Max Payne 3 Eyes-On5 Oct 2011
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Washed up, addicted to painkillers and bathed in the moody light that pierces the half-closed blinds in his crummy New York apartment. That’s our first glimpse of Max Payne.
On closer inspection things don’t get any better for the one-time cop and sullen hero. He’s older, he’s fatter, he seems to live on Chinese takeaway (judging by the empty trays that adorn every surface) and he uses his floor as a wardrobe. Not only that, but he’s got a mob boss at his door. A mob boss angry and seeking revenge for the death of his son.
Yes, Mr. Payne pulled the trigger. But that’s okay, because Rockstar assure us that the son deserved it.
As a scene-setter, this sequence is bleak. Max Payne bleak. That’s presumably why Rockstar were so eager to demo it for us, to counteract comments that have attacked the idea of taking Max to Brazil and altering his appearance as all very ‘un-Max Payne’.
Sitting in his New York apartment, drinking ‘Kong’ whiskey, loosening his belt and tiredly reaching for his weapon, however, he looks every bit Max Payne. Essentially, he’s done a Charlie Sheen and gone and fucked up his life. For now he’s got no time to think about that, there are painkillers to pop and a Mafioso (plus hired goons) to kill.
Combat will be in part familiar and in part new to those that have spent time with previous Max Payne games. Obviously, the series trademark slow-motion ‘bullet time’ returns in full force and you’re given plenty of opportunity to use it. A small gauge fills up whenever you’re being shot at; when it’s full you can activate bullet time. The design, position and manner in which the gauge is filled hasn’t been finalised as yet so don’t be surprised if the next time we see the game we tell you something different.
In the tight corridors of Payne’s apartment building combat is intense and sudden, but always wrapped in a cloak of cinematic chic. The slow-motion blur and golden saturation initiated during bullet time combines with the blood spatters and punctured skulls to create a John Woo-esque ‘charm’ to the violence; it’s flashy, it’s over-the-top and that’s what makes it satisfying to watch.
New to the party are a cover system, scenery degradation and shot dodging. Apparently the cover system is entirely optional and if you’ve got enough of the health replenishing painkillers you can get away with running ‘n’ gunning. Or you can shot dodge ‘n’ gun, or bullet time ‘n’ gun, or gun ‘n’ gun by dual wielding. Whatever you do it’ll be about the guns.
While in cover the scenery around you will get torn up by gunfire. As of now the effects are cosmetic in that a pillar, post and/or door frame will splinter and shred but that won’t play a part in its effectiveness as protection. Again, like the manner of acquiring bullet time, the level to which scenery can be destroyed has yet to be fully nailed down.
The ‘shotdodge’ is where the real magic happens, though. Like every other gameplay mechanic it’s clearly been designed with the ‘make you feel like a bad-ass’ mantra in mind. By launching yourself through the air (in any direction you like) you can literally dodge bullets and shoot enemies within a brief window of slow-mo.
At first shotdodging seems fairly rudimentary, but with practise it can be rather tasty. Jump backwards down a flight of stairs and kill multiple enemies with well placed headshots before hitting the floor..? That’s not something you see every day.
Despite all of the bullet timing, cover system-ing, shot dodging and painkiller popping, the fight against the mob boss and his goons ends in an altogether more bizarre fashion. Having taken a dislike to the noise in his hallway, a man that can only be described as ‘Al Pacino from Serpico’ emerges from his apartment, blows away a couple of foes with his shotgun and blows himself up with a dynamite vest. Mob boss dead, Payne in the clear.
A visit to Serpico’s room reveals a few details as to his sanity, including bomb making notes, various military regalia and a few bottles of painkillers. The painkillers are our main friend here but the details in the room are noteworthy in that the designers are clearly treating all areas as equal, providing extra-curricular narrative exposition for those interested.
Our time in New York ends. Fast forward to a point roughly two thirds of the way through the game and we’re in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The ‘future’ Payne is markedly different to the New York version, sporting a shaved head, bulging muscles, a beard of near Amish proportions and fetching white wife-beater; basically, you’re Bruce Willis with facial hair.
We’re told that this ‘look’ is Payne’s final form and that his path to sleeveless fashion is gradual.
The Sao Paolo section is introduced with a stylish cut-scene that slides comic book frames into the screen and overlays the text and narration. All cut-scenes are rendered on the fly using the in-game engine, meaning your weapons, sweat and blood stains are as they were prior to the cinematic.
Cut-scene over and we’re in the junkyard area of a bus depot, surrounded by broken down vehicles and space parts. A para-military group is hunting you for reasons that Rockstar didn’t want to fully divulge. That would be fine for a Bruce Willis lookalike such as us if it weren’t for the fact that you need to protect Giovanna.
Giovanna is the girlfriend of your best-friend. A best-friend who also happens to be the guy that convinced you to come to Brazil… again, for reasons largely unknown other than the fact that Payne needed to sort his life out.
And thus follows a romp around various parts of the bus depot (admin offices, garage, loading bay), kicking ass, kicking in slow-mo and making sure the girl stays safe. The most memorable section of the Sao Paolo sequence came when Payne hurled himself into the fray via descending on an industrial sized hook in a maintenance shed. On the way down he shoots the fuel tank of a forklift, which blows several enemies into oblivion, and finishes off the stragglers with a neat combining of bullet time and headshots.
Max Payne is not just Bruce Willis, he’s bloody Die Hard.
While everything we saw was cranked up to 11 on the ‘holy shit’ meter, Rockstar acknowledge that “pacing is everything” and that the full game features moments of calm between each storm. Hopefully this turns out to be true because otherwise there would be no time to take in the surroundings of sun-drenched Sao Paolo.
Despite being a million miles away from New York in terms of colour palette, Sao Paolo still comes across as a foreboding and intimidating place. A quick browse of the reference photography used to create the environments shows that the desired tone is more City of God than Rio Tourist Board and, frankly, we’d accept nothing less.
It feels odd to play a Rockstar game that doesn’t take place in an open world or feature random acts of traffic violence against innocents. Max Payne 3 is linear in structure (although the AI is apparently smart enough to present a different challenge on each playthrough) and quite clearly aimed at satisfying the ‘I wanna be Arnie’ in all of us.
As if to pound that sense of structure home, the demo ends with you hightailing it from the depot on a hijacked bus; Giovana driving and you shooting. An on-rails sequence in a Rockstar game? I never thought I’d see the day.
Hopefully the talents of those involved will produce a full product that was as entertaining as the irritatingly small glimpse we’ve had so far. Max Payne 3 doesn’t look as though it’s going to set the world on fire by offering anything radically different from what we’ve seen before, but why should it? Sometimes you just need a little bit of what you already know, just so long as it’s skilfully put together.