Friday, August 10, 2012

Max Payne 3: Trust us now, it's time to let you go

If you told me I'd be doing nothing but grumbling about a new Max Payne game, I'm not sure I would have believed you. However, here it is and here we are. If you don't want to read this long dissection, then you can summarise a lot of the frustrations by clicking this link.

If you're still with me, then here comes a rather long, somewhat spoilerish ramble. I also spoil the ending to Splinter Cell Conviction, but I don't think anybody will care about that. I should also add that the soundtrack for this game is fantastic, and well worth buying.

Where is Max and what have you done to his bullet time?

Anyone familiar with the early games knows Max is not a guy to screw around with - a quick tap of the button and he dips into bullet time which is typically the most efficient way to take out a room full of goons waving uzis. Max Payne 2 deepened and enhanced bullet time by making Max plunge into a more bullet timey state of mind the longer you blasted bad guys, culminating in that sweet 360 degree spinaround cam when reloading.

All in all, bullet time lasted quite a while. Yet I can't help but think Rockstar seemed to view bullet time, the key mechanic of a Max Payne game, as a hideous instant win button and nerfed it completely. As a result, Max is in bullet time very, very briefly compared to the other two games (to say nothing of how long he takes to go into his shootdodge jump, being shot to pieces while VERY SLOWLY PREPPING HIS LEAP). Worse, the meter seems to refill quickly if you go into cover (!) or if you kill a dude. What this means in practice is lots of hiding behind walls while AI flank into positions you can't recover from but more on that later.

Let's put it this way, something has gone very wrong when Max Payne, MAX PAYNE, king of bullet time spends less time in that mode of action than random characters in other games that aren't Max Payne. And yet...bullet time, even the copious amounts of it in MP2, doesn't come close to an instant win. Skillful use of the more open, non-linear environments (no need to jump in this game, because you're mostly running around on a flat surface unlike the heady heights scaled throughout MP2) combined with a wonderful reload ability are the way you get through a level. Simply running around in bullet time will get you whacked.

Even the slo-mo reload animation is functional and not simply a graphical gimmick, because it gives you the breathing room to keep track of where all the goons are while the camera spins. Yes, a spinning camera becomes a tactical gameplay mechanic. How cool is that?

I was extremely excited to see how bullet time developed from 2 to 3. The answer is, "it got downgraded and if you press a button you run around slowly for a bit".

Of course, you have all the bullet time you can eat but only when the script demands it - see the plunge through the window of the nightclub or the ride on the trolley in the police station for proof of that. Otherwise, Max is spectacularly unspectacular.

This is not a good thing, especially as the ever present targeting dot from the first two games only appears when you aim, leading to precious seconds of bullet time wasted as you continually correct yourself.

I hope you like three hours of unskippable cutscenes

Oh God, the cutscenes. If you want to play through this game on the higher difficulties and maybe try some of the other modes out, think about this - no fewer than nine hours of your life have sailed by while a fairly mediocre (and occasionally nonsensical) story play out on the screen with no way to get rid of it. The old games let you whizz through the comic panels, and let you stay in control of Max while the rest of the story progressed. Here, you'll come to dread that most terrifying of enemies - your walk slowing to a grind as you wander up to a door, triggering Max doing something like going through the door, looking at the door, rambling to himself by a door, walking to somewhere, hiding behind something, so on and so forth.

The art director must have had a thing for Kane & Lynch too, because the shaky cam and streaky effects presumably there to indicate drunkeness and withdrawl symptoms are MIND BOGGLINGLY ANNOYING and do not help when bolted onto three hours of waffle.

Why can't I shootdodge through the door? Why can't I open it myself? Why can't I get into cover myself? Why couldn't half of this stuff left me in control of Max? Why is it frequently used as a crutch to manoeuvre Max into stupid situations the player wouldn't have put him in?

Frustration Galore

I've killed my fair share of dudes in games. Specifically, I've killed my fair share of goons in Max Payne games. This one doesn't know whether it wants to be a cover shooter, or Max Payne. It sends out mixed messages and the gamer is punished for it. People will tell you you're playing it wrong; "Oh, you're not supposed to play it while hiding in cover", even though the mechanic is all-pervasive and comes with an endless stream of waist high cover. More often than not, playing as Max Payne and attempting to use bullet time will get you killed in seconds.

Poor scripting, baffling design choices and cutscene incompetence all compound this and leave you reeling. Here's some of my low points. I'm not sure if they're in order, but you'll get the idea. A couple of these, I could have handled. But the below isn't even the full laundry list of issues and there's only so much you can take before suspecting the game dev is going out of their way to punish you for not playing the game their way. I'm just not sure who would want to play it like this:

* Alarm bells start ringing once the stadium level begins and you're swarmed by goons in overtly CoD military gear. And they start throwing grenades. And you can't throw anything back (Max must have lost the use of his throwing arm since MP2). I hope the game doesn't take me into a jungle setting fighting paramilitary CoD-lite goons with gunboats and rocket laun.....crap.

* Ammo collection is erratic and makes little sense. Often I'll be low on ammo but instead of picking up the bullets on the ground in the form of "matching gun x", I have to drop the gun I have with the 3 bullets in favour of the new one. This doesn't happen all the time, why does it happen at all?

* After every cutscene, the game auto defaults back to a single handgun - even if I have no ammo in it. Oh look, I'm now dead. Thanks for that. This also happens in multiplayer, even if I'm carrying dual handguns handing an instant advantage to anyone with a two handed machine gun. 

* Gun pickups are also illogical. If I'm running around with a uzi and a handgun and the handgun only has (say) 6 bullets but the uzi is full, trying to pick up a replacement weapon often results in Max DROPPING THE FULLY LOADED GUN IN FAVOUR OF ANOTHER HANDGUN WITH LESS AMMO. Now I have less bullets than when I started out and I'm still packing the nearly empty pistol. Oh look, I'm dead again. Thanks for that.

* You quickly realise that Passos is perhaps the worst AI companion of all time. I think in the entire game, he's scripted to kill maybe 3 guys and you can take those guys out yourself if you're quick enough. Otherwise, his game plan is to shoot like a stormtrooper while whining at you endlessly. Who thought that was a good idea? Worse, the game rewards you at being awesome by punishing you with instadeath. The level where you have to storm a sort of military museum and you're pinned down by about ten dudes shooting right at you?

If you manage to get to the entrance before everyone up top is dead, running inside to creep up and kill the goons won't work because you're treated to a cutscene of Passos running out and dying horribly. Remember when Mona Sax killed a bunch of dudes in the MP2 funhouse? Yeah, that worked fine guys.

* Some cutscenes lead to total stupidity, in the form of the game handing you back control as Max runs towards a group of enemies WITH NO COVER. The inside of the boat on the Panama level is a perfect example of this presumed attempt at "excitingly cinematic". Similarly, the level on the roof of the collapsing hotel - you fight your way through an incredibly annoying set of goons as the building crumbles around you, reach the end and can only trigger a cutscene by running out of cover.

Surprise, you get a cutscene of a fully body armoured bad guy waving a chaingun from a roof above you, and control is handed back with Max standing IN FRONT OF THE COVER, and defaulted to a handgun. Which, in my case, had no bullets in it.

* Your guns are endlessly taken away from you, often with no reason behind it. When you first emerge onto the upper portion of the hotel, you've planted a bunch of C4, killed everybody and stocked up your guns and ammo in an armoury. You clamber up a ladder, and...the next section starts and you're back with the silenced pistol from the start of the level and a machine gun nearby with about 8 bullets in it. Words cannot express how infuriating this is.

* The last stand mechanic is broken when combined with a slow, ungraceful Max. Going down on the floor often means you kill the dude who shot you, get up incredibly slowly (while taking damage), fall over again, kill the dude who shot you, get up incredibly slowly (while taking damage), fall over again and die. This renders the feature all but meaningless on hard or above.

* More of a storytelling thing, but in the brothel we see various couples having sex in a rapid-fire cutscene. All of the women are naked; the men are of course either fully clothed or wearing boxer shorts, because heaven forbid we see a penis, an actual penis, in a videogame. Right bro?

* Laser sighted guns. Late in the game, you're given a reduced selection of weaponry and the bulk of it ends up being these laser sighted guns. These weapons may have the worst wobbly useless aim in the history of gaming. The moment you aim, the sight vanishes and when it's actually onscreen, it jerks all over the place. This isn't what you need when taking on those police station rooms full of SWAT officers. Protip: switch the sight off with the back button on the xbox controller, I'm assuming you can do this on other platforms.

* Almost everything Max does is stupid. Even after he decides to "confront his demons" by, uh, shaving his hair off and wandering into the favela the very first thing he does is listen to a small child and walk down a SUSPICIOUS LOOKING ALLEYWAY. Cue ambush. I know Max is supposed to be at a low ebb here, but I was practically screaming at the TFT by this point. Similarly, the build up to the favela rescue of the sisters was built up heavily, and when the inevitable cutscene kicked in I was ready to see Max burst in through the window and slow-mo shoot those assholes in the face.

What actually happened, was that Max walks through the door, yells a bit then hands over his guns and someone dies. Let's not even get started on his "those poor, poverty stricken people" observations on sighting the favela before walking in and turning it into an orphan holocaust. Or the insanity of Max blaming himself for not being able to stop an entire military outfit from burning his employer's building to the ground when everyone else in Brazil seemingly had the smarts to hire an entire military outfit. Max is at fault because is boss is too stupid to realise that two guys aren't enough? Okay.

Random questions: what happened to the handcuffs Max was wearing in the police station? Why does the cop appear in the sex club Max walks into, making sure he vanishes via the magic of cutscene before the shooting starts? Why does Max call himself fat when he looks like a big guy with muscles? I have lots more of these. I'm going to stop now.

* You get an achievement for not shooting [a guy] at the end. Why? I have no idea. Is this some sort of redemption for Max? Probably not, because he then goes on to kill a ton of other dudes. Plus [this guy] was a massive asshole, why wouldn't you kill him? All the while, a rambling dialogue plays in the background while Max talks about him becoming the thing they wanted him to be. It's all very serious until you realise the next section is firing infinite rockets at jeeps and an aeroplane.

* When it wants to, the game straight up cheats and breaks the established rules of the game to further the direction of the story. I have issues with games that resort to breaking your skillset because that's all they have left to throw at you. Splinter Cell: Conviction, pushing you into a final level where narrow corridors and indestructible light sources take away any of the stealth powers you thought you had while turning it into a straight up gun battle, is particularly guilty of this (and don't get me started on the final cutscene, where - spoiler alert - Fisher decides to rescue his friend by exploding what sounds like half the building and shooting everyone in sight with non silenced weapons).

Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, rule breaking. In the church shoot out, Passos tells you a guy on the balcony above needs to be killed. Try as you might, the game wants you to go upstairs to kill him so a bunch of goons can appear downstairs where you were originally. Dip into bullet time - doesn't matter, his asshole whack-a-mole head will slide down faster than you can pop him. The moment the reticule goes near, down he goes into hiding.

After this, you're left wondering how many other times the game will arbitrarily decide to break your bullet time and Max seems even weaker than before, because now he's not only dealing with strange controls and gun mechanics (hey, why don't you do an awkward roll which puts you out of cover when picking up a gun, instead of just picking it up), he's also dealing with the heavy hand of scriptwriters who decide when your powers work and when they don't.

* The game constantly feels like it's making shout outs to levels from earlier Max Payne games, yet the newer versions aren't as good or as interesting. The sniper mission in MP2? Navigating Mona across the construction site, while getting into different positions, taking down the goons and sniping the waves of bad guys chasing Max. Here? You're in a fixed position, don't do anything other than shoot 2 or 3 slowly moving guys at a time and Passos even tells you the exact location of each gunman.

The escape from the apartments in MP2? Multi tiered building, some simple puzzles, a little bit of platforming, collapsing fire escapes, that AMAZING cavalcade of goons on the rotating staircase which becomes a flying body frenzy in bullet time. Here? You creep past windows of goons with laser snipers, the building explodes a bit and you run off to the rooftops. It's better than the Brazil levels, but it isn't a patch on the original incarnation which had more meat to it.

The police station in MP2? It's great, you can walk around and listen to calls, annoy the guys watching the TV, observe a line-up, wander down to the cells, flesh out the story. Here? Your cuffs magically vanish after being taken in so you can shoot the place up. And that's pretty much it.

Did you ever hear a guy in the toilet? You can jump up and see him reading a paper. It's that attention to detail that generates new discoveries, even now.

Finally, for sheer inventiveness nothing on offer here tops the escape from the hospital mission in MP2 where Max has to arm himself before the lone gunman, formerly less than nothing on the "severe threat index" becomes the single biggest problem he's ever faced due to not having any weapons. What use is bullet time when you have no bullets?

"I'm coming for you!" and that single crack of thunder. Brilliant, panic inducing terror. Compare to the panic on offer here which usually comes from the game auto selecting a handgun with no bullets while standing out in the open. This level also wisely rewards the player with a stairwell escape packed with an endless supply of mooks to mow down. You haven't lived until dipping into bullet time, slow-mo blasting your way through and coming out of it right at the bottom.

Or how about chasing Gognitti in MP1? Come to think of it, where are the goons with actual personality talking about things before you crash their numerous parties? The bad guys here are just pincushions to be filled with lead, non-speaking, non-interesting, non-anything bad guys that will pipe up in a cutscene if you're lucky.

* Where is the weirdness of the storytelling? The same game that used to reference Norse mythology is just a straight shooter with Max swearing all the time. The storytelling device using the televisions has gone straight too, replacing the handful of shows that not only told their own story but reflected aspects of Max and his journey with "blah blah here's a news broadcast".

It's like playing Alan Wake feels more like playing Max Payne than Max Payne 3. This is a strange sensation to have.

MAXIMUM REDEMPTION

Well, sort of. Did you roll your eyes in amazement when you saw that the increased difficulty levels reduce your bullet time? Because the thing we really want in a hard Max Payne game is reduced bullet time and more bad cover shooting!

Roll no further, because should you manage to complete the game on Hard - and I did, while mashing my face into a desk - a glorious sunrise will appear, in the form of Old School Mode. I'm not sure why this wasn't the default mode or at least available from the start, but it's a mode that keeps difficulty high while removing the broken last man standing mode, upping the pills (as far as I can tell) and increasing the bullet time / meter refill.

You know, so you're actually playing the game like Pax Payne.

Ultimately, it's the developer's biggest mistake that this wasn't the default setting, because the extra boost in bullet time just about cancels out the majority of the design flaws that cause so many BUT THAT'S NOT EVEN FAIR BECAUSE moments.

It's still a challenge, but the game suddenly feels like it's playing fair and Max is on an equal footing with the dozen or so heavily armed and heavily armoured goons flooding into each location.

Max Payne 3's greatest tragedy is that a good chunk of people who played it will never actually unlock this mode. I reckon the reviews and general feedback would have been much better. Instead of setting out a million words above raging about the design decisions that broke my brain, this entire review would (for the most part) say "Yeah, that Max Payne 3 was a blast and you should pick it up".

Instead, I'm saying "If you can deal with the crazy difficulty spikes, frustrating design and endless blah blah cutscenes twice over in an effort to unlock Old School then you'll probably want to buy it".

I was hoping I'd have a ringing endorsement; instead, it's a cautious thumbs off that occasionally gets torn off in a doorframe to make myself feel better.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I couldn't disagree with you more. Most of the things you're complaining about are my favorite parts of the game. Anyway, to each their own.

paperghost said...

At least tell me why they're your favourite parts of the game?