I'll be honest. I was a bit worried when the first images of what was being called Max Payne 3 started surfacing online. I thought, Who is that guy? Why is he in some tropical locale? Where's the snow? Where's the doom and gloom? And most importantly, where the hell is New York City?
Truth be told, the third installment of the franchise that is responsible for bringing the slow-motion bullet-time effect to mainstream games does feature an aesthetically different-looking Max Payne. But as we found out from a hands-off demo of the title at Rockstar Games' New York City offices, Max Payne 3 is looking like the true sequel loyal fans of the series will want to play and even embrace.
Even though Max Payne 3 isn't being developed by Remedy (the house behind the first two games), the Rockstar reps on hand informed me "they'd seen what we were doing with the game, gave some notes, and they're excited about its direction." When the Matias Myllyrinne tweeted, "A big thumbs-up and congrats to Rockstar on the Max Payne 3 trailer!"debuted on September 14, Remedy CEO
Reprising his role as the voice of Payne is James McCaffrey, who is also responsible for Payne's motion-capture in the third game. It's his physical appearance Max Payne is now based on--which, from what we've seen, isn't that much of a deviation. I had always likened Max Payne to real-life actor Dean Winters ("Oz," "30 Rock," Allstate commercials) but found out otherwise when I met Sam Lake face to face. Lake is the writer of and physical inspiration for Payne in the first title. Payne was modeled after actor Timothy Gibbs in the second title.
After those first initial screenshots dripped out, I remember hearing questions like, "Why is he bald?" It's a reasonable concern, as clearly Max Payne was not bald in the previous two games nor did he show any signs of a receding hairline. No, this Max Payne has shaved his head because, well, he's been through a lot.
The gruesome murder of his family and the unfortunate events that followed in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne have left our antihero a broken man. With the pains of his past bubbling over inside, Max decides to seek refuge, and perhaps some clarity, by taking up a private security job in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Max's new responsibility is overseeing the security of the wealthy Branco family, made up of three brothers, the eldest of which is Rodrigo Branco. When Branco's wife is kidnapped by a rogue gang, Max once again finds himself in an uphill battle, not against mobsters, but an entire Brazilian paramilitary outfit.
That's all the backstory I was given, so it was on to the hands-off demo which began in--of all places--New York City. The Rockstar reps made it very clear that Max Payne 3 would not be a tale told linearly, but rather as a series of flashbacks and forwards. But it's in this first section of gameplay where I immediately recognized Max Payne's hometown familiarity: the dirty shadowed apartment building corridors, the faint police sirens in the distance, the dreary recognizable piano riff. Here, Max Payne resembled the same character we've grown to love, the jacket-and-tie-wearing vigilante.
It's also here where I got my first look at Max Payne 3's bullet-time effect, and it was an impressive evolution of the technology. Max gracefully dives and unloads rounds toward enemies in a bloody ballet of destruction, completed by the "final kill-camera" from the previous games that denotes the end of gunfight. Rockstar's use of the Euphoria game engine allows for shockingly realistic behavior of not only Max's body, but the kickback of each bullet's entry as they pepper an enemy.
Max has tons of animations that allow him to shoot from a prone position, or from pretty much any physical situation he finds himself in. Max Payne 3 also introduces a cover system for the first time in the franchise's history, but our Rockstar rep was quick to point out that "the game still rewards players who want to run and gun." It's definitely true, as my demo proved taking cover isn't a vital component in the way it is in a game like Gears of War.
The New York demo also clued me in on the game's packaging, which loyally pays homage to the presentation of the first two titles. A bullet-time meter sits in the bottom-right corner, next to Max's ammo count and health silhouette, which, if you remember, can only be healed via painkillers. Weapons are represented in the same stylized gray outline of the previous games, complete with a weapon wheel selector.
Max's "jacket of infinite pockets," as the Rockstar rep cleverly recalled, won't be present in Max Payne 3, so instead he can only carry two single-handed firearms and one two-handed weapon. Max can also duel-wield any two single-handed guns.
The next locale of the demo was Brazil. Here, Max is the bald-headed, tank top-wearing, bearded soldier seen in those initial screenshots. This section featured a series of gunfights around a bus depot, but also worked as a means of showing off the graphic-novel-inspired cut scenes that worked so well in previous iterations of the game. The backdrop of Sao Paulo didn't make for the noir-influenced aesthetic Payne fans are used to, but Max's iconic monologue voiceover reminded me that this was familiar expositional territory.
After the lights went up, my impression of Max Payne 3 had gone from "totally different direction" to "true sequel." The only thing missing was a trippy dream sequence where Max tiptoes along a trail of blood. When I asked the Rockstar rep about whether there's such a section in Max Payne 3 he smiled, but refused to comment.
Max Payne 3 is scheduled to hit the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PCs in March of 2012.
Editor's note: This post was updated at 2:48 pm ET to correct details about Payne's digital representation in the second Max Payne game.