Mad Max: Fury Road is, as many people have noted, a dumb movie. What sets it apart from Hollywood's standard summer glurge of slick explosions, however, is that it's very smart about being dumb.
Much has been made of Fury Road's comparatively sparing use of CG effects, relying more on digital compositing of real-world objects than on artificially constructed people and vehicles. Compared to something like Age of Ultron, where the various Avengers (sometimes real, sometimes CG) take on an army of copy-pasted robots (always CG), Fury Road has heft. The action scenes benefit from the weight of reality: Everything moves the way your brain knows it should, and the result is a far more convincing action film.
But perhaps even more than that, Fury Road creates over-the-top spectacle while demonstrating a certain amount of restraint. While the fleet of diesel-belching armored vehicles that fills the screen for so much of the movie's running time may be enormous, director George Miller knows that the grand scale works best for context and that true conflict works better at an intimate scale. He stages action scenes as a series of discrete events in clearly defined spaces, with the threat and stakes clearly defined and never superfluous.
And there's a sense of economy to Fury Road's action, making every conflict count. After Hawkeye has loosed yet another exploding arrow from his bottomless quiver at yet another Ultron minion, the conflict loses something of its sense of danger. When another silver-mouthed shirtless freak besets Max only to be punched to the desert floor, however, it remains as tense as the first time because you know the footsoldiers are really just there as a distraction for the convoy's real plans. The cannon fodder grunts may not be much match for Max's berserker fury, but he's being outmaneuvered all the same.
In short, Fury Road may not exactly be an intellectual exercise, but its disciplined and thoughtful approach makes for a much more cohesive action movie than anything I've seen in probably a decade.
It would be nice if WBIE's video game sequel to the film (Savage Road for PC, PS4, and Xbox One) could hit those same heights. I don't think it will, though. A lot of Fury Road's more remarkable themes and elements — especially the underlying message of women rising up to assert control in a world ruined by men — seem completely absent in this Avalanche-developed adventure. Nevertheless, after spending about half an hour with an early build of the game, I do think it has the potential to subvert certain shortcuts and clichés common to its own medium. It may not rise above them, but it could at least own them — and that prospect alone makes it one of the more intriguing games slated for this fall.
If you've played any of WBIE's recent action games — the Batman Arkham titles or Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor — you already have a pretty good sense of what Savage Road is about. WBIE seems set on adopting the Ubisoft model of finding a successful game model and duplicating it across a wide array of titles. Where Ubi has managed to cram elements of Assassin's Creed into nearly its entire catalog, WBIE is building off the Arkham design. Lots of reactive borderline-QTE combat, open-world design, missions of varying types sprinkled about the environment.
Mad Max plays the model straight; if you've played any open-world action game in the past few years, you know exactly what to expect here. But Savage Road plays the clichés so straight that it actually wraps around the other side and seems... well, maybe not clever, but at least justified.
Open game worlds usually turn out to be big empty expanses that offer you nothing to do but advance toward a map icon, and that describes Savage Road perfectly... but of course it's a big empty expanse. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The buildings and crowds of Assassin's Creed and Arkham City ultimately amount to copy-pasted filler detail; in Max's world, all of those things are long gone, so the game world seems more honest about its ultimate emptiness.
And yes, the wastes are filled with little knots of hostile people who leap into combat mode the instant Max comes into range. But that, too, is more than justified by the setting, since that's how the world works in the movies too. You can fight marauders on foot, which boils down to a slower, clumsier version of Batman's fighting mechanics; the roughness of the brawling isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, since fights involve far fewer opponents than the endless throngs of thugs in the Arkham games. And anyway, fighting on foot kind of misses the point of it all.
Savage Road is really a driving and vehicular combat game, and Max's ride — an armored muscle called the Magnum Opus — really is the star of the show. It seems (spoilers!) Max never managed to recover the crumpled husk of his V8 Interceptor after Fury Road's climactic sequence, so instead much of Savage Road revolves around constructing a replacement, decked out with all manner of weapons and tools. You can make modifications more or less on the fly thanks to Max's companion for the game, a gimpy little sycophant who doubles as a mechanic and a combat gunner. Their relationship seems to be a matter of mutualism for survival; Max can't tune vehicles himself, and your hanger-on (charmingly nicknamed Chumbucket) would last for about two minutes on his own in the wastes.
Occasionally Savage Road forces you to get about on foot in order to complete missions, and no one I spoke with has had anything good to say about those sequences; controls are sluggish, and the camera doesn't play well in constricted spaces. When you're in the Magnum Opus, however, the game really opens up in terms of options and appeal. The demo I played equipped the car with a harpoon cable, which proved to be an absolute delight to use. You (or rather, Chumbucket) can target individual components of enemy vehicles, ripping armor loose or simply tearing the tires off an opposing car. Scarcity is a very real concept in Savage Road, and shutting down pursuit seems likely to be a better option in most cases than taking the time to go toe-to-toe with every single mob you cross paths with.
Which brings us to the way Savage Road embraces a third open-world cliche. Yes, you're always foraging and looting, and yes, that process involves holding down a button while an icon fills. But where it feels like meaningless drudgery in a game like Assassin's Creed, here it has more weight. Max always has to be on the lookout for components with which to improve his car — and, more importantly, for food and precious water. Water equals life in the wastes, and Max's canteen is a sort of permanent healing item... provided, of course, you can find water with which to fill it. But healing is not as simple as tapping a button and taking a swig; Max regains stamina as he drinks from the canteen, a process that can take a good 10 seconds. During that time, you more or less stand defenseless, meaning there are tactical considerations to healing. The time you spend exposed while healing and while foraging for goods is time marauders can line you up in their sights — especially if you take the conservative approach and disable enemy vehicles rather than spending precious ammo on destroying them.
Of course, an on-foot enemy is no match for Max's harpoon, or simply the front grille of the Magnum Opus. But weighing difficult choices comes to the fore when you're forced to take on an entire enemy convoy. Magnum Opus is tough and well-armed, but it's hardly indestructible. While such enemy formations are rich with potential loot for Max's mission, the collateral damage you suffer can potentially balance out any gains you make with your aggression. Likewise, Max can climb onto the back of the Magnum Opus to take out distant sniper towers (which ruthlessly and accurately defend key fortresses and encampments) with his own rifle, but actual ammunition is perhaps the scarcest resource of all in the desert — even more precious than water, given how much combat you'll get into versus the frequency with which you'll scavenge extra bullets.
Which isn't to say Savage Road doesn't try to make gunplay interesting; like all of Max's tools and weapons, rifles and shotguns factor into the vehicular action and can combine with other offensive options for devastating combos. For instance, you can harpoon another vehicle, smash into the captive enemy, then fire off a shotgun blast at point-blank range to devastating effect. But I quickly learned in the course of the demo that you have to factor those options against the question of whether or not it's worth burning through ammo when you may not be able to restock anytime soon.
I see a great deal of potential in Mad Max: Savage Road. If WBIE really and truly commits to the setting and all the risks that entails — if they allow genuine scarcity to become a major design factor rather than paying lip service to the idea while helpfully doling out sufficient resources anyway — this could turn out to be a legitimately interesting take on the copy-paste open-world format. What if they made an open-world mission-based game where you couldn't realistically complete every objective? What if there simply weren't enough gasoline to allow the Magnum Opus to roam the trackless wastes at your leisure? Sandbox action games get their name because they allow players to fool around without a compelling need to commit to any particular course of action. How ironic would it be if this, the sandiest of sandbox games, forced players to play smarter and more deliberately? While Savage Road could certainly turn out to be yet another padded, toilsome, aimless open-world game, the potential I see in it for taking control of the format's unfortunate tendencies means it's one I'll be watching closely and with great interest.