When I first sat down to try out Max Payne 3 at this year’s PAX East in Boston, a PR rep for Rockstar was quick to tell me, “This is not a cover-based shooter. You won’t find a bunch of waist-high walls here.”
I laughed, but I appreciated the sentiment. With Max Payne 3, Rockstar is doing its hardest to set the game apart from the wealth of cover-based shooters found in the gaming landscape today. And in some ways it succeeds, because it’s certainly a unique game with a distinct feel. But cover is still an incredibly important facet of gameplay if you’re going to survive, which was probably the only thing that disappointed me during my time with the game…because everything else is so damn fun I didn’t want to stop for a second to take cover.
Let’s back up for a quick second. Taking place a few years after the events of Max Payne 2, Max Payne 3 sees the titular character relocating Sao Paulo after his friend Raul Pazos offers him a job in private security. Max is reticent and has spent the last couple of years in a haze of booze and pills — he looks noticeably more worn and haggard — but he takes the job after a series of unfortunate events force him out of his home in New York. And naturally, everything goes south (pun intended) once Max gets to Sao Paulo, because the wife of the man that he begins working for gets kidnapped. So it’s up to everyone’s favorite antihero (and Raul) to save the damsel in distress.
Supporting the story is the game’s heavy emphasis on a cinematic style. In-game cinematics feature freeze frames, visual distortion, and on-screen text highlighting some of the words that the characters speak, offering a nod to the comic-book panel style of the cut scenes from the first Max Payne. “We’re trying to make every element of the game have a distinct style and feel to it, from the way Max moves, to the shooting mechanics, to the environments,” said the rep. “Hopefully, it lives up to what a Max Payne game should be in 2012.”
And that it does. As I worked my way through the first level of the demo, a seedy bar (and eventually the streets) in Hoboken, I immediately felt how everything about Max Payne 3 oozes cool, and that’s a key element of the series: making the player feel like a total badass. One popular control mechanic that helps achieve this goal — and one that Rockstar has been hyping quite a bit — is the ability to “shootdodge,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
With a single press of the button, the game shifts into the series’ token bullet-time (slow-mo) and Max launches himself into an evasive maneuver, but with guns drawn so you can pick off targets in the process. It’s cool, it’s sexy, and it’s beyond easy to perform. “With Max Payne 3, we’re trying to make it so players can move Max through the space in the most stylish way possible,” said the rep.
Of course if you want to shootdodge (or just trigger bullet-time on its own without dodging, which you’re free to do as well), you’re going to need to build up your bullet-time meter. In order to do so, you can kill, you can be shot, or you can rack up extra juice by scoring headshots. But aside from allowing you to use bullet-time, the meter comes into play in one other significant fashion: the Last Man Standing mode.
If Max’s health is low and he takes a shot that does enough damage to kill him, the game shifts to Last Man Standing. The game goes into bullet-time and gives the player one last chance to kill the enemy who shot Max. If you manage to do so before hitting the ground, Max is brought back to life with a decent amount of health, but at the cost of your entire bullet-time meter. I cannot emphasize how many times this rescued me from my recklessness when I was too caught up in my firefights to realize that my health was low. But unfortunately, it also costs you one use of painkillers which, as players that are familiar with the series will recognize, is the sole means of recovering health.
There is no regenerating health in Max Payne 3, and that only serves to ratchet up the intensity. But that also means that if you don’t have any painkillers, no Last Man Standing mode when you take a fatal shot…no, you die like any other normal person would after being showered with bullets.
And that’s why cover is still ultimately an important gameplay aspect, despite Rockstar’s best efforts to avoid falling into that particular mold. As much as people like to hate on cover and the low walls that litter game environments, they’re necessary in order to provide an even marginal sense of danger (and the need to seek protection from it) for players.
Because of the Rockstar rep’s early comment about cover, I tried running and gunning right off the bat and quickly learned the hard way that that won’t fly in Max Payne 3. You take damage quickly and before you know it, you’re either burning through painkillers or shifting into Last Man Standing and using up your entire bullet-time meter. As much as I just wanted to run around shooting things in slow-mo the whole time, it just wasn’t an option, and there was no shortage of cover and low walls for me to use to protect myself.
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