When Rockstar has a game to show off, the gaming press pays attention although for a little while there, it seemed almost strange to see the house that brought us sprawling adventures like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire lavish so much attention on a shooter like Max Payne 3. Of course the return of Max is a huge deal, but after more than eight years, is he really still relevant? Without developer Remedy at the helm, can the game stay true to its roots?
So far, the answers to those questions look to be a resounding "yes," although it'll be difficult to say for sure until the game comes out this May. For now, though, we can say that our first hands-on with Max Payne 3 has erased any lingering doubts from our minds. Two levels were proof enough to convince us that, linear or no, Remedy or no, Max still has what it takes to impress even his more jaded fans, and to be every bit the visual, visceral powerhouse he was eight years ago. We learned a lot during our demo, and we've boiled it all down into 11 key points, starting with
1. Sao Paulo can be a pretty nasty place
Rockstar seems pretty focused on making the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo a central character in its narrative, which sees ex-New York cop Max Payne turn to private security work for an ultra-rich family in the sprawling metropolis. The divide between Sao Paulos rich and poor is enormous, however, and crime particularly kidnapping is both widespread and commonplace. So it is that, early on in the story, Fabiana wife to Maxs employer, Rodrigo Branco is kidnapped by a street gang known as the Comando Sobra, and held for a $3 million ransom.
Our demo covered two areas: a massive, state-of-the-art soccer stadium that was home to the (fictional) Sao Paulo Galatians team, and a dockside complex filled with seedy warehouses (and conveniently explosive propane tanks). The stadium is where it all began, though, with Max and his partner, Raul Passos, arriving with the ransom. Just when it seemed like the handover would go smoothly, though, all hell (predictably) broke loose, as snipers from a mysterious paramilitary outfit (the Cracha Preto) opened fire with the aim of grabbing the money and ruining the deal.
2. Shootdodging is essential
Modern shooters and their over-reliance on realism and cover have turned a generation of gamers into cowards. Too often, their response to hails of bullets is to press a button to stick to the nearest piece of cover, where they wait, trembling in fear, for an opportunity to poke their heads out and rattle off a few shots. They dont realize that the correct way to face this kind of danger is face-first, with guns blazing. But Max does.
While you can activate bullet-time and slow down the action when youre running, standing or crouching, Maxs signature move has always been the shootdodge, a leap (in any direction) that engages bullet-time and lets him aim freely while sailing through the air in slow motion. It was a key part of the last two games, and picking it back up again felt natural. It was also incredibly fun; diving headlong toward enemies as their bullets whizzed overhead and unloading our guns with pinpoint precision at their crotches is a feeling most other games simply dont offer.
Certain parts of the levels we visited also seemed tailor-made for self-destructive shootdodging antics; theres a segment in the stadium level where our demo began, for example, where Max had to fight squads of goons across the bleachers. When they started attacking from the bottom of a long staircase, we immediately dove straight down the thing, blasting away at the thugs and landing with a crash on their crumpled bodies.
Well, it would have been on their bodies, except that we missed them and Max smacked into the concrete, taking some damage in the process. However, we were told that if wed managed to land on our enemies corpses, the damage wouldnt have been as bad.
As a bonus, Max will stay prone when he lands from a shootdodge, enabling you to keep shooting while keeping your profile low. Which is good, because
3. Maxs health doesnt regenerate
Of course, we all know that the real reason gamers have gotten so attached to cover isnt cowardice its that these days, hiding behind cover for a few seconds is the only way to heal. Max, by contrast, lacks the Wolverine-like healing factor enjoyed by so many other shooter heroes. Mostly, anyway if hes near death and you take a breather, hell recover just enough health to take a couple more slugs. If you want to keep Max alive, though, youre going to have to indulge his painkiller addiction.
Painkillers act like health packs (and can, thankfully, be carried around until you need them), and can be found in improbably located medicine cabinets scattered throughout the game. Theyre also fairly rare, so stumbling across a small cache of them feels like a godsend. (And if your stock of painkillers is somehow already full when you find a new one, it makes you feel like an unconquerable badass.)
4. Cover is helpful, but not always essential
OK, so, maybe shootdodging everywhere isnt for you. Or maybe youve gotten too careless with it, and now youre stuck in a bad place with just a sliver of health and enemies bearing down from all directions. If you want to do things methodically, Max Payne 3 has plenty of sticky cover to hide behind, enabling him to pick his targets from relative safety and gun them down one by one. Purists may deride it as a needless concession to modern gameplay mechanics, but that doesnt make it any less useful a tool.
5. The kill-cam is AMAZING
The biggest surprise of our demo wasnt how well shootdodging worked, or how easy it was to slip back into using bullet-time it was how much fun the final kill of each gunbattle was. When you kill the last of a group of enemies, the game briefly switches to a dramatic view, tracking your bullet as it leaves the gun in slow-motion and slams into its victim, who reactively spasms in realistic ways (also in slow-motion).
Thats not the cool part. The cool part is that your gun remains aimed perfectly at your enemy while the camera is focused on him, and you can continue pulling the trigger to elicit new reactions as new bullets rip through his torso. And at the same time, you can hold down a button to slow the action even more, varying the speed and pumping your enemy full of bullets and laughing your damn fool head off as he jerks and twitches.
The effect is breathtaking, and we hope it never, ever gets old. And speaking of things that never get old
6. Close-quarters kills are brutal
Get too close to an enemy, and attacking them will start up a nifty animation of Max smacking them around with his gun. The beauty of it is that you can pull the trigger while hes doing this, ending the combo with a quick execution. It may not be the most moral thing in the world, blowing away a thug youve already beaten senseless, but that doesnt make it any less cool-looking when Max beats an enemy with a shotgun and blasts him in the face at point-blank range.
7. Last Man Standing can and will save your life
Every so often, Max runs out of luck, and no amount of shootdodging, bullet-time or sticky cover can save him from taking one bullet too many. The good news is that if youre carrying a dose of painkillers, all is not lost. As Max collapses to the floor in slow motion, his reticule will slowly start to drift. Let it. Its trying to find the bastard that shot you, and when it does, youll be able to shoot him back. Pull that off, and your health will shoot back up to full as the painkiller dose you were carrying disappears.
8. Youre not always a lone gunman
Max traditionally works alone, but having Raul along changes up his usual dynamic a bit. In addition to watching Maxs back, Raul was a key part of some of the stadium levels more interesting moments like an extended torture sequence in which he interrogated a wounded gang member in Portuguese (something we were free to interrupt with a quick mercy killing).
Less gruesomely, one segment of the level involved covering Raul with a sniper rifle as he raced through the stadium stands, trying to reach safety. We could use bullet-time to easily take down the Cracha Preto thugs that stalked him, but with a little advice from our Rockstar handlers, we learned that by just leading them with the sniper scope keeping the reticule slightly in front of them we were able to take them down flawlessly every time. Basic stuff, maybe, but it worked beautifully.
9. You can aim your own way
One of the things that Rockstar seems proudest of is that its made it easy to aim accurately from the hip, something that used to be standard in shooters but in recent years has fallen into disfavor as zoom-aiming has become standard. And certainly, Maxs movements are quick and fluid enough that simply pointing yourself toward an enemy while running or shootdodging is usually enough to score accurate hits (although bullet-time helps with that a lot), but we still caught ourselves zooming in for a tighter, over-the-shoulder view more often than not.
And thats fine, because really, it works either way. Its also possible to adjust the level of aim-assist to your liking; after trying out free aim for a while, for example, we decided to bump down the difficulty a notch and make Max automatically target the nearest enemy when we zoomed in. Its possible to tinker with the aiming to the point of simply giving Max a lock-on function, apparently, but going that far seemed like it would defeat the purpose of the game.
Also, Max can carry up to three firearms at a time, wielding either paired smaller guns or one larger one, which he lugs visibly under one arm when not in use. Sometimes it was hard to remember to switch between them in the heat of battle, but in any case we ended up chewing through our ammo and finding new guns too quickly for it to really matter.
10. The animation is one of the games biggest showcases
Weve heard quite a bit from Rockstar about how Maxs dynamic, carefully motion-captured running-and-shooting animations are part of what sets Max Payne 3 apart and when you have a chance to drive the guy, youll see what they mean. Maxs movements, from the way he twists in midair to avoid a chunk of furniture during a shootdodge to the casual motion he uses to smash out a pane of glass so he can shoot through a window, are fluid, natural and make sense in the context of his surroundings, without the faintly robotic tics that typify other third-person shooter heroes.
But thats only the start every character in the game moves with a similar fluidity, frequently combining ragdoll Euphoria physics with scripted animations (i.e. when Raul ascended a staircase early in the demo, occasionally pausing to breathe or pull himself up the banister, we were told it was a motion-captured performance created using a life-size staircase set). The end result is satisfyingly realistic, especially when youre drilling it full of bullet holes in slow motion.
11. When Max isnt in Sao Paulo, hes in his own head
Well, technically, the entire game takes place in Maxs head, because its a story that hes recounting. However, the bits where hes somewhere other than Sao Paulo in New York, for example are flashbacks. Something will make Max wonder how he ever got into his current predicament, and naturally that means flashing back to something that happened a while ago. Its an interesting way to set up the games chronology, and hopefully its one that can inject a lot of variety into the already-varied setting and gameplay. In any case, our short time with Max Payne 3 was enormously fun while it lasted, and were eager to see what else the game has in store when it finally hits on May 15.