Max Payne 3 Hands-On Preview – Action Satisfaction
Written Thursday, March 01, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
It seems that there's been a great deal of apprehension from dyed in the wool Max Payne fans that under Rockstar's control, Max Payne 3 could well fail to live up to the lofty benchmark Remedy Entertainment set with the first two games. Hell, we had similar misgivings about the direction Max Payne 3 might have taken without the creative input of its original creators – although Remedy has still had its say during the development of MP3 - but having now played and experienced a decent chunk of gameplay, you can consider any misgivings duly shot out of the barrel of a gun and into oblivion.
We've nothing to worry about, as Rockstar's bluster about Max Payne 3 potentially 'redefining' the third-person action game is no empty boast, but a genuine mission statement that's immediately evident from the moment you pick up the controller. Right off the bat, Rockstar recommends playing with free-aim on (which is the default setting), although there's options for soft lock to help out less experienced shooter players. We soon understand why free aim is the way to go, as it makes you play Max Payne 3 the way you always have in the past two games. Make no mistake: this really is Max Payne, but the action dial has been cranked right up to 11. At least it has in the sections we played anyway.
Kicking off with a fast-cut opening cutscene, we enter at chapter III in the narrative, with Max's employer, Rodrigo Blanco and his extended family discussing paying the ransom for his trophy wife, Fabiana, who's been kidnapped by the Comando Sombra favela gang, led by the unscrupulous Serrano. In a scene reminiscent of Dirty Harry, we pick up our hands-on with Max's close friend Raul Passos, landing slap-bang in the middle of the Estado de Galatians football field, making the ransom exchange with the Comando Sombra. It's a tense situation that ends with Max taking a sniper slug to his arm (“my second favourite drinking arm” Max quips) from the nosebleeds, before having to make his way into the dressing rooms, while his internal monologue plays out. “How had this gone so wrong, so quickly?” Max muses, as Passos helps him to safety and bandages up his bleeding bicep.
Ready for action, we pick up some painkillers and engage in our first firefight as paramilitary guns for hire, the Crachá Preto slowly file into the Galatians FC practice room, searching for Max and Passos. Entrenched in cover, we're able to assess the odds before diving into action, which is exactly what we do. Mantling over the barrier, we run into the thick of it, leaping straight into bullet time to deal with the mercenaries. Bullet time is still Max Payne 3's core mechanic, so you'll need to keep an eye on your bullet time gauge and slow things down at just the right time. Wading in haphazardly will get you killed quickly, unless you tap up on the d-pad to knock back some pills, so bullet-dodging by diving with the right bumper or initiating bullet time whenever you please by clicking in the right analogue stick is vital.
In fact, bullet time is still very much the anchor for Max Payne 3's action sequences and renders the action as exciting, bombastic and gratifying as it always was in Remedy's first two outings with Max. Shootouts are still punctuated with gratuitous but glorious slow-motion kill cams too, placing control in your hands as the camera charts the fatal bullet from Max's muzzle to its target. Holding A slows the action down, letting you admire your handiwork as it unfolds, like when we land a perfect nutshot on an unfortunate Crachá Preto henchman, sending him doubling over in agony and crashing to the ground. Boasting a considerable amount of motion-capture, animations are uniformly excellent too, and this extends to both enemies and Max's AI allies, as demonstrated when Passos cautiously scouts ahead of Max, checking the stairwell for bad guys.
Making our way to the top of the stadium, there are more action beats as another frenetic firefight breaks out among the seating as soldiers close in on Max and Passos. Guns are disposable tools in Max Payne 3, so tossing away a shotgun or a pistol is no big deal, as there's always another assault rifle, revolver or uzi to scoop up and holster. Weapons are accessed via the left bumper's weapon wheel, enabling you to wield either a two-handed weapon like a shotgun or rifle, a one-handed gun like an uzi or pistol, or alternatively you can put a pair of one-handed weapons in each of Max's chunky mitts for some classic dual-wield action.
Eventually, we end up climbing to the rafters where we dispose of a sniper, steal his gun and cover Passos in an edgy sniper scope set-piece that has us tracking Max's buddy and protecting him from incoming hostiles. Normally this kind of aside would be an arduous chore, but in this instance, it's not only enjoyable but suitably dramatic too, deftly ratcheting up the tension once again.
After this particular juncture, we move on to the second chapter of our demo, which takes place a few days after the previous sequence. Max is still sporting his bandages, but this time he's decked out in a flak jacket and proper gear rather than a casual shirt, and he's packing a silenced pistol. After a seamless and neatly executed cinematic transition, bereft of any loading times whatsoever, we're treated to a memory harking back to Max's past in New Jersey (with all the juicy spoiler bits cut out), before we embark upon the next portion of our demo, which sees us fighting the Comando Sombra once again, in and around a complex ensconced within the Sao Paulo favelas.
Opening with some henchmen moving contraband from the back of a pickup truck, we take cover behind a boat, before hastily opening fire and triggering a shitstorm of gang violence. This silenced pistol ain't gonna cut it... It turns out that we could have shot out the block holding the truck's wheels in place to send it down the slipway and into the sea, and there'll be a number of environmental opportunities like this to take advantage of in the full game. You'll just need to keep your wits about you to spot them.
Infiltrating the Comando Sombra compound, we weave our way through shipping containers and corrugated steel-roofed shacks, as the rain hammers down, trickling into big muddy puddles, and the villains start wriggling out of the woodwork. Max Payne 3's enemies are pretty damn smart too, so taking respite behind cover can sometimes be a short-lived luxury, as you'll be actively hunted and flanked before you know it. We learn this the hard way, hiding in an office tucked away in the corner of a warehouse, only to be ambushed and shot to pieces. Thank goodness for the game's 'last man standing' feature then, which gives you the chance to earn a second wind at the cost of one bottle of pills, provided you can quickly take down the specific bad guy who delivered the near-fatal bullet.
Of course you can turn the tables on your targets and hunt them down too, and with bullet time at your fingertips, it's effortless to make yourself look cool. Equally satisfying are the melee attacks, which see Max brutally smacking enemies down, and if you pull the trigger, you'll execute them immediately after doling out a good hiding. Again, it's stylish, brilliantly brutal and achingly cool. After wreaking our fair share of havoc, shooting up the place and blowing up anything that looks like it'll go boom, we remember to finally exhale and conclude our two-hour demo.
Rockstar is hoping to play with the tempo in Max Payne 3, ramping up the action at the right moments and winding things down as and when it's required. On the basis of what we've played, it seems perfectly pitched, with downtime in between the all-out bullet time-fuelled firefights. You're also presented with choices in some instances, such as letting enemy patrols pass rather than engaging them all guns blazing, but with such incredibly enjoyable shooter mechanics, you'll want to blow away every bad guy you come across, although it's not always necessary.
There are aspects of Max Payne 3 that we're not quite sure about at present, like the game's take on the series' comic book panel sequences, which have been transformed into stylised cut-scenes with visual effects that have yet to be finalised, and snatches of text that pop up on the screen at various intervals. These cut scenes flow seamlessly into the gameplay, which is fantastic, but we have a feeling that Max Payne fans might not be too pleased with the new style adopted by the cinematic, non-playable portions of the game. Still, despite that solitary complaint, playing Max Payne 3 is still an unbridled joy. In fact, it might just be the best action movie ever made. And you get to play it. If Rockstar can maintain this same high standard throughout the duration of Max Payne 3, then we'll have another winner on our hands for sure.
Max Payne 3 is out on May 15th in North America and May 18th in Europe. Cast your eyeballs over 11 new screenshots in the gallery.