Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Max Payne 3 A mind-blowing hands-on

It's easy to be impressed when you're standing on the outside looking in.

Consider Roberto Branco, for example. This is a man who looks like he's got it all: a beautiful young wife, a thriving real estate business and an amassed wealth that could send the economy of Switzerland into a tailspin if he makes a big enough withdrawal. How many problems could he have?

But take a closer look; note the security guards hovering behind him, the connections he's had to make to succeed in a harsh, third-world country and the bribes he's had to pay "to the right people". They combine to scream out a message about this man: his success has turned him, and everything he values, into targets.

And so it is that he finds himself in a boardroom with his brothers Marcelo and Victor and his security detail, Raul and an ex-cop from New York, Max Payne, and all of them are discussing what they should do about Branco's wife, Fabiana. A street gang called Comando Sombra has kidnapped her and they want a lot of money in return for handing her back.

If Branco's life looks less tantalising the closer one looks at it, the same definitely cannot be said for the game in which he features. While Max Payne 3 features aspects that players have seen before - bullet-time, gritty storylines and Max, a bruised, battered and depressing piece of work - the way Rockstar's collection of studios have rearranged and reapplied them all not only feels fresh, it feels downright compelling.

Players who have been following coverage on the game will have already noted how, under Rockstar's guidance, Max Payne 3 seems to have traded the dour, almost Gothic, qualities of the stories in previous games, for a story that feels grittier and altogether less fantastical. Early previews of the game lay out the game's plot that piles misery upon misery on Max until a friend from his past, Raul Passos, offers him a clean break as a security executive for Rodrigo Branco, a wealthy Brazilian businessman. Things improve briefly for Max until Branco's wife is kidnapped and Passos volunteers the pair of them to make the ransom drop.

Before CVG is handed the controls to Max Payne 3, Rockstar guides us through the demo level's opening sequence in which Max and Raul arrive at the venue for the drop: the stadium of Sao Paulo's premier football club, the Galatians. As they meet gang members from Comando Sombra in the middle of the pitch, Max intones that something doesn't feel quite right.

Suddenly, as the money exchanges hands, rifle fire erupts from somewhere in the stands above them. The gang scatter as Max takes a bullet in his right arm. He staggers to his feet and follows Raul through the corridors of the stadium in search of the club's infirmary. As Max limps through the building, the screen fractures, blurs and shudders, reflecting how the pain in his arm is affecting his senses.

In the infirmary, Raul bandages up Max's arm, while for his part, Max helps himself to the painkillers in a nearby cabinet. Once Max shifts his weight off the table and moves out into the next room - which contains a mini indoor football pitch - shouts and gunfire signal the arrival of some rather angry gang members, and Rockstar hands the control pad over to us.

Left and right trigger control are aim and fire respectively, although players can toggle the difficulty in drawing a bead on enemies. Not only can the overall difficulty of the overall game be changed, but players can ratchet up the game's level of challenge by deciding how quickly the crosshairs snap to targets with the left trigger. Players can opt for instant targeting, cross hairs that snap to the general vicinity of the target, or they can leave the targeting completely loose.

The next major difference in the gameplay is that Max can now latch onto cover if players press the X button. Once Max enters cover, he can pop-out while aiming his weapon with the LT, and if he reaches the end of a wall, flicking the left stick causes him to briefly poke his head out.

Hitting X again causes Max to leave cover, although the best way to do that for our money is to use the shoot/dodge function, which is mapped to the right bumper. Max Payne veterans will remember this feature; it causes Max to leap sideways into the air in slow-motion allowing players to easily target enemies in their vicinity and empty Max's guns into them. However, in Max Payne 3, when Max lands on the floor after a shoot/dodge move, he remains in a prone position rather than immediately leaping back to his feet. This allows the player to roll back into cover, or target other enemies from the floor.

The Shoot/dodge move uses a brief portion of bullet-time, which ends the moment Max comes to a halt on the floor. To keep bullet-time in play continually, players click in the right stick. This slows down all of the action on screen and hands a massive edge to the player, who can quickly move between targets with their crosshairs, snapping off shots. Not only does this aid them tactically, it looks absolutely awesome.

When Max cuts down his attackers, their bodies jerk and spasm as the bullets chew through them. Shellcasings waft through the air, glass spiderwebs and then shatters as flying lead hits it and wood panelling splinters and flakes under gunfire. When Max takes out his final opponent the camera switches to just behind the bullet he fires and follows it straight into its intended target. The colours on screen take on a vibrant and bright hue, while gunshots, reload clicks and screams are turned into amplified muffles on the soundtrack.

While Bullet-time looks cool it also informs the level design. In one set-piece in the stadium's executive member's bar, bullet-time provided an invaluable playing edge, when enemies turned the narrow room into a bottleneck. Later, when Max had to provide Raul with covering fire using a sniper's rifle, the ability to slow down the action on the other end of the crosshairs came in very handy indeed. To that end, players need to keep Max's bullet-time meter topped up but executing moves such as forward rolls, dodges and headshots.

Players will need to keep bullet-time filled, along with Max's health bar, which they keep topped up with painkillers. They'll also need to keep an eye on their ammunition because Max isn't able to carry the large arsenal he was in previous iterations. He's limited to two handguns - be they revolvers, automatics or submachine guns - and one weapon that requires two hands to wield it - like a shotgun or an M-16. Players switch between firearms in a wheel-menu they activate by hitting the left bumper. The menu also allows them to dual-wield firearms, but if they choose to do this, Max will drop whatever two handed weapon he currently has.

The controls feel great; the larger weapons give a meaty kick when fired, cover sliding feels smooth and Max's bullet-time combat is fun to execute and looks absolutely jaw-dropping on screen. The Euphoria engine powering all this action presents everything flawlessly; there's no pop-in and the frame-rate never slows regardless of how many enemies pour in.

Of course, while it's fun slinging lead around in a hyper-real bullet-ballet, the story remains one of the game's main draws. As Max and Raul try to make it out of the Galatian's stadium in one piece, they soon discover that a group of armed goons wearing paramilitary gear have crashed the ransom drop and are after the money themselves.

This throws up more questions for Max's gravelly-throated inner monologue to mull over. Who are these guys? How did they know about the drop? Who is backing them? And, since a gun battle has been raging for an hour in Sao Paulo's temple to the beautiful game, how come the cops haven't shown up? The only useful answer Max picks up from the aborted drop is Fabiana's whereabouts, stuttered out by a terrified Comando Sombra member, before one of the paramilitary goons blows him away.

Acting on this information, Max then heads to some seedy warehouse district down by the Sao Paulo docks. CVG were only allowed to play through about five minutes of this level, but in that short time Max Payne 3 showcased a bit more variety in its level design.

When Max arrives at the docks, a thunderstorm is raging and under the cover of the noise it is making, players can opt for a more stealthy approach. They can use the crash of thunder and the disjointed layout of the docks to sneak through the level, tapping the odd gang member with Max's silenced weapon. Then again, they can charge in full throttle. This is the video game corollary to a John Woo film, after all.

Max Payne 3 may look like a title that is recycling established tropes. Its story, mechanics and presentation don't sound promising on paper. But the way in which the game's developers have assembled these aspects make the sum gain of their efforts a compelling offering. It's easy to be impressed when you're standing on the outside looking in. Once you're actually in control in Max Payne 3, the experience is mind-blowing.

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