Considering its open world expertise, it seems strange for Rockstar Games to be developing Max Payne 3. The action series is as linear as they come, which would appear to be at odds with the studio’s sandbox ethos. But, as was proven with L.A. Noire, the company loves a good challenge, and it seems to be relishing in its attempt to create the perfect cinematic shooter.
The initial trailer hit a couple of weeks ago, and stunned fans around the world. Seeing Max as bald as an eagle, capping soldiers in Brazil would do that. Concerns that Rockstar is taking the franchise and screwing it intensely should be put to rest - things are still very much rooted in New York, Bullet Time still has a big influence and James McCaffrey is still the voice (and now the actor) of the titular character himself.
I’m told that you spend a large part of the game in Max’s home city, in fact. Things pick up eight years after the events of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
, and our solemn hero is in bad shape. He’s still hurting over the past - leading to chronic depression, alcoholism and a rather messy apartment. An old acquaintance, Raul Passos, visits him to suggest that he leave the US and take up a job in executive security.
Max figures that he has no choice. There’s nothing left for him in New York, after all. Well, except for mob boss Anthony DeMarco, who’s after revenge after he killed his son. Whoops. A friendly ‘knock on the door’ from DeMarco and his hitmen at Max’s apartment forces the protagonist’s hand to skip the country, journeying to Sao Paulo. But not before having to rid the place of mafia goons, of course.
The combat that played out was very faithful to the Max Payne
gameplay of old. With nothing but a narrow corridor separating you and some trigger-happy machine gun-wielding nutters, your only option is to run out like a mental case and start pumping lead. Naturally, that would result in killing a lesser man, but you have Bullet Time on your side - and you’re encouraged to use it often so you can get out of the many tight spots presented to you in any given stage.
Rockstar is particularly proud of the advances made in its RAGE engine and implementation of Natural Motion’s Euphoria character behaviour system, showing me what it calls the ‘realistic shootdodge’ mechanics of the Bullet Time feature. Basically, this is a term referring to the more realistic movements of Max while he’s flying through the air in slow motion, with animations changing and adapting to the environment around him.
You can fling yourself in any given direction and kick in Bullet Time to give yourself the advantage of dodging bullets while firing into opponent’s weak points. As Max comes crashing to the ground, you can see him raising an arm to cover his head as he braces for impact. This is more than cosmetic though - once you land, you can fire from any direction whilst on the floor, with Max shifting his body as you change your aim.
There’s a good deal of the surreal in Max Payne 3
as well - during the daring escape from the apartment, you’ll encounter a tin foil hat-wearing tramp who rambles on about conspiracies and other such guff. Before charging at a bunch of mafia thugs down the corridor with explosives strapped to his chest. Messy. He left some painkillers in his room though, so you might as well take them and keep them in case you need a health boost.
As in past Max Payne
games, you don’t have regenerating health - everything relies on your skill and the use of painkillers collected about the level. You’ll need them too, as the game gets harder and more punishing as the story unfolds. This is no better detailed than in the second section of the game that I saw - this was in Sao Paulo, some chapters in. Things have obviously gone a bit tits up, as Max is on the run from the Crachá Preto with Passos’ girlfriend Giovanna and are looking for a place to stay safe while Passos returns.
Recaps of the story are told via graphic novel-style cutscenes - another throwback harking to the days of the original Max Payne
in 2001. In these cinematics, you’ll see Max ponder about his situation as things kick off around him, but you also experience mid-level cutscenes that are much more standard in their cinematic approach.
In this stage, Max is first directed to an abandoned bus in a scrapyard. Not exactly the best place to lay low, as very quickly the pair are surrounded. No worries, you have Bullet Time! After finishing off all the enemies in a given area, a ‘final kill camera’ takes effect, dynamically following the last bullet from the gun to the bad guy’s face and displaying their death in a satisfyingly slow-mo affair.
As the enemies come thick and fast, Max will visibly take more bullets to the chest and body. One wrong turn and the person demonstrating the game ran face first into a shotgun blast. But all is not lost - one of the new features for Max Payne 3
allows you to revive yourself if you get fatally wounded.
This ‘last man standing’ mode kicks in when you’ve run out of health and are carrying painkillers - Bullet Time automatically starts and you get one chance to get your own back on the bad guy who downed you. If you’re successful, you use one pot of painkillers and live to see another day.
Rockstar hasn’t just done its best to stay true to the original Max Payne
ethos - it has also introduced elements of its own design from its past titles. You can see shades of Red Dead Redemption
in the weapon selection wheel, for example. It is also using its online successes to bring a multiplayer mode to the game - a first for the franchise.
A cover system has also been implemented, allowing you to hide away from a hail of bullets if things get too hairy. This does worryingly open up the game to go against what Max Payne
has always been about - a balls-to-the-wall run-and-gunner. Rockstar tells me that it is still designing the stages to heavily encourage players to use Bullet Time in favour of cover however, so we shouldn’t panic just yet.
One segment in a bus depot had Max peeking from behind boxes and crates to gun down mechanic supports. Raised buses would then crash on top of a number of enemies. The fact that Rockstar is not developing an open-world shooter in Max Payne 3
allows the studio to really go to town on graphical details and interactive objects to create some real explosive chaos.
First impressions highlight a very promising shooter, but I’ll have to wait until I get my hands on it to see if it has that classic Rockstar magic. Fans of Max Payne
won’t need to give pause about the game though - the studio has done a great job of staying faithful to the core mechanics that made the action shooter so great in the first place. I’ll be seeing more of Max Payne 3
- along with its multiplayer elements - over the coming months.