Max Payne 3 preview

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It’s been almost 10 years now, but Max Payne is coming back with guns blazing. Rockstar Games touts his first appearance back in 2001 as “the birth of the cinematic shooter,” and it’s not an incorrect assessment. Games like Tomb Raider had tread on similar ground by the time the first Payne was released, but Remedy’s work on Max Payne effectively translated the feel of a John Woo film for an interactive medium.

Now we’re quickly bearing down on Rockstar’s planned March 2012 release of Max Payne 3, which picks up an unspecified number of years — “several,” Rockstar says — after the events of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. I stopped by the developer’s New York City offices for hands-off looks at two different slices of action from the upcoming game. This is still very much a Max Payne game, true to seemingly every facet of the original two releases. It’s also shaping up to be one of the most beautiful games of this generation, no surprise for a title built on the newly-modified back of the same RAGE engine that made Red Dead Redemption such a visual stunner.

First, a little background. The story in Max Payne 3 finds Max in a pretty rotten place. He’s no longer with the NYPD, he’s a big fan of booze and he’s wallowing in a black pit of self-loathing depression. …okay, maybe he’s not so different. The character’s neo-Noir underpinnings have always been there, and little seems to have changed for our tortured hero, at least in terms of his mindset.

This is the state we find Max in at the start of the demo, in his crappy Hoboken, NJ apartment. Old NYPD pal Raul Passos is there to swill some brown liquor and present his friend with an opportunity to do some private security work in Brazil. They’re just getting into the fine details when squealing tires outside alert the two men that things are about to get interesting.

The newcomer is local mob boss Anthony DeMarco, and he’s brought along an army of gun-toting wiseguys. Max apparently had a run-in with DeMarco’s son, one which ended with an exchange of gunfire and the young man dead on the floor. Daddy DeMarco is justifiably pissed, and he intends to visit bloody revenge on his son’s killer.

A shootout ensues in the halls of Max’s apartment building. While the action is a mirror of the gameplay we saw in the series’ first two releases, the benefits of Rockstar’s RAGE engine and its use of Euphoria for animations are immediately apparent. Max Payne 3 looks stunning, sporting the same basic level of visual fidelity we saw in Rockstar’s Red Dead, only with a gritty modern setting.

Bullets ricochet off of and even through walls, leaving convincing marks on the surfaces that they strike. Each individual weapon model is painstakingly detailed, with visibly moving parts and an accurate number of empty shells spilling out for each round fired. The play of light and shadow is mesmerizing in these dark hallways, with outside lights — and, at one point, a multitude of red laser sights — spilling through the building’s windows. Max himself, much like his virtual predecessors Niko Bellic and John Marston, is a hefty physical presence in his environment, shifting his weight as he throws his body around, movements which are intentionally exaggerated in bullet-time to create a more action-packed feel.

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Where would a Max Payne game be without the Matrix-like slowdown feature? Like the previous two Payne games, an on-screen meter indicates how much time you’ve got in the slow-motion mode. The meter refills as enemies fall beneath your bullets. While it’s not immediately apparent in the Hoboken shootout, Rockstar wants Max Payne 3‘s more open environments to encourage players to develop strategies in which they plot out which enemies they can kill to refill the bullet-time meter, which will then be spent on the big group waiting around the next corner.

We’re still in Jersey though, and the bullets are still flying fast. Max makes his way through the complex, mostly just firing down hallways but at one point also shifting his focus out a series of windows to take on a gang of DeMarco cronies firing into the building from a neighboring rooftop. Then the scene takes a turn for the surreal when a cutscene plays–a proper, non-graphic novel-styled CG cutscene–in which Max, cornered by a baddie, is suddenly saved by a bearded, crazy-haired, shotgun-toting Vietnam vet stereotype. We later see this same guy blow himself up when three of DeMarco’s men surround him.

The gameplay is much the same as it was, but the details continue to stand out. Max stops into his exploded neighbor’s apartment, which is littered with trash and evidence of a crazy person. There are painkillers to be found here, still the game’s standard health-restoring item. They serve an added use in Payne 3; if Max takes a fatal bullet with at least one painkiller left in his stock, he’ll fall to the ground and enter into Last Stand mode. Here, targeting automatically shifts in the direction of whichever bad guy downed you, offering an opportunity to take vengeance and get back into the fight, albeit with only a tiny sliver of health left.

The first portion of the demo ends when Max fights his way through the DeMarco goons and onto the rooftop of his building. It’s a rainy night on the east coast, and New York City’s skyline is only barely visible through the misting condensation. We saw scenes like this one in Grand Theft Auto IV, but there’s very detectable improvement in the quality of the RAGE engine’s visuals. I’d love for Rockstar to release a comparison screenshot of this Payne 3 scene and a similar nighttime skyline view of GTA IV‘s Liberty City.

The second section of the demo brings us to Sao Paulo, Brazil. While Rockstar previously revealed that the new story would be set around Max’s adventures there, don’t expect to see everything unfold as a linear timeline of events. The game’s story will shift around to different parts of the chronology, ultimately charting as much of Max’s journey from New Jersey to Brazil as it does his exploits in South America.

The Brazil portion of the demo finds Max on his way to meet with Raul and his helicopter. He’s escorting his old NYPD pal’s girlfriend Giovanna for unspecified reasons, and the two are being pursued by a South American paramilitary organization of some kind, for similarly unspecified reasons. It’s here that we get a look at Max Payne 3‘s new approach to the graphic novel-styled cutscenes from the previous games.

The still images are completely gone, replaced with actual, moving in-engine footage that stylishly splits into different frames as text appears every now and again to highlight one theme or another in Max’s ongoing internal monologue. It’s definitely different. Rockstar says the new look compares to what you see from motion comics nowadays; it’s not totally inaccurate, and the new style is certainly true to the spirit of what the previous games delivered, but personally I feel like the style falls close to the innovative editing style Ang Lee employed in his Marvel Comics film, Hulk.

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Giovanna is pretty useless as a fighter, but this is thankfully no escort mission. She’s a presence, make no mistake, but Max’s only real concern throughout this section is on shooting up the many, many enemies that come his way. The action starts in a fenced-in outdoor area filled with overgrown grass and rusting shells of city buses. Max gets the jump on a squad of paramilitary goons as they start searching around for the duo. Freed from the confines of a multi-story building’s hallways, a whole new set of tactical opportunities open up. The gameplay doesn’t change in any fundamental way, but your approach certainly does.

The action eventually spills inside to a nearby bus depot, where I get to see another new Payne 3 feature highlighted. Max and Giovanna are pinned down on a second-story catwalk as a group of goons files into the large, open room below. Max grabs a nearby crane hook and rides it down to the ground in a forced bullet-time sequence, taking apart the opposition in slow-mo as he descends. It’s a simple yet undeniably cool addition that brings an additional layer of cinematic flair to the moment-to-moment gameplay.

More action follows through the split-level bus depot, the fueling station outside and a nearby office building. The level of destructibility in the game’s environments becomes more and more apparent as papers, desks, cubicles, stray cans, assorted trash and any number of other small objects are torn to shreds by back-and-forth exchanges of gunfire. The sequence culminates with a daring escape in which Giovanna attempts to steer a passenger bus to freedom as Max hangs out the door, firing at enemies lining up to take the duo down. Passos’ helicopter eventually flies overhead in what appears to be a lucky break, but disaster strikes almost immediately as the bus goes careening headlong into a nearby building.

The demo ends in that breathless moment, keeping any potential story spoilers from the ensuing cutscene at bay. The demo has done its job though; Max Payne 3 is absolutely faithful to the spirit of the series while simultaneously proving itself as a gorgeous and finely tuned interactive experience.

I continue to wonder if technical innovation will be allowed to trump creative innovation on the gameplay side. For any bells and whistles, you’ve played this game at its most basic level before. We’ve yet to see any of the promised multiplayer, which could certainly change things. It’ll still be interesting to see how the final product is judged, though Rockstar’s demo goes a long way toward suggesting that the game will deliver.

For more images, check out our photo gallery of the game. Max Payne 3 is scheduled for release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in March of 2012.

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