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The house of Rockstar goes solo with Remedy Entertainment's much loved anti-hero...
After its initial announcement in March of 2009, Max Payne 3 disappeared for over two years. As if to take a cue from its eponymous lead character, the game itself vanished into darkness and obscurity. When would Rockstar fully reveal it? Had it been canned? When Take-Two Interactive removed the game from its financial reports at one point, many had given up hope altogether. But then cover stories started emerging in magazines – well, one at least – and screens began to trickle out of Rockstar HQ. Why the prolonged silence? Anybody's guess really, and it's not as if Rockstar aren't well known for remaining schtum on a game until they're good and ready. Still, while the game remained something of an enigma, the internet inevitably chattered: 'Why's it all sunny in those screenshots?' people cried and, 'How come Max is wearing that poncey Hawaiian shirt?' some were heard to remark.
The truth is, this is not the Max Payne of its predecessors. Never mind the fact that Max wore a Hawaiian shirt in the original game anyway, or that not all of Max Payne 3's story plays out in sunny Sao Paulo (it starts off in dirty, cold, Noirish New York) – this latest instalment is different in deeper ways than mere cosmetics and conceits. Inevitably, in the transition from Remedy Entertainment (a studio that's more stylistically recognisable than most) to Rockstar Games (a publisher with more hallmarks than a jewellers) the mood and appearance is going to change and, to be honest, it would be pretty depressing if it didn't. In an industry filled with genre clones of production line-like efficiency, the last thing we should be doing as gamers is scolding a developer when it dares to try something different. So give the Max of Max Payne 3 a chance – he may look like your dad the morning after a heavy night on the sauce but, like all believable characters, he's also liable to change as the years take their toll (again, like your dad).
It's in the animation and cinematics that Max Payne 3 appears so Rockstarish though; the use of Natural Motion's Euphoria tech, the superbly shot cut-scenes, and the gritty dialogue. Fans of Rockstar's back-catalogue will know that this is all good news – this is how the publisher's open-world games got their head and shoulders above the competition after all. Of course, Max Payne 3 is not an open-world game; it's a story-led, linear third-person shooter and Rockstar is treading new ground in this regard. It's new ground with higher expectations in key areas as well: tighter set-pieces, sturdier gameplay, added detail – the lot. We'll have to wait until we go hands-on for solid impressions of these kinds of features, but the initial signs are good. Take, for example, the way that Rockstar Studios has blended Euphoria animations and full motion-capture throughout the combat. In the build-up to a fire-fight, adversaries will run and move into cover through mo-capped animations but, once the cover-to-cover carnage ensues, it's the same Euphoria animations that we know and love, which react so realistically to gunshot wounds and nearby explosions.
One particular moment during our hands-on demonstrated this particularly well: with Max in a bus depot being pursued by a small army of paramilitaries, he spotted one enemy who was stood underneath a bus on a hydraulic lift. Ever the opportunist, Max shot-out the hydraulic jacks leaving the bus to collapse on top of the unwitting bad guy. Now, this paramilitary didn't just keep shooting obliviously until the bus turned him into a motionless heap of binary code – instead, the NPC actually glanced skywards and held his hand up as if to break the fall of the bus. Yes, it's a semi-scripted moment for the gamer to take advantage of, but it's also a great example of the eye for detail that so many other games overlook. More of this kind of thinking in the full game is sure to provide a refreshing kink in third-person shooter fashion away from the Gears of War clones that have saturated the genre on this generation of consoles.
The tech doesn't end there either as destructible environments go far above and beyond anything seen in a Rockstar game previously. In fact, they go above and beyond what most third-person shooters on the market currently offer: huge explosions, window panes smashing into thousands of little pieces, and wooden planks splitting in two like fractured fibula... the works. Now – and here's the best bit – just imagine all of that in bullet-time. After all, it wouldn't be Max Payne without bullet-time – the original game from 2001 started off the craze for it in the first place, creating a buzzword for publishers that's been on more press releases in the ensuing years than I can bear to remember. However, what we saw of it in the first look comes closer to the Matrix-style fantasy of bullet-time than any game has managed since Remedy first pioneered the feature. Those details that you filled-in with your imagination while playing Max Payne 2 are now a reality. It's the thrill of doing a patented Max Payne dive to avoid a flurry of gunfire, twisting his body in super slow-mo to dodge a .50 calibre bullet as it grazes past his pelvis, firing off a shotgun in response (still in mid-air) and then marvelling as 100s of pellets unfurl themselves from the cartridge, leaving the target with more holes in him than a sieve as a window shatters behind him and the glass falls like guillotine confetti. Where a single bullet is little more than a minor blip in most shooters, in Max Payne 3 it's a short story.
So, while the Rockstar house style is authoritatively stamped across Max Payne 3, that doesn't mean that the publisher hasn't been careful to remain faithful to Remedy's original games. This dedication isn't only abundantly clear in the bullet-time features, but in key decisions such as retaining the painkiller health system and re-hiring James McCaffrey as the voice of Max. Where Remedy dished out cut-scenes in the style of a comic book, Max Payne 3 blends the static panels of the original with 24-esque, split-screen filming that produces what Rockstar has dubbed a 'motion-comic' effect. Remedy's penchant for Lynchian surrealism isn't quite so much of a going concern for Max Payne 3, but there was the odd nod to it throughout our first look such as a crazed, bomb-making Vietnam veteran of sorts who helped Max out of a tight spot with the Mafia for no apparent reason other than general weirdness. Our demo guy was quick to make the point that Remedy has been consulted on the development of the game, and that Rockstar representatives flew over to the developer's offices in Finland to show them a build of the game first-hand. Given the harmonious blend of styles that we've seen so far, it's not the slightest bit surprising that both parties are happy with how Max Payne 3 is coming along, and so are we for what it's worth.
The third-person shooter genre has become a tiresome sludge of space marine clones in recent times, and what better way to reinvigorate that medium than to re-introduce the anti-hero that originally propelled the genre onto greater things nearly a decade ago? Rockstar is staying true to the groundwork that Remedy Entertainment laid down with the series' first two instalments while adding its own signature touches to the formula, and there isn't a single part of that equation that we don't like the sound of.
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