Max Payne 3 First Impressions

What's new, what's different, and what's gone in the Rockstar-made follow-up to 2003's Max Payne 2.

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Has a game protagonist's new haircut ever drawn so much scorn? Even dark-haired Dante didn't irk folks as much as Max Payne's freshly buzzed scalp in the Max Payne 3 debut trailer. For wary fans, it signified a radical departure from everything they loved about the first two games. More than even the change of location from wintry New York to sunny Sao Paulo and more than the newly gritty look and feel, it stood for Rockstar unforgivably tampering with the formula established by Finnish studio Remedy. But was it fair to take Max's new do and deduce a franchise ruined forever? One hands-off demo from Rockstar later, we can talk about what's new, what's different, and what's gone, besides the hair.

Bullet time has been brought over, so slow-motion shoot dodging is again the action centrepiece. Dual-wielded weapons and painkiller pickups still figure prominently, and the environments are still traditional, linear levels rather than sandbox worlds. New additions include a cover system and staged but interactive cinematic set pieces: moments of compulsory bullet time along the lines of the slow-mo breach and clears in recent Call of Duty games. The visuals benefit from eight years of progress in game-making, specifically from Rockstar's upgraded Rage engine. The series' graphic-novel-style cutscenes are also in there, though they don't much resemble the distinctive style of those in the old games, and James McCaffrey, previously the provider of Max Payne's gravelly voice, now lends his likeness to the character as well.

As we join our hard-boiled hero early in the game, that likeness is much closer to classic Max than baldy Max: he's brooding in his grimy New York apartment, sporting a familiar-looking tie and trench coat (also, hair). His apartment is a lavishly detailed mess, with reddish light filtering in through the blinds and onto the clutter of a man who is past caring: peeling paint, empty takeout boxes, an unmade fold-out sofa bed. Raul Passos, Max's former NYPD colleague, is trying to talk him into a new job in private security in South America. Max, ever morose, asks if he can't get a job drinking and feeling sorry for himself instead. It has been eight years since the events of the second game, and he apparently has spent the time since sinking into alcoholism and, more recently, killing the son of a powerful mob boss. So it is that said mob boss rolls up outside, in convoy with a pack of goons, to take revenge.

A spot of dual wielding with an SMG and a pistol.

Cue our first look at Max Payne 3's cover system and bullet time. The front-door frame splinters as Max shelters behind it, firing at and fired on by mobsters at the end of the hall. It's a sticky-looking cover system that Rockstar has thrown into the mix: a "refinement," we're told, of the outfit's previous schemes--so think of the from-cover shooting in Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. When Max makes a run for it down the corridor, bullet time lets him dive-dodge past sniper fire from outside, windows shattering as he goes. These are tastes of the game's key action elements and of Rockstar's take on the series' noir-flavoured New York, but the latter is not for long. Once Max fights his way up onto the rooftop, we're treated to a striking city skyline--New York on a winter night, all hazy light, distant sirens, and piles of slushy snow--but then it's off to Brazil, Max fleeing New York and the bereaved gangster father with it.

The Sao Paulo sequence we're shown takes place much later in the game, which spans several weeks. At some point along the way, Max's hair has gotten the chop, and we rejoin him on the sunlit streets of the city, where he's looking bald, burly, and bearded. He has taken the job his buddy Raul was pushing: protecting the wealthy Branco family, the target of violent Sao Paulo gangs. Here, though, he's protecting Giovanna, Passos' girlfriend, who is on the run from a military group. Though some of the storytelling is given over to conventional cutscenes, there are also scenes played out in multiple split-screen, black-framed shots. Though it resembles an episode of 24 more than a comic book, using in-engine video rather than stylised still images, this is Max Payne 3's equivalent of the older games' graphic-novel cutscenes.

The Sao Paulo level we're shown runs through a deserted bus depot, taking in a scrapyard, a warehouse, offices, and a bus terminal. There's variety enough to see how Max Payne has been recast for players in 2012; this is a glossy action shooter in which you can detect the series' heritage, though it's heavily overlaid with some inevitable modern inclusions. The cover system is the foremost of these, although as Max hunkers down in the shell of an old bus in the depot yard, we're told cover is "optional." It's not a cover-based shooter, that's for sure--the ever-unfair advantage of bullet time lets Max spend plenty of time out in the open, running and gunning and shoot-dodging circles around his foes.

Max, pre-shave.

The addition of cover is doubtless about making a game with the broadest appeal; today, a third-person shooter like this lacking deliberate cover would verge on quaint. On the other hand, recharging health is as much a staple of the modern shooter, and that's nowhere to be seen. Max's health is restored by picking up pain pills, as it was in the days of old. Likewise, the dual wielding of single-handed weapons--pistols, Uzis, and so on--is still present and correct.

The level is an extended escort-and-protect mission, with Giovanna hiding behind a dumpster here, getting stuck up on a high warehouse catwalk there, while Max clears out enemies from a string of areas. The final kill in a group of baddies is still highlighted by a satisfying cinematic killcam, swooping around the last enemy in slow motion, flaunting the kind of dead gangster rag-doll physics of which the first two games could only dream.

The march of progress likewise benefits the slow-motion shoot-dodge animations, driven by the dynamic animation engine Euphoria, which makes character movement convincingly weighty. The shoot dodge, that most Max Payne of manoeuvres, is no longer a stiff-limbed dive, but is natural-looking and context-sensitive; if he's diving sideways into a wall, Max raises an arm against the impact. The 360-degree prone is a nice touch, too: having slid to an elbow-grazing halt on the deck, Max can still fire in all directions before getting to his feet, twisting to the side or rolling over.

Thank you, Sao Paulo public transport.

Inside the depot building, we get a moment of staged, compulsory bullet time: Max descends from a walkway onto the warehouse floor on a crane hook, with a few moments to clear out the enemies below as he falls. We expect plenty of these scenes in the finished game; the demo ends with another choreographed action sequence, albeit not in bullet time. Max bundles Giovanna onto a bus, making her drive them to relative safety while he hangs out of the door, clearing the way with an Uzi.

The set-piece-heavy cinematic action amounts to a game that plays much as you'd expect of a bullet-time-driven action shooter made eight years after Max Payne 2. The fiction and general tone, though, fall a bit farther from the tree, with the story stripped back to a more "realistic" plot, for one, and the overwrought, metaphor-laden internal monologue of the earlier games toned down into more prosaic narration ("Giovanna was a brave girl. She wasn't giving up, and neither could I"). Gone, too, is the quirky in-game meta-material; though it could still materialise in the finished game, says Rockstar, there's as yet no counterpart to the earlier games' Twilight Zone parodies or Captain Baseball Bat Boy cartoons. Therefore, although this is recognisably a Max Payne game, it is one seen through the lens of Rockstar's multi-studio team and not of the series' creators. But wary fans should keep the faith because there's time enough between now and March 2012 for Rockstar to bring them around with a modern reimagining that gives as much as it takes away.

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