Avalanche's Mad Max fixes a determined grapple hook to certain open-world conventions. The game comes from the developer of the Just Cause games. It also hails from the publisher of Batman's Arkham series and of last year's smash hit Shadow of Mordor.
Obviously, there is a store of knowledge here about maps and missions, upgrades and quests, plot and progression. All the elements that have projected open-world titles to the forefront of combat gaming today are at play in Mad Max, which is due for release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC on Sept. 1.
But there is a key element in this game that is largely untested: its major reliance on car combat.
Playing the game for an hour at a publicity event last week, I was put through the paces of various driving missions that essentially boil down to chasing enemies and fighting them at high speed. This entails making use of a variety of weapons, all of which work best from particular directions and circumstances.
Tire-mangling rims and side-burners are best effected side-on; a harpoon and sniper rifle from distance; a spiked front grill in head-on collisions. Car fights, at least in this demo, were winnable against small numbers of enemies and lose-able against force. That said, in one early fight, I managed to take down a central convoy boss, almost by accident.
Fights take place in natural arenas, of course, but also along linear distances. Speed and a sense for direction are important. An unfortunate crash left me facing the wrong direction, my quarry a puff of dust in the distance.
According to publisher Warner Bros., Mad Max is 60 percent driving and 40 percent walking, so this element of using your car as the primary agent of violence is going to be extremely important. Cars are generally less familiar avatars for fighting than people (auto combat games come and go, but people combat is a constant) so getting this right is essential to Mad Max's fortunes.
"Car combat is our key feature," says design director Magnus Nedfors. "That's been the feature from the beginning of the design. When designing car combat you have to experiment and find the fun."
Avalanche has some history when it comes to vehicle combat. "We made the Just Cause series, which had a lot of cars in it," says Nedfors. "It's an evolution that we've followed for a long time as a studio. This time, we wanted to push it much further.
"We learned that physics really matters. We want that heavy feel of impact in the car when you collide with each other. We want the weapons to make the physics work together with explosions so there are a lot of different weapons systems.
"The combination of attacks is something that grew over time, how you work with the harpoon for example. You can latch onto another car with the harpoon and then press the nitro boost to have a combo attack. It's taking a bit of inspiration from traditional melee combat systems and bringing them over to car combat."
Role-playing elements abound in this open world, from side quests to environmental territory domination. Most important is the upgrade path that works on the character of Max himself in familiar fashion, but more crucially on his car, dubbed his "magnum opus."
Starting with a very basic vehicle, the car is upgraded and customized according to the player's preferences, through various paths to do with speed, acceleration, armor and weapons. The wasteland warrior cannot simply 100-percent everything out; there are trade-offs at play. But it's clear that the game is entirely weighted towards getting a better car in order to survive, complete missions and, well, get a better car.
"The upgrade tree doesn't have a philosophy of just upgrading to get better," says Nedfors. "It's a combination of different things. If I want to do more damage, I go for a certain type of upgrade, and you'll absolutely feel the difference there. You'll also feel like the car is slowing down because you're putting on so much heavy armor and weapons.
"Now you need to fool around with the acceleration and the engine and so on. All these different aspects of the upgrades for the car, your magnum opus, affect each other. You'll absolutely feel the difference if you do things in certain ways."
An assistant called Chumbucket perches on the back of the car doling out repairs, which can be accelerated via upgrades. Nitro boosts are also a handy addition.
The world itself offers up plenty of opportunities for making the vehicle good, with specific upgrades available via mission quests as well as combat loot drops and materials that can simply be scavenged and crafted all over the world.
This encourages exploration of the wasteland, which offers a variety of desert-based environments and plenty of eye-catching landscapes. "We were looking at the world, the environment, and thinking about how we can make it as interesting as possible," explains art director Martin Bergquist. "In the beginning you think it's a constraint, only having the desert, but we did research on what different places in the world look like, different deserts, and there are so many variations.
"The universe of Mad Max is a violent place."
"We've also been working with making the world alive using the wind, the dynamic weather system, having everything constantly changing for the player. You can drive through one area, come back, and it will appear very different because the wind is blowing more heavily. A sandstorm can appear and then everything is constantly changing for you. The weather changes the appearance of the terrain."
The world is dotted with relics and story items as well as heavily fortified camps, which the player must infiltrate, sometimes explosively, while making use of on-foot combat, limited stealth and the sort of ziplines and vertical vantages that we have seen in Arkham.
This is, to be sure, a very violent game, as befits the franchise and its post-apocalyptic themes. Mad Max is the archetypal video game avatar, a loner with a history of dislocation.
"The key is his name," says Nedfors. "He's mad. He's constantly struggling to find peace of mind. That makes it very interesting to work with him as a character, to explore that in different ways.
"We don't use violence for the sake of violence. But the universe of Mad Max is a violent place. We want to stay true to that world, and that's why it's very bloody, why it could be seen as super violent. We don't throw in violence just because we think it's fun. It's part of the world we want to create."