Friday, May 25, 2012

The Art of Suffering: or Killin' Bad Guys With Max (Review)

I fondly remember my days spent with the first Max Payne, huddled in the dark corner of my brother's Boston dormroom, clicking and rattling away at his computer, getting lost in a truly mature game unlike any I had ever played before.  Where other shooters had clunky controls and dull protoganists, here was a neo-noire, hard-boiled unique graphic novel-game with sleek & innovative mechanics that managed to make me feel the rage and terror of the titular character.  I vividly remember the beginning of the game, wandering through Max's home after his wife and child's murder, and peering down into the baby's crib to see its little, decimated corpse.  Never had I seen something so violent or disturbing in a game, and the image, combined with the music, lighting and dialogue, the absolute heartbreak of Max Payne, became planted in my mind as a truly moving experience.  It wasn't simply gratuitous, it was a dark motivation.

Max Payne's creators allow the repercussions of this event to carryover from Max Payne 2 to Max Payne 3, fueling a gamer's desire for retribution in tandem with Max's.  The strength of a good storyteller is in their ability to fuse the audience's psyche with that of the character's.  There are a variety of devices to effectively do this in a variety of mediums, but few art-forms are able to achieve this fusion as thoroughly as videogames because of the unmatched level of interaction it demands of the audience.  Rockstar seems to understand this better than any other gaming company, for their games do actually tell stories rather than merely give gamers virtual playgrounds or obstacles to overcome, and the result is that when gamers do encounter those playgrounds and those obstacles, an actual emotional reaction will be elicited due to our connection with the protagonist and his/her struggle.  You do not want to kill bad guys in Max Payne simply because it's fun to kill bad guys.  You want to kill them because you are still brooding over the death of your wife and baby, because you're pissed off and hungover and hooked on pain killers, because you don't understand the language everyone is speaking, and you can't seem to keep a woman alive for longer than three hours (and because it's fun to kill bad guys).  Because you simply are Max Payne by the game's finale, in the same way you became John Marston and Nikko Belic.

Anyone familiar with the story, and experienced the first game some eleven years ago, will experience Max Payne 3 as a thoughtful, skillful evolution of the initial narrative's events, as well as an evolution of the game's mechanics.  If you're coming to the series for the first time, you will find yourself treated to one of Rockstar's best games, where the M-Rating means more than drug-references, blood & gore, and sexual content.  Max Payne 3 is a subtly masterful game, whose deceptive simplicity and focus will likely not earn it the attention of a larger-scale franchises.  At its root, Max Payne is a traditional third-person shooter akin to games of a previous era.
There are "health packs" and "boss battles" and "linear" hallways.  There is very little freedom in Max Payne, but little freedom is needed, or even wanted thanks to Rockstar's excellent use of cutscenes and game design.  While the game hearkens back to days of old, it avoids almost all of the pitfalls of 90s and early 2000s shooters.  It's very easy to miss how the games designers so effectively trick you into thinking you're not experiencing a straightforward linear third-person shoot 'em up.  You never backtrack and you never feel like you're going in the wrong direction (though sometimes it may be hard to find the exact door you have to go through).  I was never left wanting during this experience, however.  I never felt trapped or as though I was going in circles the way these games used to make me feel, and the environments are so detailed, so beautiful, and the gunfights so constantly fulfilling and varied, that I never felt as though I was repeating myself or as though the game had become stale, which is a remarkable achievement considering the game consists mostly of pushing two buttons and a joystick.

The game has some flaws, of course, but overcomes all of them.  While I never felt like I was repeating myself, I literally did repeat myself several times because I died rather often.  More often than I would like to admit.  Unlike other games, however, Max Payne wastes no time with a loading screen or too much repeated dialogue, it drops you right back into the middle of whatever fight you just lost (which was only problematic in one case where I had no health), which keeps the game constantly moving.  The story is consistently excellent in terms of its exploration of Max's character, but becomes occasionally muddled when exploring other characters and struggles for clarity in plot at times (something even Max himself addresses, however, explaining his own confusion and in effect empathizing with gamers, reducing the goal always to the simple kill or be killed).

While some of my gripes were resultant from my own lack of skill in the beginning (which I can't fault Rockstar for), there is one mechanic in the game that while, in theory is awesome, in practice can be very frustrating and at times downright bad.  When a player reaches the end of their health bar, if they have a pain killer in their inventory, the game will automatically go into bullet time as Max slowly falls to the ground.  During this time, players have to find the person who has caused their health to drop to zero (sometimes rather difficult if there are ten targets to pick from), and the reticule will automatically guide your aim toward the shooter (sometimes) and if you manage to hit the target once, then you will survive.  You'll fall to the ground having automatically taken the health pack, killed the baddie, and won the day.  The purpose is to give you the sense of a cinematic, fateful standoff.  When it works well, you may get that feeling (though it's inevitably frustrating to have an optional mechanic enforced upon you randomly in the middle of a firefight), but when this mechanic fails you will find yourself wondering where to shoot and why you've died.  Sometimes you will get locked into this event without any ammo left in your gun (which automatically means you're going to die because you can't switch guns once it's engaged), or a pillar or beam will be in your way thus making it impossible to find the shooter.  Aside from this one aspect of gameplay, everything else, particularly the final kill cam and the other naturally engaged automatic bullet time events, flows wonderfully.  If you manage to look past whatever little gripes you may have, either in the story or in the occasional boss fight, you will find one of the most immersive, unique gaming experiences available.
This sense of immersion and variety is achieved through a number of ingredients.

The cutscenes of Max Payne 3, seamlessly interwoven with gameplay and presented in the shuttering, panel style reminiscent of the original's, dotted with lines of dialogue similar to the film Man on Fire, are as enjoyable to watch as the game is to play.  The visual style in which they are presented accentuates the state of Max's consciousness, his drunkenness, his hangover, his pain.  These little flashes and out-of-focus flares appear in the actual gameplay as well, subtly drawing players into Max's state of mind through the beautiful trickery of film and gameplay.  For example, when a player shoots a baddie in the head, there is a subtle flash across the entire screen, as though you have briefly looked into the sun.  A similar effect happens when players swallow some pain pills to regain their health.  These little artistic flourishes will go largely unnoticed by gamers, and likely even other reviewers, but they work toward creating a distinctive look & feel, while also working on a player's subconscious, linking your mind with Max's.
This game, like a rare, good film, actually makes use of silence.  The game permits Max to simply sit and stare, wallow in his despair-pit, accompanied by the best, most moving game soundtrack I've heard in years.  More than the artistry of their presentation, it is the brilliant implementation of the cutscenes that makes them demonstrate how much other games fail with this particular video game technique.  These scenes follow intense gun battles, providing a brief respite, all the while advancing the plot and keeping your attention focused on the characters.  The game never deviates from its simple narrative, or the particular goal of a certain set-piece.  It is very difficult to stop playing this game once you start because of how integral and expertly integrated the cutscenes are, and how wonderfully paced each mission is.  There simply is no distinction between a cutscene and gameplay in Max Payne 3. The game is a cohesive work of art, utilizing a variety of personalized techniques to create a cinematic & believable world.

 Another essential ingredient in the game's success are the mechanics.  Max Payne 3 has finally perfected the cover system (for me at least).  I never felt too stuck to a wall and I actually liked how, unlike in other games, you can't automatically hop from cover to cover with a single button press.  If you leave cover you have to run to new cover and press X again.  Pressing the X-button to attach oneself to cover feels wonderfully good for some inexplicable reason, and the shootdodge and detailed, heavy movements of Max really do make for a smooth experience.  Even picking up a weapon while running is smooth, as Max dips down into a roll and pops up with the gun in his hands.  That said, the game is rather difficult, even on the medium setting.

The targeting system is reminiscent of GTA IV and Red Dead, without being as helpful or forgiving as those systems.  There are times when, pressing left-trigger to get a soft lock on a target, the reticule does not lock onto my desired enemy, or it seems fixated on the target's chest.  The result can be a mini-wrestling match between the gamer and the joystick.  Do not be discouraged if in the game's beginning you find yourself frustrated and wondering what those lovely Max Payne 3 vid-doc's were talking about when they mentioned the ease of a first person shooter married to the sense of character one gets from a third person shooter.  The game is hard, plain and simple, and it asks that you get better at it.  You have to develop your skill over time and always remember that you have the shootdodge and bullet time at your disposal.  It's easy to get locked into a certain way of thinking when playing video games, especially shooters, and you may forget using certain necessary abilities.  Wisely, unlike other shooters, you cannot remain simply stuck behind cover in Max Payne 3.  It is best to move around, ducking in and out, rolling, leaping, because the enemies (some of the best I've encountered in a shooter) will flank you and, unlike any other game I've ever played, actually shoot you when you pop out of cover to shoot them.  You can get creative with your movements, the environment offering up windows to dive through or staircases to leap down, encouraging gamers to create their own cinematic moments at any time.
Expect to leap into walls and unseen carts or bits of debris and have your bulletdodge interrupted, sometimes at the cost of your life.  But this is forgivable and occasionally makes for some interesting gameplay.  Max is the most detailed and realistic character model I have seen to date.  Rockstar's euphoria and natural motion create some shocking little animations.  For example, I was trapped in a tight room of a prison and leaped to the side so as to shoot through a doorway.  I bashed into the wall and slid down it, landing on my back.  Max grunted, and lay there, bruised and angry.  I remained prone, however, thanks to my good vantage point through the door, and waited for my enemies to approach, knocking them off one at a time.  Little things like this set the game apart from other modern shooters.  The details and the subtlety of Max Payne is truly what makes it art, entertainment, and something unique and beautiful in a genre full of cogs and dog tags as opposed to heart and soul.  And there is soul in this game, something honest and consistently fun.

Where other games would simply have "cool guns" or "pretty environments" or a "health system", Max Payne personalizes these video game tropes, thus making them pertinent as any good art does in its particular medium.  The guns in this game feel like characters, even more so than they did in Red Dead.  They are constantly clicking and clacking, evolving, begging to be used in new ways, and for the first time that I have ever seen in a game, the guns you are holding during gameplay do not magically switch into something else during a cutscene, they remain consistent throughout the experience.  Perhaps I care too much about the small things, but it's the small things in Rockstar's games (and in love) that count, adding up to wonderful wholes, and many gamers simply do not play games for the small things.  This is why GTA IV and Red Dead are considered boring or dull by some.  Most do not care to watch a character evolve over the course of 12 hours, unless it involves gaining XP.  Most gamers will praise the largeness of a world or the size of an explosion or the coolness of a team of characters.  They will not notice how amazingly beautiful it is that Max Payne will carry a rifle in one hand so that he can shoot a sidearm with the other, or that he will quickly pop his rifle into his armpit so that he can still hold it while he reloads his pistol.  These details culminate in an experience of honesty and quiet innovation, perfecting a stagnant genre.
Even Max Payne's various costume changes, the gradual growth of his facial hair, his eventual chrome-dome, work toward not only building a character, but building a believable world and providing gamers with a subtle sense of variety.  I don't know why game-designers seem to think we need our archetypes to remain in the same outfit throughout these experiences, much like cartoon characters, because we don't.  Seeing them change makes them more tangible and it's simply fun to see a new outfit, a new look, an evolution relevant to the circumstances.  This variety of look also accentuates those moments when we peak into Max's New Jersey past and see his iconic black leather jacket and yellow tie.

These details are even more apparent in the environments, particularly the slums of Palo Alto.  Graffitti and garbage abounds.  There is not one corner that isn't realistically rendered, corners that few gamers will ever bother to see, little nooks that flesh out the world, work toward your sense of freedom within a confined space.  You will see fleeing pedestrians, children playing soccer, and guards looming in the distance as you trudge your way through the muck and grime.  Down to the smallest brick, the environments are feverishly detailed. And while a game like LA Noire is nothing but it's little details entirely lacking in a sympathetic/interesting protagonist and an actually fun game to play, Max Payne is always aware of itself, keeping the pure joy of gun-play and gameplay at its core.

This attention to detail and fun finds its way even into the pain killers of Max Payne.  Never have I enjoyed a health system in a video game, except the Payne games.  Not content to stick with simplicity, the games' designers allow the health system to imbue Max with even more depth, while simultaneously giving a little commentary on games in general.  Max is addicted to the pain killers players must consistently collect and use to remain alive, which is amusing on one level considering how desperately and frequently the gamer typically uses health packs.  This aspect of the game allows for Max to make an occasional dark quip about the pain killers, always reminding players of his state of mind.  Rockstar does this sort of thing frequently in their games, allowing the character that players control to comment on the actions of the player.  I cannot emphasize enough how brilliant this is, how it allows a bond to form while simultaneously shedding light on the absurdity of everything in all of existence.
The characters essentially break the forth wall, but it's a deeper, darker break than in film or television, because the player literally controls what the protagonist does.  This control we have over them, while simultaneously hearing their thoughts, makes these characters seem like conscious beings, occasionally forced to do things against their actual will.  They are conscious, tragic beings because while they have the ability to comment on their actions as if they are self-aware, they are nothing more than characters in a story whose every action is actually controlled by some geek's thumbs.  These simple comments, such as John Marston saying "Why do I do the things I do" after I make him shoot a horse, or Max Payne saying "Sobriety is relative" after I have him pick up some pain killers, makes them real little men inside the television, controlled by the strings around my fingertips.  They are not merely ciphers like most game characters, thoughtless fictions devoid of soul.  These are true characters reminding us of our own lack of control.  I doubt most people who plays these games think about this, and Rockstar may not even be entirely aware of their own depth, but it should be appreciated and recognized, as its something only videogames can achieve.  Brilliant!

And so, through Rockstar's excellence, something as typically mundane and forgettable as "taking a health pack" in a video game, becomes a wonderful little insight into someone's psyche, and a philosophical comment on the nature of existence.  And this leads me to what sets Max Payne 3 apart from all other games on the market.
Max Payne 3 is more than just a bunch of lovely graphical details.  The game is more than a fun series of shoot-outs and a cool story.  The game is a character, a true character.  Max Payne, through brilliantly written narrations and wonderfully rendered motion capture, is a living, breathing force in these games, as powerful and deep as any good character in a novel or film.  What other video game can claim this?  This is what makes it worthwhile to overlook the occasional flaws in the game.  It excels in a particular way that most games today don't even dare venture.  Some of the biggest franchises are reliant upon their familiar mechanics alone, endlessly churning out teams of stereotypes for the sake of getting to that next big explosion or quick-time-event.

But Max Payne 3 is about a man.  A real man with real pain.  It's about what it is to be a human being that suffers.  And the game manages to be this while also giving you awesome explosions, gruesomely pleasurable kill-cams, and over-the-top action set-pieces.

Max shows us that video games should and can be more.  In addition to its original, engrossing, and surprisingly lengthy campaign, Max Payne 3 offers a robust multiplayer component as addictive and fun as the main story, making this game worth keeping for a long time.

Max Payne 3 is almost quiet when compared to today's noisy, top franchises.  But sometimes the softest voice has the most insight.  Have a seat at the bar next to this grizzled old man, have a smoke, holster your 9mm, and let him tell you his story.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant!

    Can you do a separate review focusing solely on the game's Xbox Live Achievements? This is the only factor of consideration in all my video game purchases.