Sunday, 9 December 2012

Max Payne 3

The Title Screen

Introduction
The third instalment of the Max Payne series was released for PlayStation, Xbox and PC in 2012. It features a singleplayer campaign and multiplayer, and is now developed by Rockstar. Completing the singleplayer unlocks arcade time/score attack modes and new content is available through DLC.

Disclaimer: This is definitely a mature title, featuring frequent graphic violence, sexual themes and adult language. This review will not feature inappropriate content, but may make references.


The First Thing
My first impressions of Max Payne 3 were very bad.

I resent being forced to hand over my email to the "Rockstar social Club" in order to play. I do not like this compulsory ecosystem trend and I am hopeful of an eventual consumer backlash. Once set to 'Auto Sign-in', it is not intrusive, but I sure am looking forward to all the Grand Theft Auto V spam I'm going to receive.

Want to play? Join the Club...

I am fine with a heavy story focus, but the start is too overwhelmed with cutscenes for my taste; I was starting to get bored. It felt a very long time before I actually got to play. The V-Sync implementation is the kind where it locks to 30FPS if it ever dips slightly below 60, so parts will swap between 60 and 30 repeatedly, unless you have a very high spec PC. D3DOverrider created an external lock to 60, but did result in occasional stability issues (nothing major). Finally, the mouse felt horrible until I turned off the "Target Slowdown" option (under Gameplay).


Plot & Devices
Nine years after Mona, Max Payne (you) has left the New York Police Department and is existing on alcohol and painkillers. A fatal confrontation with the son of a mob boss one night forces Max to flee New York to São Paulo, where he accepts a private security job with an old police academy acquaintance, Raul Passos. Max continues to drown his sorrows but things quickly go wrong when his protectee is kidnapped by an army of thugs. Max will uncover conspiracy, betrayal and horror as he struggles to set things right in a harsh and unforgiving city.

Max Payne (at varying shades of dishevelled) 

The franchise has a new writer, and it is evident in the move to a more gritty action feel, reminiscent of films like 'Man on Fire'. Max is still the same tragic character, but he seems to have somewhat moved on from the death of his wife and child (which was fourteen years previously). There is a glimmer of potential redemption about him now, and he may find peace one day - if he survives.

The graphic novel plot delivery is gone, in favour of many cutscenes and in-game narration. Max will frequently narrate current events/feelings in a retrospective fashion. 'Clues' can be found throughout, which will prompt more narration on a specific point. Much of the plot is handled within cutscenes, but levels set in the past are used to explore current situations and relationships. The frequent narration, plus the flashback levels do much to help with the confusion that the player might have with events at the start. But I believe this is deliberate since Max is supposed to be a drunk wreck it makes sense he is confused.


The Game
Like the first two games, Max Payne 3 is a third person shooter with a focus on its iconic mechanic: Bullet Time. Max's Bullet Time power is recharged through combat and can slow down time immensely, but leaves the player able to aim at normal speed. This provides a huge combat advantage and is expected to be used as enemies will mostly attack en masse. Max can also dive in a direction with Bullet Time active to perform a 'Shoot Dodge'. Not only visually appealing, this is useful for reducing incoming damage by being a moving target. Since Max will be lying on the floor afterwards, a failed Shoot Dodge can easily result in his death. Bullet Time is also used to emphasise 'action heavy' events, but most of the time is just a resource to be managed.

"You saying I can dodge bullets?"

Max can carry three weapons; two 'one-handed' guns and one 'two-handed' gun. Dual wielding the 'one-handed' weapons will drop any equipped 'two-handed' gun automatically. Guns come in the standard variety, and the player is generally free to choose the weapons they feel like using. Enemies can be incredibly resilient if not shot in key areas, and bullet spraying tactics will not achieve results. The targeting reticule changes briefly when an enemy is killed, which is especially useful during Bullet Time. There are occasional game segments where ammunition is infinite, as the spectacle is more important than the conservation gameplay elements.

Health is replenished only by painkillers, which are found throughout the levels. These pills are often hidden, making exploration worthwhile. Enemy attacks are very damaging, encouraging a sensible style of play. Max Payne 3 features a new cover system that allows the adoption of a careful strategy when needed, but crucially no targeting reticule appears in cover - keeping combat from becoming trivial. There are collectibles also hidden around the level, and small achievements can be earned which grant 'XP' for the multiplayer. Levels are generally quite linear, but feature offshoots to explore.

"Last Man Standing" is a new mechanic that activates when Max takes fatal damage, if he has one or more painkillers. Instead of dying he falls down and is given a few seconds of Bullet Time to shoot the attacker responsible. If this window expires he will die, but a successful shot will kill the enemy and consume a painkiller instead; resulting in a 'lives' style system. Enemy animations have received much effort and players will find their attacks have somewhat appropriate responses. Enemy type is not particularly varied, but the effort into animations, and the occasional grand set pieces, prevents combat from being repetitive. 

Unstoppable

The graphical fidelity is good, with vibrant and complex environments; but the characters look bad in cutscenes by contrast. Effort is put into making into the game visually impressive and Max Payne 3 feels heavily stylised. Visual filters and effects used frequently (bullet-time, alcoholism, pills, etc) and key dialogue is written emphatically on the screen. Although the graphic novel concept is gone, a wordless comic book recapping events is used in the loading screens.

The sound effects are excellent, and the character interaction is voiced to a good standard. Lots of Spanish with no subtitles helps establish the confusion Max feels and licensed songs are used for background music at appropriate moments. The effort placed into the PC version is nothing short of spectacular, with the graphics options being extensive and providing an estimation of graphical memory used (which is a fantastic idea). All controls are rebindable, and the mouse control is quite adequate; although a little off perfect. I did not encounter any bugs, except once or twice with the collision engine.


Wrap Up & Negatives
If you do not like cutscenes, then this game will annoy you as there are a lot. They come in two types, short and longer. Longer are used to hide loading times and progress the story/character interaction through events or dialogue. The shorter (which are the most frequent) maintain gameplay pace. I do not feel the short cutscenes will cause any problems as they are worked very well into gameplay, but the longer ones may leave some players annoyed. In the first half of the game the cutscenes feature a visual effect to symbolise Max's drunken state which, whilst stylistic and relevant, is used so frequently that it started bothering me and giving me a headache.

The non-stop use of this effect became bothersome to me

The story is a bit weak and its themes are very generic: revenge, kidnapping, foreigners, depressing country, horrors humans are capable of, redemption, etc. It basically is 'Man on Fire', but with a white guy. The story loses it's pacing towards the end, with new levels feeling isolated from the rest. The last two chapters in particular felt really out of place, although were full of good gameplay.

I felt the checkpoint system to be quite inconsistent. Sometimes forgiving, sometimes not, and never clear when it has happened. Having to repeat difficult sections a few times is perfectly fine, but repeating a section that takes 10/15 minutes starts to become frustrating.


Personally
Given the horrible start, it may come as a surprise that I liked it. Although it feels thematically different, and I liked the first two games more. The plot is by no means boring, my advice is to detach oneself a little from it. It starts becoming ridiculous to try and relate to an overall story as Max Payne really is an ultimate, unstoppable killing-machine and the number of eradicated enemies quickly reaches unjustifiable levels. Max is also a little difficult to identify with as a character, as he basically is the most physically talented man on the planet but won't stop with the self-loathing/complaining.

However, focusing on the actual mechanics of gameplay...then you perhaps have one of the finest third-person shooters there is. It is very enjoyable to just play Max Payne 3. Anyone who likes third-person shooters, or action games in general, is doing themselves a great disservice if they haven't played this game. Just keep a light hearted approach to the story, and Max's constant "I opened the door to the next circle of this low-rent hell" outlook on life.




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