If Avalanche Studios is feeling pressure to deliver a Mad Max masterpiece following the awesomeness that is Fury Road, it isn’t showing it. That’s probably partly due to its developers’ Scandinavian stoicism, but also because the Just Cause studio’s take on the titular crazy icon is very much its own. Mad Max creator George Miller did have a hand in early on, but the strokes he painted were broad.

“[It was] more for us learning about the Mad Max universe and understanding the philosophy behind the look and feel rather than specific designs,” says art director Martin Bergquist. “So we understood lot of how things were built up and why vehicles were constructed in certain ways. But from that point, we took that knowledge and created our own Mad Max… our own beast.”

That beast is built around car combat in a dusty and deadly post-apocalyptic world where the vehicle is saviour, status symbol, and religious icon. As Bergquist intones: “Without a vehicle you are nothing.”

The plot is straightforward: driven borderline insane fighting for his life in the wasteland, Max yearns for solitude – time away from the wretched scum humanity has become. However, as he scouts for fuel to power his iconic Interceptor past the horizon, he is set upon once more and loses everything to a gang headed up by a gentleman named Scrotus. So begins his quest to regain his ride, punch some Scrote, and peace the hell out of dodge.

“The loop of the game is Max is mad, through contact with other people he gets saner – the ghosts in his head disperse a bit – but then everything is chaotic and madness again,” smiles designer Magnus Nodfors (pronounced “Nordforce”, giving him possibly the most badass name in the world).

Max does at least have some allies. A dog is an early companion although Avalanche is remaining tight-lipped over its involvement in gameplay, and then there’s Chumbucket. A ‘blackfinger’ mechanic renown throughout the wasteland, Chum seeks only to create the perfect vehicle, the Magnum Opus. “Chumbucket sees cars as a religion,” says Nodfors. “He creates magnificent things, sees the driving skills of Max, and sees him as a religious figure. They have a strong relationship throughout the game.”

Hands-on with open world car brawler Mad Max
"We took that knowledge and created our own Mad Max… our own beast."

The pairing has gameplay implications, as you can send the deformed Chumbucket out onto the bonnet of the Opus to perform fixes on-the-fly as it rockets across the desert. He’s like a spider tending to a web in a wind tunnel, and even finds time to shout encouragement or advice at Max. We find out early he’s no fan of leaving potential scrap metal (i.e. enemies) unlooted.

Even in its formative stages, the Magnum Opus is a devilishly fun to drive. It tosses dirt every time you step on the gas, and isn’t so easy to control that catching enemy vehicles – which have names like Bantam hauler and Rammerhead – becomes a complete formality.

We could attack said enemies from the Opus with Max’s shotgun, or use vehicle-mounted sideburners and a rocket launcher called the Thunderpoon. There’s also the harpoon, which disables cars by pulling wheels off or drivers out, and it’s also handy for ripping off armour and doors, or even pulling out engines. I don’t think I need to tell you all that’s it’s both hilarious and glorious to use. Aiming any of the above while driving slows time so precision shots at high speed are a regular occurrence.

Hands-on with open world car brawler Mad Max

Should you run out of ammo and somehow tire of using the harpoon, ramming is always an option. Using scrap from vanquished enemies, many parts of the Opus can be upgraded including its armour, engine, suspension, hood ornament, and so forth, but so can also its border spikes.

A flick of a stick and the press of a button shunts the car sideways into nearby vehicles, and a regenerating turbo greatly multiplies the damage of any ramming done from the front. Rinse and repeat until the shrieking of metal has subsided, the collect the still-smoking rewards. Upgrades are carried out back at Max’s base, and affect eight car stats including handling and repair speed. A surprisingly wide variety of builds appear to be available.

Max himself also levels up and can unlock moves for the game’s Batman Arkham-style combat (which we don’t see enough of to judge, but it seems to be decent enough). On foot Max has access to binoculars, and can salvage items like fuel cans and lug them to the boot of the Opus.

We were only allowed a look at side activities in our time with the game, and these mainly involved smashing through camps, trashing awesomely-designed enemy cars, doing sweet jumps, and taking out sniper towers by driving through their supports. However, there was a convoy to destroy as well – an activity “inspired by the mighty car chase scenes [of the films]” according to Nodfors.

Hands-on with open world car brawler Mad Max

You travel faster and easier on tracks carved into the desert, so it’s just a matter of looking for the convoy’s dust trail and hunting it from there. We didn’t see a Doof Warrior though, sadly.

The world of Avalanche's Mad Max is broken up into several regions, each with its own backstory, landmarks, and flavour. We cruised around Gut Gash, the Grit Canyons, and the Chalkies searching for scrap and a scrap, but there was plenty we didn’t see.

"At the start it seems empty but then details unfold.”

According to Bergquist, creating an interesting wasteland was initially limiting, but after doing some research, the art team was inspired. “Once we started digging into it, we realised there was a lot of variations within desert,” he says. “There’s sand dunes, rock canyons, and everything. We also looked at how as the apocalypse affected the earth. What happens when you take away all the water? We have a lot of variation.”

However, the aim was always to keep a minimalist aesthetic. “The Mad Max universe is in a lot of way minimalistic,” Bergquist adds. “You have Mad Max and this empty world. That’s what we tried to do as well. At the start it seems empty but then details unfold.”

When Red Dead Redemption is mentioned Nodfors says was a huge influence on the game. “I hope one thing we can bring to the player is the calmness of the wasteland,” he says. “I still sometimes find myself driving around the wasteland slow, getting out of the car… Max can’t sit down but I wish he could… Taking in the environment, finding solitude in this world and exploring it at a slow pace. I like the contrast between the high tempo moments and the low paced moments.”

Matt traveled to LA to see Mad Max courtesy of Warner Bros.