Max Payne is looking haggard. His increasingly creased face has hardened into a permanent grimace and his expanding bulk means there’s no way he’s fitting into the same suits he wore back in his NYPD days. But it’s not just that. The fact that his ageing frame is a lot less suited to being thrown into action than it used to be is compounding matters, sure, but it’s more than that right now.
Max Payne is having a bad night.
The blood from the bullet wound he received earlier, before he even had a chance to fire a single shot, has become dark and caked on the bandage his partner Passos tightly wrapped around his left arm. We’ve been slogging through a Sao Paulo football stadium after-hours with Max for close to 30 minutes. Max is too old to be mixing it up with a bunch of Brazilian gangbangers, and that hole in his arm isn’t helping. You can feel every yard. No, really. You can.
The reason you can feel every bit of progress you make is due entirely to the incredibly well-honed animation system at work here. Max is looking haggard because you can see the effort he’s making. Max’s realistic reactions mean you that things that should hurt look like they hurt. When Max crashes into a wall his body folds up as he impacts against it; he doesn’t just complete the move suspended in mid-air. When he leaps sideways down a set of concrete grandstand steps and crunches back to earth halfway down he doesn’t just pounce back to his feet; his inertia sends him into a sickening slide down the remaining stairs on his ribs, blasting all the way down. This one makes us wince, in particular.
With Max Payne 3 we’re seeing the latest marriage between NaturalMotion’s Euphoria technology and the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine. NaturalMotion’s Euphoria, for those of you who don’t know, is an animation system engine based on a full simulation of a 3D character (including body, muscles and a motor nervous system). Instead of using pre-canned animations, actions (and reactions) are synthesised on-the-fly, in real-time. This means they’re always different, every time. The tech has already been used to excellent effect in GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption.
However, GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption are large, open-world titles. Max Payne 3 is not. It’s a laser-focused, third-person shooter. With the narrower scope the developers have been able to use the additional headroom to really ramp-up the authenticity of the animation and physics.
Max has thousands of animations that blend into one another, working in tandem with Euphoria to craft incredibly realistic on-screen movement. Where you’re diving, what’s around you at the time, what guns you’re holding and so on will all affect how Max performs the move you’ve demanded of him. Diving sideways, firing one-handed while clutching a long-barrel shotgun in your free hand and thudding into a wall will result in a markedly different outcome than diving sideways in a large room firing pistols in each hand.
The work done here to ensure Max moves as realistically as possible in any situation is seriously impressive. The way he rolls and pivots when prone in order to shoot in any direction. The way his body shifts to fire behind himself while running away from an ambush. The way he picks himself up off the ground, which varies depending on what firearm(s) he’s holding at the time. Max Payne 3 is here to fuse the control of a first-person shooter with the character of a third. Rockstar doesn’t want you to form a relationship with a reticule. It wants you to see Payne in pain.
The Euphoria integration naturally extends to the enemies too, similar to what you’ve seen in GTAIV and RDR before. What you get with Euphoria is more than simple rag dolls, or pre-animated location-sensitive death animations. You get enemies reacting accordingly to where they’ve been struck, how fast they were moving at the time, and by the calibre of the bullet that struck them. A few quick pistol slugs to the central mass of one goon may see him flop to the ground like a puppet with his strings cut, but a sniper bullet to the shoulder of another will see him spinning into the stadium seating in a flurry of flailing limbs. A shot to the arm should disable it; don’t expect the kind of bullet-sponge enemies you get in the likes of Uncharted 3. Naughty Dog’s latest may be world class in many ways but being shot is a serious matter, and Max Payne 3′s enemies don’t just shake it off.
The action has a supremely visceral quality to it, making Max Payne 3 a shooter where good instincts and luck are rewarded as often as pure skill. On one occasion we had Max shoot-dodge around a corner in order to stitch up two hired guns hiding there in wait. A burst of rounds into each of them saw them despatched. Replaying the same section again, we rounded the corner in real-time, stitching a horizontal line of lead from left to right. The Hail Mary spray caught the first enemy in the head and the second near-enough to it and they both sagged to the mud, dead. Max Payne 3 is as satisfying in real time as it is in slow motion; there’s a certain Michael Mann-style abruptness that’s been merged here with the series’ more famous Hong Kong-esque sensibilities.
If the old Max was a scalpel, darting from firefight to firefight, skating around opponents and springing from the ground like a steel trap, the new Max is a wrecking ball. Heavier, and at the mercy of Newton’s Second Law more than ever, but even more devastating. And yet, despite this, it’s remarkable how familiar it actually feels. Max Payne 3 is a thoroughly modern sequel, built with new technology, and yet it still fundamentally feels like a Max Payne game.
So if you’re worried the Max Payne magic may have gone MIA; don’t be.
You can read a detailed blow-by-blow of this level here.