14 June 2012

Max Payne 3 Review

Sitting, as we are, in a year of long-awaiting entertainment - The Dark Knight Rises, Diablo 3, Halo 4,  The Avengers, Prometheus...the list goes on -  it's perhaps appropriate that one of the best games to saunter up is among their number.

Originally set for release in 2009, it was jostled about for a while - mostly thanks to a 'it'll be done when it's done' attitude - and has finally hit a console near you, and it comes with a heavy dose of history on its shoulders.

If you haven't played the first two Max Payne games, you genuinely missed out - the original is a prototype for the modern action game, with tight, beautifully responsive action wrapped in a gorgeously written story, told beautifully and intruigingly through the medium of graphic novel interludes, rather than cutscenes. It was a hallmark in cinematic gaming, bringing the concept of bullet time into gaming, and executing it flawlessly, with the gameplay not just looking great - bullets whizzing about your head in slow motion, sending your own right back as you fought your way through fantastically realised environments - but feeling great, with slick controls, a varied arsenal, and a satisfying difficulty curve keeping you engaged from start to finish.

The second, subtitled 'The Fall of Max Payne', continued the trend, coupling an escalating story - including a romance with what is still one of the best female co-leads any medium of story-telling has produced - with for-the-time incredible graphics, and a beautifully weighted adaptive difficulty system, all alongside the outrageously tight shooting mechanics that made the first so good. All of this meant that the franchise found its way into the 'fondly regarded' section of many a memory warehouse, and this was only mildly tainted by that appalling cinematic entry. 

So along rumbles Max Payne 3. Gone are the original developers and writers - Remedy Entertainment and Sam Lake respectively - in are some new kids on the block. Or rather, some old veterans with a shotgun on the porch: Rockstar and Sam Houser. It's a shift in creative team that may make some wary, and others excited, but either way, it's actually a match made in heaven.

Shifting the story forward in real time, it picks up with Max a now-aged ex-cop, drowning his guilt and sorrow in bottle after bottle of whatever alchohol is closest to hand, and a near-lethal daily dose of painkillers, that - thanks to our gameplay habits in the first two games - he's now addicted to. After a run-in with the Punchinellos - ah yes, the first act villains from the other two! - Max ends up working for a rich Brazilian family in what was to be a cake walk, guarding their brattish, drunken children from...well, nothing. But as ever, things never seem to go right when Max is involved, and a botched kidnapping attempt is the catalyst that creates a wave of violence and death, leaving a trail of bodies straight to the heart of the endemic corruption in Sao Paulo.

The shift in tone from the dark, snow-draped visuals of New York to the brighter asthetic of sunny Brazil is handled really rather well, with the first and second acts juxtaposing the two design ethics before shifting into a gloriously sun-kissed final act that, coupled with the story's noir groundings, serves to give the game a vibe similar to that of the late Tony Scott's opus, Man on Fire - darkness that simply cannot be overwhelmed by the light, no matter how bright and heavily armed.

This is all down to Houser's writing - and to make a bold statement, if video games have anything even vaguely close to a Quentin Tarantino, Houser is it. He's a man who understands video-games, who's grown up with them and he rides a fine balance between a gritty tale, seriously told and a knowing pastiche of both the games that preceeded it. Max's dialogue in particular is fantastically written

In terms of execution, the game is close to flawless. Characters look great without delving into the uncanny valley that LA Noire so comfortable resided in, and the detail in the animation, along with the fluidity of the transitions, is genuinely astonishing. Changes in expression this subtle are something of a rarity in video games, and this was done without that fancy facial capture tech that practically broke Team Bondi in half as they tried to get it working. The physics engine is also beautifully integrated with the Euphoria animation system, making for environmental interactions from both Max and the other characters that is rarely the same twice, with glass smashing realistically as you plough through it head first, then beer bottles and wine glasses flying elegantly aside as you slide along a bartop, mowing down a roomful of bad guys as you go, even as you haul yourself back onto your feet.

Gameplay is split between the above-mentioned running-gunning-and-Shoot-Dodging-in-slow-motion that is the series' hallmark, and the new addition of scripted set pieces that take a page from Wanted: Weapons of Fate's book when it comes to quick-time events.

But perhaps the most impressive technical achievement on display here is Max himself. Not some static, ever-regenerating man/tank hybrid - no, instead, he's a character that actual changes as things happen to him. Bullet wounds persist through cutscenes in each chapter, and Max noticeably starts moving slower the more damage he takes.

This creates an interesting dynamic in the controls - Rockstars mastery of this particular aspect of making games means that it actually feels like you're controlling a middle-aged, slightly drunk, slightly fat ex-cop, with the trademark Shoot Dodge (yes, apparently we have to capitalise that as well...) and Bullet Time being more or less his only edge. This may seem like an odd compliment - 'who want's to feel that?', I hear you ask - but it creates an attachment to the character that goes beyond him simply being a well-written, fleshed out human being. Then there's the fact that Shoot Dodging has a more than reasonable number of great moments, peppered with moments of intentional comedy, and the odd minor irritation when you manage to break the physics, or get filled with holes due to your being lying on the ground out in the open, desperately scrambling to your feet.

This serves to make an interesting tactical choice in game - there's a conflict between looking, to coin a phrase, 'pretty fucking awesome', and the actual practicality of the Shoot Dodge, encouraging you to find the incredibly satisfying midpoint between diving about like a mad-man and the more tactical, cover-based aspects of the gameplay.

If there are problems with the game, they're three-fold. First, there's the obnoxiously long loading times - I only have the Xbox version for reference, but even after installing the game onto the hard disk, each chapter is broken up by an excrutiatingly long loading sequence, and it serves to break the flow of the story rather ferociously. It's lucky that the game is very much worth waiting for, otherwise it might've been verging on a deal-breaker. It's not so bad on your first play through, but when it comes time to hit New York Minute mode, and the multiplayer, the long waits for the action aren't particularly welcome. It also fails to change the formula in any particularly meaningful way - it's still you and your arsenal against wave after wave of baddies, and it does start to get a tiny bit repetitive towards the end. There're also three rather frustrating 'boss battles', that didn't really need to be in there, but the adaptive difficulty thankfully makes these pass quickly.

Overall, this is an experience not to be missed. A writer who's never produced better, coupled with a studio at the absolute top of their game artistically and technically, it's moving, heart-pounding, often funny and above all, entirely absorbing, drawing you in to a sleazy world of corruption, violence and tragedy, with Max a broken guardian angel, giving one last stab at dishing out some justice in an unfair world that seems to be set against him. It's a sight to behold, and if you only manage to play one game this year, make it this one.


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