We just watched a bullet slowly bore through a man's skull. It left a big empty chunk in both the entry and exit wounds. It was simultaneously the most revolting and amazing thing we've seen in a long while.
On one hand, it's a revolting display of ultra violence that could turn the stomach if you thought about it too hard. But on the other – infinitely more important – hand, it's a glorious display of the hardboiled fiction Max Payne is famous for. They don't have to zoom in to show you the extent of the damage your bullet does, but it's important to the series' tone of stylistic realism.
“Here's a scenario: There's three or four guys in front of you,” said the Rockstar rep who led us through the demo. “The most direct way, the easiest way, is probably just to run in and take them out with some straight shots to the face. But there's a ledge twenty feet to the left of you, and you've got to go out of your way to get there to leap off to shoot them in bullet time on the way down. It's out of your way, but you do it because it looks great. Form over function. It's about feeling like a badass action hero.”
His point is well taken, but it also belies the complexity of Max Payne as a character, which is much more visible in this third iteration of the series. Rockstar's vision for Payne casts him much more as an anti-hero than the previous games. He's not just a badass action hero, he's also a drunk and overweight pill-popper. What's most surprising is that Rockstar has found ways of conveying a sense of Payne's character through gameplay.
Whereas in the first two games Payne was a nigh-unstoppable shooting machine, in the third he's much sloppier. He'll leap into a slow-motion bullet spray, but if he gets hit hard during that move he'll just fall flat on the ground like a buffoon. Max Payne is a skilled gunman, but he's also scrappy and often uncoordinated.
Max Payne 3 is very clearly a character driven epic in much the same veins as the latest Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption and GTAIV. Payne may have been a wonderfully well-spoken noir lead in the previous games, but Rockstar has artfully turned him into a full-fledged character.
While we adored the original two games, we're starting to think Rockstar has a better grasp on noir storytelling than Remedy ever did. The original Max Payne was a sort of neo-noir thriller will dashes of mysticism and corporate conspiracy. Max Payne 3 seems to be a much more traditional, more personal tale complete with a damsel-in-distress macguffin that leads into a twisting conspiracy.
As our demo opens, we're told something has happened in Payne's New York home that has forced him to “get the hell out of dodge,” as the Rockstar rep put it. He's fled to Sao Paulo where he's begun working private security for a wealthy real estate mogul called Rodrigo. When Rodrigo's wife Fabiana gets kidnapped (standard noir fare, remember) Payne is tasked with getting her back. “But what starts out as a simple kidnapping soon descends into merry hell,” the rep says in a charming English accent. “Conspiracy, betrayal, paranoia, all these wonderful noir sensibilities that you'd expect from a Max Payne story come into the fray. Max ends up two steps behind everybody with no clue what's going on.”
The gunplay here can get incredibly vicious. As previously mentioned, things get pretty sloppy from time to time. It's not uncommon to end up knocked down and scooting along the floor on your side, frantically trying to gun down a couple enemies before you're killed. However, being killed isn't a completely terrible thing here. MP3 has a system in place that allows you one last chance to get a vengeful shot off on an enemy who has killed you. If you successfully manage to shoot him back, you'll get a new lease on life. In a way, this underscores the character of Payne. He may get knocked down, shot, and nearly killed, but he's always got one last gasp left in him. One last bullet for the person who got in his way.
The PAX East showing of Max Payne 3 had a lot to love. The shooting feels great, the voice acting is phenomenal, and it looks wonderful on PC, with every line and wrinkle in Payne's aged face plain to see. It's not necessarily the most technically impressive game. In terms of graphics, it looks on par with most other AAA games on the market. It's the style that Rockstar has imbued in the game that makes everything look so spectacular.
It's not that Payne himself looks like a spring daisy. It's that he changes costume in practically every scene (game characters so rarely get a change of clothes) and ages or regains youth as the time period shifts. And it does shift often. Payne is trying to piece together how exactly he got himself into this mess, and he'll recall moments from his past as he goes along (remember he's a drunk pill-popper, so his memory is a little fuzzy.)
It pains us to say it, but it looks like it may have been the right decision for Rockstar to take over development duties on Max Payne 3 from Remedy. While we still love Remedy (including their PC version of Alan Wake ) Rockstar seems to have more of a knack for hardboiled noir, and so far it seems as if they're taking all the right steps toward keeping Max Payne with the times .