Monday, May 21, 2012

The sins of Max Payne 3

It's time to pull my slacks up over my navel, hitch up my suspenders and tell the damn kids to get off my lawn.

1. The cover system - I made light of the cover system on Friday by saying that it doesn't mesh well with the main character as he has been portrayed in his past two games. This is a silly, but valid, argument. A less pithy reason to hate the cover system is that is completely changes what kind of game Max Payne 3 is. The first two games were fast paced shooters. There was cover there in the form of doors and walls to hide behind but the games lacked the conveniently placed, chest high bullet proof obstructions that are a current genre staple because no one had done it yet. Cover based shooting is not a bad thing; I really like Gears of War, but Gears was designed around cover based shooting and I expect to sit behind a wall and wait for just the right moment to stick my head out. In Max Payne 3 I want to run into the fray, guns blazing, then throw myself into the air and kill five men before I the ground. I can't, and here's why.

What is the best way to force the player to use all the chest high obstructions? Make the enemies do too much damage, have better aim than the player and begin their attack from so far away that by the time Max gets into the more intimate fighting space he is familiar with he is missing both his arms and all his legs. The game forces you to hide or die. It doesn't feel like Max Payne, it feels like another third person shooter, albeit a very good looking one. Unfortunately, when judged as just a third person shooter there are still problems.

2. The slow motion dive doesn't work - Think back to Max Payne 2. Pick out one specific moment of game play that you remember, and I guarantee it has Max diving around a corner in slow motion, hand guns wielded akimbo, shooting people in the face. Max Payne 3's dive gets you killed far mare often then it creates memorable moments. The dive animation is animated much better now, allowing Max to interact with objects in the world as he falls, but bumping into these objects pulls him out of the dive and ends bullet time. There are also a lot more things to bump into the cover system that shouldn't be there in the first place. Diving from cover to cover also doesn't work, as Max take forever to stand from a dive and if he didn't happen to land behind something then he will be dead before he gets back to his feet, and if you do manage to land behind cover Max wont go from laying on the ground to in cover, he has to stand up and get shot first.

3. Aiming through the scope of sniper rifles reverses the thumb sticks - Let's assume that I can forgive the cover system and broken dive and just play the game like I would any other pretty looking but otherwise mediocre shooter. Since enemies appear at the very edge of where I can see them so often using a weapon that I can hit them with at that distance sounds like a good idea. And it would, but for some reason when aiming through a scope the stick that used to move Max now moves the aiming reticle. Years of gaming have programmed my thumbs: left thumb = move player, right thumb = aim. Changing this is just pointless. Changing it for just two weapons is asinine. I had better luck with my handgun at long range that the sniper rifle.

4. Cut scenes change which weapon you are wielding - Max can only old three weapons: two one handed and one two handed. In a very nice touch switching from the two handed to one handed load out does not make your shotgun or rifle disappear: Max continues to hold it in his off hand. I prefer the two handed weapons and almost always have that selected, but every time there is a cut scene he switches back to a hand gun. I think I know why they did it: to force the cut scenes to be consistent with what weapons Max has at the time, but at the very least they should put it back the way it was when the cut scene is done. Changing weapons takes time, time that I then have to spend hiding behind cover or getting killed.

Cut scenes will also pull you out of cover and put you in harms way. With the wrong weapon.

5. Enemies take an obnoxious amount of damage to kill - A head shot should kill. Not two or three. Not five. Unless of course you are in a rail shooting segment. Then they die from grazes to the arm.

A harsh and petty list? Of course, but I went in expecting one thing and got something else entirely. The name on the box make a difference. Taking an established, well liked game and character and slapping a large number on the end is a big responsibility. Rockstar has not pulled it off.

6 comments:

  1. (Cracks knuckles.) Alright. Let's do this.

    (1) Max's enemies have always done a ton of damage from a long way away. Reading reviews of Payne 3 which complain the game is too hard seemed terribly uneducated to me; if you (by which, I don't mean you) thought 3 was hard, you obviously never played 1 or 2.

    I too was disgusted when I saw an image of Max sitting behind cover, but let's be honest - cover has become part of the third-person-shooter language in recent years. It's the difference between the action-simulator feel of Uncharted 3 and the weightless sense of, say, Starhawk.

    Dead Space 2 doesn't use or need it because all but one of the enemy types are melee-centric; they rush you. Nowadays, a third person shooter without a cover system (that isn't melee-centric) is like a leg without a foot - and just as there was something very cool and cinematic about blind-firing around cover in The Getaway back in 2002, it's an involving and visually appealing mechanic in third-person shooters.

    (2) I agree that the change is jarring. I too would prefer for Max to be able to dive across a table, slide across it while staying in bullet time and slap onto the ground at the end of the jump's natural forward momentum - but I do feel there is a tradeoff in its new form.

    It forces the player to be very aware of their surroundings and when they can or can't get the full use of a shootdodge. It adds another layer of strategy and thought to using it; and the fact that shootdodge can be used in full with an empty bullet-time meter shows that Rockstar were aware of the change in balance, and wanted the move to be relied upon as an awesome hail-Mary (which it is).

    Also, when you've ended a shoot-dive near cover, you can hit the cover button and he will gather himself up and get into cover. He is exposed for a good 1/3 of a second as he adjusts himself - but it's reasonable to me.

    (3) I have no idea what you're talking about - my analog sticks didn't change when I was holding either of the game's sniper rifles. Maybe it's a 360 thing?

    (4) The first one or three times it happens - yes, annoying as fuck. After that, I understood that the game would do it, and adjusted my expectations.

    In the same way the "last man standing" mechanic is a crutch for less-experienced players (it punishes you by draining your bullet time to zero when used), switching Max's weapon from whatever rifle, machinegun or shotgun he's holding to a sidearm before putting him in those situations shows Rockstar's expectations of the player.

    They're not handing the player another crutch. If they need one, they can play on easy difficulty. They're saying "there's six men in front of Max, and he's holding a 9mm Beretta. What does he do?"

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  2. (5) Dudes in body armor with helmets soak up a lot of bullets, sure. Dudes in T-shirts will fall from two body shots - I like the variety in enemies, and that I need to be mindful of how much protection the goons in this room are wearing. It makes sense to me that if a dude is wearing a tactical helmet, it will take more than one shot to kill him - and if a dude is wearing a full SWAT-style facemask, I'm gonna' have to deluge his face in lead to put him down.

    Much better to have that than simply keep on adding more and more enemies to increase the difficulty as the game progresses.

    * * *

    I think the fundamental difference in our opinions is that Max Payne 3 didn't feel like a proper Max game to you, while - somehow - it does to me. It's not perfect - some changes are jarring, and discovering on a second playthrough that most cutscenes are unskippable and hide supernaturally long load times is a let-down - but it still feels like Max to me in the very best way.

    I can still break from behind a wall in bullet time, hailing dual-wielding uzi fire at a pair of thugs hiding behind columns, blood and splinters of concrete showering the air, launch myself into a shoot-dive and unload a pair of clips at a dude behind me as a grenade explodes in the background in slow motion.

    Fuck. Yes.

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  3. Max Payne 3 feels like the odd bastard child of Max Payne 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops (or was that Bad Company 2? they all blend together), right down to the cluttered levels filled with enemies that you cannot see but can see you just fine.

    I will highlight a specific encounter that sticks out, and spoilers beware, of course.

    The Panama flash back sequence. It starts out well enough, Max wakes up hungover as shit and has to fight his way out of the ship. He eventually ends up on the outside as a larger boat pulls along side, covered with soldiers. You have to sit behind what little cover there is or you die. If you were to shoot dodge you would not have an angle to hit them, and would die. The guys on the other ship are so far away that the little red dot you need to aim with is half the size of the target, but you really need to get head shots to take them out quickly, or you die.

    After enough deaths the game took pity on me and started me with more ammo and painkillers, but the whole thing felt out of place. I was waiting for Soap to rappel in and tell me to follow him. Oh wait, that does happen, his name is Passos now.

    Max Payne 3 has aped, both stylistically and game play wise, other big budget shooters when it didn't need to. So much here is unnecessary and unwanted; Max Payne 2 didn't need over-long scripted sequences in buses and boats and zip lines to keep things exciting, it did it with five mooks and a room full of pillars.

    To put it in movie terms: I wanted a follow up to Reservoir Dogs and got Wanted instead.

    I do not doubt your enthusiasm and look forward to your review. And I am glad that I was not the only one who liked Vanquish.

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  4. I agree that the bus, the boat, the zip lines don't feel necessary. These are, for lack of a better term, rail shooting segments (which I abhor) that disconnect the player from Max's fundamental strength - allowing the player to express themselves through its mechanics. Those, I agree, are unnecessary and a misguided attempt to achieve set piece moments when an actual set piece would do.

    At the same time - while 3 does pick up more than a bit of the modern language of blockbuster action games (Passos as an AI companion, the rail segments, the shit-ton of story), none of it ever felt - to me - that it wasn't in keeping with how Max's narrative should feel.

    So many of the set pieces from the game (the garage, the docks, the bus depot) felt like beautiful current-gen mirrors of the best sequences from 2. I really feel it did its heritage justice.

    And, honestly, I wanna' post this entire conversation on the Blog. I'll call it Chamberlain Vs. Chance - Max Payne 3. I'm aware that I often... look on the sunny side of any given game and gloss over its flaws, and it's valuable to have a different perspective.

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  5. Go for it, I just didn't want to clutter up your comments sections with a friendly disagreement.

    And I just finished it last night. Reflections on the airport (NO RUSSIAN?!?) section will be posted today.

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  6. Ohhhh I loved that sequence in the lounge when that amazing song starts playing. Like, it was hard - really hard - but when you master that sequence with that song in the background. It was a series 'woo!' moment.

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