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E3: 'Mad Max' game revs up for post-apocalyptic mayhem

Avalanche's 'Mad Max' video game enters a crowded field of similarly set games Sept. 1. How will it stand out?

In the years since "Mad Max" made its cinematic debut in 1979, post-apocalyptic settings have become a pop-cultural norm, especially in games. Deserted landscapes. Broken fences. Crazy inhabitants trying to make sense of a world gone mad. These are staples of George Miller's dystopian franchise, and now just about every zombie game ever created.

For this very reason the game adaptation of "Mad Max" will have plenty of company when it's released Sept. 1 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PCs.

Weeks before the start of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Bethesda unveiled that it was deep into production on "Fallout 4," the latest in a post-apocalyptic series that owes a debt to "Mad Max." Also on the horizon, an action game inspired by "The Walking Dead" from Overkill Software.

"This is the original," said the game's design director, Magnus Nedfors, when asked how "Mad Max" would distinguish itself.

"You are the copycats. That's freeing. Many other games, movies and books and so on go somewhere else. They have been forced to push in different directions in order to stick out from 'Mad Max.' We get the honor to do the original."

While the Warner Bros.-published title, which is being developed by Stockholm-based Avalanche Studios, is heavy on the road rage, the game deviates from this summer's blockbuster reboot of the franchise, "Mad Max: Fury Road." For one, there's no flaming guitar weapon, and the characters and plot here are unique to the interactive universe.

The premise of the game is rather simple. Living in a world in tatters and ruled by gangs, one Max Rockatansky appears on the verge of escaping to a life of peace. Two problems: He's running out of gas, and people are out to kill him.

"He was close to his goal of escaping from everyone when he got assaulted and everything was taken away from him," said Nedfors in describing the game's story. "He's a desperate man. He's in a desperate situation. He needs to do everything one more time."

But if "Mad Max" is light on story, it's heavy on mayhem. The game's vast desert-like landscape is dotted with canyons and foreboding chasms.

There are roads, but the vehicles are built to ignore them. In a scene previewed for the media this spring, players were able to use Max's car as if the customizable hunk of metal was in a wrestling match — its harpoons draw opponents closer so Max and his handcrafted automobile can roll over them as if performing a body slam.

Tires can also be slashed from side attacks, and cars can be outfitted with an assortment of rockets. Any of the game's wild-eyed, squawking enemies will likely be rendered road kill if they find themselves on foot.

The Avalanche team studied old-fashioned fighting games when it came to car combat, wanting the vehicular craziness to have some heft to it.

"We want you to really feel the weight of the car when you do the colliding," Nedfors said. "We don't want it to feel like an empty vessel. That's hard to describe, but your brain has to feel the game through the controller. Physical, fast-paced car action was the core."

Cars are borderline religious deities here. In a game where the hero is a hardened loner who's short on words, the cars must carry a personality — and be more fun to play with than guns.

"We had a scenario in our head where people were lying and dying and they call for medics," said Nedfors. "The medics come, but they don't care about the people. They start to repair the cars instead. That's the universe. People can die, but this, this thing, this has to survive." The vignette never made it into the game, but that same mind-set fuels the post-catastrophe world of "Mad Max."

Cars aren't the only outlandish temperaments in the game, however. Max here has a sidekick, a hunched-over mechanic with snaky skin named Chumbucket. Chumbucket likes to talk. Max does not like Chumbucket, but they become dependent upon each other.

"The story is about Max rebuilding a vessel to escape in," said Nedfors. "Chumbucket is a master mechanic. He's almost famous in the wasteland for being the best mechanic around. He is a bit crazy in his own strange ways. He sees cars in a religious fashion. He sees Max as a religious figure. Max can handle Chumbucket's creations. Max is worthy of using Chumbucket's creations."

It's all in service of creating a certain tone that the player will recognize as Miller's. The game's art director, Martin Bergquist, spoke repeatedly of making sure Avalanche captured "the feel" of "Mad Max."

"When you start and look at the world, it appears empty," Bergquist said. "It appears very harsh. There's no way you can survive here. That's the setup. Then you drive and explore and you actually find there's a lot of things in this world.

"In the beginning," Bergquist continued, "it's intimidating. What can we even do here? Then you start to work with the little details and bring it all together. That's the 'Mad Max' experience."

todd.martens@latimes.com

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