Immediately upon starting the game you can see Rockstar’s sweaty hand-prints all over it – the visual style, the slightly-up-their-own-asses flair, the twisty plot with a disregard for standard narrative practices, the way that characters stagger into cover and lumber around the environment with an assured lack of grace – there’s no mistaking which studio this game dived sideways out of.
Which is, initially, a problem. Part of the reason that I enjoyed Alan Wake so much was that much of Remedy’s artistic direction from the first two Max Payne titles ended up there, and – in lieu of a proper sequel – it was comforting, a bit like hanging out with someone who resembles your ex-girlfriend. But MP3 is straight Rockstar.
I rebelled, at first. Despite the fact that I jumped around like a little girl when the disc arrived in the post on Wednesday morning, the opening sections didn’t knock my socks off; but I was expecting Nirvana, I was expecting the joy of staying up late playing and re-playing PC games long past their best because that was all I had on hand, I was expecting to be seventeen again. Obviously that couldn’t happen.
It’s technically perfect, of course. It’d have to be, as it’s Rockstar – hell, even their bad games are superlative; LA Noire, anyone? Controls are neat and intuitive. Gameplay cycles are beautifully pitched and emerge as if by magic; I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’d often run out of bullets by firing them straight through the face of the last baddie in the room.
It’s incredible to look at, too. Not just in a “these graphics are pretty” way – and they are, of course! – but all the visual guff Rockstar have layered on top adds to it, rather than detracting: pretty much the polar opposite of what happened with Kane and Lynch 2.*
But despite all this, I realised how all the flash wasn’t doing it for me. Enough though this was indeed my favourite gaming hero Max Payne and I was indeed playing a game starring him on a current-gen console, it didn’t feel right. Too many open sections. Too many set-pieces. Too many on-rails shooting sections, including the cardinal sin of putting a machine gun on a speedboat and having you swarmed by more water craft than you’d find in the average Navy. Too… modern.
Too often I’d end up stuck in cover, sniping at long range with a rifle. This isn’t Max Payne, I thought. This isn’t Max Payne at all.
Like putting dialogue options into Pac Man
I put down the controller around a third of the way through the plot and left (to run a game of Hunter: The Vigil, actually) and quietly badmouthed the game to my players; how it was fun, but it wasn’t Max Payne and instead was just Grand Theft Auto IV with a chubbier protagonist who could slow down time when it suited him. Hell, it even had a cover system, I said, spitting. A cover system. In Max Payne. It’s like putting dialogue options into Pac Man.
And yet when I returned, something had changed; maybe it’s that I’d managed to get into the mindset of the thing, having not played the originals for the best part of a year. But something clicked, and I found myself grinning widely on several occasions. I’d remembered how to play.
As Rockstar kept regenerating health out of the game, the cover system doesn’t actually matter all that much. Cover isn’t the key to winning the game, and you can’t hide there for a few seconds and come back at full power; it’s just a means of not having bullets hit you in the face for a while.
I was stuck in the patterns that recent games had put on me, and when I was hurt I’d dash to cover and wait around for a bit whilst things resolutely refused to get better. Thing is, in Max Payne, you’re supposed to die a lot. Which is kind of Noir, I guess.
A performance art viewed by no-one but yourself
You can’t play it properly until you work out where the baddies spawn, and where they are when you enter each new room o’death; that often takes a couple of tries, and you learn where to dive recklessly forward and where to hang back and pump bullets downrange from cover; all too often there’s not quite as much terrain as you’d like, and a poorly-judged leap can result in every single enemy in the room drawing a bead on you at once.
But when you know where enemies are positioned – that there’s a shotgunner here, a sniper on the gantry overhead there, and once you kill them both two guys with pistols will burst through these doors – the game comes into its own. You start unconsciously calculating angles of fire, throwing yourself through doorways and capping guys in the head before taking cover and setting up your next dive with as few bullets lodged in your skin as possible.
It’s a performance art viewed by no-one but yourself. And it’s beautiful, and satisfying, and everything that a Max Payne title should be. There really aren’t any other games that can get away with this sort of thing; to marry a rich visual spectacle with a base level of difficulty that will see you playing sections eight to ten times in a row before you get it right. The reward for playing the game correctly is that you get to watch yourself playing the game.
More like Max Payne than Max Payne
My fears were unfounded. Rockstar have, much as everyone expected, not fucked up the licence beyond recognition. This is still a Max Payne game, even though parts of it take place in Sao Paulo Brazil** and our hero is private security rather than a renegade cop. The bullet-time is still there. The themes are still there. The plot is, weirdly, maybe more like Max Payne than Max Payne is – heretical to say out loud, sure, but it ties in with the Noir overtones in a way that 1 and 2 just… didn’t.
Despite Remedy’s break from the project, this is a worthy evolution of the title. Even if I didn’t know it at first, this is the game that I wanted.
* Seriously, though, fuck Kane and Lynch 2. A game pitched as a cinematic style that doesn’t exist; whose idea was that? If we can hear rushing over the microphone of the camera when we run, that’s great, but doesn’t it imply that there’s a camera following these guys around? I’m sorry, I’m getting off-topic. I’ll bitch about the artistic failings of Kane and Lynch 2 separately at a later date, I’m sure
** I speak a bit of Portuguese. If you don’t speak Portuguese, best of luck figuring out anything the bad guys are saying at any point. Although generally it focuses around “Oh gosh you are a stupid foreigner imma shoot yo face” so if anyone says anything just imagine it’s that and you can’t go far wrong