After a lengthy absence Max is back and this time the coding duties have been handled in-house at Rockstar. The team had previously helped the Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment with Max Payne 2 but now the franchise is solely in the hands of Rockstar with Dan Hauser, the writer of Red Dead Redemption, taking over the scribe duties from series creator Sam Lake.
Set a few years after the previous game, Max (voiced by James McCaffrey) has moved to São Paulo, Brazil and now works as security for Rodrigo Branco. Branco’s trophy wife, Fabiana (big boobs, the mini-est of miniskirts) gets herself kidnapped by a street gang and it’s up to Max to get her back.
A meeting is arranged in which Max and his buddy Passos drop off a bag full of cash in exchange for the skirt and a tense cuts scene shows the drop off. All is going to plan until a shot rings out and a paramilitary group gatecrash the exchange and shoot Max in the arm. The cut scene moves seamlessly into game play and it’s time to make a stumbling dash to cover as gunfire blazes across the stadium.
After stumbling and crashing his way to the depths of the football stadium Max is now facing a number of enemies all of whom are reaching for their guns. I glance around and spot a pillar, the perfect cover, so run over and hide behind it.
The bad guys quickly out-flank me and toss a grenade at my feet. I’m dead. Some words of advice from Rockstar and I’m ready to try the scene again.
This time as the paramilitary squad go for their guns I tap the shoulder button, engage bullet time and dive sideways through the air. In slow motion I take out three of the enemies with blasts to the chest and the cripple the fourth with a well placed shot to crotch (somewhat of a signature move of mine during the play through).
As bullet time ends I see the telltale traces of shots being fired from behind me so as Max lands on his back I quickly shift his aim to the two bad guys who have entered the room and take them out whilst laying prone on the floor.
As my last shot is fired the camera switches back to slow motion and follows the bullet leaving Max’s gun, zipping across the room and smashing into the enemy’s face. A plume of blood sprays out and his head snaps back, smashing into the wall with a satisfying thump…
It’s hard to describe just how awesome Max Payne 3 looks in action; you can pull off some ridiculously cinematic moves and make your own John Wu movie. For example, near the end of the play-through I found myself at the top of a set of stairs in a football stadium, about 50 feet below me more paramilitary types are searching for Max and Passos.
Convention dictates I should have hidden behind some of the stadium seating, take advantage of the high ground and gradually picked off the men one by one. Instead I start running and take a leap from the top of the stairs and engage bullet time. The assembled bad guys at the bottom of the stairs turn towards the plummeting Max before crumpling in heaps as four well aimed shots to chest end their short appearance in the game.
Every character, no matter how inconsequential, has been motion captured and every time a bullet hits an enemy they will react as you would them to expect. By blending physics and animation, if a thug is shot in the leg he will react like he has been shot in that specific limb rather than run a general ‘ooh I’ve been shot’ animation.
The game looks superb and is running a modified version of the R.A.G.E. engine that powered GTA IV. Grand Theft Auto is an open world so there were limitations on the effects and destructibility, Max is a linear adventure which means the engine that once powered a entire city is now powering a room or two at a time. This means little touches like blood splatter on Max’s shirt and the weapon he is carrying will be visible during the cut scenes.
Special attention has been paid to the effects when bullet time is engaged. Shots leave Matrix-like trails through the air and you can even see the hammer on Max’s gun clicking down as it fires the next round.
The comic book panels from the original game are back but this time are being used in cut scenes to show multiple angles of action. Whilst characters are talking their words occasionally appear on screen, a nice little touch and it works really well as the dialogue is snappy and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
There are no loading screens (unless you die), cut scenes merge seamlessly into game play and Rockstar created a brand new effect never seen before in a video game: during one cut scene Max is sat in a helicopter discussing how he came to be in Sao Paulo and in an instant the scene changes. Max is still in exactly the same pose as before, sitting down, but now he’s at a New York bar, he’s wearing different clothes, unshaven and nursing a whisky.
This effect happens in an instant and in real time. The game engine removes every asset apart from Max and creates a brand new environment in a the blink of an eye. It shows just how powerful Rockstar’s game engine can be when is when confined to a smaller, linear environments.[drop]The game has a free aim system or a soft auto-assist. I played in free aim, which is slightly floaty but can be mastered in half an hour. Max’s health does not regenerate, instead he relies on popping pills to fend off injury, a throwback to the original game. If you do take a lot of damage you will enter a ‘Last Man Standing’ sequence in which you have a chance to finish off the thug who has just shot Max. If you can take him out in time you will recover a small amount of health and can carry on playing.
Max can carry three weapons which are selected via a simple weapons wheel. You can use two smaller guns that can be dual wielded or one larger two handed weapon such as a shotgun or an assault rifle.
It’s not just shooting, though, as there are plenty of melee attacks, each unique depending on which weapon you are holding. Get close to a paramilitary thug and hit the fire button and rather than just shoot the scumbag an animation sequence will activate that shows Max incapacitating the thug and ends with his gun pointing towards the cowering enemy. One more click of the fire button and his brains will be splattered across the floor like a Jackson Pollock.
Getting close to a bad guy to perform such a move is harder than you might think though, the AI is is very intelligent and takes into account your play style. Be a death-kill-murder mofo by performing slo-mo headshots and the enemy will get scared and make a run for it. Hide behind cover and – as I found out – the enemy will become braver and flush you out from your hiding place.
It’s hard to fault the game, if I were to be really picky I would say a glitchy effect used to show Max being in pain was used a little too much, but as Rockstar stressed this was an effect they were working on and I think they’ll have fixed it before release. Also the enemies are slightly bullet spongy, a couple of times I thought I had killed a guy but he picked himself up and started firing again.
Despite my initial reservations the best part of playing Max Payne 3 is having an audience, once you have got the hang of bullet time and dodging you can pull off spectacular ‘bullet ballet’ sequences that rival the most outrageous action movies.
The last scene I played was set around a docks and after an hour and half of action I knew exactly what I had to do. I went in all guns blazing, melee killing four enemies in quick succession, engaged bullet time and slo-mo dived over a bench as I fired a round in to a gas canister which in turn exploded, drenching the enemy in flames.
The whole sequence took less than a minute and as the last thug dropped to the floor the two Rockstar chaps clapped and laughed, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone tackle it like that, you were totally bad-ass!” they said.
I have to admit I have never been a fan of Rockstar’s open world games, I have never found them as engaging as everyone else so I’m quite surprised just how much I like Max Payne 3. I usually favour the ‘all guns blazing’ approach in most shooters so to find a game that actually rewards the technique rather than penalising it is heavenly.
I have written this final summary paragraph about twenty times with numerous platitudes and recommendations for the game but they never seem to convey my enthusiasm for the title so I will just say this:
Max Payne 3: F*ck yeah!