Yesterday, I listed 5 things that Rockstar should carry over from Max Payne 3 into Grand Theft Auto V. Today, I'll list 5 things that I hope they leave behind forever.
Some of these things are new to Max Payne 3, some are bad habits that have developed over time. A couple are story-related, a couple are gameplay-related. But if Rockstar is going to continue to make games that are at the cutting edge of both pop culture and gaming, all of them have gotta go.
Here now, 5 bad habits that Rockstar should leave behind forever.
1. Cinematic Style Over Cinematic Substance
There's always been a discrepancy between the cutscene snippets that we see in Rockstar's trailers and the actual cutscenes in their games. The trailers are all hyper-edited, super exciting, with bouncing music and lots of quick-cut one-liners. The cutscenes in the games themselves are much more traditionally composed, consisting of carefully framed or slowly tracking shots that keep the action and dialogue clear and in focus.
This is a good thing. But Max Payne 3 ditches that approach, and the game's hyper-stylish cinematics often feel more like a trailer than they do a coherent scene. The early scenes hold promise—their portrayal of a man silently drinking himself to death are intense and troubling. But it all starts to feel self-indulgent with remarkable quickness—by the third or fourth cutscene, I was already tired of the splashing text, the forced double-vision, the extreme camera angles. Rockstar wears its cinematic ambitions on its sleeve, but Max Payne 3 is, all things considered, an overindulgence in the shallower end of that ambition.
Grand Theft Auto V most likely won't adopt Max Payne 3's melodramatic flavor. But I do worry that as it becomes technologically easier for the Housers to create more elaborate, showy cinematics, their work will become shallower despite the fact that I don't believe them to be shallow storytellers.
2. Goons, Bullies, and Deluded Psychos
This one's a broader complaint, but in Max Payne 3 I believe that I finally reached my quota for Rockstar's favorite archetype—the deluded cokefiend, specifically. It's something we've seen in most if not all of their games—these doofy guys (and occasionally gals) who upon introduction appear to be lord of their tiny fiefdom. (We usually meet them at a party, and they're usually doing cocaine.) They welcome the taciturn protagonist, and give him a job. Eventually, they are revealed to be a sad phony, and they usually end up dead.
This archetype is fine on its own, but I felt as though Grand Theft Auto IV more or less hit all of the riff's possible variations. We had Brucie, we had Playboy; we had Ray and Manny, Elizabeta and Derrick, Faustin and Vlad. In Max Payne 3, we got another variation in the Branco family, but most of those characters weren't explored any more meaningfully than the smallest sidequest-givers in GTA IV.
It's certainly not beyond the Housers and their writing team's ability to create distinctive, interesting characters. The opening act of Red Dead Redemption was populated almost entirely with real-feeling folk (with the exception of Irish), and it was also the best extended bit of storytelling that a Rockstar game has managed. Driven largely by its setting and the age of its protagonists, the fabulous high-school-based game Bully had nothing but interesting characters. The archetype was almost non-existant in the (largely not-Rockstar-written) L.A. Noire and in the GTA IV episodes, both partner/antagonists Billy Grey and Gay Tony were nuanced and ambiguous.
But none of the characters in Max Payne 3 feel fresh or interesting, including Max himself. This is at least in part because they were working with an established character—but if that's the case, why did I feel like I got to know Max better in the earlier games? For all the talking Max does in the new game, we gain almost no insight into his character or history over the course of the game. Given how diverse Rockstar's casts tend to be, it's frustrating that they're still able to make a game this shallow. Hopefully Grand Theft Auto V will show them pushing in the other direction, eschewing their over-reliance on entertaining but ultimately shallow character archetypes.
3. Extreme Gore
With Max Payne 3, Rockstar seems to have made huge leaps in the field of ghastly bullet-wound technology. Shooting an enemy in the game leads to all manner of disgusting, pulpy entry wounds and juicy exit wounds as mouths are eviscerated, torsos perforated, and neck-wounds blast arterial spray in every direction.
It's a choice with cinematic influences—we've seen violence like this in the gritty action films from which Max Payne draws inspiration. And violence can be just fine, or even welcomely shocking—heck, just this week, we saw some thrilling ultraviolence in the medieval TV show Game of Thrones. If that was cool enough to post Gifs, why isn't it cool in Max Payne 3?
Games suffer from a "repetition factor" that films and TV shows don't. Something that we see once or twice in a film we'll see dozens of times in a game, and the effect is therefore dramatically different. (This same thing happens with dialogue, see Arkham City and Splinter Cell's Fisher-Fest 2010.)
When playing Max Payne 3, I see new, horrific blasts of violence every few seconds. After a while, I can't help but start to feel weird about it—how much extreme blood-spray can a guy watch before the whole thing starts to feel a bit psychotic?
It seems unlikely that this level of gore will make its way into Grand Theft Auto V, mainly because it will be more mainstream-oriented. All the same, I want to voice the hope that GTA V chooses to focus more on great action and storytelling and less on realistically depicting the effect of a hollow-point on a jawbone.
4. Over-Reliance on Cover
As much as Rockstar has tweaked and improved their cover-based third-person shooting over the years, it has a fundamental problem—it often feels less cover-based and more cover—locked.
This feels especially true in the back half of Max Payne 3, where most encounters wind up playing out just like action sequences in Red Dead Redemption or GTA IV. You run into a new room, take cover, and shoot guys from that cover until they're all dead. Max Payne 3 doesn't have any good options for rushing from cover to cover or cornering, meaning that you're generally even more rooted.
Going back to Max Payne 2 on PC, it's remarkable how much has been changed. That game had no cover system, and as a result Max was propelled forwards. Each room became something of a fast-paced physics puzzle:
I need to leap to the right to get that pillar between me and the two guys over there, while shooting the guy who still has a line on me. Then, once I land, leap back to the left and take out the other two guys...
I'm in Max Payne 3's 12th act, and I no longer use shoot-dodging at all. I relish the odd moment when I'm running through an open space and two guys burst out from the side—finally, I can do some acrobatics! That is what Max Payne is all about for me—leaping through the air and blowing away bad guys. It's not really about crouching behind a pillar and leaning out to take potshots. For this reason, I do look forward to playing Max Payne 3 on the PC, with a mouse and keyboard and free-aiming enabled, but I also think the game could have freed things up a little regardless of the player's control scheme.
Every game Rockstar has made since GTA IV has featured more or less the same heavy, slow-moving cover-based combat. It seems highly unlikely that GTA V will deviate from that. All the same, it would be great to play a game that gave players reason to exit cover and engage in combat that felt a bit less constipated.
The cover issue, however, is directly tied to Max Payne 3's biggest problem, something that I truly hope GTA V can remedy...
5. Maddening Difficulty Issues
Max Payne 3 has a number of problems with difficulty and balance. The issues tend to stack on top of one another, and one problem leads to multiple problematic player-side situations, at least for me. For example:
- Enemies are bullet-sponges who can take a half-dozen bullets and keep on ticking >> Max can't shoot-dodge into a room because it's impossible to kill even one enemy in a single leap, therefore shoot-dodging is suicidal >> Players stick to cover in order to proceed.
- The game has no quicksave and checkpoints are punishing >> Players are forced to be more conservative in order to survive the lengthy, multi-stage shootouts >> Players do less experimentation and, again, tend to stick to cover.
- The "soft-lock" auto-aim still feels a bit rough, and scoped weapons in particular tend to lock onto unintended enemies >> Some sections of the game are much more difficult than they would be in another third-person shooter >> Players don't want to use some of the game's better weapons, and feel like the game is fighting them.
- Enemies don't drop painkillers like they did in the first games >> A players' first priority after each fight is doing a slow pick-over of each room looking for precious health >> The game's pacing and flow feel stagnated, despite the fact that characters are regularly yelling at you to hurry things up.
The issues continue: Bullet-sponge "boss" enemies are placed at the ends of combat sections, sometimes with no checkpoint before them. Not fun. Enemies are allowed to use grenades, but Max isn't. (Why?)
The best bullet-time moments are scripted, with an unlimited-ammo Max leaping from a building or a higher level while firing down on enemies below. The difference between these moments and the rare times when you recreate them on your own is quite large. Particularly in an open-world game like GTA, I want to make more of my own cinema and rely less on setpieces to really wow me.
Despite all that, Rockstar's combat system is largely fine, usually fun and occasionally even truly great. Its feel can be supremely satisfying, and as I talked about yesterday, Max Payne 3 contains some brilliant touches that I hope to see in future Rockstar games.
But its flaws still feel frustrating, and I would love to see a Rockstar game finally feel as good to play as Gears of War or Vanquish or hell, the recently-released Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
In GTA IV and Red Dead, I found myself saying, "It's this huge open world game and the combat is decent!" In Max Payne 3, the open world is removed, but the combat isn't as fine-tuned as I would have expected. Wouldn't it be lovely if GTA V could have it all?
I get the sense that we'll see more of GTA V in the near future, and hopefully begin to discern whether Rockstar has made a riff on their already grand open-world formula or decided to blow things wide open yet again. Here's hoping it's the latter.
It can be difficult to view Max Payne 3 on its own terms. It's a fine game in its own right, but it will always exist at least partly in the shadow of Rockstar's other, much bigger looming release-Grand Theft Auto V.
Since Rockstar released GTA IV four years ago, both Red Dead Redemption and... More »