Max Payne returns in Rockstar's latest.
Max Payne is a very troubled man. In 2001, we were first introduced to him, when his long night began on the snowy streets of New York. Two years later there was The Fall of Max Payne, an excellent sequel. Then the series went quiet (nevermind the lame movie), until this week when Rockstar released the third entry, set several years after 2. Turns out, Max hasn't aged well; he's a pill-popping alcoholic, drowning out his sorrows nightly by abusing his liver and brain. He just cannot escape the violent loss of his wife and child, done in by the local mob. In the years since, he's barely gotten by. A chance encounter in a bar one night led to his current job: a bodyguard of a rich Brazilian family. He has yet to kick his bad habits, but he also hasn't lost his touch with a gun.
Make no mistake, Max Payne 3 (MP3) is an action packed romp. However, like the first two games, it's very story and character driven. Strong story and characters are two of MP3's greatest assets. MP3 is told in a flashback -- you're given a taste of events very late in the game, and then you're taken back to several days before everything went to Hell. Interestingly, within this flashback are other flashback chapters, which take us back to a more familiar Max Payne (donning the black leather jacket in a snowy New Jersey/New York). The flashbacks within flashback chapters are smartly placed, allowing for a significant change in scenery and further explaining the history of Max and his friend Passos who battles alongside Max on several occasions. In order to keep things spoil-free, the story revolves around acts of aggression taken against the Branco family that Max and Passos are hired to protect.
How Rockstar decided to present the story is mostly good. The dialogue, which includes a lot of Max "thinking out loud" is solid, and the return of James G. McCaffrey as the voice-actor is key, because Max's voice is perfect for the atmosphere, and I still clearly remember it from the original games. So you'll get a lot of information about the story from hearing Max's thoughts, or by listening to him talk to NPCs. You have no ability to control what Max says or when he says it, however.
Other story and character development arrangements are made through numerous, seamlessly integrated in-game cutscenes that play right in the middle of the action. These often happen as Max passes through an important doorway or otherwise enters a new area. I thought they were interesting and short enough to not really disrupt the pacing of the game. Finally, each chapter has several Story collectibles that you can find an examine to hear a little bit more of Max's thoughts.
About the only aspect of the story presentation I was on the fence about was the visual effects used during the cutscenes. These cause (intentionally) brief and minor distortions to the image, as though the reception of the signal on your screen was flaky or something. Additionally, key words from the dialogue pop up on screen for extra emphasis, which I didn't think was necessary, but I guess if you aren't hanging on every word, this could be of use. These two "concerns" are far overshadowed by the quality of the story being told, however. I was impressed with the pacing, plot twists, and character development (especially that of Max), as well as the general sense of mystery that is kept in play.
Of course, a great story and characters isn't enough to make an interactive action title great. Fortunately, MP3 handles action wonderfully. Players can choose between three different styles of aiming, which is vital to how MP3 plays. In addition to free aim, where you control the reticule completely, there is soft and hard lock. Soft lock is cool, and I actually used it; when you press and hold LT, the reticule smoothly moves over to the next target. It's not an instant jump, and just waiting for it to move over to a target in your line of fire may get you killed, but I liked it. Hard lock is an instant targeting of the nearest enemy, which removes a lot of the challenge of the game, but gives you impressive kills pretty much every single time.
Now, in addition to these aiming modes, you have something that is forever associated with Max Payne: bullet time. To no surprise, that significant gameplay element is back. A small meter in the lower right corner of the HUD shows you how much bullet time you have, and players activate it with R3 or by performing the classic "Shootdodge," which sends Max diving in slow motion in the direction of the left stick, giving players ample time to line up multiple kill shots. Some of my favorite moments in MP3 came from landing on the floor after a shootdodge, and continuing to shoot while laying on my back.
Ah, welcome back bullet time.
Some bullet time events are scripted, too, and you will see these connected directly to the end of some in-game cutscenes. The new Last Man Standing element utilizes bullet time as well. Barring death by fire or grenade, whenever you take a killshot from an enemy, the game gives you one last chance to make good before sending you back to the last checkpoint, assuming you have some painkillers anyway. The enemy that killed you is slightly highlighted, and Max begins to slow turn his reticule in his direction. You can speed this up with the right stick, and as long as you can kill the enemy in the brief allotted time, you'll live. There is also Bullet
Cams, which follows the path of your bullet from muzzle to flesh, and you can slow this cinematic spectacle down by holding A. This is just like the bullet cam in Sniper Elite, only Max can do it with any weapon and at any distance. These pop up pretty rarely and randomly, and there always a treat. Bottomline, bullet time is as cool as it was ten years ago, and even more visually stunning now.
There are some twenty-five guns available to Max, but you can only carry three at a time (two handguns and a rifle), in order to add some realism I suppose. Additionally, Max's appearance changes with what guns you are carrying, even in the cutscenes, and I thought that was cool. Something about seeing Max carry an assault rifle under his arm while reloading his handgun or carrying it with his off hand in the middle of the barrel is just darn cool. Handgun combinations can be mixed and matched by the way, giving some creative offense options. I ultimately found the micro Uzi or old 1911 to be the best handgun options, but nearly every rifle in the game makes for a great primary weapon.
Controls in MP3 are laid out well and responsive, although I did experience a few minor, but notable finicky behaviors. Max is able to take cover (press X near most walls and doorways), and you can also separately crouch with L3. Sometimes, especially in the heat of battle, the cover system combined with trying to change my posture got a little unpredictable. Not in a 'oh this is broke' manner, but more so like it was just a little awkward or clunky. Second, I haven't quite figured out the combination of when this happens, but it seems like whenever I am carrying a rifle and I go through a door that triggers an in-game cutscene, gameplay returns with me holding my handgun. Likewise on a checkpoint, like in Chapter VII at the offices (where, just before the server room, I must have restarted that part a dozen times) -- the checkpoint had me set with the handgun as opposed to the rifle I had equipped. And actually one other time, after a cutscene (I believe in chapter VIII), my rifle was just completely gone. I'd also point out that sometimes The Last Man Standing feature is annoying if you happen to diving away from the person that killed you; there isn't enough time on some occasions to turn your aim around, so you basically just burn about ten seconds waiting for the game to let you die already and reload. Not a big deal, and it's rare, but I thought it worth mentioning. Speaking of dying, I liked the variety of death animations Max sustains when you do take that final shot to the head, face, chest, or what have you.
MP3 has a deep multiplayer component, too.
As far as level design goes, the layouts are very linear, and you're often encouraged -- in some cases forced -- to keep moving. There are no objective markers or maps to clutter things up, and there is often no question what direction you need to go. Max, or an NPC you are with, will often remind you constantly that hey, you need to keep moving. The first chapter actually has a part where you can fail and have to reload your checkpoint if you don't move quick enough, but there is no timer or indicator to let you know exactly how much time you have. Not necessarily a bad thing, but unexpected. In terms of the map layout though, there are some small diversions, like a room off to the side that might have a pickup like some painkillers or maybe a collectible. Objects related to the story and golden-gun pieces (three for each weapon) are your collectibles, and you can view your collecting status from the Pause menu. I'm a fan of collectibles when they make sense and aren't too ridiculous in number; MP3 fits that bill nicely. But as far as level design, in the grand scheme I thought Rockstar did a nice job of mixing large and small and indoor and outdoor environments. There is also a good mix of and use of scale -- vertically oriented "scenes" where you are in a helicopter (it's brief, but cool), or above/below enemies a couple of stories. As both a tactical and visual bonus, much of the cover available is destructible; watching it get chipped away bit by bit is eye candy and unnerving at the same time.
MP3 relies more on numbers than smarts when it comes to AI, at least on the default difficulty. Enemies are smart enough to take cover, some will even throw grenades, but they are more about numbers and firepower. This works out well, because it makes for intense and action-packed firefights, although on several occasions I thought there were just too many of them and it briefly diminished the immersion. Knowing when an enemy is fully dead is also a little flaky; I didn't notice until several hours into the game I think that the crosshair turns into a X when the enemy is slain, even though their animation may have them writhing and slowly collapsing. If you're not careful though, it's easy to pump a few rounds into a foe, watch him fall to the ground, only to have him pop up a few seconds later shooting at you. I thought there was a little bit of a disconnect there that made for some awkward moments.
Perhaps the biggest concern with the Story mode is the repetetion. This is masked well, or at least I thought so the first time I sat down and played through the first six chapters, but it's definitely there. In the second (harder) half of the game, when checkpoint reloads start piling up and they're further apart, my attention span and patience dropped some, making my play sessions shorter than originally. Don't get me wrong, playing was still fun, but the pattern had become clear and my tolerance for even my own mistakes had grew to where it was tough to play for more than a couple hours at a time without a break. By being so run-and-gun, MP3 sort of corners itself into this room-by-room firefight fest. I'm not saying every room you go into is a firefight, but that's the pattern -- story, action, story, action. No puzzles, no branching dialogue, no leveling or any RPG elements at all -- just lots of Max Payne bullet time action. That's not so much a complaint as just a statement, mind you, but excessive bullet time use can become tiring, as cool as it is. I tried to limit my use of bullet time because it's not essential all of the time. However, some packs of enemies are positioned and armed as such that without that advantage, you're in for some tough sequences.
Team based multiplayer action.
The Story mode is great, and upon completion you can try harder difficulty settings and jump to any chapter you wish. There is also the Arcade mode which features leaderboard integration. Here, players replay chapters to try and achieve the best score. Score Attack is all about scoring the most consecutive, insane kills, with combos and such multiplying your score. New York Minute has players dashing through chapters as quickly as possible, racing against the clock. Kills and headshots give back a few seconds of time. These modes are neat and welcome, but I don't see my self playing them a whole lot as I'm not really the type to spend time on chaining kills or rushing through levels.
The multiplayer mode, however, offers a lot of reason to keep playing. I've not spent nearly as much time in multiplayer as I have in the Story, but I'm impressed with how much content Rockstar has included on disc. Up to sixteen players can battle it out in single and team based modes including traditional DM and TDM, as well as the Payne Killer and Gang Wars modes. Payne Killer puts one player as Max, another as Passos, both of which have some tactical advantages over the other players, who become a temporary makeshift "team" that must kill Max and Passos. As the original Max and Passos are killed, other players become them, and the cycle continues. Gang Wars, outside of the quick DM round, has become my early favorite. It's similar to the story mode in that it's based off of story mode events, including some transitional cutscenes that setup the next round of play, whose mode randomly changes.
There is an XP and cash system too, allowing you to purchase lots of traditional goods (weapons, painkillers), as well as Bursts, which are special abilities (including bullet time). As you probably know, there is bullet time in multiplayer, but it only works on players in direct line of sight, which should help keep it balanced. There are a ton of Bursts that do a lot of different things. Big Dog Bursts improve player and team health; Trigger Happy yields temporary armor-piercing ammo, Grounded lets you disappear from the radar for 10 or more seconds, an so on. Bursts are creative and upgradeable, giving lots of flexibility and options to players in customizing their loadout and thus play style. There are also numerous Items that can be slotted to give different buffs from health boosts to cash multipliers.
And with that, lets head to the summary...