Max Payne 3 impressions upon completing the game and some history and speculation on the development process

Some disclaimers.

These are my personal opinions, not of my current employer or the previous.

Also, I’m a huge fan of Rockstar Games, but I keep it real.

This is not a review.This is a collection of thoughts on the game, stream of consciousness if you will.

Also, useless bit of trivia: Remedy used my PlayStation 2 debug to play the release candidate version of  Max Payne 2 (PS2) and okay it for manufacturing.

Screens taken from from Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 website.

Also, read the legendary UK-journo Keith Stuart’s review of the game at the Guardian here if you want quality writing.

This is a game that has had a very long gestation period, which is becoming the norm for Rockstar who takes their time to make games that really stand out. However, very few put the kind of love and effort into their games as Rockstar does. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

The very first iteration of Max Payne 3 was developed by Rockstar Vienna many years ago and at least some parts of the game were apparently set in Moscow. At least this is what I’ve read online. Nothing ever came of that game as Rockstar Vienna was shutdown and the game put on the back burner until Rockstar Vancouver started working on it after completing the most excellent Bully in 2006. Of course, six years later, the Max Payne 3 we have, has been built by Rockstars: Toronto, Vancouver, New England, San Diego and London. Even the original creators of Max Payne, Remedy here in Finland, have been involved in the later stages of development by giving feedback to Rockstar. One could say that this was good PR move from Rockstar, as they made Remedy’s involvement public, a good way to get the fans and doubters on your side. However, Rockstar has always been cool with Remedy and their contribution is definitely a lot more than just lip service. The fact that Sam Lake and Dan Houser wrote a whole prequel comic for the new game, is a pretty good indication of that. It’s nice to know that Rockstar has involved Remedy in Max Payne 3 much more than it really would have had to. It’s a sign of respect and I have to say I never expected less, so fuck all the haters who thought Rockstar would somehow ruin this franchise.

The writers

The original Max Payne got a lot of plaudits for it’s tech and mood, but the quirky writing surely was one of the building blocks as well. It definitely is in the third game.

One of the reasons Rockstar’s games take a long time is that the games really are what the Houser brothers, the founders of Rockstar, want them to be. There’s only so many games they can work on at the same time.

I would speculate that the key reason why it takes a long time for a Rockstar game to get done and why there’s sometimes issues in the development process (there always is, at every studio, you just dont know about it), when the Houser’s are concentrating on game X, game Z is development based on some loose ideas and concepts. Then game X ships and suddenly the spotlight is on game Z and re-writes and new direction is in order after years of working under a preliminary premise.

Rockstar tends to credit three writers in all it’s recent games: Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth and Rupert Humphries. Now think how much dialogue there usually is in a Rockstar game. These three are credited as the sole writers in Grand Theft Auto IV, Read Dead Redemption (with the lad Christian Cantamessa), GTA: IV Lost and Damned and Ballad of Gay Tony. Then you have Max Payne 3 and of course, Grand Theft Auto V has been in the works for years while the aforementioned games were being done. That is an simply insane amount of story, characters, setting and dialogue to work out and write. I dont know how they do it. Let’s not forget Lazlow too!

By the way, wouldn’t it be awesome to read an interview with messrs Humphries and Unsworth one of these days? Who are they? Where did they come from? What kind of working hours and methods do they have? How do they come up with all this stuff? Houser too, but they hate talking to the media.

Max Payne 3 was influenced by the movie City of God, so I think the style and tone were set quite many years ago, but it’s taken a long time to nail down the story of the third game.

Graphics

The level of visual detail in every enviroment in the game is incredible. It’s on the level of what we expect from the Uncharted franchise. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s all probably been researched to death by Rockstar as usual. Everything from the graffiti in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, to the music, to the dialects, architecture, clothing, everything…it’s been well researched. There’s just so much detail in every scene, every area is so richly modelled that this alone has taken years and years. In most cases, you just run past these area’s never to return, which is kind of a problem in videogames. Things like props in the boats and interiors you visit, creating all that is slow work.  There’s so much detail per square meter, it’s crazy. If you have a wall, it doesn’t simply have a single graffiti and some grey rock texture;  it has cracks in the plaster, graffiti, paint peeling off, broken bricks , signs of wear and tear etc.

It’s important to note how the level design supports the gameplay. Combined with pretty good and aggressive AI, it feels like there’s quite a few ways you can tackle most of the combat scenarios. Sure, there’s scene’s where it seems they play the same almost every time, but you also have lot of opportunity to do combat in differing ways and there’s quite a few weapons to use.

Another awesome feature is how seamless the game is, as there are no load screens per say, loading happens during cutscenes. The way a cutscene segues into gameplay, you can always sort of see Max getting into “game mode” by his changing stance and the camera’s positioning: you k now the action is about to kick off. This is really well done and you almost dont notice it at first because things happen so seamlessly. The problem I had with this is in the beginning of the game where there’s a lot of cutscenes that break up the action. The balance is great after the first two chapters, but it’s stop and go in the beginning.

I dig the whole splitting the screen in 24/comic book style to emphasize certain story beats, but I really did not  like the scanline type of visual element that appears a lot of the time because it reminds of my migraines.

Some of the scripted scene’s (a rooftop sequence comes to mind…) feature superbly animated explosions and just mayhem. Again, a lot of polish and care has been taken.

Animation

I’d say Max Payne 3 has the best animation in an action game on par with Uncharted, probably better. Most people wont even realize this. Look at how Max carries the rifle in one hand when using a pistol in the other. The weapons dont magically warp onto your back – if you use dual-wielding, you are going to have to drop your two handed weapon. Did you know I was in the army, so I’m handy with the steel naamean? When you run against a wall, Max puts his hands/guns up and when you push against a door he tries to barge through it. When you are on your back, you have different weapon loading animations for all weapons of course, when you jump over objects, guns dont disappear. All this takes a lot of work. Just think in how many games does the character actually pick up weapons instead of having it warp into your hands.

Many worried that the heavy and clunky feel of GTAIV and Red Read Redemption due to the Euphoria engine would be problematic in Max Payne 3, but  the controls are superbl, so no worries there.

Polish

In some ways, I think, gamers who played the previous games, will realize just how much Max Payne 3 is the same, yet modern. I think think is a perfect update of the formula.

To me, how Max Payne 3 keeps it real to it’s PC roots is in features like Free Aim and some really tough difficulty levels where using Free Aim is a must as is the very well planned use of Bullet Time. You are not going to survive otherwise. I felt the game was quite tough on Normal in some spots, frustratingly so. So for those who don’t like dumbed down action games, Max Payne 3 seems to offer all the hardcore’dness you’d want – you can really change around the controls, their responsiveness etc to your liking. I played with Soft Lock, which means the targeting reticule tends to lock onto enemies which is what I like. I dont really like free aim, that’s too hard to use. I know how some of you hate that I even said that! Go back to your mouse and keyboard then.

Also, the framerate is rock solid even with a lot of destructable props and and a good amount of characters on screen at the same time.

Overall

I gotta admit that I never got super-into the Max Payne games mostly due to the fact that you had to have a great PC to play them on back in the day when I still was young and believed in the world. The console versions were understandably subpar since the hardware performance gap between the PC and consoles back then was significant. I also never mastered the bullet time –  I’d jump in the air and usually hit some wall or land before I managed to get off accurate shots. That’s more lack of skill on my part than anything else. I never really knew if I was supposed to play really using the bullet time or more like a regular shooter. I sort of have the same issue with Max Payne 3. I played it more like a cover-based shooter, but towards the very end I really made an effort to use bullet time and it did result in some pretty damn cool sequences.

The narrative flows well – Rockstar did a great job on the writing of Max’s inner monologue which often is funny and so very, very dry. The voice acting is absolutely superb throughout the game – James McCaffrey does some superb work here bringing the dialogue to life and the rest of the actor’s are good too.

Collectibles have been integrated into the story that if you want to find them, they give you bits of background information on the characters and proceedings. Still, the plot falters towards the end. I think it would have helped if the game was a bit shorter and introduced a few less characters.

I remember the original games being pretty grimy and the further you get into Max Payne 3, the more grimy and really, despicable it gets. Most of the people you meet are scum of the earth and the visuals just get more and more dilapitated and despairing. I think these are important elements of Max Payne. Of course, so is the New York setting and the few levels set in the Big Apple are pretty damn awesome, especially a scene set in a graveyard.

The difficulty spikes are compouned by some haphazard checkpoint placement. I can hear Rockstar thinking how “we are pushing the envelope in games in so many ways, so you shouldn’t care about that” , but in a videogame things like that do matter. I did scream a few times, but as my co-workers can attest, I tend to suddenly scream in the office for no reason sometimes. It aint too bad, like so often in Rockstar’s games, the few problems really dont bother the overall picture. I did get a bit annoyed how at times I had full health, would stand out of cover to take a shot, then die when the first bullet his me. I just used my health pills to get 100%  health, yet a single shot kills me?

Still, this is an incredibly accomplished action game with the kind of superb production values and attention to detail that Rockstar is known for. You get your money’s worth several times over and really, if you have it this good, you cant accept any less from other action games.

Also, this game has the best “funky chicken” animations ever!

I’ve played very little of the multiplayer, so I’ll get back to you on that.

Thanks for your time and I apologize for the rushed writing – feel free to comment, I’d appreciate that.


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  1. I need to write in a different way to get comments it seems.

  2. Sixth blog in two weeks, wtf? Nice writing, keep up the pace.

    Really waiting for Friday and my copy of the game. I sure hope Rockstar’s vision of Max won’t disappoint me.

  3. Yeah, been enjoying the writing during the late night hours 🙂

    • seppo-silakka
    • May 15th, 2012

    “back in the day when I still was young and
    believed in the world” reminds me of your superb humour on podcasts, pure gold! Exciting thoughts, hopefully gonna get my copy on fri.

  4. Good shit, bro! These are the kind of games that make our job worthwhile and I’m sure that in a few years we’ll look back and think of this game as art. It was John Woo who really understood the esthetics of gun violence. Rockstar has been paying attention and adapted these visuals in this brilliant videogame….I can’t get enough!

    • Thanks Boris, I really appreciate that and agree! (btw, are you playing the 360 or?)

      • I’m playing the PS3 version…Looks amazing…the shootout in the officie building is the best I’ve ever seen in a videogame…

    • Keijo-Annikki
    • May 16th, 2012

    Nice review. I was expecting a good game, but seems like it’s even better.. Maybe even GOTY-material?

    • I say in the beginning of the blog that this is not a review 🙂
      Not sure abou GOTY yet, but in terms of action, definitely years best so far.

        • Keijo-Annikki
        • May 16th, 2012

        Oh sorry, I meant “review”. Actually, you could add some “score” for the game too. 😉

    • Teemu
    • May 17th, 2012

    I don’t like to read video game reviews, but this style of writing suits my needs. I like the way you tell the story of Max Payne and also how the 3 fits in to it. Giant Bomb also had some similar discussion about Max Payne on their newest Bombcast btw.

    I loved Max Payne 2, but hasn’t been that interested about this. But after your blog and Bombcast, Im ready to get back in the dark mind of Max Payne.

  5. After playing the game for a couple hours, I’ll have to say I’m a little disappointed. The cutscenes, voice acting and animations are superb, but unfortunately there are a couple of bumps on the road as-well. Checkpoint placement for once. Nice to play the same scenario over and over again. Also I die a LOT while getting up after bullet time. Max is always standing straight up and I’m like “go to cover you dumbass”.

    I don’t quite know how to play the game: is it a straight-forward or cover-based shooter? Good game, that could have been better.

      • Anonymous
      • May 27th, 2012

      I’d agree on the checkpoint placement, however if we’d go back go 10 – 15 years or more, none of us older gamers would complain about the checkpoints; we’d just play on and grit our teeth, but these days the slighest bump in the road is annoying. I do agree with that, but also recognize that us gamers want it easy… I’d rather complete a game easily than not complete it at all.

      I do agree also on the straght forward to cover based question, hard to say.

    • Atezki
    • May 27th, 2012

    You’re so right, the level of detail is astonishing, especially considering you just kinda run past it most of the time. Every place and room feels always unique, not seeing the same models and props everywhere.

    You can also tell that they have spent crazy amount of time honing the shooting mechanics, it’s just feels so good everytime you jump in slo-mo and shoot. And it doesn’t get boring at any point during the story mode.

    Btw, is there any other good books about Rockstar besides Jacked?

    • Yeah, glad people are noticing the crazy amount of polish in the game and the variety.

      Now that I’m playing the other modes, the thing that does annoy me in the Arcade modes is the laod times – arcade modes are there to be simple and fast, but as the game loads during cut scene’s, you cant skip them, which makes retries really painful and annoying. Also, swapping discs sucks ass, I should played this on the PlayStation 3.

      There are no other books about Rockstar, but I’m working on something along those lines…

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