PAX East 2012: Max Payne 3 preview

What's the first thing you think of when you hear Max Payne?  Most likely it will be slow-motion gameplay, or "Bullet Time" – a feature that when activated slows down the action of a game so that you can manage usually impossible feats.  In Max Payne it was a feature that could be activated to dodge bullets and gunfire while performing crazy stuns, but over time developers have taken the concept and adapted it to fit their own games.  No one does it better, however, than the Max Payne games.  And in Max Payne 3 it's the center of focus.

It's been about 8 years since we've seen the last Max Payne title.  For that reason, some of the gameplay choices Rockstar decided to include, like free aim, may seem a little archaic.  For those of you who have played Max Payne, you'll appreciate it – as it's a nice tribute to the previous franchise titles.  For those who haven't, you may be quickly turned off by the difficult of not having assisted aim.  But before you get frustrated and turn on the assisted aim, I encourage you to stick it out because once you get the hang of it, you'll begin to appreciate it.

Of course, over 8 years the gaming industry has changed.  Things like the "cover system" have become popular.  Rockstar noticed this and has decided to incorporate it.  But don't expect Gears of War type gameplay.  The cover system in Max Payne 3 isn't designed to have you duck and fire.  Instead, it's designed to give you a short break from the action – reload, collect your bearings, and then get back into the mix of things.  And if you don't get back into the action, the AI will force you to by flushing you out with grenades or flanking you. 

While it looks like a modern game, the gameplay is pure throwback – no health regen, limited cover system, and free aim.  The gameplay is brutal and unforgiving, but it's typical Max Payne, which means it is fun.  You will be challenged, you will be outnumbered, you will die often (at least I did in my hands-on demo).  Thankfully, the game knew I was struggling and after recognizing I couldn't perform the next part without any pain killers (essentially health pickups), it started me off on my next respawn with one.  So while Max Payne 3 is challenging, it's not unfair and it won't have you bashing your head on the console as you continue to die over and over.

In my PAX East demo, I played a level titled "The Docks: Slipway".  I was tasked with finding Fabiana.  As you probably know by now, Max Payne 3 doesn't take place in New York; rather, it takes place in São Paulo.  Our level took place here, but that's not to say you don't play in New York at all. During my preview, I was pleased to find out that there are actually levels that will take place in New York via Max's memory.  In short, while Max goes through a monologue, he will fill in the gaps of how he got to São Paulo through playable memory levels that take place in NY.

Regardless of setting, this is still Max Payne we're talking about.  Despite the new backdrop, you still have that noire feel to the game.  Max's inner monologue is still present, all of the cynical comments are there, and the graphic novel panel cut scenes are conceptually the same as the previous games.  The use of color, shadow, and music also help create that mysterious noire look and feel to the game.

Throughout the level, I was asked with using all of my abilities to kill waves of unforgiving enemies. I had to combine the new with the old, using Bullet Time while in the open and relying on the cover to reload.  As I mentioned, this game is built around the Bullet Time feature.  With that being said, you will often find yourself outnumbered relying only on that and Bullet Dodge to carefully take out each enemy.  Not only is it useful, but it's pretty damn cool to see an enemy die in slow motion.  In some cases, you can literally see the bullet enter the enemy's body and blast out the back of it. Usually when your encountering big groups of enemies that really outnumber you it will automatically put you in Bullet Time for an extended period; this will help you take out enough of them to make it more manageable on your own.

Other neat features included a Last Man Standing mode.  Sometimes, in the action, it may be difficult to keep track of your health.  With this ability, if you die and happen to have a pain killer on you, the game will slow into Bullet Time.  During this, you must kill the guy that killed you.  Doing so will successfully bring you back to life by using your pain killer.  Keep in mind, this only works if you have them.  If you are all out, you are dead.

While we didn't get to preview much of the story, what we did see in terms of gameplay makes Max Payne 3 look like a promising addition to the franchise.  While designed as a modern game, there are still enough of the traditional elements to pay homage to the original games.  Because of that, Max Payne 3 should appeal to both traditional fans of the series and even newer ones as well.