They were all dead…
…the final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and then it was over.
Those words first opened Max Payne on PC in July 2001. 11 years later they’re still as melodramatic as the modern-day tale of Norse mythology that followed. Featuring a head-scratching plot and the opportunity to enjoy balletic bullet-time gun-play, Max Payne was satisfying every gamer’s urge to recreate The Matrix’s classic lobby scene two long years before Enter The Matrix would try and fail.
Now, with only a solid sequel and a poor movie adaptation to punctuate the intervening decade, Rockstar Vancouver have developed a third game for Remedy’s acclaimed series. The third-person shooter is undeniably a different proposition to those of the early millennium, with cover-shooting and roadie runs superseding slow-motion diving as the shooter feature du jour, while trench coats have long since been rejected in favour of space marine helmets. Max Payne 3, therefore, brings the haggard NYPD cop-out of retirement only to be confronted by an unfamiliar world – but can he adapt, or is he getting too old for this s#!t?
Eight years after the events of The Fall Of Max Payne, Max finds himself in Sãu Paulo, working security detail for Rodrigo Bronco, a wealthy man of questionable morals. When Fabiana Bronco – Rodrigo’s wife – is kidnapped, Max is tasked with her safe return and must delve in to a world of corrupt police, para-military and favela street gangs to discover who has taken her and why. After leaving the hard-boiled streets of New York, Max trades down for a very different kind of lawlessness in Brazil’s dark underbelly.
It’s a fantastic plot to drop us in to the world. Max Payne is a man who knows the pain of losing those closest to him, yet the weary resignation with which he accepts his mission is indicative of how the events of the previous games have worn away at his capacity for empathy. Max is in a darker place than ever before, scraping the very bottom of the barrel. Where the painkillers of previous games were a pragmatic solution to health pick-ups in the world (cheesy catchphrase “Pills will ease the pain” notwithstanding) they’re now a symptom of Max’s high-functioning substance-abuse problem – and if he’s going to get Fabiana back, he’s going to need a lot of them.
Early demos show Max entering in an abandoned football stadium to negotiate the return of Rodrigo’s wife. But before he can deliver the ransom, a third-party storms the building in attempt to intercept the money for themselves and Max must shoot through both parties to get to the exit.
It offers a great chance to see the combat in action and the evidence suggests a shooter that can confidently straddle the bullet-time combat of the past with the dynamic environmental interaction of today’s third-person shooters. It’s a great relief to see Max can still wade in to a room armed with only a gun in each hand, a limited meter of bullet-time and a shocking disregard for personal safety and still come out with all his internal organs intact. The cover-shooting does add some contextual tactics to the action but you’re not too harshly discouraged from attempting to add some John Woo flair to the proceedings. Diving while firing is as glorious as ever and Max will continue to fire even when prostrate on the ground – great for off-loading those last rounds (the last enemy to fall still triggers a slow-motion camera angle, which continues until you stop firing in to his corpse) though a fuller room will demand a hasty roll out of harm’s way to regroup.
Dancing between the bullets
Max can carry copious amounts of projectiles, one large rifle and two handguns. The handguns can be dual-wielded in trademark style but at the sacrifice of the rifle he was holding. Every bullet fired is individually modelled in engine, so as they whistle past your head you get a fantastic feeling that you’re walking between the raindrops. Gruesome melee kills can be triggered on close up enemies so it’s not always necessary to keep your distance. Environments can also be used to your advantage other than as cover, and in the demo we saw supports being shot from under buses to crush the enemies standing below.
All of these are the bells and whistles of your typical third-person shooter but less expected is how tightly the actual shooting controls. The idea is to have all of the accuracy of a first person shooter while being able to observe Max flying gracefully around environments, and while this sounds like so much PR buzz the result isn’t far off. Max is able to shoot in any direction, no matter where he’s facing, running or diving, and rather than giving him the elastical feel of a heavily-armed Stretch Armstrong his body has been animated to move believably with any combination of moves. Running, diving and shooting in all directions isn’t just fun, it feels right – grounded in the physics of a world where a stocky disgraced cop can leap majestically through the air while precision shooting at Brazil’s various criminal elements.
The Norse mythology is gone, as are many of Max Payne’s more graphic novel-style affectations; nevertheless, this is still Max Payne we’re talking about – the patron saint of videogame noir – and James McCaffrey’s narration has lost none of its hammy melodrama. There’s also the promise that Max Payne 3 will acknowledge the heritage of the series with call-backs to the events of the previous games, which is a nice consideration for those players whose first shooter experience pre-dates Gears of War.
It’s a changed world out there, and Max Payne 3 is a notably changed game to prior instalments. Nonetheless, the essence of Max Payne still seems to be intact in this strange new beast, and will most likely have a lot to teach a genre that has grown a little incestuous with its desire to out-Gears Gears of War. If there’s one thing that can be said of Max Payne it’s that he’s a maverick who’s not afraid to do things his way – which is a hideous cliché, but Max Payne has never been afraid of those either.