Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Surpassing all my expectations, Rockstar has delivered one hell of an action game that without a doubt lives up to the Max Payne name

At just around the time the gaming industry was ready to be flipped on its head by the release of Grand Theft Auto III, another little game was making its rounds. The original Max Payne, a title mixing some truly dark storytelling with stylish action and addictive gameplay, was getting under gamers' skins bit by bit. With strong writing, a compelling main character, its great noir setting, plus the awesome ability to control your own bullet time as you took out enemy after enemy, Max Payne seemed like it was on its way to becoming one of gaming's biggest new franchises. Take Two Interactive seemed to think so, as the publisher bought the Max Payne series from Remedy (its original developers,) though they paid Remedy to return to develop the sequel, which, despite being better than the original in every way, didn't do particularly well commercially. The result was that Max Payne has remained a dormant franchise since 2003...forgetting the awful film adaptation, of course. 

When Take Two Interactive announced their plans to develop a 3rd Max Payne, I was worried, to say the least. Remedy opted not to participate in its development, choosing only to provide advice and input while writing and development rested entirely in the hands of Rockstar Games (GTA). Images of a bald Max, a sunny setting, and initial reports that the studio was not looking to bring back actor James McCaffrey as the voice of the title character (a decision they thankfully went back on, more on that later) had me worried, but now that the game's here, my fears have been put entirely to rest. As a fan of the series I felt right at home the second I heard McCaffrey's gritty and sarcastic narration, and it became clear very quickly that not only would this game live up to its legacy, but it would surpass it in nearly every way.

Graphics: Visually Max Payne 3 is stunning. The decision to set the game in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has provided Rockstar with countless opportunities to dazzle us, and from the polish of its office buildings to the bustling of its nightclubs and the chaos of its slums, the setting created here is every bit as compelling as the dark and snowy New York neighborhoods from the first two games. Atmospherics are top notch, with great use of background music (especially in the slums) to make you feel like you're in the moment right along with Max. Whenever you find yourself at the top of a skyscraper and get to witness the city sprawled out below (often in the midst of a dramatic sunset) it's jaw-dropping, just as much as when you're battling for your life in the claustrophobic alleyways or dark bars of the slums. The game runs without a hitch, and the cutscenes, this time all handled in-game, transition so seamlessly into your gun battles (and back again) that it actually keeps you on your toes. With an incredible visual style, perfect lighting effects, and a consistently fluid framerate, Max Payne 3's visuals do not disappoint.

Gameplay: Developing a sequel to a franchise from the past is often a difficult task, especially if you're taking it over from another developer, but Rockstar finds the perfect balance between being both faithful to the gameplay of the originals, as well as adding new features that make sense. The basic gameplay remains the same: you control Max through linear environments, gunning down wave upon wave of enemies and witnessing story sequences and hearing Max's entertaining narration. With the click of an analog stick you trigger bullet time, which lets you dive through the air as you take out enemies in wonderous slow-mo. Health does not regenerate, but rather is replenished when you devour painkillers, which can be found throughout the environments. Weapons and ammo are collected the same way. While playing, you will encounter objects that you can investigate and television you can watch, (including the return of Captain Baseball Bat Boy) all of which immerse you further in the game's world, while at the same time giving you more opportunities to admire its incredible writing.

New to Max Payne 3 is a cover system, which allows you get behind cover with the press of a button, and despite my initial misgivings, I can't picture playing Max Payne without cover now. Utilizing cover definitely provides you with an advantage, but there are almost always different ways and strategies to dealing with the many groups of enemies you'll face, which is what I've always loved about this series. Your path through the adventure will be linear (almost all doors but the correct one are locked) but the way you deal with enemies is almost entirely up to you; the option to make use of cover just adds to this mix.

Also new to this installment is the ability to "save yourself" if you're near death. If you have at least one painkiller in your possession and an enemy fires a shot at you that would otherwise kill you, slow motion automatically triggers, allowing you a few additional seconds to "save yourself" by killing the enemy who fired at you. You have limited control in this mode; if you're out of ammo, you can't switch to another gun, and you have no ability to move your character, so if the target is blocked by something, or if you can't line your shot up and fire at him in time, you're out of luck. Like the cover system, this turns out to be another feature that I didn't realize this series even needed, but it's one that benefits the gameplay in countless ways. No longer do you have to watch your health meter obsessively to make sure you use a painkiller before dying; instead, this system allows you to be wary of your health and the amounts of painkillers you're carrying without making it a constant worry.

Playable cinematic sequences will occasionally occur to shake things up, and these slow-motion and controllable events are always a lot of fun; what would normally be a sequence that you'd view in all its glory in a cutscene is instead made playable, and there are some epic ones that I'm not going to spoil. It all feels so perfect, and for the most part, it is.

Really, the only flaw that I'd say stops it from achieving perfection is that a couple of the later levels, especially one taking place inside a police station and parts of another one in an airport baggage claim, feel uninspired, (and a little too cover-heavy) especially compared to what came before. They aren't awful, but it definitely feels like the smallest bit of filler rears its ugly head towards the end, and this filler makes the ending, when it does arrive, less climactic than I think it otherwise would have been. 

But that's really the only flaw that I can think of. With its frequent story sequences, nearly non-stop action, and Max's both incredibly funny and thought-provoking narration, the pacing here is pitch-perfect. This is a game that moves, and from start to (almost) finish, Max Payne 3 never falters.

Storyl......oh wait, I forgot. There's multiplayer, too. This isn't going to be a big part of the review; multiplayer's here if you want it, and thankfully the single-player's more than enough to be worth the $60 without it. I spent much of this past console generation away from home, far from my own Xbox 360, so for the most part I went without Xbox Live. So if multiplayer over the past several years didn't involve split screen with three buds playing along with me, I generally haven't been interested, especially considering how forgettable a lot of multiplayer modes are these days; why it's required to be shoehorned into almost every major release, I don't know. That said, I did dig up a 3 month Xbox Live subscription card I had lying around just so I could give this game's multiplayer a shot, and though it feels nothing like the single player mode and undoubtedly was developed by an entirely separate team, likely one in a different country, it's...fun, for what it is. I played it for a couple hours and have little desire to go back to it, but I can imagine gamers who are more into this sort of thing getting more involved and having fun with it. I don't know what it is, but playing multiplayer modes like these after such incredible single player experiences, to me, always feels like adding a video to the end credits of Goodfellas featuring Henry Hill and other characters from the movie running around and killing each other. I just can't help but wonder, "what the hell am I playing here, and what does it have to do with Max Payne 3?" Needless to say, Halo: Reach, this isn't.

Storyline: Though series creator Sam Lake has voiced his approval, the fact is, he had very little involvement in this story, but as much as I expected this to hurt the game, I have to hand it to Dan Houser and the others at Rockstar; I wouldn't have been able to tell. The storyline here is very well-told; Max has been given more personality (and dialogue) than he's ever had before, and the quality of the script and that of the performances has improved significantly. Though this is a new scenario taking place many years after the events of Max Payne 2, it never forgets its roots, and the playable flashbacks to New York City and its surrounding areas are some of my favorite parts of Max Payne 3. In its first hour or so the game almost seems a little *too* cutscene-heavy, but then it balances itself out very quickly; rarely have I seen a storyline in a video game woven in so well with its gameplay. Max Payne 3 doesn't feel like it's divided between gameplay and story, instead feeling like one single experience, merging the intense and powerful (if occasionally a little over-stylized) cutscenes with the gameplay, for the most part, seamlessly. If you allow yourself to be pulled in by this story and the character of Max Payne, brace yourself for one hell of a ride. The only aspect that's missing, the one and only aspect, is the overall weirdness; the disturbing dream sequences, the journeys into Max's mind, the use of Norse mythology....they're nowhere to be found here, and if there's one thing from the first two games that the storyline to part three is missing, it's this.

But that's a very minor complaint; with a story told this well, with a main character you not only care about but root for, and with such incredible writing and immersive settings, I didn't find myself missing them nearly as much as I thought I would.

Sound: The soundtrack, composed by the band Health, sets the scene perfectly, its subtle intensity mixing in well with the action while never over-powering it. The use of licensed music as background noise also works perfectly and helps to create a world that feels truly alive. Sound effects too are excellent, but this is all nothing when compared to the performance by actor James McCaffrey as Max Payne. His acting, already strong in the first two games, is even better here, and it's crucial this time around; Max has a line of dialogue almost every time he picks up a painkiller. Thankfully, McCaffrey has proven more than up to the task, giving a performance full of subtleties and always hitting the right notes. It’s work that he should definitely be proud of; with Max Payne 3, he’s truly made the character his own. I don't think anybody else should ever play this role.

Replay Value: You can play through the game's missions arcade-style, with leaderboards and a time limit. There are harder difficulties, and the aforementioned online multiplayer. Though I'm not sure exactly how many hours it took me, the main story feels longer than that of the first two games, so I'd say Max Payne 3 is a good value for your $60.

Verdict: Max Payne 3 is, as far as I'm concerned, a true benchmark for the action game genre and, even beyond that, one of the best games I've played in a long time. A compelling narrative blends with an almost perfect gameplay experience, one which improves upon the first two and modernizes them while keeping intact what made them great. But this is all about the title character, and a quality script and a near-perfect performance does not let him down. Whether you're a fan or have never played Max Payne before, if you love action games or are a sucker for a strong story, I'd unquestionably recommend Max Payne 3; for me it not only delivered, but shattered all of my expectations.

Presentation: Great story that will have you itching to see what happens next. Jaw-dropping action, minimal HUD, and, once the game boots up, no loading to speak of...in single-player, anyway; multiplayer's a whole other story there, though thankfully you can avoid it entirely.

Graphics: Stunning art direction and use of lighting, plus a high attention to detail and varied environments grab you immediately. Occasional bland area aside, the game's a constant visual treat. No slowdown.

Gameplay: Near perfection. Max Payne has never been so fun, and its gameplay and story have never before been so seamlessly woven together.

Sound: Great music, incredible performances.

Replay Value: It's there in the form of some arcade time attack modes and leaderboards, as well as a fully developed online multiplayer mode if you're into that sort of thing. The storyline itself offered me plenty for my money, however.

Overall: 9.5/10.

Note: My reviews go by a .5 scale. This is a review of the Xbox 360 version.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sonic 4: Episode 2 goes a long way towards making up for the mess that was Episode 1. A fun title that still should have been more but definitely could have been less.

As a long-time Sonic fan, it was an exciting day for me when Sega first teased that a new 2D Sonic title was in development. I was even happier when they later announced their intention to boldly title the game Sonic the Hedgehog 4, deeming it the continuation to a series that played a major role in my video gaming as a kid. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, however, disappointed on an almost catastrophic level. All but outsourced to DIMPS, the studio responsible for the decent but pretty underwhelming Sonic Rush games, it played like a low-budget rehash of the first Sonic the Hedgehog instead of a full-on sequel, with some terrible controls to boot.

I had lost much of my hope in the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 project at that point, and downloaded Episode 2 with my expectations vastly lowered, and maybe that was what it took. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 certainly doesn't have the energy or the clever platforming seen in the recently-released Sonic Generations (DIMPS is simply no SonicTeam, there's no getting around that fact) but in improving the controls, in designing a game that feels new and not like a homage, and in upping the production values substantially, DIMPS has successfully created a fun platformer that at times really does feel like the Sonic 4 that we were promised years ago.

Visually speaking, Episode 2 is leaps and bounds above its predecessor. These are some beautiful levels, ones posessing a great sense of scale and detail. The art direction is very much in the spirit of Sonic but at the same time feels like something entirely new, and short and charming cutscenes before and after certain acts feel like a true step up from where this type of storytelling left off in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. The music's done in the style of the Genesis Sonic games, and while it provides a bit of nostalgia at times, the songs generally loop far too quickly almost to the point of annoyance.

As far as the gameplay's concerned, Episode 2 sees the return of Tails, though his role's been expanded far beyond what it ever was in past Sonic the Hedgehog games. With the press of a button, Tails will fly you on command, an action which you have full control over. There are other moves, including an admittedly ill-advised team spindash, that the two characters can pull off together. The addition of Tails and his increased importance is the exact type of risk that I felt Episode I should have taken. The role of a sequel is to expand upon where its predecessors left off, not to simply copy them, and I give Episode 2 credit for having the guts to bring something entirely new to a franchise as sacred to some as Sonic the Hedgehog. One of Episode 1's few new features, the homing attack, returns here, but this time the game fully embraces its presence instead of tepidly introducing it, and it's all the better for it.

Bosses too are all new and they're the type of crazily elaborate fights that we just didn't see too much of in the Genesis era, or of course in Episode 1. They may be a little too long (as dying results in you having to restart them) but that's really my only complaint. Once again, this is what Episode 1 should have done to begin with.

It's important to note though that this isn't a game without its flaws, mostly involving the special stages. As with Episode 1, you gain access to a special stage by completing a Zone with 50 rings or more. Episode 2's special stages are reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 2's in appearance but play quite a bit differently. I'm neutral on them in and of themselves; Sonic's movement definitely feels a bit stiff, but they're fun to play and feature appealing visuals. The big issue, however, is that they were designed with co-op in mind, and to say that the AI-controlled Tails will not pull his own weight is almost an understatement; he will do almost nothing whatsoever to collect rings for you. This isn't such a big deal at first but as the stages become more and more demanding, you'll truly be at a loss without his help. I'm not currently paying for Xbox Live and I'll admit, finding someone my age who will sit down and play Sonic with me isn't looking very likely. It may not have been such an issue if you could select failed special stages from the main menu and try them again, but instead the game requires you to go back through the level to re-access them, which alone makes it not feel worth the effort. The lackluster reward for completing all of the special stages isn't going to compel many solo Sonic 4 players to bother.

Though this issue doesn't hurt the game much in theory, it's a problem because it takes away much of the value from the product. Like with Episode 1, this is only 4 Zones we're talking about here, and though the 3 acts (plus a boss) of each are long and varied, it's impossible to ignore the fact that you can complete this game in 1 sitting, and even at $15 I'm not entirely sure that it's worth the money in this day and age for the main story alone. If you have somebody to play co-op with or are interested in collecting the red coins or clearing the special stages you'll get a good deal more value out of the product, but it's a short game, no doubt about it.
Verdict: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 goes a long way towards saving what had been such a mess. With far better controls and physics, beautiful graphics, levels that feel much more original, new enemies, and a cool Sonic/Tails element to the platforming, Episode 2 is a fun game that at times even feels worthy of the Sonic the Hedgehog title; with a little more content, it could have been a true home run. And that's where I shake my head and wish that this had all been done differently. If Sonic the Hedgehog 4 had originally been conceived as a 60-level retail game like, say, Rayman Origins, and had it featured Episode 2's physics and creative levels to begin with, we could have been looking at the true platforming epic that this deserved to be. Instead, handicapped by its digital medium and with the weight of Episode 1 on its back, we have a fun title that will satisfy your craving for more 2D Sonic before ending far too quickly and leaving you wanting more. I'd be eager to play an Episode 3, but would I be happy to pay $15 again for yet another bite-sized adventure? Honestly, I'm not so sure.

Presentation: The menu and structure from Episode 1 returns, though increased story elements and a Sonic/Tails dynamic add some much-needed charm to the proceedings. Special stages though could have been integrated better.

Graphics: Gorgeous visuals with true scope and a great sense of detail. Game looks great and enemy and boss designs are awesome.

 Gameplay: Improvements all around. Tails is not just a visual prop but actually plays a crucial role in the platforming. Levels, while fairly linear and definitely not up to the standards set by Sonic Generations' 2D zones, are still almost all fun to play. Great bosses. Special stages...meh.

Sound: Sonic's sound effects will always be here and they'll always be awesome. Some tracks are great musically (White Park Zone Act 2) while others loop so quickly that they quickly become grating.

Replay Value: There's additional stuff to experience if you want to get the most out of your $15, though I wouldn't even bother with the special stages unless you can play them co-op. The main game itself, though, is still too short.

Overall: 7.5/10 (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale. This is a review of the Xbox 360 version.)