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I'm late to Mad Max, but I like the balloons

Such a gas.

When you play Mad Max, you're not really playing a single video game so much as you're playing a sort of cross-section: a geological sample of where many big-budget video games are at today. You're seeing the things big-budget developers like and you're seeing the things they think we like. Mad Max may seem scrappy, with all that rust and bent metal and all those insane, babbling NPCs, but this is game design as a sort of science - or game flow design as a science, at least. A huge map, constantly prodding you in a direction and then teasing you away again one gimmick at a time, with everything you find adding to a total somewhere, all of it taking you closer to completion.

As such, it's very pleasing to get stuck into. I don't play Assassin's Creed much these days, I am behind on Far Cries and I'm waiting for a large chunk of time in which to give Batman the attention he deserves, so it's nice to catch up with mainstream open-world game design in Mad Max. It's nice to see what a huge chunk of games are up to.

And I'll admit that, if there's one thing that's kept me playing, it's something that I gather almost all open-world games are up to in some shape or form. With Mad Max, I've become obsessed with the balloons.

Remember the towers of Assassin's Creed? Such a lovely idea: a little puzzly scamper, regularly iterated on across the landscape, in order to unlock chunks of the map. It was a thing to tick off that in turn revealed other things to tick off, and it was, above all else, so incredibly nickable. Ubisoft recycled the idea internally - Far Cry had a nice twist on those towers - and then I saw them cropping up in stuff like Shadows of Mordor, too, where they're ghostly things, rising out of the landscape like beams of holy light. Iteration across publishers! In Mad Max, they're hot air balloons that allow you to float gently into the dusty sky and get a sense of the windblown landscape around you. The floating's the easy part, of course; getting to the balloons is the hard part.

Is this 2015's most beautiful gaming wasteland? Hard to be sure, but it's up there.

Not too hard, inevitably. The balloons represent that part of a game where the rituals are fairly clearly defined but the pleasure comes from sleepwalking through them and finding the individual wrinkles that keep things interesting. I've spent the morning unlocking the map in Mad Max one balloon at a time, and each balloon encampment is different and surprisingly memorable. The first one I came across had a base with no door - I had to sneak around the side and squeeze between rocks to get in. Then I came across one where the door was right there, but it needed to be blown to pieces with a gas can.

Since then, the light variations keep coming: sometimes the balloon camp is nestled into its own little canyon, sometimes it's made up of lone spars of rocks. Some of them require that you scamper up and down, taking the most complex route from A to B, kicking ladders into place to open up a neater path for any return. In amidst all these quirks, there are things that stay the same - there's always optional scrap to hunt for, and there's often a dust-up waiting for you at the start or the finish - but by and large the pleasure of the thing is being left alone to explore a very gentle puzzle, to feel the warmth of acquisition and steady completion flowing over you.

And at the end, the balloon ride isn't bad either, opening up a huge panoramic view of the landscape and allowing you to whip out the binoculars and tag a bunch of other distractions that - I'll be honest here - I'm probably not going to actually get to. This is the slightly melancholic twist to the balloons, in fact: I'm more interested in unlocking the map than I am in playing it, and with each balloon camp I complete, I know that there is one less balloon camp out there to delight me in the future.

The last camp I came to had the final piece of scrap I was searching for hidden away on an outcrop of rock - where some strange beast had made a nest around it! Imagine that! Imagine some mutant bird of some kind lugging a car engine home because they liked the way it sparkled. I'm going to miss these balloon camps, and that feels perversely appropriate. In a game about resources that's set across a vast map filled with icons, I've discovered the one thing that I might actually run out of.

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