When Edge Magazine asked Gabe Newell what scares modern gamers, his response was typically brilliant; “The death of their children. The fading of their own abilities.” Shudder… He was discussing the Half Life series but his comment has relevance that extends beyond the crowbar swinging world of Gordon and the G-Man. It’s a quote that sticks in the mind, especially with regards to the current generation of games in particular that have featured a few appearances from characters of ‘advanced age’.
Solid Snake reappeared as ‘Old Snake’ in MGS4, Kane and Lynch sported beer guts and bald patches, Sam Fisher continues to slip on the incongruous glowing green goggles despite the fact that his mission handlers have been making ‘you’re old!’ jokes for over 10 years. But there’s one old donkey of a videogame character who’s recent appearance has made a fascinating feature of his age and fading abilities; the now paunchy, sagging, bald headed figure of Max Payne in Max Payne 3.
In MGS4, Snake had occasional coughing fits, had to watch his stamina and couldn’t stay out in the sun too long (no seriously), but he could still roll around, use CQC and take on all manner of sexy, animal women in robot suits. Sam Fisher seems to earn a new set of tricks on every birthday – leaping from balconies and pulling off head shots without looking in ‘Conviction‘. But while Max Payne is still laying waste to all manner of gun toting mobsters despite protestations that he’s not very good at his job, he’s not doing it as gracefully as he used to.
Where once he dove head first into a room in a hail of bullets, leaping backwards down staircases, pirouetting mid-air, nailing 4 Italian-American stereotypes with pinpoint headshots from his Desert Eagle, all before hitting the floor – now he flumps through the air like a meat blimp, maybe taking out one guy before he lands, uncomfortably with a weary “Whooof!”, winded on the ground. Times like this, it’s often a better tactic to stay down and keep firing at anyone left standing until there’s a window for Max to heave himself to his feet. When he pulls off his first dive he groans (and I’m paraphrasing) that he’s either got to ‘take a hit’ or ‘take a fall’. ‘A Fall’… the kind your grandparents have when it’s icy out.
These days, Max doesn’t run so much as schlump from room to room. There’s a ‘run‘ button, which should really be rechristened a ‘try to run‘ button as it causes Max to adopt the body language of a man who remembers how to run, has himself ran in the past but is damned if he can muster one of those ‘runs’ right at this present moment. Max’s lumbering gait is a joy to behold; his heft shifting awkwardly, armfuls of half empty weapons that seem to weigh him down and impede his lolloping jog. That is, a joy to behold until ‘shit gets real‘ and Max seems utterly unable to get out of the way of a swinging door never mind a swarm of angry bullets… then it gets tense. Gamers are used to seeing a ‘grenade indicator’ and taking a few steps to one side to avoid it, Max doesn’t ever seem quite able to escape a grenade’s blast radius. Not without a dramatic well timed dive.
Max Payne’s animations and controls were always a little stiff, but at the same time his actual movements were fluid (if that makes any sense). He skipped as he ran, the tails of his Matrix-esque leather jacket fluttering out behind him (it was 2001) and he controlled like a fidgety hovercraft with feet, able to strafe and backpedal firing 360 degrees around himself. In Max Payne 3 Max’s movements are (as I’ve possibly rammed home by now) a little restricted by comparison – shuffling awkwardly sideways and aiming with a realistic range of upper body motion. He almost stumbles if he’s forced to shoot whilst backing up. He clatters into nearby office furniture and pesky door frames if he doesn’t look before leaping. Despite the ‘bullet time’ and magic painkillers, there’s something thrillingly real about the physicality of this new, girthy Max.
All of this makes for a fascinating sequel; the memory of the first two titles rubbing up awkwardly against the reality of the third instalment. Max’s diminished abilities mean he spends less time soaring through the air and more time doing what we’ve all been doing in our shooters since Gears of War – hunkering down behind waist-high walls and taking pot shots at guys who are doing pretty much the same. It’s like Max has wandered into a modern shooter after nearly a decade away, only to discover that his old tricks don’t seem to work like they used to; he’s older, fatter, slower and everyone else has moved on. Often we’re told we’re playing an ageing bad ass, but outside of a few grumbles about back ache and loud music, it doesn’t impact the way we play. Max Payne 3 makes its protagonist a crumbling statue of an action hero, barely scraping through one last hot, uncomfortable nightmare of a mission. It’s not ‘Passage‘ we’re dealing with here, but it’s a noticeable departure from the ass kicking silver foxes we’ve grown used to. And what better way to bring back an ageing gaming icon?