Rockstar Games will end an a 10-month stretch of no major new video games next March. Not with the release of the next Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, but with the shooter I saw at their New York office this past week, the unexpectedly beautiful and expectedly violent Max Payne 3.
Suddenly, I'm excited to try to dodge bullets.
To see a game at Rockstar's New York City office is to sit on the big comfy couch in a dark room with a giant TV, public relations people outnumbering you often, as in this case, 3:1 (it was supposed to be 3:2, but news broke). You don't get to just see the game when you visit, you get to hear a confident presentation of what's special about the game.
This one, Rockstar folks told me and showed me, is about great characters, great gunplay and some very good tech. In the document they gave me after we met, they reiterated those same points, saying that the company's goal for Max Payne 3 is to create "the most cinematic, sophisticated action shooter yet made."
They showed me two levels, starring Max Payne in two very different moments in his life. The Rockstar crew warned me that the game's levels won't take place in chronological order, so we can't surmise anything about when either level will happen in the game. In the order they showed it to me, however, I first saw a level in New York City. This nighttime level featured Max with all his hair, looking similar to how he did in his earlier games. He is drinking away his sorrows when a friend stops by and offers him work. Soon Max's apartment building is surrounding by local mobsters and the whole thing turns into a multi-story gun battle, climaxing with an escape to a snowy rooftop, beyond which looms the Manhattan skyline. The second level occurs in Brazil where Max has taken a security job. His head is shaved and he's got a beard and a paunch now. He and the lady he is protecting are on the run from a gang, which forces Max to shoot his way through a bus depot, an office building and more.
The Rockstar people rightfully boast about how they're framing this action. They are promising a game with no load times that runs on an upgraded version of the RAGE engine that powered Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption but with the benefit of not going open-world like those games and therefore filling the game's environment with a stunning amount of detail. Dialogue sequences flow right into shootouts; non-controllable story progression spills to controllable combat. The obvious reference point, not volunteered by Rockstar, are the Uncharted games which also dare to be the best-looking games you've seen in a given year, tell you a clear and compelling story while mixing story and gameplay sequences into one can't-stop-playing experience. One obvious difference between the two: Max Payne 3 includes a throwback to the graphic-novel-style storytelling of its predecessors by occasionally breaking up some of its in-engine storytelling sequences into multi-plane comic-book-style frames.
The story and acting already seem good. Rockstar's proud to have James McCaffrey back as the voice of Max and from what little story bits I've seen, they're presenting a convincing drama of a down-on-his-luck ex-cop trying to find some purpose in his life. Max is dour and grumpy, a dramatic difference from the kind of detached bystanders to eccentric America that Rockstar has written as leads in their recent GTA and Red Dead games. Plus, Max isn't going to be confused with L.A. Noire's Cole Phelps, who at least projected more of a golden boy image.
Gunplay and animation are the real stars of the game. Max can carry three weapons and may dual-wield any combo of one-handed guns. He can take cover if he needs to, but the game is not a cover-based shooter, Rockstar emphasizes. Enemies will flank you. You need to move into the fray... and not just in normal time. You'll need to slow it down and use the series' signature bullet-time. Max Payne 3's bullet time slow-mo gunplay is lightly restricted by a meter that drains as you use it and refills as you kill guys (and refills more quickly if you kill guys in real-time). The bullet time caused the rich, realistically-colored world of the game to take an orange tint. Max himself shimmers like the man-out-of-the-timestream he suddenly is.
The Rockstar people think that it's great that first-person shooters let you swing your targeting reticule in 360-degrees without any hitches and recognize that third-person shooters often fail to meet the same standard. They promise and showed me that theirs does. While they didn't let me play the game, they showed me that you can point Max's gun(s) anywhere you want with no resistance in the controls and no hiccups in Max's animation. The hero convincingly adjusts the stretch of his arm, the lean of his back, and the turn of his hips to accommodate wherever you are pointing no matter where you have him moving.
The Rockstar folks also think it's cool that Max can and will roll and dive wherever you need him to and shoot from wherever he lands. One of Max's key moves is the slow-mo dodge, which is great to use when you see bullets streaking at you in slow-mo, enemy projectiles trailed by white lines back to smoking barrels. I got to see Max leap to his left, like a man in a road going airborne to avoid the bus bearing down on him. Max braced his arm as he landed on the ground on his side... and could still shoot from there. A combination of tons of animation and blending tech (the Rockstar people will happily talk about it a lot) boils down to: Max moves like an idealized person would, not like some hitchy video game character. He doesn't ice-skate on the ground when he runs. He doesn't stutter or flop limply when he dives or lands. Enemies are supposed to be similarly empowered with great animations, and for the most part they seemed to be, though some did flop in a video-gamey way when hit by Max's bullets.
Another Rockstar talking point is that the bullets in the game are real in-game objects. They're not just special effects or invisible implications. They fly and hit enemies in specific spots. The very last bullet Max fires to finish an encounter triggers one of a variety of cinematic kill-camera. Imagine suddenly seeing the final bullet that Max fires from the soon-to-be-victim's perspective or imagine riding that bullet up to the enemy. The kill-cams play in slow-mo though the gamer has analogue control to speed them up. (Another sort of special effect with gameplay implications: if Max is downed, as long as he has one of his painkillers, which are the game's health packs, he'll get a Last Man Standing moment which sees his targeting reticule drift toward the guy who shot him and, should he/you gun down that enemy in this moment, will revive Max with partial health).
There are, occasionally, situations where what the developers are telling you doesn't match what you're seeing. You might be told, for example, that Max Payne 3 is going to offer a lot of replayability, but the game sure looks linear and doesn't have anything like a high-score challenge that would likely send a player back to play it again. No shame in being linear, of course. Think back, again, to Uncharted and how wonderful those games are one time through.
There are those moments, yes, but then there are sometimes the ones in which you realize the developers were right.
The Rockstar people say that the much of the fun of this game will emerge as the player sorts out different ways to shoot through an encounter. I watched a Rockstar guy bring Max up a switchbacked staircase in an office building in the São Paulo level they showed me. Enemies flushed in, shooting past desks, shattering lots of glass, forcing Max to go slow-mo and dodge. Behind Max, an enemy was coming up the stairs. He'd reached the first landing and had done a 180 to come up the rest of the way and probably shoot Max in the back. The Rockstar guy had played this level before and knew a cool way to handle this. He wheeled Max around. Did he run at the guy as he came up the stairs? Nope. I would've done that the first time. The Rockstar guy probably would have too. Instead, this time, he dove Max over a half-wall, past the guy on the staircase, as if he was making his own down escalator next to this guy's upward one. He was diving in slow-mo, sailing forward and a half-floor down as he turned Max's guns toward the guy now to his side and shot him in the side of the head, then landed on the first landing of the staircase. There's your replay value.
The game looks gorgeous. The RAGE engine benefits from the relatively confined spaces of Max Payne 3. It is free of the challenge of having to render the vast open landscape of a Red Dead and can instead populate Max's New York or Brazil with all the garbage cans and awning and fire extinguishers and other details that make a game world look more something real than like the set of a play. The camerawork is inspired as well, often exhibiting a slight handheld shake and natural movement in the story sequences I saw.
Rockstar wants gamers to feel an affinity for Max who is a stranger in a strange land in Brazil, where the protection job he's on turns, of course, into a series of violent encounters. Those of us who don't speak Portuguese will really be able to relate to Max, because Rockstar is cleverly not subtitling the Portuguese their Brazilian characters will speak. Hey, we can't all relate to being bald with a paunch, right? Seriously, the language idea is the kind of bold thing Rockstar would do. And don't worry, Max's friends do speak English to him.
I liked the flow of action, though Uncharted has made me leery about cinematic shooters and their ability to avoid monotony. The Brazil level I saw did smoothly change from outdoor shootout to indoor shootout to shooting-from-a-high-speed-bus, so, yeah, Rockstar is trying to keep things from being monotonous. I believe their ability to pace the game's campaign well and vary the action will make or break this thing. The gunplay is already looking good; it's how differently the gunplay will be used that will probably decide whether it can all be as fun as what I saw or will feel too repetitious. Rockstar is, at least, promising a standard shooter-length campaign of high quality. They're also adding some variety by including objects in the world that trigger bullet time. For example, when Max entered a warehouse from a high window, by grabbing a hook and using it as a zipline, the action went into cinematic slow-mo. In that same space, there were surprises, like a control panel that, if shot, dropped a bus on enemies standing underneath it.
I've not played Max Payne games before, so I have to take Rockstar's collective word for it that the games are sometimes surreal. That's the explanation for my favorite moment in all that I saw. It was in the New York level, as mobsters were rushing up the stairs of Max's apartment building and starting to pierce the windows in his hallway with red-dot sights. Down a hallway, a hobo suddenly appeared, dressed in an army jacket, clearly wearing a bomb on his body and spouting some sort of madness. He runs to Max in the middle of the firefight after shotgunning some enemies for Max, then gets blown up. It was weird, random and excellent.
Max Payne 3 is in development by a cadre of Rockstar Studios from Toronto, Vancouver, New England and London with input, as always, from the New York City mothership. It'll have a campaign, as I described and multiplayer, which they're not talking about yet. It'll be out in March for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. I was skeptical that Rockstar had anything fresh to add to the shooter genre. It's so crowded, really. But this first look impressed me. Their game looks fun to watch and to play; I look forward to doing the latter with my hands on controller. Not this time, but hopefully soon.