Max Payne 3: 4 hours with Rockstar's seriously impressive multiplayer
29th Mar 2012 | 16:00
Multiplayer modes in story-driven games: waste of time and effort, right? Mass Effect 3, Dead Space 2, Uncharted 3 - no-one plays the online with these brilliant solo games; they should have spent the development time and budget on better pacing, combat, endings etc, right?
Maybe so, but with Max Payne 3 things are a little different. When it comes to Rockstar - kings of the story game - there's never any compromise. Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV - these were two of the biggest, best story games of a generation and they're both complemented by genuinely innovative, genuinely different multiplayer modes. So it is with Max Payne 3.
We recently visited Rockstar for hands on time with just Max Payne 3 multiplayer. Before the demo even begins, our opponents (various employees) are keen to point out that Remedy actually wanted to include multiplayer in the original games - they just didn't have the resources or budget to make it happen. Now, under new developer Rockstar Studios, resources and budget are less of an issue...
It all begins with team deathmatch. The rules are over-familiar, but the action is far from normal. It's third-person shooting - very similar to GTA IV - but with a few interesting tweaks. First off you have bullet dodges, mapped to the RB (on Xbox 360), which let you evade incoming fire in spectacular ways. Stood on flat ground, you can throw your body to the side (and behind cover if you're smart enough) but inside buildings - for example - you can hurl yourself through a window, smashing the glass, which rains down on you as you hit the ground below. Compared to the likes of CoD and Battlefield, its downright silly, but in the context of Max Payne's Hollywood style it makes perfect sense. And, unusually for such a serious crime game, it's funny when you suddenly see an enemy crash down in front of you after a two-story fall.
Another curiosity that Max Payne brings to the multiplayer party is Bursts. Initially, they just sound like CoD's Perks, but their effects are far more original and unusual. Each one has three levels of 'strength'. The more filled your adrenaline meter is (you boost it by killing and looting bodies) the more powerful your chosen burst. So, say you've got Paranoia equipped: at a lower level it'll just mark everyone as an enemy on your opponent's radar screens. Fully powered up, however, your opponents will see everyone as an enemy (the Gamertag above everyone's head will appear red to them - indicating a hostile) allowing you to dash into the middle of enemy strongholds, and take advantage of the confusion by mopping up some easy kills.
Bullet-time is a burst too. Max's trademark power can be used in multiplayer exactly as it is in the story mode, and it works on a line-of-sight system. If you're looking at, or are in the sights of, a player who activates bullet-time you'll feel the effect - essentially slowed movement and shooting. If you're on the other side of the map, hidden from view, everything plays at normal speed. It's a cool effect and it still bends our brain a little to think of how it actually works from a technical point of view.
Back to our hands on, then. Deathmatch is handy for learning the basic controls, but it certainly isn't the best of Max Payne's online modes. After scoring second and first in deathmatch (like all good developers, Rockstar let the journalists win) we moved on to Payne Killer. Here it's a team of six regular gang members versus Max himself, and his buddy Passos. While normal players are restricted by regular load-outs, Max has dual-SMGs, health-recovering painkillers, and bullet-time while Passos has similar abilities and a massive, heavy machine-gun.
Yes, it's six versus two, but it's still a fair fight. The aim of the game is to score highest - just as it is in deathmatch - but with a twist. If you kill Max or Pessos you become them, and enjoy all the benefits that brings. So the best tactic is to gun for either of these special characters, bring them down, and then rack up as many kills as possible while playing as them. When you're playing Payne Killer you quickly get the feeling that the gangsters are a pack of hunters, teaming up to bring down the bigger 'animals', while the pair playing as Max and Passos stick together to survive as long as possible.
After a couple of Payne Killer sessions, we move onto the meat of the multiplayer - Gang Wars. Here you're split into two teams, and you play out stories spun off the single player. So, at one point in the main story mode Max loses track of a suitcase full of ransom money. One Gang Wars scenario shows you how that might be spent. We say 'might', because Gang Wars - played over the course of five sessions - changes according to how you play. Say the first game is Turf Wars (essentially King of the Hill).
The team who wins that round, by grabbing the most time in the contested zone, will then have to defend their turf in the next round, while the opposition tries to bomb it. Essentially, the modes themselves tell a story. In between rounds there's a narrator explaining how each Gang War story is playing out. It's very smart, and even if you don't buy into the story, the changing of game modes after every round will at least keep you on your toes.
In keeping with such a strong narrative feel, the multiplayer has pleasingly deep character customisation. It's Rockstar's story, but you're still the star. You can create a custom avatar for each multiplayer gang, swapping things like clothes, faces, accessories and even jaunty hats. It is - however - impossible to make anything garish or ridiculous; Max Payne's character creator has a better sense of style than you do. Once the look is sorted, you tinker with load-out.
There are plenty of guns to equip (and dual-wield), along with items add all kinds of boosts (body armour, helmets, first-aid kits etc) but be warned - the more you carry, the slower your character moves and shoots. Do you want an agile load-out that lets you stay mobile, or a tank who soaks up damage and carries an RPG? The weight of your kit does reduce as you level up, allowing you to equip better kit for a smaller penalty.
We were seriously impressed by Max Payne 3's multiplayer. Far from a box-ticking exercise, it feels like a clever and enjoyable extension of the story. Sure, most will buy the game to see Max frown and slow-mo murder his way through South America, but once that story is told there will be plenty of new ones waiting to be created and enjoyed online...