It was a thankless fall evening in New York. A procession of mad men and even madder women crowded the streets and spilled out of a convention of freaks, their costumes a clear sign of their frothing insanity. Deep within the halls of their cult meeting ground, a hero made a not-so triumphant return--reluctant, if anything. A drunk fool more likely. Whatever he thought, the Rockstars of the world saw something in him, celebrating his return amongst the noise and commotion. Max Payne was back.
Max Payne 3 is a surprising game, not just as the first one not developed by Remedy (Alan Wake), but as a very different Rockstar joint than what we're used to. Rockstar is embracing the Max Payne pedigree, using it as an excuse to step away from open worlds and pull in towards a more intimate action game.
This is Rockstar when they aren't stretched thin. There is no vast expanse--only the world Max fights through. The benefits of this are immediately apparent. Max inhabits detailed set pieces, ones that are destroyed in minute detail, down to the last slow motion bullet.
Rockstar is treating Max Payne with respect, maintaining much of what made it such a memorable shooter, while bringing the series into modern times. It's officially weird to not be able to take cover when people are shooting at you (see: the last few chapters of Space Marine), so Max can now prop himself against cover. That doesn't mean you have to, though. Rockstar made it clear that while the cover system is obviously helpful, you won't ever be forced to use it.
When you combine cover with Max's trademark bullet-time action dives, the game seems even more faithful to what Max Payne represents than the original games. It's clear that what Rockstar is crafting isn't worth picking apart for its Max Payne-ness--this is indeed a Max Payne game, through and through.
Nothing made that more clear than the opening moments of Rockstar's New York Comic Con demo. Max has some enemies in New York, and the demo opened with most of them attempting a raid on his New York apartment. I wasn't quite sure on how Max was making rent these days, but it became clear he wasn't in the best part of town when his neighbor blew away half the goons with a shotgun, spouted some "end is nigh" nonsense, and suicide bombed a crowd of mobsters. That's exactly the kind of random craziness I expect from Max Payne.
Speaking of things I expect from Max Payne, the graphic novel cutscenes are gone. They've been replaced with stylized cinematography reminiscent of Crank and Man on Fire. The cutscenes feature no shortage of colored filters, split-screen views, and random bits of dialogue drawn on the screen for emphasis. This means all the action and plot remains in-engine and consistent, while still providing the flair those original graphic novel cutscenes offered.
If there's one problem with this turn towards in-engine graphics, it's the face animations. Considering L.A. Noire just revolutionized face tech, a poor showing from Rockstar here is odd. Max looked fine, but other characters in the demo seemed to be suffering some sort of affliction. Hopefully this is just a side effect of an unfinished product.
An alternate explanation is that Rockstar spent all their time on combat animations. The way Max moves through the environment is stunning. There's little between-animation awkwardness, and Max is more a part of his world than most game characters. This doesn't seem to make animation the priority either, as it only ensures that smooth action translates into smooth motion. One example Rockstar demonstrated was spinning the targeting reticule after an action dive. Max braced himself as he hit the ground, and even rolled onto his back to keep his gun facing in the right direction.
From slow motion dives to smooth gunfight acrobatics, it's clear Rockstar has their priorities straight. They even paint bullet wounds on the appropriate spots where enemies are shot and offer up an action-porn cam for the last enemy-killing bullet. The camera follows the bullet at close range as it flies towards its target, and players can slow it down for even more indulgent violence.
Rockstar has a knack for cool details in even their most massive open worlds. It's not often they get to put all their talents in a more reasonably-sized world, though. That, more than anything, is why I think Max Payne 3 might be great when it arrives on 360, PS3, and PC next March. This is dumb, explosive, all-too self-serious action, down to the tiniest detail. I can't imagine anything more poetic.