Max Payne 3, the return of everyone’s favorite down-on-his-luck detective has been a long time coming. After the release of Max Payne 2 in 2003, developers Remedy Entertainment sold the IP to Rockstar, who had published the first two games and then proceeded to sit on it for nearly a decade. But at long last, Max Payne 3 is nearing completion, and I was lucky enough to go hands on with a couple portions of the game’s single player campaign on Xbox 360.
The game takes place about five years after the end of Max Payne 2, and the world has not been kind to poor old Max. He’s been drowning his sorrows in alcohol and popping pain killers, and surprisingly, they haven’t exactly improved his normally cheery disposition. But after meeting up with an old friend, Raul Passos, Max accepts a job as a security guard working for wealthy industrialist, Rodrigo Branco, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Naturally, things go bad pretty quickly, and Branco’s wife, Fabiana, is abducted, so it’s up to Max Payne to overcome his afflictions and rescue her.
I was told Max Payne 3′s story will not progress in chronologically linear fashion, and will jump around between a few times and places, most notably New York City and Sao Paulo. Stylistically, the game retains much of the gritty, noir-style method of story telling, with Max narrating his own story along the way. The graphic novel style cutscenes of the first two games has been replaced with fully animated, in-engine cutscenes, however, they’re still quite stylish in their own way, utilizing quick cuts, and comic-style overlays.
The first part of the demo took place in New York, and saw Max and (insert friend’s name) confronted by a group of angry mobsters. The action is hectic right away, and you are immediately familiarized with the game’s new cover system. Don’t roll your eyes just yet, as Max Payne 3′s cover system works a bit differently than, say, Gears of War. For one thing, the A button’s only functions are to make Max run, or do a dive roll when double-tapped. The X button attaches you to cover, and the Y button is used to pick up weapons and interact with things. It’s a refreshing change from having the A button perform nearly every function, and it’s nice to see some third person shooters finally moving away from that design philosophy (Spec Ops: The Line being another one which does so).
And then, of course, there is Bullet Time. The original Max Payne was about the closest thing you could play to a John Woo movie at the time of its release, and the series still does the slow motion diving and shooting better than the rest (sorry, Stranglehold). Tapping the right bumper will cause you to leap in whichever direction you designate, guns held out in front of you. It allows you the time to take out larger groups of enemies, and part of the fun is deciding where to leap and how best to approach any given situation. For example, the second level of the demo takes place at a soccer stadium in Brazil, where Max and (insert friend’s name) have been sent to make the exchange for the businessman’s wife. As you might have guessed, things don’t go as planned and the mission turns into a chase throughout the stadium. At one point, I performed a truly harrowing dive down a long flight of stairs, taking out every enemy along the way before hitting the ground. I died from the fall damage, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the most amazing things I’ve done in a game recently.
Bullet time comes into play in a couple of other ways as well. When you’ve cleared every enemy out of an area except for one, a slow motion kill cam will activate as you take out the last guy. Holding the A button down allows you to extend the kill cam as you continue to riddle the dying man with bullets. It’s brutal and over the top, but it’s oh so satisfying.
While the kill cam extension is mostly just for fun, the other use for bullet time serves a considerably more practical purpose. When you’re low on health and take that one final bullet to push you over the edge, time slows down as Max tumbles to the ground. But that doesn’t mean the end for Max – similar to the second wind system employed by Borderlands, you get the chance to take down the enemy who shot you last. Doing so gives Max a second wind of his own, allowing him to continue the fight. It’s a great system, and one which works particularly well here, especially since Max Payne 3 doesn’t utilize the all-too-popular regenerative health system that most modern games employ. You’ll be popping pills for health just like you did in the previous Max Payne games.
Even moreso than the tight, polished gameplay, what struck me about Max Payne 3 was its attention to little details. For example, you’ve got four weapon slots – two slots for one handed weapons, a dual wielding slot that combines both of your single handed weapons, and a slot for two handed weapons like assault rifles and shotguns. If you’re carrying a two handed weapon, but currently using a one handed weapon, you’ll see Max carrying the two handed weapon in his off hand, rather than it disappearing into some nebulous inventory. When you reload the one handed weapon, you’ll see Max tuck the two handed one under his arm to free up his hands. Switching to dual wielding causes him to simply toss the two handed weapon on the ground. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but those little things really add up. Another example is that Max doesn’t understand Portuguese, so when you hear people speaking it in Brazil, there is no translation.
Before getting to try Max Payne 3 for myself, I was skeptical that Rockstar could truly capture the essence of the series without Remedy at the helm. My doubts have been completely laid to rest, and Max Payne 3 seems poised to deliver one of the finest action experiences of the year. It’ll be out for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on May 15th, 2012.