One of my great memories of playing Max Payne is not the sheer amount of fun it was (and man, it was a hoot), but rather it was just how much a crowd-pleaser it was at the time. More often than not watching someone play a game is an exercise in boredom, but Max – bless his angsty cotton socks – drew in housemates and visitors alike. The balletic action, the over-the-top story, the voicework, all combined to make the first two Max Payne titles truly cinematic gaming events.
Yesterday, we got to sit down and watch a Rockstar employee play through a few levels of the game, and we’re very glad – possibly even a little hyped – to say that Max is well and truly back. Max Payne 3 is on track to bring the goods once again, in a rollercoaster of action, drama and pathos.
Rockstar has taken Remedy’s classic guns-blazing approach to gaming and injected it with steroids, while trimming away any unnecessary fat. This approach ties in nicely to the game’s approach to storytelling and character, but also delivers wonderfully staged and executed gunfights.
To create a sense of weight and place, scale sets where built for mo-cap actors to work in; NPCs react to and move around the environment in complex yet believable ways, from the way a group of sicarios will advance through cover, seeking prey, to the way they’ll crumple around bullet impacts and collapse in a combined ragdoll and animated heap. Those deaths in particular – given you’ll see a lot of them in slow motion, are a real highlight. A lot more modern ragdolling has taken limbless floppiness to the extreme (something that BF3, in beta form at least) is very guilty of); in Max Payne 3, however, enemies react to being shot on a per-bullet, per-location manner, and you get the sense that even as they go down muscles are contracting and nerves are firing. There are many deaths that would make a Hong Kong stunt man very proud indeed.
Bullet Time, however, is arguably the biggest signature of Payne’s gameplay, and it’s looking better than ever. There’s an odd wobbly effect around Max himself whenever he drops into this sen-like, murderous mode that we could do without, but the sudden flaring of light when in Bullet Time is a lovely cinematic touch that feels like it’s more the work of a cinematographer than a game designer. These moments of slow intensity show off a lot of the Rage engine’s strongpoints, like limited environment destruction, physical movement, and colour palette. Even in the New York level we got to see, with a classic, leather-coated Max leaping about, this is a brighter and more impactful setting than ever before.
Also new is a sticky cover system. This is something we normally dislike, but for Max in third person it works quite well – you want to see Max in action, as he gets bloodier and bloodier, as he fires over desks and around corners before bursting into frenetic action.