Despite their undeniable status as hard-line, quietly influential genre classics, Max Payne and its sequel were largely beloved for two reasons in particular: because dark humour always endured, and because an imaginative set-piece was never too far away. Humour in videogames hasn’t become that much more essential in the eight years since Max Payne’s last endeavour, but grandiose set-pieces are now mandatory business for any burgeoning action adventure. We were lucky enough to see a prolonged sequence from Max Payne 3 in action at Rockstar’s London HQ recently, and it proved two things; bone-dry humour is still very much on the menu, and Rockstar’s impeccable gift for crafting memorable action sequences is likely to bring Max Payne to a completely new audience.
But hardcore fans aren’t being abandoned. The visuals are still simultaneously dark and glossy and the gameplay is still largely relentless, and for all the evidence of the narrative’s freshly seasoned pith and verve, this remains a thoroughbred shooter at its core. Despite the fact that you can now interact with Max far more dynamically – you can utilise cover, aim down the sights of your weapon and equip dropped enemy weapons simply by passing over them – this patently isn’t a cover-based shooter. Lengthy corridors and vast wide-open spaces (in which effective enemy cover spots are almost totally absent) replace the static kill-boxes of its cover-based contemporaries, and Rockstar’s now-traditional single dot targeting reticule has been handed down from GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption.
Our preview opens with a cut-scene; we’re in Payne’s Sao Paulo apartment, and seconds after finding out that Max appears to have accidentally slain the child of an influential mob boss, his home is under siege from all sides. The cinematic sheen, physics and character animations are both instantly breathtaking but the most impressive visual aspect is the pin-sharp clarity of the bullet trajectory. When you enter bullet-time, the shells that are whizzing past your head aren’t merely an aesthetic illusion, they’re an exact representation of where the danger zones are; so if you get in their way, those slow-moving rounds will hit you. The purity and lucidity of these graphics is sure to result in a game that’s much more invigorating than either of its predecessors, simply because dancing around “actual” bullets must be a hell of a lot more involving than reacting to a kaleidoscopic mirage.
As ever, a big part of the fun involves barrelling through dangerous areas at a furious clip, utilising every trick in your arsenal to dispatch every last enemy with as much speed – and panache, of course – as you possibly can. And even if you instinctively keep diving for cover, the inexorably canny enemy AI will force you out of it in almost no time. Your inventory is now alot more limited – which means that constantly picking up discarded weapons is another strategy that should never be avoided – and an ingenious new ‘Morale’ system visibly rewards your skill, accuracy and general aptitude.
So if you bring your A game to a gunfight – and execute a parade of bang-on head shots, utilise ammunition sparingly and push forward aggressively – some of your assailants are going to down tools and run away rather than face off against you. We managed to see this system operating in reverse; during one skirmish the player’s approach was somewhat sloppier than intended, and enemies not only became far more fiendish (simultaneously employing crafty flanking manoeuvres) but also arrived in greater numbers, some of them decidedly late in the day.
The game’s multiplayer suite is looking every bit as extensive as expected, but the new ‘Gang Wars’ mode is undoubtedly the centrepiece. It’s a team and objective-based set-up that features its own rolling narrative. So secure too many pieces of your opponent’s turf in one round, and the next one could find you having to maintain it against enemy bomb attacks, or having to defend the last round’s MVP; whose performance has led to a hefty bounty being put on his head. These little plot lines even tie in with the campaign’s main story, and the imaginative, perk-like ‘Burst’ abilities allow you to do things like quietly enable friendly fire for the competing team, or have your character’s appearance alter so that you can sneak behind enemy lines undetected.
One other sequence that we saw very briefly – which took place in an abandoned baseball stadium and was seemingly an homage to a scene from Die Hard With A Vengeance – featured Max trying to assist in a hostage escape with the aid of a sniper rifle. It’s an engaging, punchy set-piece that suggests the presence of some thoughtful variety, but it isn’t long before you’re thrown straight back into another round of that quintessential run-and-gun pandemonium. The incomparably dour James McCaffrey is still the voice of Max, painkillers continue to be your best friend and a hefty chunk of the plot looks like it’s going to be delivered via voiceover, but Max Payne 3 looks like it’s clever enough to bring exactly the right amount of quiet innovation to the table too.
Max Payne 3 is currently due for release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday, May 18th 2012. The PC version is due for release on Friday, June 1st 2012.
To find out exactly what’s in the Special Edition version, click here.
Watch the trailer for Max Payne 3 below: