2015’s Mad Max had a lot going for it: A great sense of progression, powerful worldbuilding, and excellent car combat. However, there’s one aspect that fell flat on it’s face. Mad Max has a love/hate relationship with its narrative pacing. While it works hand in hand at first, the second half of the story is at odds with the core mechanics of exploration and vehicle upgrades.
Narrative pacing is tough to get right in an interactive medium. Developers can never be sure how or when players will start a quest. That’s why, for example, Fallout 3 is designed to be completed by any player at any level with any build at any time. Developers are left with two choices, artificially gate content or make every major encounter easy enough for every player. Mad Max went with the former option.
A lot of games block higher-level content with locked doors. These are typically solved with extensive fetch-quests within fetch-quests to find the key. Borderlands is a perfect example of this. Before you can start vault hunting, you need to help out the locals to open a door, kill two bandit lords to drive through another door, fight through three strongholds to get another key, fight a boss, and then you can finally leave the tutorial zone.
The issue is two-fold. Obtaining a key, on its own, isn’t an engaging task. Once you use the key to open the next quest area, all your hard work is practically undone. If someone just gave you the key or you could find it randomly by fighting bandits, there’d be no difference in story or player progression.
The second problem is Borderlands’ early quests don’t feel like they’re contributing to your overall goal of reaching the next area. You know you have to fight the boss, but for some reason you need to go through several fortresses of bandits just to have an NPC open a door. That isn’t engaging. We don’t want to backtrack across desert all day, we want to fight the boss.
Mad Max solves both of these issues with the Jaw. The premise alone is really interesting: The wasteland’s divided into the mainland and a receded ocean. Thanks to a massive seawall, the only way to reach the mainland is by going up a ramp. Scrotus’ army claimed the seawall, installed a massive locking gate, and transformed the surrounding area into a heavily guarded death trap.
The Jaw is more than a locked door. Aside from destroying the wall, you’ll need to deal with patrolling cars, Molotov towers, and snipers. The Jaw is a multi-layered obstacle testing everything you’ve learned up to this point whether you’ve done all the side content or just followed the story. That is good pacing.
What about the key? That comes in two parts. Before tackling the Jaw, Max needs to obtain a harpoon upgrade (actually a hood ornament) called “The Talon.” This is unique because it’s both a quest item and character upgrade, not just a one time “we need X to open the Jaw.” Additionally, at the start of Jaw’s associated quest, “Black Magic” Jeet unlocks the thunderpoon weapon. This makes sense within the narrative as Jeet has already shown interest in gunpowder and has a side-quest to establish a bullet farm.
It’s never a stretch, the narrative works hand in hand with gameplay. The physical key is a weapon upgrade. The quest starts with a new, permanent weapon that has uses far beyond the quest itself. That’s what makes for interactive storytelling.
On the other hand, everything past the Jaw has significant pacing problems. To be honest, it trips into the exact same pitfalls as Borderlands. Pink Eye’s territory is enormous, but the storyline adds a sense of urgency. Chumbucket keeps going on about the Big Chief V8 and it feels like it’s finally time to go get it. Hope, a woman you’ve met before, has been kidnapped and Max is her only…hope. It feels like you’re supposed to go straight to Gastown whereas everything leading up to this moment was about properly preparing, methodically pushing back Scrotus’ army, and going at your own pace.
It feels like you should be getting the V8 at any moment. Instead, you can only win it through a race. Before you can participate, you need to complete multiple, lengthy fetch quests to unlock a door. The quest giver first wants you to visit the very edge of the newly unlocked Dunes region to complete one of the game’s longest encounters.
This is the long, boring stretch of Mad Max. I’d compare this to the Highlands from Borderlands 2. You’ve already completed a lengthy fetch quest, but you need a lancer before you can race. You get a tip on where to find one, but for the race master (Crowdazzle) won’t let her fight for you until you win yet another race. He won’t let you do a normal race. You need special parts and a unique paint job. The only way to get the parts is to grind for scrap and take out Scrotus camps. The only way to get the paint is to seek out a miniboss. On my first play, I wanted to save Pink Eye territory for after I got the V8, but it was clear the game wasn’t going to let that happen.
Just a few hours ago, Mad Max displayed an excellent merging of narrative and gameplay. Two quests later, we’re hit with a layered, multi-prong fetch quest. It’s a lot of pointless busywork, especially since you could probably complete the race at any time, if Crowdazzle let you.
After earning our lancer and the key, we can finally race for the V8. That is if your rank and equipment are properly leveled. Otherwise you have another arbitrary grind limit. The end of the race is where, in my opinion, the pacing completely unravels. It’s like cranking an old camera too fast; the whole world is suddenly on speed.
By the end of the race, Max has attracted the ire of Scrotus and he STILL doesn’t have the V8. This is especially problematic because the V8 has its own set of extremely expensive upgrades, yet we’re almost at the end of the game and still don’t have it. As a result, even when you get the V8, it’s slightly worse than your best V6 until you can afford the upgrade.
In the narrative, all of Gastown is frantically searching for Max. It feels like a bombastic mid-story chase, but again we’re almost at the end. Installing the V8 should have been the mid-point with a chance to cool down after. Instead, we’re told to find Hope’s daughter. While you can tackle the quest at any time, it still feels like we’re being rushed because we know she’s been kidnapped by Buzzards. I think Chumbucket even suggests she won’t last very long.
Just to be clear. The first half of the game was all about exploring, pushing Scrotus back, and preparing to tackle the Jaw. The second half consists of a lengthy fetch quest, a multi-layered fetch quest, obligatory grinding, a race, a scripted action scene, a short dungeon, and now another fetch quest in the same dungeon as the first.
The biggest problem is that you have a gigantic world map, but so far we’ve been restricted to a single area. Going back to Underdune hardly offers anything new. I think it might have been stronger if one of the minor groups kidnapped Hope’s daughter and took her to the mostly untouched northeast portion of Pink Eye territory.
Once you save the girl, the final conflict kicks into gear. We still haven’t had a breather since passing the Jaw, making Pink Eye’s territory and her whole character weaker for it. Pink Eye’s weakness as a character is only made worse by the introduction of Deep Friah, whose stronghold dominates the second half of the story.
So this happens…Chumbucket takes the Magnum Opus and disappears. Technically, you’re still free to explore, but you don’t have a mechanic anymore. Unless you can steal other cars, you have a hard limit on health for exploring the wasteland. You’re also without harpoon or thunderpoon. You are reduced to one car and a shotgun.
Go save Chumbucket, fight the boss. Now the urgency ramps up to 11. Again, this feels like flawed pacing. Your confrontation with the secondary antagonist is only moments before the finale. He doesn’t’ even have a satisfying death sequence. The sadistic secondary who destroyed Chum’s tabernacle, harassed Jeet and Gutgash, assaulted Pink Eye, cheated in the race, raped Hope, and stitched others’ skin to his face…is hit by a car with a comedic thud. I actually laughed out loud.
You return to Hope and her daughter in a mad dash only to discover Scrotus has tortured them to death. Max has an emotional breakdown, but it doesn’t feel earned. Hope and the girl have been present since Gutgash territory, but they haven’t been characterized until after you win the V8. Hope rescues you from Gastown and immediately sends you on a fetch quest. Once you rescue the girl, she’s dead by the end of the following mission. Max’s connection to them isn’t justified, even if it parallels his backstory.
All of these issues are exacerbated by the finale. Max is seething. The voice actor is sucking through his teeth, screaming, and really selling Max’s hatred for Scrotus. But we’ve still JUST won the V8. There hasn’t been much time for exploring the territory and now the sense of urgency is so tense it about to break.
The only way to find Scrotus is to go back to Gastown, where everyone is looking for Max. Except Gastown is a hub, so nobody will attack you. You just drove from Gastown to Chum’s hideout back to Gastown, only to be teleported to the edge of Gutgash territory just so you can drive back to Gastown. It’s maddening, and it gives you a lot of time to think about how swift the second half has been.
You go back to Gastown. A bloodbag gives an impassioned speech and after a multi-stage boss fight, the game is over. If you still haven’t upgraded the V8, it doesn’t really matter because the story wraps up nice and tight. You win an eternity on the plains of silence.
There’s still free mode to explore, but you’ve already conquered every challenge the game can throw at you. You explore to unlock upgrades to overpower your enemies, but the narrative and game mechanics rely on clearing Scrotus’ army. Once you clear Pink Eye territory and win all your upgrades, you have nothing left. The camps are clear. The convoys are gone. All your enemies are dead. The wasteland is your own personal plain of silence.
Winning the V8 should have been the half way point. Instead, it marks the beginning of the finale. Mad Max had some brilliant design methodology early on, but once you pass the Jaw the gameplay and narrative part ways. Exploring is at direct odds with the sense of urgency felt in rescuing Hope, her daughter, and getting the car back. It seems small, but if it had kept that consistent cleverness Mad Max would have really stood out as more than an tie-in.