It's not easy for video game developers to create compelling protagonists to whom audiences can relate. How many mute, faceless shells have starred in their own game, especially first-person shooters? In the past this was done to allow players to superimpose themselves on the protagonist, but modern players are starved of realistic characters to root for. Only recently has there been a distinct move towards sympathetic, well-rounded heroes.
Unlike film, where the makers know exactly how to get an audience to engage through decades of practice, game developers are still learning how to use new technology to make their characters feel real as opposed to a mere player avatar. Some games are content to give you a faceless main character in lieu of a fully fleshed-out persona because it suits the story, but mostly it's because it's damn hard work creating a fictional person that will resonate with the player after they've stopped playing.
Some developers have cottoned on to how important this is but Rockstar studios have proven with their more recent games that they are ahead of the pack when it comes to making you care about your character. Remember John Marsten's last scene in Red Dead Redemption? Or Niko's choice towards the end of GTA IV? These moments, considering they concern the life of a piece of code, give you reason to pause. And that's because you've experienced the moral or emotional shades of grey that make them fantastic characters and make you care about their fate.
In the previous two Max Payne games Max felt like an avatar. An angry, violent and emotionally broken avatar but the murders that kick off the plot never have the same effect on the player as they do on Max. Well, Max Payne 3 aims to change that, as I found out after sitting down to play some updated code of the first few levels in their entirety, complete with cut scenes.
The starting cinematic introduces Max and his new setting fabulously. Returning to his new Sao Paulo apartment with a bottle of alcohol and a container of painkillers, Max surveys the city from his balcony and starts draining the bottle. Max Payne 3 uses a visual style that could be best described as J.J Abrams-like. The first cut scene feels vaguely reminiscent of Abrams' penchant for vibrant overexposure throughout his films but still fits in with the aesthetic Rockstar have chosen for the game. The flashes of light and static make you feel as though you're seeing the world through Max's hungover perspective. This makes the world seem alive with colour but vaguely disconcerting, and soon blends easily into the gameplay and cutscenes.
Even this soon into the game, we get the impression Max is a broken man. Spending his nights drinking and popping pills in his sparse apartment before flying into a rage while staring at a photo frame we can't make out. He bursts into tears and finishes the bottle before collapsing on his unmade bed.
We're given a side of Max that wasn't fully explored in the previous two games. The emotional toll of losing so many loved ones hasn't been kind to Max and it looks as though he's lost his will to go on. But soon we're whisked away with Max to the inside of a helicopter, where he disinterestedly sits beside Fabiana Branco, her brother and her sister. As the helicopter descends towards a nightclub we learn Max is protecting Fabiana - her family name and exceedingly rich husband making her a high-value kidnapping target. Max is forced to brave the garish nightclub and immediately positions himself to hold up the bar - a deliciously flawed character, and this makes him all the more compelling.
While Max is draining his second glass, armed men storm the VIP room and take Fabiana hostage. Now vaguely drunk, Max lurches after one of the attackers and tackles him through a glass window onto the dance floor. The action scene that follows is a fast-paced pursuit of the two sisters through the levels of the nightclub and skyscraper, back up towards the helicopter.
On the roof, between bouts of gunfire, it really is worth examining the surrounding city. The visuals are much more accomplished than even the previous build I've played. The Rockstar team have made a serious effort to make this game as cinematic as possible. The visual style and storytelling combined with Max's dialogue make the experience feel as noir as any classic Marlowe tale. Coupled with the fact that the cut scenes blend seamlessly with the gameplay, the argument could be made that this is (at least one of) the most cinematic game ever made. But sweeping statements like that will be reserved for after I've had a chance to play the rest of the storyline.
Max's reluctant voice-over follows you throughout the game, and classic lines such as, “I had taken a bullet to my second favourite drinking arm”, help sell the noir image and the disgruntled nonchalance that makes Max so entertaining.
Back to Brazil, Max saves Fabiana's sister and brother but the militia escape with their main prize. Then the non-linear storytelling whisks us to Brooklyn before any of this began. Max is seated at a bar in his familiar trench coat when Raul Passos walks in and offers Max a job protecting privileged socialites in Brazil from their own vices. Naturally, this being Max, trouble is never far away and soon he's shot someone in the chest and he and Raul have to escape through a small army of mobsters who, in turn, soon seek out Max at his home. At which point, Raul's job offer seems a little more attractive.
The interesting thing is that while Max does a lot of shooting the gunfights never feel forced. Each encounter feels like a natural progression of the story and not a “kill 500 enemies before proceeding” objective. This is because the action is so closely woven into the plot that while you will kill many, many people the story is always the focus. To spoil any more of the plot in such a story-driven game would be blasphemy, but when Max says, “Trouble always had a way of finding me, no matter where I hid”, trust me when I say he isn't kidding.
Max Payne 3 is looking like the most exciting third-person shooter of 2012. The single player has all the hallmarks of an epic Rockstar game and the well-crafted multiplayer will expand the game's universe and extend its life beyond the regular single player experience. Players who have played the previous Max Payne games will need no convincing and newcomers will be treated to an epic, dark character-piece that shows an intimate understanding of cinematic game design and Max's character.
Max Payne 3 is released May 18 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.