I’ve had two quite profound demonstrations this week of how a simple difficulty setting can drastically change your perception of a game. My first was with Fire Emblem; after recalling just how much time I spent raging against the GBA incarnations whenever I lost a character I decided to save myself a lot of bother by turning permadeath off, but this removal of all risk from the equation turned most of the campaign – and especially the end of it – into a braindead steamroller. Fire Emblem just isn’t meant to be played that way, and I gained a new appreciation for just how fundamental that feature is the overall feel and flow of the game. Max Payne 3 has given me the complete opposite experience, however. I dialled the difficulty up to Hard because that tends to be the only way I can get challenge out of these interactive shooting galleries these days, only to have this throw many of the game’s shortcomings into sharp relief. With a more accommodating difficulty setting I probably wouldn’t have noticed; giving me more latitude to make mistakes means the game has more latitude to make mistakes, and I would have breezed through the entire thing and ended up assessing the combat system as “functional” when in fact it’s actually one of the most poorly-designed shooters I’ve ever seen.
This shortcoming stems almost solely from Max Payne 3 being a very cinematic game – or rather I should say that they stem from Max Payne 3 being more far concerned with being cinematic than it is with being a game1. Max Payne himself is middle-aged, out of shape and down on his luck, working protection detail for a rich Brazilian family while drinking himself to death, when suddenly armed men attack and kidnap the head honcho’s wife. Max’s attempts to get her back play out almost exactly like a noir-ish version of Man On Fire/Taken/insert other terrible action movie of your choice, with Max touring a variety of seedy and poverty-stricken locales in the course of his “investigation” while monologuing incessantly in the privacy of his own head, because this is a Max Payne game and that’s the defining feature of the series, right? Put enough tortured narration in and anything seems arty; enough blurry jump-cuts of Max drinking yet another shot of whiskey; enough italicised subtitles from the dialogue just in case you’re particularly hard of thinking and don’t get that this is an adult and gritty game; and definitely enough cutscenes. Hours and hours of cutscenes. Cutscenes to hide loading screens. Cutscenes to hide area transitions. Cutscenes to stop you from responding while the bad guys get into their prearranged shooting positions. Cutscenes to make Max drop the good weapons you’ve collected and pick up a simple pistol. Cutscenes for the sake of cutscenes. Maybe 50% of your time spent playing Max Payne 3 will be spent shooting dudes in slow motion. The other 50% will be spent watching a cutscene, because this game wants so desperately to be a film it’s actually kind of pathetic.
Here’s a funny thing about the cutscenes that I think kind of sums up Max Payne 3’s obsession with appearance over substance. You’ll finish killing a whole bunch of guys, pick up some more ammo, reload your gun and then run along the linear path the level designers have set out for you to the next shooting gallery. When you get there a cutscene will ensue, except because the animators haven’t figured out how to get Max to hold a rifle in these cutscenes he’ll automatically pull out his crappy pistol that more often than not only has one bullet left in the magazine. When the cutscene finishes he’ll still be clutching this peashooter, and in the time it takes you to switch back to the rifle you’ll often get shot in the back by flanking bad guys. It would have been perfectly acceptable to just have him hold a pistol by default in the cutscenes instead of actively taking control away from the player and making them change weapons every couple of minutes. There was one segment in the favelas – I remember this vividly – where a sequence of quick cutscenes over a relatively quiet bit of the level meant that Max pulled out his pistol, I pulled out the rifle, Max pulled out his pistol again, I pulled out the rifle again, and then Max pulled his pistol out for a third time and I started screaming abuse at my monitor. It’s not okay to keep yanking control away from the player like that; I found it deeply, deeply obnoxious and annoying, and it wasn’t even the start of my problems with how the cinematic nature of the game interfered with my actually playing the damn thing.
On Hard mode (which is actually the third of five difficulty levels) getting shot just once will take off most of your health, if not put you down completely. One of Max Payne 3’s innovations is to automate the process of chugging painkillers; once your health is reduced to nothing Max will enter bullet time and get the opportunity to kill his attacker. If he does this successfully he’ll collapse to the floor and his health bar will refill at the cost of one set of painkillers. If he doesn’t… well, he dies. It’s a nice idea, and the whole Last Man Standing vibe is certainly very action movie, but unfortunately no-one seems to have given any thought to what happens afterwards. Lying prone means you’re vulnerable, Max is not as spry as he was in the first game – where he’d frog-flip back onto his feet after a shootdodge – and it takes a second or two for him to haul himself back to his feet, meaning that if there’s even one goon left standing you often get put down again because they shoot you while you’re getting up. It’s possible to go through two or three pots of pills in a single shootout (especially with the number of baddies the game throws at you) as Max gets trapped in this never-ending loop of dying, killing, dying, killing and dying again, and so while I don’t think it’s a fundamentally bad idea it’s insistence on prioritising the cinematic (Max collapses to the floor dramatically! But he’s killed the last baddie, so it’s all alright!) over the practical aspects (Oh wait, what if that wasn’t the last baddie) means it really doesn’t work all that well in practice.
The health thing is also a significant issue when you look at the viewing perspective the game has chosen for its gunplay. It’s a very cinematic widescreen shot some way behind and to one side of the character you’re controlling that’s become increasingly popular in third-person shooters over recent years since it looks fantastic. However, this camera angle can make things a little awkward when the bullets start to fly since your character ends up blocking a significant portion of your field of view, and so most cover shooters will include an aim mode that perches you right on top of their shoulder, relegating the character to one corner of the screen and giving you full vision of the combat area. It works pretty well; I don’t recall having any complaints about how this system worked in Mass Effect 3 or Spec Ops or Tomb Raider, for example2. For Max Payne 3, though, this would compromise the cinematic masterpiece that Rockstar seem to be convinced they’re in the business of making, and so the tiny bit of zoom aim mode gives you here means that not only does Max stubbornly remain dead centre of your field of view, but because it’s zoomed in he’s now blocking even more of it. Take a look at the picture above for an example of what I mean; there is an enemy shooting at Max, but I can’t shoot back because his big bald head is getting in the way. All I can do is spray randomly and hope I hit him, or else leap out of cover for a better viewing angle and promptly get myself killed.
Towards the end of the game this awkward treatment of the camera that – once again – seems to value looking good over providing the player with a functional gameplay experience becomes utterly infuriating. Your health vanishes so quickly on Hard that being killed in seconds by enemies you can’t see (Max Payne 3 is also very bad at communicating to the player where they’re being shot from; I rely on sound to track my enemies in these games and the sound design in this game is utterly fucking woeful, providing almost no positional information whatsoever because it all blends into one godawful cacophony of gunfire) becomes a depressingly common experience. They’re not operating with the same vision restrictions you are; they’re all great shots and will happily shoot you in the elbow or foot that you – or rather the cover system — have left poking out of cover, to the point where cover becomes next to useless because it doesn’t actually stop them from hitting you and there’s so many bad guys that somebody will hit you. What I ended up doing was standing a little way back from a large piece of cover, gradually edging around it a little bit at a time and shooting the bad guys in the head as they entered my field of vision. Bullet time helps and when you get enough to actually make a difference the shootouts are actually very fun, but that happens maybe one fight in every three. For the rest I often ended up dying ten or twenty times before managing to progress forward3, which is no fun at all.
There are also points where the developers seem to be actively conspiring against you, waving golden opportunities for an ambush in front of your face and then snatching them away in a cutscene, forcing you into a static battle against a room full of dug-in baddies. (I thought Max Payne was supposed to be balletic Hong Kong-style violence, not a bad cover shooter where the cover system doesn’t work?) Often you’ll clear out an area after several attempts only for a pointless cutscene to trigger, and when you get control back you find out the reason for the cutscene is so that the bad guys can be replaced without you shooting them as they run up to their little fortress positions. They’re ludicrously tough, as well – we’re talking Modern Warfare levels of silliness like getting up three or four times after you put a volley of lead into them. Headshots usually guarantee a kill if you can score them, but even there I saw a guard’s cloth cap fly off after absorbing a .50 calibre round from a Desert Eagle aimed directly at his forehead; the guard himself was perfectly fine and ventilated me a second later when I was reloading. To add insult to injury the checkpoints appear to have been placed by a sadist who wants you to repeat the same 10 minutes of gameplay over and over and over, and there’s some points where you’ll take half your health bar in damage before the game quits the loading cutscene and gives control back to you. Shooter designers have to be more imaginative with their difficulty than just making all the enemies twice as tough and four times as accurate – why not sprinkle in a few more advanced guard types with heavier weapons, or maybe provide alternate paths through a level? Of course I know exactly why this is: because that’s a complicated fix to a problem that can be solved by just adjusting some values in a spreadsheet, and if they did that they wouldn’t have so much time to devote to making Max Payne 3 the auteur cinematic masterpiece they so badly want it to be.
There’s certainly some impressive talent that’s gone into making this game. It’s never less than gorgeous and the level of fidelity in terms of animations and facial textures is really something4. There are times when you’re almost fooled into thinking you’re watching a CGI movie of some kind – which is why I think this is what Rockstar secretly wanted to do, and that they would have much rather not had to implement any gameplay at all. So much effort has gone into how Max Payne 3 looks, and then the shooting and the levels turn out to be pure scripted mediocrity made according to formula with nary a hint of imagination or creativity involved. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect any different, but I feel I could have had a better shooter experience by going and watching Hard Boiled again instead of forking out £7 for Max Payne 3 in a Steam sale. It’s not even like it makes for a particularly good action movie, either, with its cartoon villains and stratospheric body count5 marking it out as a Commando rather than a Die Hard — and it doesn’t even have Commando’s cheesy sense of humour. Maybe on a lower difficulty level it’d be passably average, but as it is I found Max Payne 3 to be badly-designed, poorly-paced and not particularly interested in showing me a good time. That I finished it at all reflects more on my sheer bloody-mindedness than on any attractive quality on the part of the game itself. It’s enjoyable in parts, but on the whole I’d rather have spent that money on something else.
- It’s a Rockstar game, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised. ↩
- And indeed when you’re not in cover Max Payne 3 implements this system correctly, which is why I spent as little time in cover as possible. ↩
- Another good thing about Max Payne 3: if you die a lot in a given fight then it’ll start to surreptitiously slip you extra painkillers when you reload from the last checkpoint, meaning that if you smash your head against this brick wall for long enough it will eventually start to give way. Or at least it should be a good thing; as it is I think the designers have used it to paper over the fact that their gunfights are horribly fucking broken and no human being would be able to survive them without that little hand-up the game gives you. ↩
- It had better be to justify the 35 gigabytes of disk space Max Payne 3 squats on. ↩
- Something I have never understood: when Max’s body count is quite literally in the thousands (there’s a little counter that helpfully tracks it) why do hired goons keep attacking him? Do they think, “Well, those last thousand guys were just unlucky, we’ll totally get him this time?” There’s little to no acknowledgement by the bad guys of what a walking disaster area Max is, and despite killing hundreds of corrupt police and paramilitaries this seems to have no effect on their operations, and they seem to have no problem finding more bodies to throw at him in the hope that he’ll reach his preset kill limit. Hell, in Spec Ops they at least acknowledge the fact that things have gotten a little bit silly and you’ve ended up wiping out an entire battalion of American troops, and towards the end there’s radio chatter calling on surviving forces to rally for a final stand. All those dead bodies had an effect. Here they just get a hundred more from the cloning tanks. ↩