Wednesday, May 30

Max Payne 3 Review (X360): The best kind of bleak

Max Payne 3 starts with our titular hero in the throws of drug and alcohol-addled grief. Still dealing with the loss of his wife and child, players are left contemplating a broken protagonist as the scene transitions to a glitzy rooftop party in São Paolo, Brazil. A short time later, we see Max consume to the point of sickness and it becomes obvious that once the excitement stops, his self-destructive routine starts up again. Vulnerability is indulged ever so slightly in the likes of the Gears of War, Call of Duty and Battlefield series, whereas here, Max's self doubt and overwhelming sadness is present for the majority of the narrative and even bleeds into the multiplayer component. I never managed to escape the sense of impending dread that coloured every scene and shootout.

If you haven't cottoned on by now, the selling point for this game -- above all else -- is its story: a thrilling tale of repeated failure and eventual, near uncharacteristic redemption. While the game often deals with grisly events and subject matter, the technically impressive visuals and innovative presentation techniques are intoxicating. Characters animate in a way that is utterly believable, and even though I couldn't comprehend a significant portion of the script -- which is voiced and subtitled in Portuguese -- body language and tone is what becomes central to the scripted sequences. You'll be able to predict when something's about to go wrong, but never the degree to which until you open that door (which is always conveniently unlocked). There are so many memorable moments that at times had me turning away from my TV; I was dead certain one of the many characters I'd become attached to would meet a gruesome end. This is a powerful piece of storytelling that pulls few punches.

There are several reasons why this game is unsuitable for children, but most obvious of all is the explicit violence which is very rarely implied. Whether in cut scenes or in practice, Max Payne 3 will show you what bullets can do to a human being. If you shoot someone in the face, be prepared for an unprecedented level of detail (read: entry and exit wounds complete with frayed skin and plenty of blood). I almost consider this a spoiler, but you'll never forget the first time you shoot someone in the nose: the consequences of true aim have never been so brutally realised.  This is also probably the best time to mention the "Last Man Standing" mechanic from the single player modes. If you have painkillers equipped and take enough damage to die, you have a chance to kill your attacker and then recover during a slow motion fall to the ground. If you succeed, you'll see the effect of your life-saving projectile(s) up close. You can also enter Bullet Cam to watch those last few rounds enter the final thug in the room. Rockstar Games have managed to sell the pain and consequence of getting shot like nothing I've ever seen. 

While the cover system is awkward and the damage model may (read: will) cause frustration, be assured that Max Payne 3's core shooting action is just as ambitious as the story being told. When it works, it plays like the best third person shooter you'll ever play. When it doesn't, you'll be cursing your fickle frame when it survived similar encounters with nary a scratch. The novelty of Bullet-Time is still yet to erode, and jumping head first (Shootdodge) into a room full of thugs is undeniably satisfying. You'll need to match bravado with patience and caution, however, as Max is prone to dying. Puzzlingly, instead of making Max a little more resistant to pain, you're afforded extra health-recovering painkillers if you die too often. Taking cover is never a sure-fire recipe for success either, as your enemies suffer from Uncharted Syndrome (read: could hit a moving target with a pistol from two miles away). The game's staple cover shooting is infrequently punctuated by on-rails sequences of varying quality: some you'll wish were longer (airport!), while others (the helicopter sniper section comes to mind) can't end fast enough. Despite a few inconsistencies, I found it very hard to put the controller down and engage in other important activities: like sleep, for example.

For those who may be unsatisfied with the observation that the shooting in Max Payne 3 feels a little "awkward", consider this: Rockstar Games made Grand Theft Auto IV. What I mean by that of course is that the combat in GTA IV was functional, but it was never the game's strongest feature. The cover shooting in Max Payne 3 feels like a natural evolution of that found in GTA IV, and that's great; except when the combat consistently falters, you don't have an open world to explore with a wealth of different vehicles to distract you. As indicated above, I was never bothered by the steep difficulty and frequent deaths, but I can see how this would annoy others.

While the campaign is pretty meaty and offers a plethora of difficulty options, players can also get their score attack on with the Arcade and New York Minute modes. New York Minute puts the Payne in painful by giving you one minute to beat each of the game's fourteen chapters. Extra time is awarded for kills as well as bonuses for headshots and melee kills, however, there's one important catch that'll keep me from clearing this mode: death sends you back to the beginning of a level. No checkpoints, no second chances, just win or die. I'll be more inclined to stick to Story Mode as I loved the script and presentation, but for those of you who need to be at the top of the leaderboard: Max Payne 3 has something for you.

Max Payne 3 also features an addictive multiplayer component which doesn't seem to be half as popular as it should be. During some extended play sessions, I found that I was unable to find lobbies for several match types. You'll almost always be able to find a game of Team Deathmatch, but I couldn't connect to a single match of Payne Killer and only once did I get to try Gang Wars (plays like Assault from Unreal Tournament, where one team is on offense and attempts to complete objectives while the other defends). Players can customise loadouts to include anything from dual uzis, to gorilla masks and rocket launchers with one important caveat: each item has a specific weight, and depending on how much you're carrying, your stamina and health regeneration time will be affected. It's a great system that has so far managed to balance out the action. There's only a small selection of maps, but they each come in a "Large" variety that are considerably more expansive than the standard variant. There's also full support for the Rockstar Social Club including the ability to sign up with crews that allow for XP buffs when you play with fellow members. This is a fleshed-out experience that I have every intention of sticking with, however, I don't think Max Payne 3's multiplayer component will survive against a sea of CoD (see what I did there?).

I can recommend Max Payne 3 without hesitation. Its brutal, refreshingly adult narrative is something that anyone of the appropriate age -- which for the record, shouldn't be 15 -- should experience. There are inconsistencies that appear throughout the single player component, but I found it compelling and rarely frustrating. The multiplayer offering is also well worth your time, even if the majority of gamers don't seem to agree with me at the moment. Easily the best game of 2012 to date, and I have no doubt it'll survive my rigorous High Horse Audit later this year. Miss at your own peril.

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