Max's employer has his back against a wall. His wife has just been kidnapped and he's gotta pay up soon. As he gesticulates at his hired muscle, the screen splits into panels and text is plastered across the action in homage to the series' original graphic novel transitions.
I'm transported to the center of a stadium, where Max and his partner Raul Passos, a colleague from his police academy days, present a duffel bag of cash to the extorters. Is it ever that easy? Laser sights from the bleachers sweep across the field. Snipers opens fire. The men scatter and Max is shot in the arm. I'm in control now—barely—as I hobble into cover with a craving for pills.
The “new” Max has aged quite a bit, but he still takes a bullet like a champ (with a side of narcotics). Still, he's not the Max Payne we're used to, and like many others, I was initially put off by his gruffer, beardier replacement. I'm not so sure now. Could the new Max actually be better than the one we know and love?
The previous games told Max's story through a heightened film noir filter which intentionally made him a brooding impression of a person: a caricature instead of a believable character. Max is human now. He's not a righteous, renegade cop--he's a lonely mercenary in an unfamiliar country, and he's grappling with the drugs, booze, and emotional wounds that got him there. James McCaffrey, who has voiced Payne in each game, is as gritty and clever as ever. When Raul pokes at a dead guy and points out his exceptional gear, Max replies, “I'll get you one for Christmas.” I chuckle and move on, forgetting I ever had a problem with the direction.
The characters are expressed with motion-captured acting (which Rockstar achieved by recreating levels in sound stages) and complex, cinematic editing which moves the story forward without ever stopping to load or overusing smash cuts from gameplay to scripted events. Control is gently dragged away from the player when the story needs progressing, then given back the instant guns are fired. It's fun to watch, but I do miss the graphic novel transitions, which are only maintained in spirit. Either way, I'm itching to get to the best part: shooting.
Actually, my favorite part of Max Payne is the moment before I storm a room, when I'm plotting who I'll take out first, where I'll take cover, and when I'll activate the series' signature slow-mo “bullet time” for the deadly conclusion. It's like I'm a film director with the power to choreograph and execute absurdly challenging action scenes on the fly.
I wonder if Max Payne 3's new cover system will disrupt that flow, and as I struggle with it, I start to think I'm right. But as my coordination improves, it becomes a useful addition to my tactical inventory, allowing me to take refuge behind a bar, blind-fire to disrupt the paramilitaries on the other side, then perform a bullet-time leap out of cover to pick off the frazzled troops. Or not. Guns blazing is still a viable option.
Either way, the result is pretty glorious. I'm the conductor of a big gory symphony, and the Euphoria engine's procedural animations are my musicians. Enemies tumble over railings, Max braces his falls, and every bullet jerks and contorts its victim. OK, so it's no Tchaikovsky, but it's damn fun. In what's now one of my favorite Max Payne moments, I leap over an entire section of bleachers and drop four guys during a slow-mo dive that seems to go on for ages. Then, still lying prone from the fall, I spin around like a deadly breakdancer, blasting at dudes who are probably already dead. And the brutal, beautiful violence just keeps escalating from there.
As in the previous games, killing the last guy in a section treats you to a close-up of his demise. But with Euphoria in control, when you keep shooting during the death cinematic the body responds to every bullet, performing a morbid, slow-motion dance on its way to the ground. Even more entertaining are the melee kills, which kick in automatically at close range. Max clocks the baddy and takes aim with his gun, bullet time activates, and all you have to do to gain satisfaction is pull the trigger.
As my demo of the game (which, to assuage one more fear, is definitely not a console port) comes to a close, Max reminisces about his days in NYC. The stadium falls away and is replaced with a dive bar. My time is up, but I want to go on--Max Payne 3 may be different, but if it keeps up the pace from where I left off, I want to see it all. When I reluctantly hit the “Esc” key, it looks a lot like Max is about to beat the crap out of a spray-tanned, spikey-haired New Jersey gang. Or maybe not, but I can't wait to see how the, ahem , “Situation” unfolds (sorry).
Addendum: Commenter PatchRowcester asked a very good question--will the game feature quicksave? Rockstar tells me that saving is checkpoint based, so the answer is no. While it's a feature I would have liked, the checkpoints do seem to be plentiful enough to not cause frustration. I hope that's the case.