I almost feel sorry for the Warner Bros VP sitting across the table from me. I get the strong impression he wants to keep comparisons between the upcoming Mad Max game and the recent film Fury Road to a minimum, but I'm not particularly keen to comply. Questions on their similarities come thick and fast; will Furiosa make an appearance? ("You know, we just never even went there with George.") The game's main villain looks a bit like the film's Rictus Erectus, doesn't he? ("They might share some DNA...") With hype for the film at fever pitch at the time of our interview, and a recent viewing still very fresh in my mind, I can't help but wonder where and how the game and the film reboot-slash-remake might overlap. Just a few minutes before sitting down for an interview with Peter Wyse, Warner Bros' senior vice president of production and development, I get a good 20 minutes of hands-on time with the game, where I'm free to roam the Wasteland as I please. In fairness to Wyse, I do get a sense that the two properties are cut from different cloths.
Both have been in development for a long time - Miller had been trying to get Fury Road off the ground since 1998, and Warner's been plugging away at a game for a fair while too. "It's been about 4 years at this point," says Wyse. "But that's from the time that we started working with George Miller, waiting for the team; the game that we're playing right now, it's probably like three years plus." Wyse is enthusiastic about Mad Max creator and director George Miller's contribution to the game's mythology, of course. "Oh, he's so much fun to work with. You just sit down with him, his mind goes in like 400 different ways, and he's been living with this universe since, you know, the mid-70s probably, when he started thinking about it. It's just a real pleasure; you mine whatever you can out of his mind. He was great about setting up the rules of the universe, and we just absorbed as much as we could and then went off and made the game."
That's another thing Wyse is anxious to impart; while Miller had sizeable input early on in the game's development, mostly during pre-production, at a certain point the title was given over to Avalanche Studios and the team were allowed to run with it. Which is, I can imagine, for the best; Miller is a cinematic powerhouse, but he's no game developer. While respecting his input, Warner were keen to turn it over to Avalanche, to "let them do what they're great at, which is build a chaotic world, and just have at it."
That said, the two properties do share a few traits. The central location of Gastown is one such similarity, for starters; its belching great smokestacks are visible in the film. The central antagonists strongly resemble the War Boys from the film too, as does the mismatched, scrap metal aesthetic of a lot of the vehicles. Even the colourful vistas are more evocative of the vividly realised Fury Road than the muted backdrops of the original trilogy.
I begin my hands-on of Mad Max in the driver's seat of the car around which the game's story revolves. At the outset, Max is trying to outrun the voices in his mind as per usual. "He's trying to get to this place he calls the Planes of Silence. Where it is, if it exists, we don't know," Wyse explains. Is it like the Green Place mentioned in Fury Road, I ask? "You know, it's - it might be," he replies. "Part of it is in Max's mind only. But then on his way... the last thing he needs is gas. So he's going to try to cruise by Gastown, pick up some gas and then be on his way. That's when his car gets stolen from him and he loses everything - again - and that's when he finds Chum."
Chum, or Chumbucket to use his full and proper name, is Max's constant companion in the game. Together, he and Max want to create their Magnum Opus, the ultimate car. They team up primarily out of convenience - Chum needs a driver, Max needs a car - but it's clear that neither forget the golden rule of the Wasteland; no-one trusts anyone. To get the parts they need to create their Frankenstein's vehicle, they need to work with a variety of characters out on the Wasteland, doing favours in return for rewards and reducing the influence of the area's premier warlord, Scabrous Scrotus. The strongholds of these characters, which are mostly neutral to Max's presence, have been pushed back by Scrotus but try to carve out an existence regardless. By doing favours and sidequests, and reducing Scrotus' threat throughout the Wasteland, you can help these strongholds gain power and thus are rewarded with certain perks. "One specialises in weapons; one is specialised in tires and armour, so depending on how you want to build out your car, you can spend more time with one or the other," Wyse explains.
And so, I'm behind the wheel of the Opus at the bottom of a dusty hill downwind of a small makeshift camp. It's all corrugated iron and rusted cargo containers, and just a handful of bandits surround a central bonfire. Confident I can take them, I get out of the car and approach the mob, readying for a fight. They immediately surround me and the fisticuffs will be immediately familiar to anyone who's played a contemporary brawler, leaning heavily on the hand-to-hand combat seen in Warners' other licensed tie-ins, Shadow of Mordor and the Arkham series. Unlike Batman however, Max can pull out a shotgun to even the odds, provided he's afforded enough breathing room. Once they're subdued, I rifle through their belongings to see what I can take - all's fair in love and war on the Wasteland.
There's scrap metal that I can use for upgrades, either for Max himself or for the Magnum Opus, there's a tank of gas that I throw into the back of the car for later, and there's a spot where I can fill up my flask of water. I can take swigs of this whilst on foot to replenish Max's health, though there is a sense it should be rationed accordingly. I've mostly stripped the camp of valuables, and getting to the last batch of goodies, locked up inside one of the surrounding shipping containers, requires a little more firepower. Getting back into the car, I cycle through a few of the mounted weapons available at present - a flamethrower, a shotgun - before selecting the harpoon. Whilst I reverse out for a better view, my partner Chumbucket takes aim at the side of the shipping container and lets loose a bolt - it crunches into the thin metal and I begin to reverse the car, eventually pulling off the entire side of the crate and allowing me to pilfer the stash within. After that, I drive off without nary a backwards glance.
Checking the map for where to go next, there are plenty of icons that signal tasks which will weaken Scrotus' grip on the area. Disrupting a convoy was a highlight of what was shown, and the best example of Mad Max's central car combat. At the head of a convoy, whose route is marked out on the map in red, you have a War Rig-style heavy vehicle, with every other car in its dusty wake acting as its protection and muscle. You can use the car's harpoon and other long-range weapons to weaken enemy defences, you can use a quick boost of nitro to ram into them from behind, or you can speed up alongside to bash into them from either side.
All this can be done without ever slowing down, and it comes pretty close to capturing the energy and pace of Fury Road, especially when a car explodes in front of you and all that's left is a single flaming tire wobbling sadly in its wake. But of course, if there was ever a studio to entrust with making pyromania the singular reason for playing a game, it would be Avalanche. Fury Road might have found a fierce kind of beauty in the fire and flames of carefully choreographed chase sequences, but Avalanche revels in the almighty chaos of an unscripted explosion. Once the last car has been destroyed, I wheel around and pick through the wreckage for my prize - a doll's head hood ornament which I of course immediately affix to my own vehicle. Each boss will have something similar that you can take for yourself, and each will confer different boosts to your Opus.
Next, I drive to a lookout point where a kind of glorified weather balloon takes me up to a greater height so that I can look through a telescope at the wider area. Granted a 360 degree view, once I spy a white dot on through the viewfinder, details on that location will be unlocked on Max's map. Essentially, it's a slightly more involved version of the ubiquitous Radio Tower unlocks in other games. Through this, I spot a fortress that I decide to explore, so down I climb to rejoin Chum at the car.
Approaching that fortress from the road, I discover its only entrance is over a chain-rope bridge protected by a flame thrower on the opposite bank. So, following the fuel line along, I spy the gas tank powering it, and clamber into the back of the car to pull out a high-power sniper rifle. From here, I can take out the tank, destroying their outer defences in another explosion - everything's flammable in Gastown territory, naturally. Hopping out of the car, I leave Chum in charge of repairs (he automatically moves to fix the Magnum Opus every time you exit it) and proceed on foot - the bridge is far too narrow to drive over. Within the rock formation is a labyrinthine network of tunnels and zip lines. Plenty of enemies launch themselves at me on sight, whilst others are hoisted up on winches where they can beat on drums to signal to other War Boys that I'm in the area.
Though most of the areas and camps I've visited so far are rather barren - understandable given their location in the Wasteland - Wyse tells me there's plenty of variation the more you explore. "Some of them are transfer camps where they just store gas, some of them are pumping camps where they're pumping oil crude from the ground," he says. "They become very atmospheric - some of them are creepy, some of them are set on cliffs, some of them are set in the bowels of old ships - so it really became a way for us to break up the environment, break up the driving." There's a stronghold that features a lighthouse and a drawbridge too, Wyse tells me. Which is perfectly fitting for a world that has a flame-throwing guitar hero (the unofficial star of Fury Road, Furiosa notwithstanding) accompanying its biggest convoys, just because.
Wyse assures me that although the game was developed alongside the film, the central thread of its narrative has remained consistent from the start. "That was the one through-line that we locked in with George Miller early on, and we really stuck to it. We built this open world that really breathes around the spine of that story. We've built other pieces; we want to expand your role with some of the stronghold leaders that you'll meet and the alliances that you'll strike with them, but the spine has actually remained very consistent." Unfortunately, that spine at present doesn't seem to include any of the film's notable female characters, with the central relationship of the game focusing on Max (whose beard, by the way, you can "grow out if you want to") and Chum. That's not to say the game won't feature any Furiosa-lite side characters, but in my playthrough at least, I didn't meet any.
In truth, if it doesn't, I won't be entirely surprised. Fury Road stands light years ahead of other films in terms of its portrayal of female characters; it seems almost unreasonable to expect the same of the Mad Max game. In fact, if you ask most critics and cinema-goers, Fury Road is light years ahead of other contemporary action films in almost every way. Perhaps this is why Wyse seems reluctant to draw comparisons that the game will invariably struggle to live up to. But, isn't the team sad to be missing out on the massive hype for Fury Road, launching, as it is, few months after the film has left the box office? "In a way though, I think this film is just going to reset the mythology, so I'm happy that the film can come out and I don't have to come up with, you know, why our cars look the way they do and what these enemies are, so either way it's fine," Wyse says. "We built a game that I hope gamers love, and a game that makes sense in and of itself." Fair enough.
This article was based on a press trip to Los Angeles. Warner Bros paid for travel and accommodation.