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PAX East 2012: Max Payne 3
by Andrew Testerman

After numerous delays, Max Payne 3 is almost here.

During the course of development, Rockstar Vancouver's latest third-person action game saw many hardships, the likes of which would even make their eponymous detective pause. But Max is finally ready to shoot and dodge his way back into the limelight. Rockstar allowed us to get a glimpse of the game behind closed doors at PAX East, and what I saw gave me hope for the return of Max Payne.

We were shown two levels, each from different sections of the game. The first was set in a grimy Manhattan bar under attack by gang members, with Max having to fight his way through shot-up pool halls and walk-in freezers. The second took place in São Paulo, Brazil, and saw Max surviving an ambush at a baseball stadium, aided by an ally behind a sniper rifle.

What separates Max Payne 3 from the myriad other shooters is its stylish use of bullet time. The player can slow the action down by clicking the analogue stick, or by performing slow motion 'shoot dodges', John Woo-esque leaps of fancy that add mobility to firefights. Bullet time uses adrenalin, which Max gains by executing headshots or taking damage. Combined with solid shooting mechanics, Max Payne 3's use of bullet time turns every gun battle into a pageant of blood and bullets.

Max has lost none of his abilities for acrobatic gunplay, and part of Max Payne 3's challenge is to find the best moments to use bullet time.

Rockstar Vancouver has also made several canny additions to the Max Payne formula. New to the series is a cover system, allowing Max to hunker down behind obstacles to avoid enemy fire. Also new is an optional aim-assist, similar to those found in many current shooters, helping players to zero in on enemies for adrenalin-gaining headshots.

One of Max Payne 3's biggest departures from modern shooting conventions, though, is its lack of a health-regeneration system. Instead, players must find and use painkillers to regain Max's lost stamina. Painkillers also lend themselves to another new mechanic: when mortally wounded by an enemy, players can take out the enemy who dealt them the killing blow and gain their life back, in exchange for a painkiller.

Good thing, too, because Max Payne 3 is challenging even at medium difficulty. Max was constantly outnumbered during both levels I played - particularly in the baseball stadium, which takes place later in the game - and playing without regenerating health adds a dangerous rhythm to gameplay different from other contemporary shooters. Every gunfight is tense and deadly, and feels great. As a quick aside, I would recommend playing with the auto-aim turned off; with it on, I found my aiming reticule targeting enemies in ways I didn't necessarily expect. The auto-aim doesn't necessarily drag the game down, but it's far from the optimal way to play Max Payne 3, a game in which the satisfaction of manually lining up headshots, mid-jump, feels incredibly satisfying.

Though much of the game takes place in São Paulo, players also control Max during his earlier life in New York.

Like other current Rockstar games, Max Payne 3 is built upon the Rage engine, used in games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Max's movements are initially a bit wide and hefty, but I assimilated after a few minutes of play. Rockstar has always trotted out stellar voice acting in its games, and Max Payne 3 continues the trend. During gameplay, Max's internal monologue helps to establish the setting and tone of what's happening, and other characters toss out their lines with natural-sounding aplomb, a welcome change from other poorly-voiced games on the market. The series' signature comic-book cinematics are MIA, but they are given a nod in Max Payne 3's in-game cutscenes, which possess small stylistic changes and use split-screen in a way that suggests comic book panels, though they did remind me of the commercials for Grant Theft Auto: Vice City.

Max has been in deep cover for a long time, but the wait appears to have been worth it. Max Payne 3 looks to join Rockstar's increasingly-long list of epic May releases in just a few short weeks, hitting Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

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- Andrew Testerman

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