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Hands On: Max Payne 3

Max On, Max off

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Alright, so Max Payne 3 has a cover system, we’ve established that. But stay calm, it’s going to be alright. I played the fancy high resolution PC build for an hour across multiple fights with multiple enemies and didn’t duck once. Can we all settle down quietly now?

The chapter presented to me was set in and around a deserted football stadium in the warm Sao Paulo evening. It’s fairly early in the story, and he’s overseeing a fraught hostage exchange that (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here) goes wrong. From there it’s an action-packed romp from the bleachers up to the lighting rig and down again as Max introduces gangs of shouty men to his own brand of anger management, which tends to involve Dr. Shotgun prescribing several dozen pills in repeated doses to all afflicted areas and repeat as necessary until the shouting stops. 12 gauge bore, the great communicator.

So I’d run into a room, spot the four or five disagreeable fellows inside and immediately engage in slow motion hyperdeath ballet that was all about positioning and swift headshots. Cover wasn’t hiding behind a waist-high wall so much as occupying space that wasn’t filled with zippy bullets, aided in no small way by Max’s exuberant bullet-dodge dives. Later, beefy enemies turned up and displayed a fairly worrying amount of intelligence, competently flushing me out with grenades, covering each other and even doing a pretty convincing job of flanking the pants off me.

That’s not a position I’m keen to find myself in with a room full of suspiciously well-equipped paramilitary types, and indeed I was outgunned more than once. Here a new feature made its presence known – on his way out, vision fading, I was able to exact furious vengeance on enemies before Max hit the floor. However, managing to kill the chap who fired the final deadly shot before face met lino, Max automatically chugged some painkillers and sprung back into the fight. It’s tricky to pull off and only activates if you’ve pills to spare, but I felt super awesome both times it happened and I think we can all agree that the pursuit of feeling super awesome is why we’re all here.

Instrumental to how super awesome this was making me feel was the tech behind it all. Rockstar have taken the Euphoria physics system and done frankly incredible things with it. Max moves and reacts to the world around him in a believable way, adjusting his weight while leaping around only being the most obvious sign. I quickly learned that diving into concrete walls is probably not the smartest thing to do under fire when Max’s body actually contorts against it, messing up his aim. Euphoria forced me to be aware of Max and his surroundings on a visceral level that I’ve never had to contend with before. It’s not that Max is clumsy, far from it – he’s a very powerful creature to control. It’s just that he has actual weight and heft, so much so that the game demanded me to look after him more than I normally do with heroes I’m peering over the shoulder of. I wasn’t merely controlling the morose bastard; I was guiding him through the world.

This next part may sound a little more psychopathic than I’m strictly comfortable with, but let’s roll with it: one of my disappointments with action games is that enemies never die horribly enough. You know what I mean – it’s either canned death animations which get old after the first time or they just crumple to the ground when their health drops to zero, as if someone snipped their puppet strings. You can’t cover that failing up with incredigore. They’re never convincing deaths.

Well, the same tech that’s animating Max makes it damned sure it’s not the same case here. It’s immediately gripping how much the technology changes such a classic interaction as shooting an angry man in the chest. He’ll jerk back from the impact, not dead yet, and might stumble, trip over something at his feet and lay rolling on the floor while I turn to dispatch his friends, who will throw themselves bodily to the ground and over furniture with equally award-worthy acting. It’s true what they say; no two deaths looked the same. Again, not trying to be psychopathic, but my goodness was it ever fun to shoot these guys. Every death rattle is a real treat, especially when the last goon dispatched is presented in focused super slow motion, rewarding you with filthy bullet porn of the highest magnitude as Max’s bullets continue to plug into his hapless face. Super, super awesome.

So that’s good. Shooting’s good, animation’s great, killing dudes is super awesome. Brilliant. There’s a minor problem with all this, however, and…well. Ok, so Rockstar are good with cutscenes, we all know that. And they’re truly impressive here, well produced and directed like the slickest Michael Man/Tony Scott co-production you can possibly imagine. Rendered in-game, they call back to the graphic novel slideshows of the previous games with multiple frames, super imposed text, camera filters, stylish angles, fast cutting, hardboiled narration, the works. Super awesome.

But blimey, were there a lot of them. I mean, an awful lot. I don’t mean the long story ones that bookend the chapter, those were fine. I mean small, tiny breaks in the action triggered by walking into the next room. The way it’d usually happen is that I’d run Max towards a door, excited about all the way I’m going to kill all the chaps inside before suddenly having control taken away from me, to show Max walking through that door, looking around while grumbling a line or two of internal monologue. Then I’d have control again. An average of 5 or 6 seconds, which is quick enough to be admissible as a stylish flair, apart from they’d interrupt the start of literally every single room that led to a gunfight.

Now that’s a minor irritation, but sadly it gets worse. There’s a bit where Max was out in the stands of the stadium, hunted by a sniper, the red laser sight ready to kill any signs of movement. Ready to run through the bleachers dodging incoming sniper fire, I lent forward in my seat in anticipation – only to watch, faintly bemused, as a high-octane escape sequence played out in a cutscene before me as Max ducked and dove with bullets pinging all around him, finally crashing through distant doors. Safely inside away from the sniper, the game finally returned control and I got back to being super awesome again.

There’s a broad rule of thumb with cutscenes, and it’s Never Show Something That Would Be Cooler To Play. It’s just going to be frustrating, especially as in a sequence earlier on in the chapter, I actually got to dodge sniper fire while running and shooting bad guys in the bleachers and it was awesome. Super awesome. Why deny me super awesomes, Rockstar? That’s what we’re all here for.

So that’s what I saw. Max Payne for the modern age, combat defined by breathtaking advances in technology, a story that begged me to carry on playing at the end of the chapter and gunfights that frequently had me grinning stupidly wide as I executed yet another impossibly cool dive while headshotting three guys at once. There just seemed to be quite a lot of interruptions that spoil the effortlessly cinematic presentation Rockstar have so painstakingly developed. From what I played, there was no need to add that extra sprinkling of style. Max Payne is style enough, and it looks like they’ve done a heck of a job giving the weary old boy another dance in the spotlight.

Max will be with us once more in the month of May.

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Andrew Smee

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