Max Payne 3 In-Depth Preview – It's Bullet Time!
Written Thursday, October 06, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
It's been eight years since we last saw Max Payne diving around in slow-motion, blasting scumbags with his dual pistols while engaging in cinematic gunfights, grappling with his own demons in between the bullet time action. In that respect, it appears that little has changed since Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, even if Max himself has changed. What's clear from our first proper look at the game, is that Max will be taken on a journey that will once again see him dealing with his fractured psyche, while striving to make a clean break in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
However our Max Payne 3 demo opens with the titular anti-hero attempting to drown his sorrows in vast quantities of liquor, knocking back painkillers with swigs from a bourbon bottle. Sitting in his dingy New York apartment, with takeaway containers, soiled clothes and other day-to-day detritus strewn across the tables and floor, we find Max lit by the narrow shafts of light breaking through his blinds, as an old friend, Raul Passos drops in to convince the alcohol-soaked ex-cop into working for a private security firm to protect the wealthy Branco family. Insisting that he's happy to remain mired in his depressed, laconic state, addicted to pills and booze, his life a tattered mess, Payne reluctantly bats away Passos' offer.
Things don't stay quiet for long though, and since Max recently shot the son of powerful mob boss, Anthony DeMarco (we're assured he had it coming), he's on borrowed time. The mob catch up with him, storming the apartment and prompting Max to leap into action. Dressed in his iconic leather trenchcoat, Max looks just like he always did during this sequence, although his face uses voice-actor James McCaffrey's likeness and all of his movements and gestures have also been motion-captured by the actor in intricate detail. More on the extensive mo-cap later.
Taking cover to the side of his doorway, Max fires blindly down the corridor before running into the line of fire. During action sequences like these, you'll accumulate bullet time, indicated by a small bar in the bottom left corner. The HUD is kept to a bare minimum, so a silhouette of Max that fills up as you take hits, your painkiller and ammo counter and the bullet time gauge is all you need. With the bullet time bar filling, Max is able to execute slow-motion manoeuvres, leaping past projectiles as they carve a trail through the air, and returning fire with unerring accuracy. You possess a certain degree of control over the final bullet time kill-cam too, meaning you can effectively choreograph the action, slowing down a travelling bullet to a crawl, as you admire its course from the barrel of your gun to the soft fleshy thump into an enemy's epidermis or his eye. The final-kill camera is an exceptionally gratuitous bullet time kill that lets you enjoy super slow-motion action close-up, simultaneously denoting the end of a gun battle.
Switching between single and dual-wielded weapons uses a simple radial menu, and swapping to a pistol and uzi combo, Max continues, plugging several mobsters in quick succession. We then run into a US Army veteran in a khaki green military jacket and his underwear, grinning toothlessly through a huge beard as he emerges from his apartment. Spouting inane babble, he runs towards a group of mobsters at the end of the passageway and opens his jacket to reveal explosives strapped to his waist before blowing himself up. Surreal moments like these stood out in Max Payne and its sequel, and Max Payne 3 is no different, promising a liberal peppering of random happenings throughout the game. Dispatching the remaining goons, Max then makes his way to the rooftop where he contemplates the snowy streets below and the looming, mist-shrouded New York skyline glittering coldly in the distance. It looks breathtakingly beautiful.
This quick look at part of the New York-based segment of our Max Payne 3 demo ends here and we're whisked off to Sao Paulo, where a shaven-headed, beardy Max finds himself in a sweaty vest, protecting Giovanna, the young girlfriend of Passos and sister-in-law to Rodrigo Branco, Max's billionaire client. Starting out in a bus scrapyard, Max and Giovanna take cover inside one of the buses while the shady paramilitary group Crachá Preto - who are on their trail - attempt to sniff them out. Rockstar actually built this entire area as a real set on its motion-capture stage – a method the studio has adopted to make its animations utterly authentic - so all of the motions as the soldiers search look incredibly natural, and you can interrupt them at any time by jumping out of hiding or firing upon them, at which point the Euphoria system will seamlessly kick in, ready for some action-packed gunplay. There's no loading screens either, ensuring that the action keeps flowing.
Heading closer to the bus depot, Giovanna hides while Max clears out the Crachá Preto guarding the outside of the garage. Putting a few bullets into a gas pump, it erupts into a ball of flame, knocking a parked bus sideways into a guard. Leaping into bullet time, you're able to mop up the rest of the reinforcements with free-aiming, lining up a pesky sniper on the roof in your sights for the final kill, causing the camera to zoom in on your bullet, tracking its trajectory to the target, who is punctured by the projectile, resulting in a burst of arterial spray before the sniper takes a long, slow fall to the ground below. This is something that will surely never ever get old. There's also a 'Last Man Standing' mechanic in Max Payne 3, that'll give you a chance at a second wind when Max is fatally wounded, sending the action into bullet time at the cost of one bottle of painkillers. If you're quick and skilled enough, you'll be able to keep Payne alive a little longer.
There's more motion-capture performances in the ensuing cutscenes, as Max helps Giovanna climb through a window into the relative safety of the bus garage, after she's barely survived dancing around in front of a sniper's laser sight, much to Max's exasperation. Giovanna is a liability, but thankfully it appears that she can take care of herself during the actual gameplay. There is a moment where she's taken hostage by a bad guy, which means a snap bullet time decision needs to be made to save her, before she's executed. Once inside the garage, we get to see the first example of a scripted action sequence, which is pure, unrestrained empowerment, as Max grabs onto a crane hook and zips down to the garage floor, with temporarily infinite bullet time enabling you to blow away the bad guys below.
This seamlessly segues back into the regular shooter gameplay, as Max once again jumps through the air, displaying a real, believable weight and inertia, as he puts out his hands to brace his impact, shooting 360-degrees around him, dropping to the floor. While lying down, Max can still shoot in any direction, shifting his heavy frame accordingly to draw a bead on enemies. It's clear that Rockstar has put a lot of care and thought into the mechanics, even consulting original Max Payne developer Remedy for feedback and creative input where necessary. The level of detail is also impressive, even with six months of development time left, from the procedural bullet holes scorched into Max's vest, to the amount of environmental destructibility, Rockstar is seemingly covering all of the bases, and then some.
Shooting out the control panels on the hydraulic lifts holding buses aloft in the garage, Max can send them crashing down onto enemies foolhardy enough to be taking cover beneath them and when a small band of Crachá Preto shoot at Max from a rickety gangway, you can immediately spot the opportunity to shoot out the weak struts to send them falling. Running through the building, masonry breaks off the walls, Max blasts a guy clean through window with a shotgun causing shattering glass to shower across the floor and a jump over a staircase, to then turn and shoot two bad guys leaves us slack-jawed. Max Payne 3 is looking like it could be the best action movie never made. That it's a video game is hugely exciting.
For the grand finale of our demo, Giovanna gets behind the wheel of a bus and does her best to make good an escape, crashing into signs and other scenery, while Max hangs out of the door with an uzi, spraying the Crachá Preto desperately trying to stop the pair from getting away. Again, the destructibility is remarkable and Euphoria does a fantastic job in making the action look constantly fresh and exciting. As the bus approaches a junction, a second bus emerges from the intersection and crashes into the side of Max and Giovanna's bullet-riddled ride. This is where the demo ends, leaving us wanting more. We haven't even seen Max pulling off a brutal close-quarters melee attack, though we're assured they're suitably violent.
Rockstar is keen to emphasise that Max Payne 3 is a faithful continuation of Max's journey, with his head-shaving a pivotal moment in the story, as he finds himself out of options, backed into a corner with nothing left to do but hide in plain sight. The game's noir characterisations look to be true to the heritage of the series, and Max Payne 3 brings back the graphic novel touches, albeit as in-game cutscenes with flashy split-screen panels and freeze frames. It's hard to believe that this is Rockstar's first real stab at developing a game within the shooter genre too, as already Max Payne 3 looks so incredibly accomplished. In fact, it looks better than the majority of third-person shooters we've seen in recent years. And we haven't even seen the multiplayer modes yet.
Having seen Max Payne 3 for the first time, we're confident that the franchise is in safe hands with Rockstar, especially when you consider that Remedy is also getting its two cents in during the game's development cycle. The spirit of Max Payne appears to be alive and well, and despite his shaven-headed appearance for the majority of the game, this is still very much the same character you know and love. Shaving his head is Payne's “Travis Bickle” moment as one Rockstar PR puts it, making sense in the context of Max's narrative arc. And in that vest, Max makes John McClane look like a total wuss.
Max Payne 3 is out in March 2012. You'll find six more new screenshots in the gallery.