PAX East 2012: Max Payne 3 Preview

Max Payne 3 has been a long time coming, to say the very least. The two previous games, then developed by Remedy Entertainment, came out in 2001 and 2003. Since then we’ve seen Rockstar Games release classic entries in the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series, as well as L.A. Noire and Bully, with nary a peep from Max Payne. With so much time between entries — and several in-house developers now at the helm — one wonders what place the franchise has in today’s gaming climate. If what I played at PAX East is any indication, then it’s not unlike the original’s: a jarring tour-de-force of what shooters should be like.

As previously stated, the original Max Payne was a long time ago. For reasons I don’t quite remember, I skipped Max Payne 2 and haven’t played much of the original since I beat it in 2002, meaning that there’s a rather large window in which cover shooters have embedded themselves into my psyche. Max Payne 3, however, cares not for  your regenerative shelter and throws you into a hail of gunfire.

The hardest thing about Max Payne 3 is getting back into the Max Payne rhythm. Trained by years of Gears of War and Uncharted, I spent a couple of minutes in the first level hiding behind cover. I soon found myself overwhelmed as enemies attacked me from all sides, realizing that Max is pretty ill-equipped to hunker down and play bullet sponge.

This is when I was gently reminded by a Rockstar PR rep that I should be using Bullet Time. Oh, right. Once I started diving headfirst into mortal danger, everything slowly started to click again. Dodging gunfire in slow-mo and perforating skulls is still highly satisfying, especially now with the addition of a final kill-cam that lets you know that you’ve killed everyone in the room. This kill-cam is also a fine showcase for some of the character modeling, gruesomely showing you as bullets burrow through after an expertly placed headshot. In a world of quick-time events where the hero does all of the coolest things with minimal player input, Bullet Time makes sure that you’re solely responsible for Max’s greatest antics.

Max Payne 3 also does away with the regenerative health that is now standard in most modern shooters. Instead, the series’ trademark painkillers refill your health a couple of different ways. Using them manually works as it always did, restoring a good chunk of your health. New in MP3, though, is a feature called Last Man Standing. If you take a fatal shot with at least one painkiller handy, you’ll automatically go into Bullet Time as the reticle drifts towards the enemy that shot you. If you kill him first, you’ll recover a sliver of health at the cost of a painkiller and all of your Bullet Time. It’s not an ideal use of precious painkillers, but it saved my bacon more than a few times during my demo.

Once I started to get the hang of the mechanics again, it was time to shift gears into a more difficult stage. The PR rep loaded up a level that took place in a Brazilian soccer stadium, where swarms of armored enemies really tested my mettle. He challenged me to enter Bullet Time and dive down a set of stairs in the stands to see how many enemies I could pick off. It ended up being a 7-second, white-knuckle reminder that going headfirst into trouble is probably the most fun way to play a shooter. I didn’t kill all of the enemies, of course, and the remaining armored thugs made sure to relieve me of my few precious painkillers. I had my fair share of checkpoint restarts after that, but diving around and lining up headshots was so much fun that I really didn’t mind.

While it sticks to its roots, Max Payne 3 also benefits from some modern upgrades. Rockstar’s RAGE engine ensures that MP3 is one of the publisher’s best-looking titles, while GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption fans will recognize the Euphoria physics engine at work when they shoot enemies in the leg. It’s the Max Payne you know and love, finally upgraded for the current generation of consoles.

Getting back into the ebb and flow of Max Payne 3 after a decade of separation from the series is certainly tricky. The instinct to cower behind chest-high walls has been hard-wired into many gamers, but that’s probably the quickest road to failure here. Going in guns blazing is essential to prolonged success, and a huge reason for why it’s shaping up to be the most fun shooter of 2012, third-person or otherwise.

Look for Max Payne 3 to hit the PS3 on May 15th.