Mad Max: an open world destruction derby of pain – interview

By Dave Cook, Monday, 2 September 2013 09:11 GMT

Mad Max developer Avalanche Studios is trying to raise its own open world bar going into next-gen. VG247’s Dave Cook checks out some PS4 gameplay and chats with the team to find out how.

Mad Max

Developed by Avalanche Studios, Mad Max is coming to PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.

The game’s debut trailer dropped in July. You can check it out here.

Folk on the internet went a bit nuts when it turned out Max had an American voice. Luckily, he’s now voiced by an Australian in keeping with the movies.

Avalanche has release a motion comic that lays down the back-story of the game. You can watch it in full here.

Open world settings are kind of like a big bucket of Lego bricks. You can make almost anything out of that pile of plastic components, just like you can do whatever you want in a setting like San Andreas or Steelport. Do you want to follow the plot rigidly or just use the game’s tools to raise some hell? Will you be the hero or a villain? The choice is entirely yours. It is what you want it to be.

The freedom to express is what keeps many of us coming back to these play-spaces and this is something Avalanche Studios understands full well. Just Cause 2 was a masterclass in giving the player the right amount of gadgets and abilities to create insane stunts and emergent gameplay, so it’s interesting to see how the Stockholm team is using next-gen tech to raise its own standards in the genre.

The desert wastes of Mad Max may not give players the chance to hijack planes at 10,000 feet or to scale vast structures with a parachute, but rest assured the game’s emphasis on car combat and physics will give rise to some insane moments indeed. I was lucky enough to see the game running on PS4 last week and I sat down for a chat with lead level designer Andreas Gschwari to ask some burning questions about Avalanche’s post-apocalyptic playground.

I asked Gschwari for his thoughts on how advances in tech have caused Avalanche to broaden its approach to world-building. “Well, we’re still kind of feeling our way,” he replied. “For us, next-gen – particularly for our engine team – feels a little bit like Christmas. We get a brand new set of tools to play with, so for us we’re still kind of feeling our way around it. What can we do?

“The core being for us – because we’re delivering on all platforms including current-gen – is gameplay. We want to make sure that regardless of what console you play on, what platform you play it on, you always get that same awesome Avalanche-style gameplay experience. That really is console or platform independent in that sense.

“So what we’re currently working with, what you’ve seen in the build today is we’re adding a lot more particle bits, a lot more audio volume and what’s great in open world games is the view distance is a lot further so you can see further without stuff popping in, you can load a lot more assets at the same time. So we’re playing around with the memory in that sense basically.”

He’s being modest seriously, because the PS4 build really does look great. But before I delve into the next-gen goodness, here’s some background on what exactly has got Max so mad in the first place.

Max is pissed off after having his car nicked and being left for dead at the hands of raiders. Eager for revenge, the road warrior teams up with his trusted mechanic Chumbucket to scour the wasteland in search of car parts for his new ride, the Magnum Opus. It’s a selfish quest that is sure to get a lot of people killed but hell, who’s going to argue with that beard? He also had a mean Australian accent in the build we saw.

In the mission we were shown, players will have to drive to a raider compound to hijack a V8 engine and the first thing I noticed was how open the world was. Consider games like Far Cry 3, which are plastered with dense forests begging to be explored. With Mad Max the world is so barren you can see for miles in any direction, giving you a clear view of hotspots or mysterious landmarks on the horizon. Stylistically, it’s quite removed from the world of Just Cause 2.

Now, I did wonder just how interesting such a desolate open world could be, but as it happens Avalanche has taken a ‘Red Dead’ approach to the wilderness. If you drive across an open stretch of desert that looks devoid of life or things to do, I guarantee that it won’t take long for a group of lurking raider trucks to spring from a sand dune without warning and engage you in battle. These spawning threats will keep you on your toes at all time.

Gschwari said of these battles, “We’ve actually got three or four occasions in our demo where you see that. One of them is that some of the bandits in the wasteland use actual sand traps, so they bury big boxes in the sand and hide cars in there. They’ve got sniper lookouts on the mountainsides and I don’t know if you noticed but while we were driving we were being shot at by a sniper. They’re coordinating their attacks together and you’ve got these cars jumping out of traps, which is awesome.

“In the second part of the demo you also see a convoy, and that’s also a naturally-occurring thing. We do actually use these moments to fill the gaps between encampments because we have to be true to the environment and the IP. It has to be a wasteland. There isn’t life everywhere, but at the same time we want to make sure we provide a good gameplay density and a lot of fun for the player to explore the world as well.”

While engaging these threats on the road, you can have Chumbucket take the wheel while Max unleashes gunfire from his car’s back compartment, complete with a slow-down effect to help you shoot out bandit tires or gas tanks with expert precision. The physics are pretty impressive, sending exploding trucks spiralling through the pure blue sky in hailstorm of shrapnel and fire. Make no mistake, this game is a visual treat.

Once Max and Chumbucket make it to the raider compound, the Avalanche devs explained that you can choose to infiltrate it however you wish. One approach saw Max driving his car stealthily along a ridge to hide from a sniper. He then hopped into the back cab, unfolded his longshot rifle and gunned the sod down from far away enough that no one could hear.

Next, he slowly rolled his car under an outpost tower where another guard stood watch above. The dev then fired a harpoon from Max’s car into the base strut and reversed, pulling the whole thing down with convincing destruction effects, crushing the enemy under heaps of scrap. There was no avoiding conflict now, so Max ordered Chumbucket to take the Magnum Opus back to their garage while he advanced on foot.

Max was still in stealth as he snaked his way into the compound, killing guards from behind before engaging a pack of them in hand-to-hand combat. Bullets are scarce in this world, so improvising with the tools you have and being smart in your approach is key. Players can block, parry and counter incoming blows, plant grenades on unsuspecting fools and execute them with Max’s iconic shotgun from a headlock stance. It’s violent, brutal and deliciously in-tune with the movie vibe.

With the V8 car secure, Max then drove it back to his garage while trying to give his pursuers the slip. It was madness, but he made it safely in the end. Salvaged cars and materials looted in the world can be taken to one of the game’s many sanctuaries to be broken down into scrap, and each of these safe-zones is governed by a leader who is proficient in a different area of car mechanics. In this instance, Max took the car back to Jeet, who is a dab-hand at forging ramming grills.

The Avalanche devs equipped one of Jeet’s specialised ramming grills on the Magnum Opus and rolled around the wasteland tearing through raider cars by slamming into them with force. You can customise Max’s ride to an insane degree, with various paint decals, suspension types, tire grades, nitrous engines, and much more. It’s worth noting that each component also impacts your car’s physics in a convincing manner.

While Gschwari agreed that Max’s quest for revenge is initially selfish, he said there are other plot points yet to be revealed, and that helping others in the wastes will pay off. Thinning out nearby enemy forts and convoys will cause friendly stongholds to thrive, which in turn opens up new quests with extra rewards for Max to earn.

I was impressed by the carnage and gritty tone in Avalanche’s new sandbox. It’s at once bleak and beautiful to behold, while brimming with emergent gameplay potential. While we only got a glimpse of what Max is capable of, I had to ask Gschwari straight-up if the lack of planes and choppers, along with the reduced verticality of the game when stacked against Just Cause 2 is going to impact on its fun factor.

“We never really considered the loss of verticality an issue,” he replied. “In Just Cause the verticality is awesome because you get a great view, but the verticality really stems from a gameplay mechanic. That mechanic was the grappling hook and parachute. So in our case we might have lost verticality, but what we really had to consider was we actually lost a gameplay mechanic to which verticality was an added bonus.

“So what we did was we had to come up with a new gameplay mechanic and that mechanic is the upgrades for the car, because different upgrades for the car give the player the same freedom in a different way, but still the freedom to approach the game in their own style. Essentially all we do is we build a big toolbox so you can have fun. That’s what we want to do basically.”

I asked if the team at Avalanche had built any of these tools with Twitch, PS4’s share button and Xbox One DVR in mind, and if the team will be watching the community post-launch to see what emergent gameplay players create. “The biggest compliment we can get is when we go to YouTube and we enter a search of one of our titles to find literally millions of videos from people playing the game [in a way] we had never thought about.

“You see them tying stuff to other stuff, setting off explosions, massive chain reactions and other stuff. We want people to do exactly the same in Mad Max so that freedom, that personal choice is there. We as developers, after the game ships, just sit there, we watch and we’re like, ‘yep, we’ve done our job.'”

Are you looking forward to tearing Avalanche’s new world apart as Max? Let us know below.

Mad Max hits PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.