What Max Payne 3 Got Wrong
Alright, time to whine! On Wednesday, I talked about the things Max Payne 3 does well. It nails most of the fundamentals, and makes for a very satisfying cinematic shooter—though for some reason, it often feels more like it’s channeling Max Payne than being Max Payne. While I’m having a hard time identifying exactly why I’m not as pleased with MP3 as with its predecessor (I’m talking MP2 here), I’ve outlined some ideas below.
As I wrote on Wednesday, a lot of the fundamentals of combat are satisfying and smooth. The bullet time is great, the cover fits, and the animation does a solid job of selling the actions of both Max and the baddies he’s eliminating. Those systems worked about 95% of the time, and despite some shakiness with the animation and cover, I’m convinced that they’re just about the finest examples of those systems around today.
However, some of the trappings surrounding the combat have left me nonplussed.
For one, abandoned are the quicksaves and quickloads that previous games not only embraced, but adopted, brought home, and called son. While I can understand why perhaps Rockstar wanted to remove the rampant quicksaving during shootdodging that I’m sure some folks (ahem, me, cough) abused in the previous games, but did they have to space their checkpoints so painfully far apart? It seemed like every time I died, I was plopped two or three squads of goons in the past. Nothing quite so dulls momentum as having to retread one’s path because of a slight mistake. So despite MP3’s many advancements, I’m still yet to meet a checkpoint save system that I’ve liked.
My other gripes aren’t as critical. A number of the game’s fights begin a bit hotter than I would have liked—more scalding than hot, really, as I would regain control of Max after a cutscene to find myself not only surrounded by enemies, but already under fire. I’m guessing that Rockstar didn’t want all the enemies to be mowed down while running into the arena, but surely there are better ways to do this—enemies emerging from multiple angles, or already inhabiting a large room that I’m allowed to enter at my own pace, etc. Also, Max will often draw the weapon of his choice at the beginning of gun battles, so if you were carrying around a sweet automatic shotgun that can obliterate absolutely anything at a range of up to thirty meters, Max might decide to pull out his Mac-10 with four rounds left instead.
Also, the driving segments felt silly, as the tonal shift from Max struggling to survive on foot to mowing down dozens of goons in mere seconds was jarring, and easy enough that it never crossed the bridge into satisfying territory.
Other than those few issues, I found the combat to be the gaming equivalent of chunky peanut butter. I like chunky peanut butter a lot, so that’s a good thing.
There are like a million of them.
I once went through a door slowly, and died because there wasn’t a cutscene. True story. I was proceeding at a mosey because I figured a cutscene would rudely interject itself between me and the game I was enjoying. I expected this because it had happened at least ten times in that level alone. And instead of a cutscene, there were bad guys just milling around, waiting for some jackass to bumble into the room. Which I did. And then their bullets bumbled into me.
The usual Max Payne 3 cutscene goes something like this:
Max cautiously moves up to the door and puts away his gun—whether by shifting his rifle to his left hand or his handgun into a shoulder holster. He then slowly opens the door and shoves his bald head through. Seeing nobody, he pushes the door open. He often politely closes it behind himself. He hears shouts, or sees enemies hurrying to greet him (or maybe not, the result is the same), then mumbles about how his enemy has a personal army, or how he’s really dumb to be there. He then draws his handgun (regardless of whether or not you had it equipped before the cutscene) and you gradually get back control.
Now, this unnecessary little intrusion may be the most common type of cutscene in MP3, but it’s not the worst. That award goes to the ones that bookend levels (or even just major segments within a level). In one early film, you watch as Max walks through a decadent club, shots of dancing bums and all, and it lasts about four times longer than necessary. Worst of all, these scenes cannot be skipped. You can’t even quit to the menu during them. I’ve seen some folks argue that the length of these scenes is for loading the level, but once you’ve beaten a level you can load straight to any checkpoint within it (from the menu), and that process is downright zippy compared to watching the bookend cutscenes.
Don’t get me wrong: they have high production values, and I enjoyed them the first time through. But I don’t want to have to watch the story again every single time I play. The loading argument probably has credence on consoles, but my PC can load things pretty quickly, so I’m confused why I’m not given the option to skip past them.
There was a moment in Max Payne 2 where Max walked into a building where one of his associates was being attacked by mob hitmen. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Max’s friend said over the building’s PA system, “allow me to present Max Payne: New York’s finest, with the biggest mobster bodycount ever.”
By the time MP3 begins, Max has killed somewhere around a thousand people, in straight combat. He’s got some talent for all this shooting and dodging stuff. So when Max has the drop on a room full of, say, six untrained gangsters with revolvers and no shirts, it’s a bit silly when he walks in and surrenders to them. Or when he doesn’t resist a mugging by three unruly favela punks.
This is just one example of the fact that MP3 doesn’t seem to understand who Max Payne is. Sometimes, the game even seems to think that Max is some kind of ninja commando, à la Sam Fisher. Other times, it decides that he’s a chump—and there’s little rhyme or reason to whether he’s ultra-competent or about to fall over his untied shoelaces. That kind of stuff reeks of actions occurring for the sake of plot points, as opposed to the plot growing organically out of the actions of its characters.
The first Max Payne didn’t have characters—it had names introduced in sequence so you could kill them. But the second game was full of interesting people with actual personalities, motivations, and conflicting schemes: Alfred Woden, Vladimir Lem, Vinnie Gognitti, Valerie Winterson, and, of course, Mona Sax.
It makes me a bit sad that MP3 doesn’t follow MP2’s example of having a strong female lead, let alone any strong female characters. The females in MP3 exist to be protected, escorted, and endured. None of them are making plans of their own; in fact, none of them seem capable of taking any action independent of the men around them, other than clubbing. And no, running from bad guys does not count. Crud, even MP1 managed to have a female villain.
I wish I could say that the men were any better, but the only two characters (other than Max) that I found at all interesting left the story about thirty seconds after they became compelling.
Of course, central is Max, who talks more but says less. I liked him well enough, character contradictions aside; and I liked this tale of redemption, even if I expect that it will all be undone for the next outing, just as the redemptive conclusion of MP2 has been ignored here. I think the biggest change made to Max is that of motivation. The first games were marked by a feeling of desperate self-preservation: Max usually had his back to the wall and was just trying to claw his way out of the pit without ruining everything good around him in the process. Here, he’s evolving—though clumsily. I’m not sure the transition was handled all that well, but I appreciate Rockstar’s efforts to direct Max’s actions outward.
My final word is that I think MP3 is a superb game, but it seems more like well-composed fanfic than an actual entry to the Max Payne series. The game seems to stand as a great glowing “What If?”: What if Max Payne were a more modern gringo-goes-south story? What if he hadn’t found that sliver of peace at the end of the previous game? And as a hypothetical, I think it’s great.