Friday, April 13, 2012

Max Payne 3 hands-on preview

Max Payne 3 sees the long-awaited return of Rockstar's hard-boiled anti-hero.

Formats: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: 19 May 2012
It’s been eight years since we last saw Max Payne. And time, it seems, is not the kindest mistress for the disgraced NYPD cop. Max’s fall was a hard one, kicked out of the force straight into the bottom of a bottle. Drunk, overweight and with nothing left to live for, Max drifts south with his old colleague Raul Passos into Sao Paulo, Brazil. Working as security for property magnates the Branco Family, Max is hoping to see out his later years in relative comfort, chaperoning the high-end of Brazilian society and disappearing into a liquor haze, forgetting New York, his job and the loss of everything he ever loved.
Eight years is also a long time in video games. The first two Max Payne titles were a revelation for third-person-shooters, delivering high-octane action draped in grimy noir stylings. Inspired by John Woo and The Matrix, Max Payne’s bullet-time and sharp-edged narrative was startingly relevant. The greatest trick that Rockstar pull with Max Payne 3 is moving with the times, while keeping the core that made the first two games so revered. And so much fun.
So for John Woo read Michael Mann. For graphic novel panels read 24-style split-screen. For cheesy noir one-liners like “He was trying to buy more sand for his hour glass. I wasn't selling any.” read, well, cheesy noir one-liners like “This operation had more smoke and mirrors than a cheap Brooklyn strip joint.” Some things are definitely best left well alone.
The most obvious change lies in presentation. While it was Alan Wake developer Remedy behind the original games, Rockstar has taken Max in-house, a collaborative effort from its studios around the globe. And Rockstar DNA runs right through Max Payne 3. For our demo, we join Max in the office of Rodrigo Branco, the head of the super-rich family. His wife has been kidnapped by a guerilla outfit demanding $3million for her return. After a terse discussion with his entourage, fabulously directed with sharp spikes of colour and highlighted snippets of information overlaying the screen, Branco agrees to pay the ransom. Those bright flashes occur regularly throughout cutscenes and occasionally during play, a dizzying effect that puts you inside Max’s alcohol-riddled but always observant mind. The voice acting is also terrific, Max is voiced (and motion-captured) by original actor James McCaffery, his familiar gravel baritone rumbling through the bass speaker in Rockstar’s demo room as forcefully as any explosion we hear later. And there were certainly plenty of those.
As you might expect, the hand-off to the kidnappers doesn't exactly go to plan. The two camps agree to meet on the pitch of the fictitious Galatians FC stadium, but as Max and Raul go to hand over the cash in the centre-circle, a sniper takes out most of the guerillas on the pitch and punctures a hole in Max's "second favourite drinking arm". The appearance of a third party, a suspiciously well-equipped paramilitary team, throws the stadium into chaos. Max and Raul scramble their way through changing rooms and bleachers, while the two factions wage war around them.
It's easy to be impressed with the style and detailing, but it's not until you actually take control of Max that Rockstar's work begins to really sparkle. Max is graceful for a chubby alcoholic, but moves with a real sense of weight. There were concerns that a cover system could rip the heart out of Max's up 'n at 'em carnage, but here it’s just a small part of your arsenal. You'll be able to hunker down for a brief moment of respite, plan an attack and maybe pop a few bad guys before flinging yourself back into action, but you won't be able to clear a room from behind a wall without being blitzed. Enemies move in smart flanking movements to flush you out of your position. The trained paramilitaries, in particular, are far more tactical than the wild, suicidal guerillas.
So rather than hiding and picking off goons as they pop their head over cover, you'll have to rely on that staple of Max Payne: bullet time. Pressing down the right stick washes the screen in a fluorescent glow, light streaking across the screen as time slows down. The effect is spectacular, wood splintering and kicking up as bullets shred through desks and partitions, shell casing tinkling on the floor, glass shattering into hundreds of individual pieces when hit by human or ordnance. The audio track takes on a thrumming echo, bullets hitting goons with a lingering, gruesome thup as blood spits out in slow-motion.
As you'll be spending a great deal of Max Payne 3 in Bullet Time, Rockstar have crafted the game around it, both visually and mechanically. Set pieces, such as giving Raul cover with a sniper rifle as he sprints across the stadium stands, come to life when slowed down. And Max's various abilities are a springboard --or a glorious full stop-- to vicious bouts of Bullet Time. The classic shoot-dodge --where Max gracefully dives through the air-- is present and correct, enhanced by the cover mechanic as you tumble in and out of defensive positions, spinning in mid air while your twin Uzis spit fire at your quarry. Landing is as important as takeoff, with any scenery that Max clips naturally throwing him off trajectory, nudging your aim away. When he thuds to the ground, you can stay prone and swivel 360 degrees to finish off any stragglers. Finally, should you take a few too many bullets, Max will tumble to the ground, the screen washing out except for a guiding light emanating from the guy who shot you last. Plug the swine and, as long as you're carrying painkillers (Max Payne's version of health packs), you'll leap back to your feet.
The additions and tweaks to the Max Payne formula are simple enough, but terrifically effective. However, it's also what hasn't changed that makes Max Payne 3 feel surprisingly fresh. Much rests on the fact that Max feels that third-person shooters have gone soft, and 3 is a hard-boiled game for a hard-boiled man. There’s no regenerative health, instead Max is restricted to a single life bar (indicated by his silhouette in the corner of the screen) that can only be replenished by gulping painkillers. And in the midst of a firefight, that health bar turns red startlingly quickly. Coddled by regenerating health for around a decade, it’s only when it’s gone that you remember what a game-changer it is. Firefights have to be planned and executed with speed and precision if you want to make it out with a decent sliver of health and your painkiller stock intact. Max Payne 3 is also designed with a free aim system in mind. While you have the option of two degrees of lock-on, the default offers no aid whatsoever. With the heft of excellent feedback, no regenerative health and the knowledge you are in complete control, there’s a special satisfaction to a well-executed bullet-fuelled ballet. And when things go wrong, you’ll feel every inch the fat, bumbling idiot as you’re perforated by goons with big guns.
On this evidence, Rockstar has Max Payne 3‘s action nailed. A combination of old and new, capturing the gritty centre of the original games while adding enough modern flourish to impress in a now oversubscribed genre. Rockstar’s trademark labyrinthine plotting and cinematic presentation is also front and centre, flitting between Sao Paulo and flashbacks to New York. As long that narrative doesn’t become too tangled and continues to provide such terrific theaters of war to conduct your violent symphony, those eight years will be worth the wait.

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