The Payne Of Being Impure at Heart: Thoughts on Max Payne 3 (PC)

Sequels made long after the original game(s) by a completely different developer are bound to make the Internet rage-o-meter rise to 11 and flood the global computational pathways with cries of "sell-out". However, in the case of Max Payne 3 I think the more interesting question is whether the series is even relevant at all in 2012. When MP1 came out 11 years ago it was arguably the most technologically advanced and impressively cinematic 3D action title ever released, but the third-person shooter genre has moved on since then and few of the series' hallmark features seem particularly amazing or ground-breaking today.

Rockstar's strategy has clearly been to retain some of the elements which made Max Payne unique while bringing in a few standard mechanics of modern action games and simultaneously suffusing the whole package with their own distinctive brand of cinematic storytelling (which apparently is referred to derogatorily as "Houser writing" these days). What's particularly Max Payne-ish about MP3 is of course first and foremost the inclusion of a "bullet time" mode as well as the comically absurd painkiller-based health replenishment. Also worthy of note, however, are some rather finicky shooting mechanics which - at least for a modern third-person shooter - seem unusually tailored to precision-based mouse aiming on a PC. The addition of Gears of War-style cover controls have been much-discussed, and there's no question that it fundamentally alters the gameplay formula by effectively relegating bullet time to a secondary role. Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly). That they didn't dare bringing in any other, more original ideas of their own on how to modernize the gameplay is probably a sign that Rockstar still is surprisingly uncomfortable with the whole process of designing basic shooter controls.

Max Payne as a series has always been focused on delivering a more sophisticated, more stylized and arguably also more engaging form of storytelling than most other action titles, and in some ways that makes Rockstar the perfect fit for a sequel/semi-reboot of the franchise. Given that Remedy Entertainment is still around one might argue that they would have made a better job, but considering Alan Wake's flat characters, wooden dialogue and convoluted plot I'm actually somewhat relieved that they're not involved this time around. Rockstar has their own share of problems, though; most notably a one-dimensional and only vaguely political cynicism which dragged down the intermittently amazing Red Dead Redemption and could very well end up making MP3 into more of a downer than is absolutely necessary given the source material. So far it's clear that the writing in this game is less absurd and flowery than in its predecessors, but it remains to be seen if that was a wise choice or not.

The main reason I bought Max Payne 3 wasn't the actual gameplay per se but simply the promise of getting to experience an unusual and well-realized setting (the various locales of São Paolo with all its ruthless inequality and organized brutality) brought to life by Rockstar's usual attention to detail. If it ends up being an OK shooter too that's fine, but I feel the gaming world of 2012 doesn't necessarily need another Max Payne and has enough linear, story-driven action games already.

5 Comments
6 Comments
Posted by Egge

Sequels made long after the original game(s) by a completely different developer are bound to make the Internet rage-o-meter rise to 11 and flood the global computational pathways with cries of "sell-out". However, in the case of Max Payne 3 I think the more interesting question is whether the series is even relevant at all in 2012. When MP1 came out 11 years ago it was arguably the most technologically advanced and impressively cinematic 3D action title ever released, but the third-person shooter genre has moved on since then and few of the series' hallmark features seem particularly amazing or ground-breaking today.

Rockstar's strategy has clearly been to retain some of the elements which made Max Payne unique while bringing in a few standard mechanics of modern action games and simultaneously suffusing the whole package with their own distinctive brand of cinematic storytelling (which apparently is referred to derogatorily as "Houser writing" these days). What's particularly Max Payne-ish about MP3 is of course first and foremost the inclusion of a "bullet time" mode as well as the comically absurd painkiller-based health replenishment. Also worthy of note, however, are some rather finicky shooting mechanics which - at least for a modern third-person shooter - seem unusually tailored to precision-based mouse aiming on a PC. The addition of Gears of War-style cover controls have been much-discussed, and there's no question that it fundamentally alters the gameplay formula by effectively relegating bullet time to a secondary role. Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly). That they didn't dare bringing in any other, more original ideas of their own on how to modernize the gameplay is probably a sign that Rockstar still is surprisingly uncomfortable with the whole process of designing basic shooter controls.

Max Payne as a series has always been focused on delivering a more sophisticated, more stylized and arguably also more engaging form of storytelling than most other action titles, and in some ways that makes Rockstar the perfect fit for a sequel/semi-reboot of the franchise. Given that Remedy Entertainment is still around one might argue that they would have made a better job, but considering Alan Wake's flat characters, wooden dialogue and convoluted plot I'm actually somewhat relieved that they're not involved this time around. Rockstar has their own share of problems, though; most notably a one-dimensional and only vaguely political cynicism which dragged down the intermittently amazing Red Dead Redemption and could very well end up making MP3 into more of a downer than is absolutely necessary given the source material. So far it's clear that the writing in this game is less absurd and flowery than in its predecessors, but it remains to be seen if that was a wise choice or not.

The main reason I bought Max Payne 3 wasn't the actual gameplay per se but simply the promise of getting to experience an unusual and well-realized setting (the various locales of São Paolo with all its ruthless inequality and organized brutality) brought to life by Rockstar's usual attention to detail. If it ends up being an OK shooter too that's fine, but I feel the gaming world of 2012 doesn't necessarily need another Max Payne and has enough linear, story-driven action games already.

Posted by AhmadMetallic

That was a very good read.  

Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly). That they didn't dare bringing in any other, more original ideas of their own on how to modernize the gameplay is probably a sign that Rockstar still is surprisingly uncomfortable with the whole process of designing basic shooter controls.

Rofl, that sounds so true. Rockstar are just shoot-o-phobic. 

Given that Remedy Entertainment is still around one might argue that they would have made a better job, but considering Alan Wake's flat characters, wooden dialogue and convoluted plot I'm actually somewhat relieved that they're not involved this time around. 

Not sure I agree there. I mean... Yes Remedy's evolution from Max Payne 2 to Alan Wake, character and dialogue wise, feels rather unnatural, a bit of a fail attempt, but still Alan Wake felt very, very Max Payne because there's that subtle, thematic, quiet and atmospheric Remedy feel throughout the whole thing. It was just a little weaker on narrative. 
Then again, Remedy created the young-man Max, so it actually makes sense that Rockstar made the old-man Max, because the radical change in his personality and his increased cynicism and brutality are reflected beautifully in the radical change from Remedy's design to Rockstar's design.
Edited by DharmaBum

@Egge said:

The addition of Gears of War-style cover controls have been much-discussed, and there's no question that it fundamentally alters the gameplay formula by effectively relegating bullet time to a secondary role. Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly).

I disagree that the cover system negates your reliance on bullet time. It's not like you didn't stand behind objects or corners before jumping out in the previous games, regardless of having a designated mechanic for it. For me the only thing that cover really introduces is a better ability to pan the camera around corners.

Shooting guys while snapped into cover doesn't make sense tactically; it leaves you as a stationary target for the already accurate AI. From a combat puzzle point of view, the whole crux of Max's slow-mo power is the ability to strafe around incoming bullets, while your bullets magically still travel in real-time - otherwise the amount of enemies would be insurmountable.

I feel like Rockstar made a special effort so that cover is commonly destructible and dudes will eventually flank you or flush you out with grenades. Have modern third-person shooters just conditioned us to play all games like a whack-a-mole shooting gallery?

Edited by Egge

@Lebensbaum: Never said anything about entirely negating the reliance on bullet time (...and I was definitely thinking more specifically about "jumping sideways guns ablazing" rather than bullet time in general), but you make some good points. It's still far too early for me to tell whether Rockstar's efforts to stop the player from using bullet time in combination with cover - which, regardless of its inherent risks, seems an almost irresistable strategy for any modern third person shooter player - are actually enough to keep the gameplay focused on the ideal Max Payne formula. But, hey, if an even less shooter-oriented developer like Naughty Dog managed to make a respectable effort to stop cover spamming in the Uncharted series then I guess anything is possible...

Edited by DharmaBum

@Egge: I think the cover placements do invite the player to sit back in some cases but I found most of the level layouts are designed with horizontal shootdodging in mind. It could just be the playstyle that I dialed into - dodging one direction, landing safely behind something, pressing the cover button to bypass the animation, then dodging right back the other way.

Once I understood what I had to work with, I would casually shoot dudes at the start of an encounter, manually activate bullet time once their attention was on me, then mix in a stylish dodge at the end once my meter ran out. Everything just feels so satisfying when it's happening - the way Max's body animates, how bullet shells are individually modeled, bodies crumbling to the ground with Euphoria physics - it all puts me in an almost zen-like state of focus.

Also, rude of me not to mention in my first post that I enjoyed your write-up! Forgot this was a blog and not just another thread.

Posted by Klei

For me, cover is meant for one thing ; to catch my breath, analyze enemy positions and giving me a few shots at building my slow-mo meter. Once it's full, I run in slow-mo, rarely diving unless it makes sense, and getting headshots. Which was a good challenge with a pad, but on PC, it's effortlessly joyful.