I remember when Max Payne 3 was announced, it was not a good time. Not only had the development moved from Remedy to Rockstar (with whom I have a love-hate relationship), but Max Payne was shown as a bald out-of-shape guy in a sunny backdrop. This was worse than the Diablo 3 rainbows fiasco by a very wide margin. How could a developer who specializes in sandbox games like GTA and Red Dead Redemption give us a truly great linear action game? Why did they mess with the formula? Max has a persona, he wears the dark snowy look of New York like a trusted suit, so who is this bald man in sunny South America? Playing the game at PAX East soothed many of my fears; this is a true Max Payne game and one that I am suddenly very excited about again.
The first thing I asked the developer about as I was playing (and often dying) was the thought behind Max’s look. He equated the change to a few things: ten years have passed and Max has lived a hard life, he has lost everything, abused his body and soul, and let himself go both physically and metaphysically. The game starts with the Max Payne we remember, and when he kills a high-ranking mob boss he is pressured to leave New York or be killed. He leaves and in typical Max Payne fashion things go from bad to worse and he is at the end of his rope – he needs to start anew and bury himself in the life he has to lead, one of a mercenary taking what jobs he can to survive.
The shaving of his head is a prominent scene in the game and as they described it, I asked how it parallels The Walking Dead scene where Shane shaves his head. They laughed and said the whole team was shocked as that unfolded because that is essentially what Max went through and they conceived it years ago. Like Shane’s character, Max has to do things and be someone he would not have been if life had been different. The symbolic act of shaving his head is a cleansing, a throwing off of moral shackles to do things that need to be done to survive. It gave me a new perspective on the changes and it is one I can now fully endorse, it just makes sense in context of the story.
Playing the demo I was pleasantly surprised to see two distinct locales, a flashback sequence in New York with the familiar (but aged) leather jacket-wearing Max Payne and a sequence in Sao Paulo, Brazil with the bald, Die Hard-esque tank-topped Max. Gameplay is instantly familiar to veterans of the series, with modern tweaks such as cover supplementing the repertoire of moves.
The big returning feature, of course, is Bullet Time, which is used liberally in shoot-dodge moves and on demand if you have adrenaline saved up. As you kill and take damage, your adrenaline meter fills up and Bullet Time can be engaged at will slowing the enemies and their bullets letting you pick your shots with precision or get out of danger. Shoot-dodge is a move tied to a face button and can be activated any time (and should be used near constantly) with life saving results. When you shoot-dodge, time slows for a bit of the movement and you can freely move and shoot in any direction as you roll out of harms way.
The graphical representation of these movements cannot be described adequately, they have to be seen in motion to truly be appreciated. When Bullet Time is triggered during a fire fight, you can clearly make out every single bullet and see a safe path through them. It was stunning the first time I saw it and the developer was tremendously proud of the physics and presentation of the move. The shoot-dodge, and in fact general movement with guns, is equally impressive. No matter which way you are going, you can aim Max’s guns at an enemy and Max on screen realistically moves his body, tilts his back, adjusts his arms to track where he is shooting. When a shoot-dodge is triggered it is even more impressive because you can see him slowly arch his back to fire over his shoulder or tilt to land on his shoulder when the movement is done. The animation is top notch and really adds a depth to the game due to the care and attention to detail.
Storywise any fears that this is not a true Max Payne experience should be put aside immediately. Despite the sunny locale and change in Max’s appearance, this is the same character we know in all of his dark and morose pulpy glory. His monologues are still present and most importantly the graphic novel-style cut scenes are back in an innovative way. Instead of static images refreshing over time, the panels are generated from real time in game assets. The effect is instantly gratifying and brings a visceral and real-time feel to the game.
The engine powering Max Payne 3 is a star alongside the characters and story. The world looks amazing and there is a real weight to it that is palpable as you play. The animation, cut scenes, and hectic action are also delivered with no load times. That’s right, much like the Uncharted series, once the game starts you will never see a load screen (until you power off and continue later). I can’t stress enough how important this is to narrative flow. Max Payne has always been presented as a cinematic experience and this constant flow of gameplay and story with no interruptions is perhaps one of the greatest features of the game.
Max Payne 3 also features a deep suite of multiplayer options that are meant to extend the life of the game, but not overshadow the main storyline. I was assured that the development of the single player experience was the number one priority (and it shows), with multiplayer being added to further the experience. So far the modes of Gang Wars and Payne Killer look incredibly promising with social interaction and progression systems giving us more reasons to play the game even after the single player has been beaten a few times.
Max Payne 3 is destined to be the next Rockstar blockbuster and I am very excited to get my hands on the full experience. Playing the demo for an hour left me wanting more and we’ll all get our chance when it is released on PS3 and Xbox 360 May 15th 2012 and on PC May 29th.