Killing With Style
It’s been eight years in the narrative life of Max Payne since his last … adventure. Maybe “adventure” isn’t the right word—Max killed a lot of people, took on a lot of wounds, both metaphorically and physically, and watched his relationship with assassin Mona Sax end the game with her death at the hands of a Russian killer.
The drug-addled, abrasive Max Payne has never been the cheeriest of characters, and in this sequel not a whole lot has changed in tone and intention. As the game opens, we see Max languishing in his dusky, dirty apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, when all hell breaks loose in a flurry of gunshot and explosion. Max is back in action, business as usual.
And as art director Rob Nelson points out, “Yes, Bullet Time is returning!”
Max Payne 3 is an action game at heart, propulsive and relentless and couched in the structure of its gritty story telling. It’s been a good 11 years since the signature mechanic was introduced in the original Max Payne—a fairly long time for a game to see its innovations iterated throughout the years. Just what changes are in store for this mighty progenitor? “If I had to describe how we’ve ‘evolved’ Bullet Time I’d say that we’ve increased the density of the experience,” says Nelson. “We’ve made painstaking efforts to make sure that Max’s movements hold up when time is slowed down—that he feels like he has weight and interacts realistically with his environment. We even went with lengthier, weightier animations in some instances that look and feel better in Bullet Time. Natural Motion looks amazing in Bullet Time. Every bullet Max fires from the gun is individually modeled and you can see your bullets and those of your enemies streaking through the air and impacting different parts of the body realistically.”
Max Payne 3 runs off the RAGE engine, which has powered most of Rockstar’s recent games, and works with the Natural Motion animation framework Nelson refers to. You’ll see its pretty work in Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV. Where these games have lived off the open-world aesthetic, Max Payne 3 is more focused on gunplay and a directed experience. It’s cinematic inspirations, born of the Hong Kong action-flick foundation, run thick, with the lead, implacable character standing at the heart of the embellished, moody surroundings. “We’ve approached this game with the same level of energy and intensity as we do our open world games,” says Nelson, “but because this is a more straightforward, linear experience with emphasis very strongly on shooting—what we’re ending up with is a very dense experience where we focus very intently on every moment, every tiny movement Max makes, or all the possible ways the AI can and would behave in a given situation. Just because the game is more linear doesn’t mean we want people to play it one way. We want people to be able to approach every encounter multiple ways. The way Max’s animations relate to the way he controls need to look and feel exactly right. We want the control of a first person shooter with the weight and connection to character and surrounding that we feel only third-person games can offer.”
While the game begins on the east coast, we quickly move to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Max is involved battling local gangs and protecting a bucket of cash and its wealthy owner. The change of location is cosmetic, the underpinning Payne qualities are clearly evident. “The tone every bit as dark and noir-inspired as the previous games. The fact that Max is in a different city doesn’t change that,” argues Nelson. “In fact we felt we had to change his location to realistically maintain and possibly expand his character. There wasn’t much more for him to do in New York. He couldn’t be a cop again. It’s arguable that the underbelly in New York isn’t quite what it once was either. So in order to tell a dark and depraved story in which Max finds himself over his head and forced to try and set things right—we felt we had to move him.”
Whatever location finds Max shooting people in the face, he’s still Max, shooting people in the face, thug after thug. And this new setting brings slick new technological advancements to the destruction. The presentation is given a real-world weight through hundreds of hours of motion capturing, playing out scenes built on scaled sets. Beyond the look and feel of the character and the sophisticated death animations that follow Max’s gunshots, the environment is densely structured to break down under fire. “We’ve tried to make the environments as destructible and interactive as possible,” explains Nelson. “We definitely want to provide the most realistic, satisfying gameplay experience for players. More than anything we want to recapture the feeling people had when they first played Max – the feeling they were controlling and accompanying this broken, but fearsome avenger in an incredibly stylish and satisfying ballet of death and destruction.”