Mad Max the game starts off on a better ground. The original premise is not that complicated anyway, so on the contrary the game has the opportunity to bring more depth to it.
Depth you say? Truth be told, there is nothing terribly new under the (desert) sun. This is your typical open-world game following the good old GTA business model. You know, create a big-ass map with a bunch of mainline story missions to complete in order, spray some more optional quests to complete, and put some random encounters in the mix. Shake it hard for 5 minutes and let it rest for a while. As a topping, provide some kind of world currency to pay for upgrades and motivate players to complete extra quests to make up for the increasing difficulty of the missions. Et voila! Mad Max has it all as well, down to the last ingredient – it uses scraps of metal as the local exchange medium. It kind of makes sense.
The problem is that open-world games tend to feel a little empty, or full of uninteresting content. GTA makes up for that with a city simulation and numerous passersbys to interact with (a la Carmageddon) and a police force to run away from (or fight to the death). Shadow of Mordor provides plenty of Orks to kill in every corner, to the point it makes murder so common you will end up yawning at it. Mad Max has the desert, with nothing much inside. Oh. Did they forget to put stuff inside?
This may sound paradoxical, but to me the empty desert in Mad Max is not a flaw; it’s a feature. It makes the world feel desolate and barren. And it should be, after a civilization reboot caused by mutual destruction. In that sense, the desert is almost like an unspoken presence, a character with no name.
The massive bridges, broken in half, evocate the past location of water, further emphasized by the large cargo ships now resting rusty on large dunes, serving as refuges for survivors and local mercenaries. There is something magnificent in this landscape. Think Planet of the Apes: a new world, different, yet strangely familiar. This may sound silly, but it somehow feels relaxing. When I play Mad Max I get the same feeling as when I go hiking in the mountains. Suddenly away from the city noise, in what seems like a different time and space. In touch with something that was not altered by man. In Mad Max I find myself stopping my car to enjoy a beautiful landscape or view. There are valleys, rock formations, broken bridges, canyons, caves…a lot to explore and to visit. It calls for contemplation.
And yet this is not a walking simulator. The game itself is quite fun. You run errands for local lords who in return help you in your main quest to reach GasTown. You start with a crappy vehicle and without upgrading it to the bone you would not stand a chance in the more dangerous areas. So you wander on the map, most of the time destroying local enemy camps, getting rid of snipers and of scarecrow towers used to mark your arch-enemy Scrotus’ territory. Sometimes you just go de-mining a place to make it safer. So your time is split: your hands on the wheel or on foot attacking enemy positions with your bare hands and a shotgun. With very few rounds. The car controls are great, and the engine roar, the tires lifting the dust as you accelerate make the graphics come to life even more vividly. This being Mad Max, you get random encounters in your trips with enemy riding their own vehicles. There are various ways to get rid of them. Getting rid of a single car or two is usually no big deal, but when you actually get to attack a convoy this becomes a whole different story.
Picture the scene: a long line of armed vehicles protecting an important oil transport. And you have to take them out, equipped with your harpoon and your shotgun at hand. Needless to say, your first encounters will almost certainly leave you dead, until you get to a point where your car is solid enough to take hits and you have enough balls and a good grip on how to deal with multiple opponents at the same time. Here is some actual footage from the game on my rig. Not a convoy, but a fight with multiple cars involved nevertheless.
When your car is heavily damaged, you can jump out of it before it explodes, and your friend Chum at the rear will jump right away to fix it in about a minute or so. If there are still opponents around, you are however not safe, as they will simply try and run over you, vulnerable as you are. This makes for very tense moments.
Entering enemy camps is usually pretty fun too. The first ones are easy, but soon you will face camps with perimeter defenses, requiring some strategy instead of blunt force. You will have to get rid of snipers hiding in towers, destroy traps firing huge flames at the entrance, or find a secondary entrance that is less protected, by getting information from allies wandering in the area. Once you manage to get through its walls, you find yourself on foot, beating up enemies a la Batman (or Shadow of Mordor for that matter) by alternating at the right time between attack and parry. Grabbing weapons on the ground is also recommended.
For large groups you are better off starting with one or two shotgun rounds just to reduce the number of adversaries and maximize your chances of survival. Taking over a camp means killing all enemies, and destroying its resources (oil wells or oil tanks). There is usually a bunch of scrap lying around for grabs, so exploring the areas takes time but brings good rewards. What’s amazing is that very few camps look like each other. The developers could have chosen to be lazy about it. Instead you see a clear choice to make each place feels different and new. Even if the action is sometimes repetitive, where it takes place is not. Kudos to the work done by the level designers and artists; this ended up looking really interesting and fascinating.
As much as I like Mad Max, I have to admit you will do a lot of grinding. Usually I don’t like levelling up or collecting stuff for the sake of doing it. But somehow Mad Max makes me feel differently. It’s not so much about unlocking powers of bonuses or artificial features; rather, the progression and the grinding fits the universe well. In a world where nothing is readily available, it should not be easy to come up with upgrades and items. It should require perseverance, time and patience. And since there are tons of extra missions on the map, even playing ten minutes is not a waste of time. You can visit two places, get rid of enemies and get some scrap in such a time span. If you have more time ahead of you, you can decide to attack a convoy or a large camp. I do love that flexibility. It makes it easy to pick up and enjoy anytime.
Add to that the fact that Max is not here to beat around the bush. There are very few lengthy cinematics – Max means business and is all about kicking ass instead of doing parlay. His objectives are clear, and he only helps others because they help him get closer to his goal in return. So usually things stay pretty coherent and straightforward. No bullshit.
So there you are. I really liked this game. I’m still returning to it on a regular basis, because there are so many things to unlock that it probably takes fifty-to-sixty hours to get to do everything, or shall I saw a bit of everything. I am playing on a GTX 970 powered i5 PC, and the Linux port feels very smooth (not very surprising since the DX11 version ran apparently at more than 100fps on Windows anyway). There may still be some minor frame stutters in the worst cases (at night, with several light sources, in a camp with many enemies), but most of the time the framerate is superb and stable at 60 FPS. This is one of the better Feral ports – I was not convinced by Tomb Raider 2013 (massive FPS drops in some areas) and a little disappointed as well by Shadow of Mordor (heavy frame drops while not as bad as Tomb Raider), but this feels seriously better. Armed with the Steam Controller the game plays beautifully, whether you are mashing buttons in a fight or doing precision shooting with your rifle at long distance. Note that Feral has now implemented some additional checks at runtime, to alert you in case your distro is not officially supported, and if your video drivers are consistent with expectations too. This gives some weird results, as Linux Mint (my distro) appears as unsupported while it’s clearly based on Ubuntu 16.04, and for some reason why I have the latest nVidia drivers, they are apparently not recognized as such. Anyway, no big deal as the game exactly as expected, without any glitches or strange behaviour.
While AAA games tend to get a lot of flak, this is one of the better and most beautiful ones, that I really, really want to play. All in all, an excellent surprise to see it landing on Linux, and to find it so enjoyable.
Now if you’ll excuse me, GasTown awaits, and I have no time to lose.
Note: All screenshots and video footage from this article are from my Linux rig (i5 3.4 Ghz + GTX970, Linux Mint 18).
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