It has been a long time between outings for Max. While his look and abilities have been brought into the current generation, he's still the same old tortured soul we've come to know and love. We recently got our first look at his comeback adventure, trading the cold surroundings of New York City for a warmer climate, a different look, and some new challenges.
Despite the fact that the game was announced years ago (clearly bubbling away in the background as Rockstar worked on other projects), our demo marked the first time the title has been shown running. We began in Jersey inside Max's apartment. The sequence doesn't take place at the very beginning of the game; instead, it picks up a few years after the events of Max Payne 2 and a little ways into the campaign. Max's service with the NYPD is a distant memory, but the troubled past of slain friends and family clearly remains. Pouring his buddy Passos a drink, Max forgoes the formality of a glass to chug directly out of the bottle. Painkillers serve as the game's health pack system, and they double as Max's main method of coping with the emotional lacerations lingering below the surface. Passos attempts to convince Max to start fresh, offering him the chance to move south to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and make a name for himself in the private protection scene.
The specifics remain a mystery, but an earlier, unseen firefight Max was involved in leads to the untimely death of local mob boss Anthony DeMarco's son. Naturally, the gangster seeks revenge; he turns up at the apartment, baying for blood and flanked by a pack of gun-toting goons.
Like a match to a powder keg, the action kicks off immediately. Within seconds, we're embroiled in a hallway shoot-out. We gun down foes peeking out of doorways, those crouching to bended knee to steady weapons, and pick off rooftop vantage point dwellers on neighboring buildings peppering us with bullets. Wooden architraves splinter and windows crack and shatter as we dive forward in slow motion, using Max's old trick--bullet time--to pick off bad guys.
The disturbed world lens is back in play in Max Payne 3. We gradually thinned out the herd and found ourselves outnumbered and outgunned as we stared down the barrel at destiny. Luck was on our side, however, and a haggard seemingly ex-serviceman neighbor in army fatigues busted his way out of his apartment and blasted our captor with a shotgun. A billowing shirt revealed his leathery skin, as well as a series of explosive charges strapped to his chest. A loud and rambling monologue ensued, and once completed, the man detonated the device. He blew himself up and turned the building into a smoking, charred crater. Not one to be concerned about the security of his worldly goods before his final moments, we wandered into the man's unlocked apartment to find a cache of bomb-making equipment and the odd bottle of painkillers, which we squirreled away for later.
Our corridor gunfight and its accompanying minimalistic heads-up display (complete with trademark silhouette) was pure vintage Max, but with so long between drinks (so to speak), don't expect a verbatim remake with a new game engine. A Red Dead Redemption-style weapon wheel means you can now carry three weapons at once, such as dual-wielded pistols or submachine guns, as well as a single rifle or shotgun.
With the building totaled and our attackers defeated, we headed upstairs to the building's rooftop. Long-draw distances showed off the city shining through the darkness, while snow fell and a commercial plane roared overhead. It was the perfect transition to cut to San Paulo where we were introduced to a very different-looking Max.
Again, there'll be scenes connecting the motivations for his actions, and South America gave us a look at the bearded, bald look shown off in the game's recent trailers. The static comic panel cutscenes of old have been done away with and replaced with updated motion comics using in-game cinematics. Still in development, the ones we saw included panel-style thick comic borders; inside of them, moving images were layered on with dynamic text elements.
No longer alone, our mission was to protect Passos' girlfriend, Giovanna, from a local military group called Cracha Preto. The second level opened with our ward chatting on a pay phone in a public place. The logic was that the group would hesitate to take drastic action during daylight hours where others might see. Only moments later, however, we found ourselves hunched over inside an abandoned commuter vehicle in a bus graveyard and returning fire at the group flanking our position. Luckily, this conveniently gave our guide a chance to demonstrate another first for the series: the game's new cover mechanic. The exact details are still being ironed out, but unlike passive cover where your character snaps to the wall like a cheap souvenir to a fridge door, Max appears to need a button press to pop into a safe place and avoid eating lead.
Familiar features, like the zoom and tracking of a solitary bullet into the waiting cranial cavity of a victim, are triggered when you gun down your last target, but they are merged with a few new elements. Max can go prone for the first time, and this allows you to roll around on the ground, twisting your character's body as you continue firing. Muscles strain and contort under the skin. And thanks to updates to the GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption RAGE technology, it looks a treat as you take care of business.
The need to protect Giovanna means that Max must always keep an eye out for her safety, but he can also use her limber physicality to drop walkway ladders, for example, on the way to the next objective. Max's internal dialogue (again voiced by James McCaffrey) gives you a taste of his tortured mind as it races. It also doubles as a goal system, letting the player know exactly what it is that needs to be done next on the mission.
Our Rockstar guides told us that set-piece moments will play a significant role during the campaign. At one point, Max leapt onto the suspended hook of a crane inside a warehouse. As he clung tenaciously, the action slowed and the bullets flew, and we were able to plug away at targets without managing bullet time or conserving ammunition. Any survivor who escaped the shooting gallery was mowed down individually or crushed with environmental kills. This was activated by shooting levers and buttons that dropped buses suspended on jacks onto victims below.
A new feature--Last Man Standing--now works as a get-out-of-jail card so that players who forget to take their painkillers during the heat of battle don't get penalized. If you're shot and run out of health but still have drugs in your inventory, you'll be given a chance at recovery if you can kill your aggressor quickly, automatically using medication and bringing you back to the fight.
Our demo ended with an on-rails ride courtesy of a commandeered bus. Giovanna drove while we unleashed a hail of automatic gunfire through the smashed windshield and open doors. Bullet time came in handy at speed, and it allowed us to slow down the action, as well as chew up flesh and spurt blood as we made our getaway. No one appeared to take chase, and we relaxed as we sailed through an intersection, only to be T-boned by a bus. The crash sent us careening into a nearby building headfirst. Fade to black.
While it has been almost a decade since the second game shipped, and revivals like Duke Nukem: Forever have come to the table seemingly oblivious that the world has moved on, Max simultaneously strikes the balance of feeling fresh and familiar. Expect a few changes to the man at the center of the story, but from what we've seen so far, we're impressed with this third outing and can't wait to see more. Rockstar has already confirmed extensive multiplayer support for the first time in the franchise. Look for more on Max Payne 3 in the coming months ahead of its March 2012 release date.