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Max Payne 3 hands-on preview

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When Max Payne returns in a few months for Max Payne 3, he’s going to be fighting an uphill battle that he can’t simply shoot his way out of. The Rockstar Games brand and the level of craft that goes into just one of the developer’s releases speaks for itself, but the Payne series is a product of yesteryear. Is that really such a bad thing when you’re talking about a market that is filled to the saturation point with cover-based shooters?

No, it’s not. What Max Payne 3 delivers on a moment-to-moment basis is not in tune with with most of the other current-gen third-person action games the put a gun in your virtual hands and drop a camera just behind your virtual shoulders, as I learned during a recent hands-on session. It looks the part and it occasionally even acts the part, but Max Payne 3 is aggressively not a cover-based shooter.

And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I quickly discovered during my hands-on time that there’s going to be a bit of re-learning for those who are used to what present-day shooters offer. The basic framework is all hallways and rooms filled with bad guys approaching from the opposite end, but the twist is that the resistance you face is rarely content to simply sit behind a crate until you can squeeze off the perfect headshot. That happens too, of course, but it’s usually just to draw your attention away from the two shotgun-toting goons who are rushing your position from another angle.

Lesson one from Max Payne 3: always keep moving.

Unfortanately, the bad guys tend to be pretty solid marksmen. Step out of cover and you’ll draw fire almost immediately, causing the little silhouette of Max in the bottom right corner to fill up with red. You can pop some painkillers to knock the damage down, but it’s not enough. Damage accrues quickly and even with a new feature in place that automatically uses a painkiller (assuming you have one) in the event that Max is taken down, you’re still going to fail spectacularly if you just run out into the open, guns blazing.

Lesson two from Max Payne 3: bullet time will save your life.

The marquee feature of the Max Payne series is, of course, the ability to drop into a Matrix-like bullet time mode whenever you’ve got some of the associated meter filled in. Restoring the meter is a matter of making Max do what he does best: shoot the bad guys. The more damage you inflict on your opponents, the more bullet time juice you’ll have, same as always.

After a few (or very many) needless deaths, you start to get a sense of the violent bullet ballet that Max Payne 3 lays before you. You’ve got to mix some strategy into the game’s relentless pace. It’s not enough to just take cover or just rely on your bullet time.

Lesson three from Max Payne 3: don’t stop to catch your breath.

Any enemies in Max’s vicinity need to be dealt with immediately. They’ll rush you, they’ll draw a bead on any exposed body part in a matter of seconds and they won’t ever stop. While there’s an element of strategy to how you move Max around, it’s much more often in response to constantly changing conditions. The direction you’re facing dangers from is always in motion, and so the key is to be able to react and adjust your tactics accordingly at any moment.

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I gathered all of this after roughly 90 minutes of hands-on time with Max Payne 3, over the course of two of the game’s chapters. You should all know by now that the story picks up several years after the events of the previous game, with Max now trying to make a life for himself as a private security guy in Brazil. Structurally, the story opens in Brazil but then jumps around in time to fill in the story of how Max got there. All of this apparently ties together in the bigger picture, though exactly how will remain a mystery until the game arrives in May.

Max is brought to Brazil by Raul Passos, a former colleague from the police force, to work a job protecting the wealthy industrialist Rodrigo Blanco and his family. Unfortunately for Max and Raul, their efforts aren’t enough and Rodrgio’s wife Fabiana ends up being kidnapped by Comando Sombra, a local gang of drug peddlers.

In the first hands-on chapter I played, Max and Raul head to a nearby sports stadium after dark to pay the asked-for ransom on Fabiana. The two men meet a group of Sombra toughs at midfield to make the exchange, but tensions boil over when a sniper’s bullet fired by an unnamed third party takes out one of the gang members. A running shootout follows as Max and Raul pursue the moneyman.

The action is standard-fare Max Payne for most of the chapter, though prettied up considerably after previous outings thanks to Rockstar’s newly touched up RAGE engine. The tiny details become all the more apparent in bullet-time. You can see gas and individual shells emerging from fired guns and watch as enemies buck realistically based on where each bullet strikes them. Occasionally you’ll get a killcam view of the action, during which you can keep firing away. The enemy is already downed if you’re seeing the killcam, but there’s something indescribably satisfying about watching as additional bullets continue to rattle the falling body in slow-motion.

It’s graphic, but it never felt disturbing to me. These scenes are more what you’d expect to see in ’80s action movie classics starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone.

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The gunfight continues through the stadium’s interiors and bleachers as Max and Raul continue to pursue the moneyman. There are sections where they’re together and sections where Max operates alone. Guns are everywhere. Max can hold two small guns and one long gun — shotguns, rifles, MGs and the like — at any time. He can also dual-wield, though doing so requires that any long gun be dropped. In a neat bit of realism, you can actually see Max lugging around the long gun in his off-hand whenever he switches to shooting one of his smaller firearms.

At one point toward the end of the chapter, Max must provide sniper support for Raul as he works his way through the stands. He calls out the enemy locations on Max’s headset as you scan around with the rifle’s crosshairs. Bullet time is key here, as is leading each shot slightly ahead of the patrolling bad guys.

The next section of the hands-on picks up shortly after Max and Raul finish up at the stadium. Max is running solo now, and heading to a location where he believes Comando Sombra is holding Fabiana. It’s a fishing port of some kind, all warehouses, docks and shipping yards. Max arrives at night during a rain storm. He sneaks in with a silenced pistol in hand, though this isn’t actually a stealth mission. There’s no need to maintain a low profile, and it’s really not long before you’re forced to just open up and shoot everything.

My intent with this preview was to carry across a sense of what it feels like to play Max Payne 3 rather than open up with story spoilers, so I’ll cut things off here. The “cinematic shooter” genre marker hardly captures the in-the-moment excitement that Max Payne 3 seems to be offering. It’s thrilling to dive Max out of cover in bullet time and plug a trio of gun-toting baddies while he’s still in mid-air.

The final lesson I learned from this hands-on time: the arrangement is much more complex, but the song remains very much the same for the Max Payne series in its third outing. And as I established here at the outset: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.