Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Payne, the Payne... (Max Payne 3)

Max Payne 3 now sells for 14.99 GBP on (probably the best place to buy English-version games in Europe - the UK, not amazon), and I indulged myself in the bargain bin. It was Max Payne, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

For most of us - video game geeks of a certain age - the name Max Payne conjures up a bag of mixed feelings. Yes, mixed, although we probably won't admit their ambivalence to anyone but ourselves.

On the one hand, we took gleeful delight in Max Payne's gritty VG exploits, killing people in slo-mo "style noir", and would defend Max with a fervor akin to defending the Trilogy (no, not that one - there's only one "Return" and that's "of the Jedi"). On the other hand, most of us probably always wanted to be a little more like Max, yet knew we never would - and thus did harbor just a slinking inkling of envy.

So, when after a quite long hiatus venerated developer Rockstar Games started development on Max Payne 3, the excitement was... palpable. When the cover art was revealed and featured a color palette pointedly not consisting of black, white and red, some wise people had their first hesitant doubts. They were right, of course, but for the wrong reasons.

Displacing Max from the darkened alleyways of New York and throwing him into the colorful, yet equally violent, Sao Paulo had no adverse effects whatsoever - not with the riveting story and gritty dialogue Rockstar Games' Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries excelled in. Max is still Max - in fact, putting Max's broody persona in front of Sao Paulo's lively and bright background, makes him seem even darker. As such, the game as a whole is about the most atmospheric and story driven experience you will have seen in a long time.

The problem is that without the story and James McCaffrey, the game is... well, meh. Not a "Wow", not a "Holy Crap", not a "Good Goddamned F*ckery!" It's a repetitive, streamlined shooter with controls that feel nostalgic for all the wrong reasons. It feels like every minute or so, there's a lengthy cut-scene, and once you actually get to play, Max often as not does not do what you thought you told him to do.
In essence, this is what it seems like:

(Excerpt from a conversation in the Rockstar Games studios toilets, taken from the footage of a hidden webcam used normally for the amusement of the building's janitors and cleaning service)

"Wow. This must be the best CG movie ever made!"
"It's better than that Mark Wahlberg movie, that's for sure... and only three more weeks until release."
"I was wondering, though..."
"Hold on... Hnnng, God Sh*t F*ck, when did I eat that?!"
"It looks like... corn. And shrimp..."
"No, you were wondering...?"
"Oh, I was wondering about the controls..."
"Controls? What, you mean like Play and Rewind?"
"No, when you actually control Max."
"Well, that's just about one third of the game, you think people will even notice? Or want to?"
"Whether they do or not, we need to take the Max Payne experience from the old games, polish it extensively and update it into 2012 to give the players the best control possible! We owe that to the fans and our paying customers."
"Or we just copy and paste the control and cover code from GTA4 and add the "Dead Eye" from Red Dead-"
"Bullet Time."
"You are such a nerd-o-tron. And add the Bullet Time from Red Dead when Max lunges - the lunging we just copy from Max Payne 2. We'll call it Nostalgia. Or a Tribute. People will love us for it."
"That should work."
"Yeah, those idiots swallow anything we say."
"No, I mean it could actually work."
"Who the f*ck cares? And if it doesn't, well, we just put "From the guys that need you to buy this so they can afford to make GTA5" on the box, and that'll be that. Instant bestseller."

Creative License, here. Just saying. But still, that is what it feels like. The controls are clunky and imprecise, the cover system is a joke, and while both of these systems worked well enough in both GTA and RDD, here they are not offset by the huge open world where they can be employed. Max Payne 3 is a very linear, mission-based shooter, and the terrible controls have a quite disconcertingly jarring effect. They just don't fit into 2012. Hell, they wouldn't have fit into 2005. Arguably, you could say "Well, they're just being authentic. The dude lives on Whiskey and Painkillers, how do you expect he would move?", but I don't think that's an excuse you should build a game around. Nobody wants to be the geriatric cop that can't keep his gun straight.

Then there's the cut-scenes. It's like everywhere you turn, there's a cut-scene. You seemingly can't shoot a guy out a window without hitting one. And while they are amazing and intense, there's just too damned much of them. Of a two-hour play session, factoring in replaying sections you died in because of "control issues", you will spend about 45 minutes in cut-scenes. The kind you can almost never skip. You don't even have the usual hints about when they will occur, like after opening doors or hitting switches. No, most cut-scenes are triggered when you approach a certain area or kill the last enemy in a room.
Which might not sound so bad, but Max Payne has collectibles, and should you unintentionally trigger a cut-scene while looking for those collectibles, you almost always exit the room and cannot go back. Meaning that if you miss one, you will have to play through the whole level again, sitting through all the cut-scenes again. Of course you can choose to replay missions - chapters, as they are called - selectively, but in Max Payne you really only play the selected mission, and will be shunted out to the Main Menu after sitting through the unskippable three minutes of cut-scenes at the end of a chapter.

Combine the sub-par controls with the over-abundance of cut-scenes, and you get the feeling the developers almost resented the player his need to actually be in control of anything, and accordingly made it as hard as possible for him to do so. Just out of spite. In the same vein, the game is despairingly straight-forward, to the point that the mere possibility of an environment giving you the option to flank your opponents will have you salivating in private places (because you're happy). There is no "Stealth-Approach", no "Alternate Route", there's hardly any player choice at all - at least not in the way that games like Ghost Recon Future Soldier offered. Comparing those two, with a focus on controls and the cover system, actually supports the "authenticity argument": GRFS controls like the member of an elite military unit; Max Payne controls like the grey-haired, drug-addled drunk he is.

And, as all games apparently have to, Max Payne 3 came with a Multiplayer component. And once again, it's copy and paste time, the gameplay taken straight out of Red Dead Redemption. It's a taste thing, it's basically Modern Warfare 2 in 3rd Person, but it's not really good no matter how you look at it. Oh, and did I mention it's pretty much dead? There's about 1500 Xbox players still active worldwide, but Rockstar made the dubious choice of splitting the population in all the wrong places. You get a choice between playing with aim-assist on or off, and are thus stuck with about 700 players in each pool. You will however be put into lobbies with people that have DLC that you don't, and should you not have the DLC necessary to play the voted map, you get kicked.

To make things even worse, in recent weeks, the Multiplayer has been plagued by a bug resulting in completely invisible players - that stay invisible, even after restarting the game. Those people usually go 20-0 in a game and garner a lot of hate, but they are in fact not cheating. They are simply exploiting a flaw in the game. Right now, you get about one of those guys in every game you play. Every single match. It`s as frustrating as it sounds. And should you yourself be affected and choose not to take advantage of it - and not many people have the moral fiber to do so - the only way to fix it is to report yourself to Rockstar and ask them to delete your avatar/character customization save file. Not your progression, levels or unlocks, they simply delete the visual appearance, so one might ask why they don't just delete all of these save files, if the only thing lost is the specific face and clothes you like to wear into war.

Finally, the interesting game modes (everything beyond Deathmatches) and the Hardcore Playlists can only be accessed after meeting certain requirements (50 kills and 1000 kills respectively). Now, 50 kills is not a lot - until you play four games with the same 5 people, two of which are invisible and kill you 12 times in a row, but as Canada Bill Jones once said "It's the only game in town" so you don't really have a lot of choices. In short, at this time, the Multiplayer is dead and unless you get "lucky" enough to become invisible, it's just no fun at all. Rockstar Games, incidentally, does not care to do anything about it.

Now, this was a lot of bad things about a single game. Could you by now call me an idiot for buying it, laughing with schadenfreude at my frustration? Well, you could have had I bought the game for 60 EUR on release. Then again, on release the Multiplayer was probably a lot of fun with a lot of people, but that time is lost and never will arise again - and am I the only one to find it weird that German is the only language that has a word for the joy derived by the misfortune of others?
Anyway, the point is there are enough glaringly and blindly positive reviews extolling Max Payne 3's qualities, and you can read all about it there. But VG magazines apparently see it as their holy mission by now to liven up the economy - and who can blame them (except the people that pay good money for a bad game that was supposedly amazing).

Max Payne 3 is a less than mediocre game providing an amazing experience. It's a great movie that's blemished by slightly interactive interludes. With all the attention devoted to the story and presentation, the graphics and animations, the actual gameplay feels like a rushed afterthought that simply does not fit into the whole product. It's incredibly sad, not in the least because of how much praise the game received in the mainstream media. It will coast you through a rainy weekend, but unless you manage to cleanse your brain by LARPing Max Payne and indulging in his vices, replaying the single player becomes an exercise in patience, while the Multiplayer is just dead and could just as well not even be there.

It's worth to look at in the bargain bin, but not more. Not hardly.

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