Spoiler Alert: I’ll do my best to refrain from spoiling plot details, but as the gameplay and the plot are wound tightly together it will be difficult. You have been warned.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance and value of less restrictive open gameplay. It’s not that I’m not a fan of more linear titles, but in the long run I tend to put more value in a game which lets me do whatever I want over a game that tells me what to do. Then I played the very linear Max Payne 3 this weekend and realized as I was playing that the game was making me eat my words. I haven’t been immersed in a linear single player campaign like this in a long time and I was surprised, quite frankly, that the third installment of a series I had already played to death would be the game to do it.
Usually a sequel this far removed, time-wise, from its predecessor runs the risk of feeling out-dated (I’m looking at you Duke Nukem) and more often than not doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors or even its peers. Older mechanics and characters that were once relevant no longer are, and the gameplay that was fun and engaging years earlier seems like well-worn territory in the next generation. I didn’t even bother picking up the game when it was released in May because I assumed there was no way I would enjoy it as much as the first two, and I didn’t feel like being let down. Boy was I wrong.
It’s been nine years since the events of the second Max Payne, and although he’s wearing a fancy suit and has a new gig working as a bodyguard/mercenary for a well-to-do family in South America, he’s still the same old Max. Sure, he may have tried to start over, but his demons it seems have followed him. If anything he’s become even more gloomy and hopeless than before. His narration is still as dark and poetic as ever, and even though he spends his days guarding the rich and powerful he spends his nights popping pain killers, and downing whiskey, like Dr. House on a bender.
Just a typical Tuesday night.
Even though Max is the one taking painkillers, it’s the player who feels the effects. Everything about the game feels surreal from the camera angles and quick editing to the occasional words appearing on the screen as if Max is taking mental notes of the important parts of the dialogue. Some of this oddness disappears during combat which is crisp and clean, but reappears once it has ceased, as if his combat adrenaline turns off all of the pills and booze for a while.
This doesn’t feel accidental; Rockstar has clearly gone out of their way to combine the narrative and the gameplay into one seamless flowing experience. Many of the combat sequences flow naturally from a cinematic, only to then flow back into another cinematic. I didn’t notice it at first, even after I started paying attention to it, but that’s where the loading was taking place. Max would be walking around talking to someone or running to take cover from enemy fire while the next sequence was loading quietly behind the scenes. I missed the old comic book loading screens from the first two games, but I have to say this new method really kept the game moving.
I do miss the old comics though…
There’s an intense commitment to the subtle details found in almost all aspects of the gameplay. Max’s narration is smooth and versatile, often changing based on what the player does or where they go. On the few occasions in which I was pressed for time I wasn’t rushed by some intrusive timer or giant blinking arrow, but by Max himself in the form of well spoken self-depreciating humor. In fact all of his dialogue was incredibly well written, as it was in the previous titles, most of which had me chuckling even if it was mostly depressing and morbid.
Nowhere are the subtle details of the game more obvious than in how Max’s gun inventory is structured. He can hold two one-handed guns, usually pistols, at a time which can also be dual-wielded if the player chooses. If the player wishes to pick-up a two-handed weapon they can use it, drop it, or hold it for later in Max’s left hand. If you want to dual wield once again it means you’ve got to drop the two-handed weapon. It seems counterintuitive as most games have a gun inventory that behaves similar to Mary Poppins’ magical bag where guns vanish and reappear at the player’s command. This current system does give the whole experience a kind-of thrown together feel. Like Max, the player is never really prepared or knows what they need, picking-up the weapons off fallen enemies at random in the hope that the bullets don’t run out. Sometimes all you have is a pistol and you just have to deal with it.
A realistic gun inventory also makes you look like a bad-ass.
There wasn’t much about the game that I didn’t enjoy, but one thing that bothered me was the game’s nasty habit of defaulting back to the pistol after a cinematic. Even if I was using a shotgun or AK-47, if Max switched to a handgun in the cinematic I was stuck holding it when combat resumed. It did keep with the game’s flowing continuity, but it got me killed a few times as well. Past that however, I didn’t notice many other gameplay flaws, if you could call them that.
There are so many other little physical details about the game that I’m sure I didn’t see them all. Max’s suit, which starts off kind-of unkempt yet still presentable, degenerates slowly during the first two chapters. After some combat Max goes home for the night, throwing his suit on the floor, when he puts it on again the next day it clearly looks like a suit that spent a night on the floor. Not long after I watched his dry suit shirt become soaked through with sweat as the combat became more and more intense.
Normally players may see some changes in their characters general appearance, but this all seemed to be happening in real-time. It’s not like someone was shooting off the buttons on my shirt, but there was a slow and steady degeneration of his appearance with each mission, and it goes a long way in making it all seem believable. The game is full of those “wouldn’t it be cool if” features that seem to be absent in many other games.
Mo-cap was used well and helped to make things more believable.
This level of polish and attention to detail comes from Rockstar’s deep understand of their own gameplay. They didn’t just copy the old style and slap on some new graphics (side note: the game looks incredible), they knew exactly what needed to go and what needed to stay; they reinvented it, and then polished the hell out of it. Even the old painkiller health system, which was essentially an old school med pack system, was combined with the now industry standard regenerating health system, helping to update the older system for this generation.
The story, from beginning to end, was vastly more sophisticated than its predecessors. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse, but the story is more mature and held my attention in a way that is usually reserved for film. It’s non-linear, it moves around, goes backwards, changes locations, people, etc. It’s a very rewarding experience if you can keep up.
Anyone who played the first two games knows that Max is the kind of guy who sees the world in various shades of black, and even though he acts and sounds like a man who has given up on the world he always finds himself fighting against the hopelessness of it all one bullet at a time. This installment of the franchise is no exception, and while Max seems to excel at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he also seems to excel at getting out of that very wrong place in whatever time he pleases. It’s this duality of Max that Max Payne 3 capitalizes on; he’s the protagonist and the antagonist, sometimes simultaneously.
Max is covered in shadows throughout the game.
In the beginning of the game Max spends his time with clean-cut wealthy people in nice well-maintained places, but he’s a drunken mess. Later on he finds himself in the poverty stricken underbelly of South America, but he’s sober and clean, well cleaner. Max is always contrasted with what’s going on around him; he’s always out of place. While it seems sad and depressing, and it is, it also makes for awfully great and immersive gameplay.
I didn’t really expect to be surprised by a linear single-player title again, at least not before the next-generation of consoles, but I’m glad I was wrong. Maybe there’s hope for the old formula yet.