Today I had the privilege to sit down with Rockstar Games at New York Comic Con and see their progress on their next big project, Max Payne 3. This is an ambitious effort to revitalize a popular franchise that inexplicably fell by the wayside. Rockstar is taking some very unique steps to do Max Payne 3 the right way.
I will state it right now, I was skeptical. Max Payne was a series that I enjoyed, but upon reflection, never seemed groundbreaking past the awesome implementation of the bullet time mechanic. I’m very happy to state that this one seems to be more than a cheesy mechanic and a standardized Noir-esq storyline. From the half hour I saw of the game, it looks like Rockstar has truly refined this third-person shooter into a highlight of the genre.
Max Payne was always intriguing, and the Rockstar crew described him as the first real attempt to make an action game character more than just a face for destruction. The first two games did a good job of making him interesting, if a little over the top. The new game keeps that nature, but seems to add something that was lacking in the early games.
I speak of movement. It has admittedly been a while since I have played the Max Payne series, and Rockstar understands that. But if I had to pick the one thing that I really took away from the game, it is that Max actually moves like a person should. They stressed this, showing off all the various configurations and styles Max and the player has at their disposal.
To do this, Rockstar went through a lot of motion capture work to get the characters right. It has paid off. Max, and every other character we saw, from allies to the most basic of enemies, are all a part of their environment. Max hops over barriers, takes cover and even takes actual footsteps (no sliding!) to move around. Even quick changes of direction result in Max planting his foot and his body shifting. It was early, but the game looks very good already. Rockstar has been able to adapt their open world engine and manipulate it into a storied shooter, allowing them more room to render characters, guns and even individual bullets.
Also, notice I said takes cover. The developers wanted to let the players pick the way they wanted to play the game, and that includes a cover system for Max, who traditionally excels merely in run-and-gunning. While Max can take cover, it is merely another gameplay mechanic. The developers who showed the game off were very clear that they did not want the game to turn in to “Gears of Max.”
The environments were all carefully created to really appeal to the bullet time user. Aside from their interactivity in granting cover, they also appeared surprisingly destructible, with pieces of concrete flying. The entire physics engine seems to look very promising, and when combined with the extreme motion capture technology, seems to have a lot of potential.
The highlight of this was when Max enters a building on the second floor of a warehouse. As enemies spot him, he quickly grabs a hanging crane, and using it as an impromptu zipline, goes in to bullet time and wipes out a large number of the enemies before dropping to the ground floor. It was a very cinematic sequence, and made all the better by the fact that it was playable.
In fact, the transition from cutscene to gameplay was very smooth. Rockstar told us that Max Payne 3 will not have any load times past the intial screens. Back to the actual cutscenes however, the sequences simultaneously pay tribute to the classic comic book/film noir style of the past games, and yet evolve to become entities of their own, approaching a “motion comic” style. What little we saw looked very cool as the scenes were fluid from panel to panel, but still done in the games engine. The cutscenes we saw were a bit choppy, but this is totally forgivable, as the game still has a lot of time left to bake.
The cutscenes are rendered with the in game engine. That means that if Max is injured, he will appear as such in the cutscenes. He will also have whatever guns you have equipped. Max can carry three guns, and his dual wielding is back again.
The game’s early stages really kept the noir vibe as well, though the later were mostly in the sunny daylight of Sao Paulo. The early game takes place in New York City and still sees old Max, with his standard haircut and trademark tie. The story really impressed me. Even if it turns out to be a bland rehash, the acting of the motion captors and voice actors looks to steal the show. As Max discusses prospects and a bit of his past with a friend of his, a mafia boss and a lot of men pull up to Max’s apartment building and they are not pleased. The boss is furious because Max apparently killed his only son. I found myself very surprised at the sheer emotion of the boss, as he seemed genuinely distressed and saddened by the loss of his son, and wanted revenge on Max. If all the voice actors are that good, it is very promising for the rest of the game.
Sao Paulo was appropriately colorful. The mercenaries that Max fought in this sequence were interesting, as they fanned out and searched for Max before the action started. The enemies move naturally, instead of on a path. Rockstar really seems to want to make each encounter unique.
Bullet time of course is at the core of the game, and really helps make each encounter unique. It, and the painkiller based health system return, and look just as they did years ago. This is a good thing, and I really like how Rockstar takes the approach that they don’t need to fix what isn’t broken. One of the coolest things about the game is that each bullet is rendered individually as it leaves the gun. This leads to some very cool effects. As the developer showing us the game killed the last person in the particular part of a level, the game went into slow motion, tracking the bullet as it left the muzzle, and following it to the enemy in controllable slow motion. The fact that these little cinemas are controllable really shows how dedicated Rockstar are to the interactivity of the game. It is such a minor detail, but a very cool one to see.