Max Payne 3 preview

A full console generation, a new developer, and almost a decade has passed since Max Payne's last moody outing. Now that he's finally returning in Max Payne 3, the series has plenty of expectations riding on it, while attempting to preserve its noir tone and signature style. The game certainly pays homage to the most iconic elements of the series, but it might lean on them a little too much.

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In a hands-on demo at PAX East 2012, I played through a mission on the docks, attempting to rescue the trophy wife of Max's client, Rodrigo Branco. It was a dirty, dreary place soaked in rain and sweat. The settings were fairly tight and contained, but that allowed an impressive level of detail on props. Anyone paying attention to the trailers and screenshots has noticed how visually striking the game is, and playing it for myself confirmed that beauty holds together.

Rockstar is setting out to make a cinematic experience, and they're certainly succeeding on that front. The docks were only one location, but the world breathed with believable life. Buildings were unique, enemies moved and behaved realistically, and in a particularly nice touch, characters who speak in another language aren't translated through subtitles. Max wouldn't know what they're saying, so it was determined that the player shouldn't either.

During the few quieter moments, Max would chime in with his signature inner monologue. It was somewhat reflexive of actions in the world, but for the most part they seem centered on driving the story in a set pattern. Those moments that are direct reactions to the player, like his commentary when picking up a bottle of painkillers, actually repeated once during the short demo. It wasn't enough to bother me, but hopefully the full game works in plenty of line variety for actions that will occur fairly frequently.

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The demo was very focused on action spectacle with sprawling gunfights. A smart combination of physics systems and animations makes Max's movement smooth and versatile. Actually seeing enemy wounds with pinpoint accuracy, thanks to mapped bullet trajectories, never got old.

Those gunfights relied heavily on bullet time, for better and for worse. Max can't actually take much damage before going down, so the game seems to work best during triggered bullet time or a slow-motion dive. As fun as it is to see Max jump out from cover with guns blazing, it loses its punch when done over and over. When I didn't make heavy use of bullet time, I would get gunned down rather quickly. So I had a choice between leaning on the effect to the point of feeling like a crutch, or approaching death for a last-minute save by firing at the enemy who shot me. Bullet time is undeniably cool, but might run the risk of overuse if it's the solution to combat scenarios throughout the entire game.

Those concerns aside, my short time with the game was impressive. It's fulfilling Rockstar's desire to make a film-influenced action game, it looks and feels great, and should scratch the long-dormant itch of the gritty character.