Today Max Payne 3 arrived from Gamefly. I played through the first disc and have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand it is a perfectly competent game. It always works. It controls well, the level design is solid, the graphics are decent for a console game, and the story is interesting and well written. But after playing it for several hours I have to say it is one of the most creatively bankrupt titles I have played in recent memory. This game has not a single unique mechanic or idea to its name at least so far. You walk down incredibly linear corridors and shoot dudes while hiding behind cover and slowing down time when you have the juice. It's just so average. I'm enjoying it but I just keep thinking how Rockstar, at the very least, usually brings something new to the table with each of its games and this game just doesn't have any of that.
I have to take a shot at the level design here. Now just a couple lines ago I said the level design was solid. I say that because it is virtually always obvious where to go. The levels are clear and feel natural. But they are also some of the most linear levels I have ever seen. They make Call of Duty look like a sandbox. There is no room for tactics in this game. There is always just one path to take and it is a very narrow path with a couple boxes thrown up to hide behind. What's more, the combat here basically plays itself if you set it to auto-aim. You can choose to manually aim, but how anyone could aim well enough to shoot grenades out of the air without help is beyond me. Maybe if I was playing with a mouse and keyboard but not with a 360 controller. So you have to choose between making the game all but impossible to beat and having the game basically play itself for you. You spend most of the game hitting forward and pulling the left trigger to lock on and the right to shoot. It's fun on a visceral level but there is literally nothing to it. That isn't to say it isn't hard. I'm playing on the easiest difficulty and enemies still do enough damage that using the shoot dodge mechanic is akin to committing suicide. So you walk forward, hide behind cover, slow down time, and take some pot shots until everyone is dead. Then you watch a cutscene before repeating.
Speaking of cutscenes, there are a ridiculous number of them in this game. Almost every single door you walk through (essentially after every battle) leads to a cutscene. These vary in length from 30 seconds to 5+ minutes. And chances are if something cool is happening in the game it is happening in a cutscene. Once in a while you are asked to shoot some people in slow mo at the end of said cutscene, but I never escaped the feeling that I really wished I was playing what was being shown on screen. I think some of the worst examples of non-interactivity in this game occur in the hostage-swap level. I was shocked that after the sniper started shooting, the game put the HUD up and theoretically gave me control, but Max just started running without me doing anything. In fact I tried to walk the other way or stop and he just kept running. It was like they pretended to give me control but really I was just experiencing another cutscene. Later, while sniping the game decides it is going to move the reticule for you. It follows along the path of the person you are supposed to be protecting, and then gives you control for five seconds to shoot a couple dudes before taking control away from you again. I really hate that critics praised the story aspect of this game. If you want your games to be movies then become a movie critic. This is a game. I want the gameplay to be exciting as well as the cutscenes and I'd prefer if the ratio of cutscene to gameplay was a bit less than 50/50.
If it seems I am bashing this game to hell, well I am. It manages to be everything that is wrong with games today. Relentlessly simple and heavy on special effects over substance it is barely a game and more of an interactive movie. Even the shining example of interactive movies, the Uncharted series, gives you control during the action sequences. That is what makes Uncharted work. Because you are in full control during the cool parts. In Max Payne you are rarely fully in control at any point in the game. Max Payne 3 goes down easy because Rockstar does its best to avoid frustration. Checkpoints are numerous, and the easy difficulty is easy enough that most players should be able to make it through without much difficulty. The game is kind enough to end cutscenes with you facing in the exact direction you need to go and since cutscenes bookend almost every room you are almost never lost or confused on what to do. This is shooters for dummies. An experience so easy going down that you can't hate it. But there is no meat on this game's bones. There are no clever mechanics, no tactical depth, no variety. I'm enjoying it in the same way I enjoy a movie, so I'll play the second disc, but the first has left me utterly underwhelmed. I know I rag on Rockstar a lot, but in a way this is a worse offense than their normal games. My problem with their work is often that the story and the gameplay don't mesh. In this game the story and the gameplay are one in the same. But unlike a game like Braid where the story is cleverly wrapped around the mechanics, in this game the gameplay feels like merely a way to get from one cutscene to the next. The challenge here comes not from intelligent scenarios requiring skill and strategy to overcome, but by putting a ridiculous number of enemies in front of you and having them do a ton of damage. Your only solution is to press forward and make sure bullet time is engaged. After all it will probably only be 30 seconds until another cutscene shows up.
I'll say again that I am enjoying Max Payne 3. It does go down easy. But I feel like I'm enjoying it in spite of the gameplay, not because of it. I love a good movie almost as much as I love a good game, but Dan Houser, as good a writer as he is, is no master screenwriter. If I want to watch a movie I'll go see a movie. When I play a game I want to do just that, play it. Watching cutscenes and holding down forward and right trigger are not what I call a game. That's called an interactive movie and I honestly am glad I didn't pay $60 to experience one of those.