It seems almost stupidly obvious, but Max Payne 3 is a game built from the ground up for slow motion. It’s almost pornographic.
Max lies on the ground, completely still. Bullet time drained. It’s fine – his enemies are also motionless -- another word for that would be ‘dead’, the final bullet lodged in the brain of some poor goon 20 yards away.
Our Rockstar rep keeps Max grounded, and swivels his reticule. He does so slowly; I take in the detail. Max’s arms twist, his shoulders contort. His hips adjust in fluid movements. Max began this move on his back, now he’s on his stomach; the animations put him there, because it made sense. A man aiming a gun from this position could only be lying on his stomach.
Two minutes earlier, before Max was the only live human within a 50 metre radius, he did a forward roll. Midway through that roll he picked up a machine gun. And by picked up I don’t mean that it disappeared with a click, before magically slipping inside an invisible handbag like a gun toting Mary Poppins -- I mean Max actually grabbed the gun, mid roll, fully animated, and added it to his person; in a way that made sense, in a way that worked within the realm of normal human possibility.
Take it easy on the details, I think. This is a video game. I’ll happily suspend my disbelief – I’m used to suspending my disbelief.
But it’s slowly starting to click. Max Payne 3 is all about details; the kind of details I wouldn’t normally pick up on if it wasn’t for the series’ patented bullet time mechanic. Everything starts to make a bit more sense. Max Payne 3 is, after all, a game built from the ground up for slow motion.
Undoubtedly that’s why Rockstar has placed so much effort into the details of Max Payne’s animation. At a normal pace it’s difficult to really put a premium on the care the team has taken to make Max move correctly. Your attention is elsewhere – on the bullets blasting in the periphery, on the destructible environments, on the actual mechanics of the game. At first glance I’m tempted to judge Max Payne as a pedestrian shooter – but bullet time allows you to indulge in the details that normally fizz past, and that’s when Max Payne comes alive. It somehow appears as though Rockstar has somehow made slow motion relevant again.
I sit passively -- the 360 controller is in the capable, rehearsed paws of the Rockstar employee sitting next to me – but Max Payne 3 is one of those rare games where you can almost feel how the game plays by simply watching. The closest example I can think of is Assassin’s Creed. You can almost visualise how it feels to have every nudge, every move you make, rewarded with an animation that makes sense.
The constant feedback is overwhelming, verging on a strange visual schizophrenia. The bullets you fire hit the enemies with the kind of realism you’ve come to expect from the Euphoria engine used so expertly in games like GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption – only now, in bullet-time, you become truly drenched in the impact you, as the player, are having on the world.
As I mentioned above - it’s almost pornographic. In a good way.
For Rockstar, a developer used to navigating gaming universes with different priorities – scale, choice, consequence – Max Payne 3 is a fresh proposition, one in which the focus is on the immediacy of plotting, pace and raw mechanics. It didn’t really matter if Red Dead Redemption’s combat wasn’t as refined as, say, Gears of War, but it’s of paramount importance in Max Payne 3 – and Rockstar seems to get that.
A premium has clearly been placed on the minutiae of Max’s universe. It’s a game built for slow motion, but it’s also furiously paced, connecting seamlessly from cut scene to action in a way that’s compelling for a game which essentially moves from one enemy encounter to another.
Max is in a hallway. A hailstorm of bullets erupts through the window opposite. It’s too much even for the practiced Rockstar rep. He dies mid-leap, finger on the trigger. Shells pop from the chamber. They shower around Max as he struggles to put one more bullet in his enemies. One empty shell in particular falls slowly, hits Max’s bullet riddled torso as he falls and spins delicately to a halt on the floor next to him.
In no other game would I have noticed that empty shell. But in Max Payne 3, I noticed.