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Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Max Payne 3 (PC)

I will admit that I'm one of those people who always power down his desktop whenever he's not using it. The reason is that my desktop is power hungry (idles around 150W). But with Google Photos recently providing unlimited storage, I decided to just keep the desktop on and upload all 66,000 photos (including many in RAW format) into the cloud. Since the PC was already on all the time (the process is taking weeks!), this reduced the mental barrier against playing games on the PC, and hence I ended up playing PC games that I never got around to doing so. This is an entirely irrational decision, because the difference between running the 7870 GPU idle and loaded is more than the cost of powering up and running the PS4 (which has essentially the same GPU!).

I'd picked up the Max Payne 3 and GTA IV package for $3 a year or so back. GTA IV was completely unplayable, especially after the delectable Sleeping Dogs: the characters were detestable, the controls were sloppy, and the driving unbearable. Max Payne 3, however, is essentially a cover shooter (or at least, on Easy you can play it like a cover shooter), which is one of my favorite genres, so I played it through to see what the incredibly high reviews were about.

The game is long, but a lot of it is because of incredibly long cut scenes. From reading the forums online, apparently these cut scenes were a result of the previous generation consoles taking so long to load assets from disk that they had to put in movies so you weren't staring at a loading screen for a long time.

The shooting part of the game is just fine. Apparently though I was playing it wrong: you're supposed to treat it like a running shooter rather than a cover shooter, but whatever. The flaws in the game, however, turn it into a frequently frustrating experience. Unlike Uncharted 2, the game wrests control from the player all the time, leaving one with a feeling of a complete lack of agency. This is compounded by the game's collectible system: frequently, what you're supposed to do after a fight is to run around the room picking up ammo and collectibles. But if you were to stumble into an exit zone (which aren't clearly marked), then suddenly the game takes over and you're driven into a cut scene where you're not allowed to retreat and explore. This is annoying as heck if you ran down your ammo shooting the previous room and then are moving into the next room with a huge disadvantage. Even worse, it means you're pretty much guaranteed to miss clues that advance the story.

Fortunately, on easy mode, if you die enough times, the game gives you more and more health packs and ammo until you can finish the scene.

The story has excellent production values, with excellent voice acting, but the plot is ridiculously predictable. You could tell who the bad guy is within the first hour, and everything else is just an excuse to gun down lots of other people. There are no puzzles, and the pacing is extremely uneven, with some shooting scenes ending and transitioning almost immediately into another shooting scene, while you sometimes go through long cut scenes only to endure a pointless wandering around before stumbling onto another fire fight.

The game's technical implementation is nice: you can play either with a controller or with keyboard and mouse, with the mouse giving you far more control and faster action at the expense of it being in a pain to enter bullet time. But you don't have to choose your control scheme: you can switch between one or the other at will, and the game picks it up and moves pretty nicely despite all that. I ran Max Payne 3 at my monitor's native resolution of 2560x1440, and the GPU wasn't maxed out the entire time, though (as expected from an extra 200W of power draw) the room did get warm.

What's interesting is how little the CPU of my 6 year old Core i7 920 was taxed: despite the uploading to Google Photos in the background, I never noticed any jitter and slow down due to the number of background processes running (including the web-browser). In daily use, I notice the web browser slowing down as I can frequently out-type the blogger text-edit field! Clearly the web-browser guys can learn a lot from the video game guys about interactive application performance and latency.

Of course, for $3, I got my money's worth, but I can see now why the Uncharted series is so revered: even Rockstar games with (essentially) an unlimited budget cannot hold a candle to what Naughty Dog did on a relatively tiny budget. Though I guess if you're a PC-exclusive gamer without access to a PS3 or PS4, this is as good as it gets.

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