Review by Doug Waters
Edited by Sam Hughes
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Published by: Warner Bros.
Composer: Mats Lundgren (of Pole Position Production)
Sound Design: Various inc. teams Avalanche Studios & Pole Position Production & Additional
Reveiwed on: PS4
Released just over 4 months after the film Mad Max: Fury Road comes Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max, an open world adventure game following the story of Max Rockatansky as he continues to cross the dystopian wastelands. The game has a heavy emphasis on driving and vehicular combat, as fans of the series will be glad to hear!
Historically Max is a fairly silent and brooding character. In the first film (Mad Max, 1979) he rarely speaks to any great extent. These are traits that have defined our wastelander protagonist; however, Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max seems to depart from this slightly, making our leading gent more vocal than some might expect. Having watched Fury Road recently, I can safely say this is not the Max you’ll know from that film.
Exactly why the change to make Max more vocal, I can’t be sure, but given how much dialogue there is in cut scenes, I’d say it’s to make the narrative easier to convey. However, at times it’s also used to serve as feedback to the player to let them know they’ve completed a task or are performing a certain action. Although I can see why it’s been done, they’re actions that the film’s Max would’ve vocalized with a simple grunt, or even not at all.
This isn’t to say Bren Foster hasn’t done an amazing job of voicing Max in the game though! He sounds gritty and rough, matching exactly the character’s appearance and demeanour, and I’m sure many fans of the films will be pleased to learn that this Max does indeed have an Australian accent!
Overall I found the amount of dialogue to be a little overdone, not just with Max but also with his fanatical mechanic companion, Chumbucket (voiced by Jason Spisak), who is obsessed with making your car the greatest in the wasteland, lovingly referring to it as ‘The Magnus Opus’.
Aside from in cut scenes, Chumbucket’s dialogue is used to point out specific events and locations in the wasteland as you drive. After a while this gets incredibly repetitive and annoying, often I would have spotted the location before Chumbucket decides to point it out to me!
I’m unsure whether many fellow players have experienced this, but there were moments during gameplay that Max’s dialogue wasn’t triggered at all, even though the player character’s lips were still moving.
I didn’t experience a great deal of recognisable music in Mad Max, which lent itself towards the post-apocalyptic wasteland setting and reminded me of how I felt traversing Fallout 3’s and Fallout: New Vegas’ quiet landscape. It leaves the wasteland feeling dead and empty, but also makes the moments where there is music more poignant. At times, if there are no other noises in the surrounding area you can sometimes hear some subtle ambient tones, ensuring that the wasteland is never completely silent.
Metallic hits, drum rhythms and distortion populate the soundtrack of Max’s fist fights and high octane car chases where the music is most noticeable. In these moments the music and the sound design seem to weave in and out of each other as you slam your vehicle into enemy cars and trucks; indeed, you’d be forgiven for not noticing there was music during chases at all, it took me a few times and watching my playthroughs back to realise!
During hand to hand combat the music perfectly supports the on screen action, here the metallic hits and distorted instruments are joined by rising brass and strings. A nice touch in these sequences was when scoring a high enough hit streak, Max enters a ‘fury’ mode, during which the music is toned down in volume and intensity and the sound of punch impacts is made louder and more visceral.
At no time does the music become annoying or stand out too much to become repetitive. It may not have been on anyone’s list for top soundtrack of 2015, but for supporting a player’s actions to the point that it’s not immediately recognisable, I played no other game in 2015 that did this better! The game’s lack of music can make you feel more alone and yet when it’s there it acts as a true driving force for the action, almost representative of Max showing his true and gritty nature as combat ensues.
However, it’s the sound design of the wasteland that seems to take centre stage and is where Mad Max truly excels. Many that are familiar with the series as a whole will know that the setting is dominated by vehicles in fact a large part of this game is based around customising your own car, the Magnum Opus.
Lots of vehicles and vehicle engines were recorded for the game, including 70’s muscle cars and sounds of an old 4×4 V8, which were actually used for the sounds of ‘dying’ vehicles. Typically, in older games vehicles engine sounds would be loops, however this was something the team at Avalanche Studios wanted to move away from. Using the recorded sounds, the team was able to successfully implement REV, a granular tool by Crankcase Audio, which allows for creating more realistic reactive engine sounds. From a single audio file of an engine, REV is able to simulate acceleration and even deceleration on the fly in sync with the game! Of course things can get a lot more complicated if you want to add engine ‘splutters’ for example.
For those interested in more about the car sounds of Mad Max I highly recommend you go have a read of the ‘behind the scenes’ feature on the A Sound Effect website (http://www.asoundeffect.com/game-audio-vehicle-sounds-mad-max/) and check out the ‘Introduction to REV’ on Crankcase Audio’s site (http://crankcaseaudio.com/?p=6).
Like many other games on the PlayStation 4 (including Batman: Arkham Knight and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor) Mad Max makes use of the DualShock 4 controller speaker. The speaker itself seems to produce a very tinny sound, very harsh in the high ends and almost nothing in the lows. Having played both Arkham Knight and Shadow of Mordor, I found that having sounds coming from the controller to be an interesting design choice despite the lack in quality. For instance, in Arkham Knight the controller plays sounds of enemies talking around the city, making the controller itself seem like one of Batman’s many gadgets. This wasn’t something that felt incredibly necessary, but was nonetheless an interesting and engaging extension of the game.
However, with Mad Max, this use of the controller speaker seemed to break my sense of engagement and presence, sometimes referred to as ‘immersion’, within the game world. In her book ‘A Composer’s Guide to Game Music’, Winifred Phillips states that this sense of engagement and presence happens when as a player you “lose consciousness of the methods of perception and interaction in the game”. Meaning that whilst playing you may reach a state in which you’re not necessarily aware you’re looking at a screen or even holding a controller anymore. As Winifred describes it, “The gamer has stepped through Alice’s looking glass, and is now wandering free through Wonderland.”
Yet, by having sounds coming through a controller the player can again become aware they’re holding said controller, thus potentially breaking this sense of immersion, even if only momentarily. It’s like sitting in a cinema, and part of the way through the film someone emits a single cough or a sound comes from a speaker that hasn’t been used at all for the film so far; you may or may not pull your eyes away from the screen, but you’re acutely aware of the sound and it’s source, with it briefly becoming your centre of focus.
The reason I think this worked for Arkham Knight is because the sounds were designed in such a way to match the achievable quality provided by the Dualshock’s speaker, namely radio chatter requiring no high or low end. However, for Mad Max, the sounds being played were, among other things, the reloading of Chumbucket’s harpoon gun and when entering and leaving the aforementioned ‘fury’ mode in combat. In both these instances the resulting sound was incredibly harsh and tinny. When hearing them both for the first time I must admit, I jumped a little, if only because it felt so at odds with what I felt those things should sound like! But whereas with Arkham Knight I’ve been able to get used to the sounds, for Mad Max I’ve instead had to resort to just turning off the sounds played through the controller.
Aside from this very small discrepancy, the sounds of Mad Max are incredible! The explosions are gripping, the punches are impactful and visceral, and the cars! Well… you haven’t heard better!
If you’re a fan of the Mad Max series, there’s much in this game you’ll love, the gripping car chases most of all! Just don’t expect it to be the same Max presented in Fury Road. It’s a game that I surprised even myself with the number of hours I put into it, who’d have thought how addictive it could get; driving around the wasteland and partaking in epic clashes upon dusty highways?! However, I’m not sure how much of a life Mad Max will have after you’ve completed all the chases.
Were there any audio moments during Mad Max that you particularly enjoyed? What’re your thoughts on games using controller speakers and the sounds they’re playing? We’d love to hear your feedback and opinions!
The Sound Architect