We sent Agent Smee back to Rockstar HQ with another mission: to uncover Max Payne 3. This is what he found.
First things first. The main meat of the game may be set in Brazil, but the preview begins familiarly enough with Max trapped under gunfire in his shambles of a New York apartment, a furious mafia mob boss screaming Max’s name hysterically into the winter night’s air in a nasal Italian-American accent. It’s unmistakably Max Payne, complete with battered trench coat and crap tie. The sudden attack interrupts him from drowning his sorrows in a whisky bottle, the mafia thugs positioned at the end of the corridor shooting out his windows. But Max is unconcerned as he’s basking in the impervious safety of a cover system, hunched up to the side of his front door, gun in hand.
So yes, Max Payne 3 is going to have a cover system, Rockstar apparently not trusting us to position ourselves behind a wall without wanting to engage in a passionate embrace with the plaster. It’s a sad sight to see such a classic hero of twitchy action gaming cowering behind a doorframe, peaking out to pop off a few timid shots at the men a few doors down. I let out a quiet sigh. “Oh dear,” I think to myself. “It’s going to be one of those games.” Slouching down in one of Rockstar’s plush sofas I resign myself to disappointment. Then Max uproots from his drywall home, turns the corner into the corridor, begins running toward the hitmen and slams into bullet time.
Slam being the operative word: the bass oomph of the bullet time effect roars out of the sub-woofer and punches me in the gut, colour saturation bleeding the world into a hyper-focused sensory rush as Max pounds along the corridor in glorious slow-motion, no cover in sight, firing his gun at the underworld thugs as he weaves side to side, their bullets whizzing haplessly past his shoulders as a rippling trail follows his movement. The corridor cleared of enemies, Max warps out of bullet time, quickly bending down to pick up an uzi off a dispatched foe before turning to shoot out the corridor windows to focus on thugs on the rooftops. Max steps back and launches himself bodily into his infamous bullet dodge, the sound again dropping bass-note deep, the high pitched chattering of the uzi in his hand dealing out swift explosive death to the rooftop goons and I’m sitting forwards in my chair, leaning closer to the screen, eyes wide. When did that happen?
The audio is incredible. Most flashy triple-A titles make me feel like it’s time to upgrade my PC, but this makes me want to buy an entirely new set of speakers and bask in surround sound heaven. The chaos that bursts forth, the symphony of crisp gun mechanisms chattering as the air flies with bullets: Max Payne 3 is looking and sounding seriously good. It’s running on a totally overhauled Rage engine with Euphoria animation confidently plugged in. Aided by this technology, Max now seems aware of the environment, positioning his body as he runs and dodges in a strikingly believable fashion. Even when leaping straight into a wall, Max’ll bend his back to protect his head before he connects and falls in an undignified heap on the floor. Though I should watch what I say about that – Max can now lie there quite comfortably shooting his guns at any poor fool who had the tenacity to not die during Max’s slow motion dive.
Perhaps to toy with me, the Rockstar rep playing doesn’t take cover again for more than half a second during the entire demonstration, instead relying on bullet time and physical placement to do the covering for him. You know, like back when games expected you to be able to take out a dozen enemies coming from different entry points on multiple elevations without having to hiding behind a chest high wall and sucking your thumb waiting for your health to regenerate if you so much as bruised your little finger. Because there’s no regenerating health here either, crunching painkillers like in the original games the only way to regain health. Max is actually addicted to painkillers now, though that wasn’t present in any specific dialogue I saw during the demo.
Some concessions to modern expectations are rather more prominent: Max can only carry two guns with him at any time, three at a push: wearing a double pistol holster around his chest, Max can pick up and dual wield any pistol-sized guns he finds, mixing and matching when the situation arises. Picking up a two handed gun like a shotgun holsters the two pistols, and if they’re reselected, Max unceremoniously drops the shotgun to the floor. If just one of the handguns is selected however, Max carries around the shotgun in his other hand, ready if you want it back. I’ll grudgingly admit its realistic behaviour, and being able to see Max physically holding whatever guns you’ve picked up around his person during the in-game cutscenes is a continuity that is pleasing and one usually all too lacking in games.
All the same, it’s great to see Max back, dealing with crazy New York mobsters. He’s not a fresh slate however, as the Max we’re presented with is nothing more than a worthless drunk with a storied past, no longer a police detective but an unemployed hack who spends his days stumbling from bar to bar. The performance is given unusual clarity from James McCaffrey, who has provided the voice of Max for all three games but is featured here in Max Payne 3 as the full McCaffery experience: the voice, the basis of Max’s facial appearance and also the full-body motion captured performance. The Rockstar rep on hand enthused at the lengths they had gone to achieve the effect, building the in-game levels at full scale as motion capture sets only part of the development.
McCaffrey is immediately believable as Max, presenting a haggard man who just wants to crawl away and hide from any responsibility. With him in the apartment before the mafia turn up is an old NYPD friend who works private security for the rich, and is counting on their past friendship to help convince Max to join him in this new line of work. The reasons why aren’t apparent, much of the story spoilers having been removed from the demo, but nevermind that because we’re going to Brazil.
A quick load of the new level away and we’re in Sao Paulo, for a level set in and around a sunlit bus depot. This is late in the game, and Max has already undergone his transformation into a baldy beardy string vest wearing action hero, complete with a couple of mildly outrageous muscled arms. Combined with the daylight, background Portuguese dialogue and sunny location, the effect is somewhat jarring, to be honest. The only way I’d have known it was Max Payne if I wasn’t already familiar with the look is due to McCaffery’s constant hardboiled narration, though the first cutscene’s particular presentation helps. Rendered in-game, it’s nevertheless an unmistakable comic book panel layout, freeze framing Max with dialogue overlaid as onscreen text. It feels good, looks good too, a stylish opening to the level.
Here there’s the added worry of an escort. Max is with the girlfriend of his partner in Brazil, the fellow who was meeting Max in his apartment back in New York, and they’re both on the run from a private military company for spoileriffic reasons. The action returns, louder than before and Max immediately looks more at home with the location. The unrelenting shooting moves from wide open parking lots to claustrophobic offices to cluttered maintenance bays, and every single environment is an eye candy treat. It’s a bright game, to be sure, the Brazilian setting popping with colour. Obvious care has been taken with the environment as the bus depot feels real, the spaces existing not for a video game but how a bus station should be laid out. It all feels lived in and used.
The PMC lackeys are co-ordinated in their attacks, in a way that the New York mobsters weren’t. They move from cover to cover, trying to flank Max. They’re very almost his match, too – those of you who played the first two games might remember the unforgiving damage enemies dealt out if you didn’t dodge them quickly enough, and the same looks true here. The demo wasn’t running with developer cheats on, there was no cheeky spawning of extra painkillers and the seasoned Rockstar rep still only just managed to scrape through most of the battles, constantly running out of pills. The fights were tense affairs, Max’s godlike powers only just giving him a slight edge over the groups of soldiers coming after him and the screaming girlfriend. Who, it must be said, hid herself between cutscenes, so at least there was no worrying about looking after her while the air was filled with lead. With constant cajoling from Max to move and running around like a headless chicken during those cutscenes however, Mona Sax she ain’t.
In a standout moment during a cutscene, Max and the girlfriend are on a high walkway above the bus maintenance bay and a squadron of goons burst in through the door below. Resuming Max’s viewpoint, the game punches into slow-motion as he automatically leaps out off the walkway to grab onto a crane’s hook, swinging through the air with an uzi in hand, dispatching all oncoming foes. There’ll be little cinematic sequences like this peppered throughout the game, from big showoffy ones likes like to a small one I saw soon after, the girlfriend in mortal danger from a lone soldier and Max leaping out of a cutscene to allow the player to smoothly execute him in slow motion.
Interactive cinematics over, he pops to his feet and resumes battling the backup, running in and out of buses and one time shooting out a lift to drop a bus on one particularly unlucky man. Max and his companion make their final escape during a dramatic hotwiring of a parked bus, the girlfriend driving while Max leans out the door like a crazed conductor armed with an assault rifle. It’s an explosive sequence, but it’s as on-rails as an on-rails vehicle section can be.
But that’s no matter. It’s clear that the shooting has retained the original games’ unique sense of twitchy danger, the presentation just dialled up to hyperactive modern standards. Cover and chest high walls are present but could evidently be easily ignored. Max’s hardboiled narration is there, bullet time is definitely making its presence known and Max is just as messed up as ever. The weapon restrictions is a concern, but from what I’ve seen even in sunny Brazil Max Payne is still Max Payne. Rockstar have, more than anything, managed to get the feel of Max’s grumpy gunplay right, and they didn’t even have to eat the flesh of any fallen angels to do so.
Max Payne 3 is slated for an early-to-mid 2012 release.