One of the things that occurs in game reviewing that’s most likely to hack off critics is when PR reps send a review guide along with the game code. Personally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this – in fact for Final Fantasy XII 2 it was a Godsend* – but I have heard a lot of my fellow journos bellyache incessantly about this practice. “I know how to review a sodding game!” they’ll cry, and then they’ll shake their fists at imaginary PRs. Thing is, if there was one game that should have come packaged with a set of reviewing instructions this year, it was Max Payne 3.
This is surprising when you consider how straightforward Max Payne 3 looks on the surface. Here’s a fairly standard, albeit rather good looking, third-person-shooter with pop-and-cover mechanics and bullet-time thrown in for good measure. You shoot bad guys, you duck into cover and when the bullet-time meter is full you slow down time to draw a bead on more bad guys. It can’t be that hard to get your head round, right?
Still, a widespread complaint I heard about Max Payne 3 was its eye-watering difficulty. Oh sure, there were folk who moaned about what a dour, downbeat character Max himself was, and how the element of realism the Rockstar developers purported to place in their game was undercut by the fact you could heal gunshots with painkillers, but I could get on board with that. Max Payne 3 looked and felt like a Tony Scott film; this was a piece of entertainment where I could expect a character to get blown off an exploding jetty and have nothing to show for the experience other than a bleeding arm. No burst eardrums, no internal bleeding, just a bloody rag staunching the flow of claret from his left shoulder, because that’s how action cinema rolls.
The complaints about the game’s difficulty, though, I could completely sympathise with on my initial play-through. Even on ‘Normal’ setting Max Payne 3 was thunderingly difficult. Enemies rush and flank the player if you stay in cover too long. Bullet-sponges start cropping up in the third or fourth level, but eventually they become pretty much the only type of enemy you face. It’s also horrendously unfair that the AI has access to grenades and Max doesn’t. If the player finds themselves pinned into cover with just a sliver left on their lifebar, you can bet cold hard cash on the fact that one of Max’s enemies will soon toss a grenade in his direction, forcing the player to break cover and become riddled with bullets – they don’t even have the option of throwing it back.
So I died in Max Payne 3. I died an awful lot. I died even more when I attempted to play it on the Hard setting, where brutal set-pieces transformed before my eyes into fury-inducing wars of attrition. I must have rage quit at least five times.
And then I experienced what alcoholics refer to as ‘a moment of clarity’. That lightning bolt of perception where everything clicked into place and I realised something rather embarrassing. I’d been playing the game incorrectly.
It happened in a corridor in a police station in the latter stages of the game. The checkpoint began with me sliding Max into cover behind a pillar. I then had to try and take down a group of armoured cops who started their assault by approaching cautiously, but then – presumably emboldened by my rubbish aim – rushed my position, filling me with lead. I had plenty of bullet-time in Max’s meter, but I was mainly using it to slow time as I popped out of cover and snapped off a shot at a target. This, I found, was a stupid thing to do – evidenced by the fact I died so many times during this section that my mood shot past the hair-pulling fury of a rage-quit. Instead I settled into a kind of sadistic Zen-like calm, which prompted me to try and get Max killed as many times as possible to teach the sod a lesson.
And it was here that the penny dropped. Instead of staying in cover, I hit the bullet-time mechanic and charged right out in the line of fire of my opponents, emptying the clips of two handguns into enemies, that up until now, had killed me repeatedly. They both went down, jerking as bullets tore through them. I noted some movement behind a plate-glass window to my left and, without breaking Max’s stride, I hit the button for shoot-dodge, crashing him head-first through the window, pouring bullets into the two chumps on the other side of it. The bullet-time ended, Max struggled back to his feet and I marvelled at the ease with which I’d dispensed with a roomful of enemies who’d kept me stuck at this point in the game for the better part of ten minutes.
It’s here that I realised that the key to successfully playing Max Payne 3, was to forget how I usually play any shooter game. I wasn’t supposed to duck in and out of cover, popping up momentarily to snap a shot off at enemies. I wasn’t supposed to keep an eye on my ammunition or stockpile my painkillers. In Max Payne 3, my first consideration was to look cool for as long as possible, and this involved continually breaking cover, activating bullet-time and pulling the triggers of my weapons until any enemies in my path were jam.
The whole thing feels counter-intuitive to begin with. Here is a cover-based shooter where success depends on using cover to blind fire and fill up a bullet-time meter, and then running into the line of fire as quickly as possible. The only title I can think of that matches Max Payne 3 for its sheer weirdness in this regard is probably this year’s Ridge Racer: Unbounded. This was an arcade racer which boasted a drifting mechanic that initially seemed like a handbrake, but wasn’t, and if used as such would ensure players would hate both the game and everyone involved in making it.
In a way, though, the premium on movement makes sense. After all, Rockstar went to a lot of trouble to body-map a ton of actors to get the dimensions of their character models right, and their attention to detail in this regard is painstaking. Why would they have bothered if the plan was to have the player in a permanent crouch behind crumbling cover?
Max Payne was built for movement, and as such, only rewards players who keep him on the move.