13th April, 2012. An average day for most people, but for myself and a number of other lucky Rockstar fan site webmasters, it was a day when we all received an invitation to experience Max Payne 3 in New York City the following week! Unfortunately I had to miss out on the last fan site event for L.A. Noire due to university commitments, so I was excited to once again have an opportunity to attend another event, and this time of course, I accepted.
We were scheduled to fly out on Friday, 20th April. We'd be meeting a number of new faces this time, the first of which is one many of you will already know, Gerard, who has been an administrator on our forums here at The GTA Place for many years, and who runs GrandTheftWiki as well. Gerard and I travelled down to London's Heathrow Airport together, where we met up with Jevon (GTANet), Simon (iGTA) and another new invitee, Nick (from RockstarResource).
Our flight departed at 9:55 A.M. I was sat next to Simon for the duration of the flight, which lasted just over 7 hours. We passed most of the time playing games on our iPads, Grand Theft Auto III and Max Payne are the two most notable ones worth mentioning. Both great games, quite nostalgic and got us in the mood for the game we'd soon get to play in New York.
We touched down at JFK some time after noon. But of course, getting into the USA is no easy feat these days. After queuing for what was probably a whole hour or more, we eventually got through security and customs. While we were queuing, Simon felt the need to point out to me that he always packs a few clothes in his carry-on luggage just in case his main luggage goes missing. Big mistake. Just as we were going through security an announcement was made over the Tannoy, informing Simon that his baggage had not made his connecting flight and therefore was not with us in New York - sighing laughter was had by all of us. (Simon was compensated $50 for his loss - his bag did arrive the next day, though).
Once we were all sorted out at the airport, we piled into the car and made our way over to Newark airport where we picked up another new guy, James (from GTAWH). Finally, after what must have been an hour in the car, we made it to our home for the next 3 days, the fancy Soho Grand Hotel. Quite different to the modern style Rockstar had gone for at previous events, with the Grand having a more vintage feel about it, but nevertheless, still a very nice place to stay.
Waiting outside the hotel was yet another new webmaster, although another one many of you know, Dom a.k.a rockstarrem, who's been moderating our forums here at The GTA Place for a number of years, and also runs our Max Payne sister site PayneKillers.com. A Rockstar representative was here to meet us, so we all got checked in and dumped our bags in our rooms, then a few of us chilled out in my room for a while (as seems to be tradition at these events now). Eventually we made our way down to the bar/lobby area where we got acquainted with most of the other webmasters, a mixture of old and new faces, who were joining us from various corners of the Earth, and waited for a few Rockstar representatives to meet us and inform us of our plans for the night - something that would require some degree of "sportsmanship."
The Rockstars wouldn't tell us where we were going, but some of us managed to find out from our drivers that we were being taken to a cool night club / bowling alley called Brooklyn Bowl - this, if you're wondering, was actually far less annoying than it is to hear Roman call you up and ask "want to go bowling cousin?", while you're busy causing havoc in Liberty City. It was a fun night with good food, and I did surprisingly well at bowling despite not having bowled for many years. We headed back to the hotel, getting back some time after midnight. I retreated to bed and got some rest ahead of the big day tomorrow.
Waking up rather early, I lazed in bed for a while before deciding to haul my arse into the shower and get up. We were free to do what we wanted until Rockstar representatives would meet us at 4:30 PM, so I met up with most of the other webmasters in the lobby where we decided to head out into the city on foot. The first sight to see was the One World Trade Center, still undergoing construction at Ground Zero, former site of the Twin Towers.
Here we were approached by a random street seller, offering a glossy photo book containing pictures of the Twin Towers pre and post-9/11. We feigned interest in his wares, standing around perusing the photos in the book he was selling for $19.99, photos which you could see on the Internet free of charge. After a few minutes we handed the books back to the guy, and decided to walk on over to Brooklyn Bridge.
At the bridge we split in to two groups. While others decided to walk the whole way across, myself and some of the others went back and thought we would go and check out the Hotel on Rivington, the hotel we stayed at for the first GTA IV fan site event back in 2008. The real agenda was actually to visit a store opposite the hotel, Economy Candy, a place literally stocked floor-to-ceiling with candy. Needless to say we bought some, before making our way back to the Soho Grand for lunch where the other group of webmasters were already waiting.
Ridiculously expensive lunch finished, followed by an hour of rest, it was now time for the main event. Rockstar reps came to meet us at the hotel with a few cars to whisk us away to a mystery location. Upon arriving some of us realised where we were. A somewhat random warehouse in the city, we were here 2 years ago playing Red Dead Redemption! Rockstar had not finished setting up inside, so we stood around outside talking. Since this was New York, the inevitable random-stranger-coming-up-to-us-for-no-apparent-reason thing happened. Some guy who had just come from a yoga class (yeah it's a real thing) with some female friends, asked us what we were all waiting for. Seeing Rockstar, GTA and Max Payne t-shirts we were adorned with, along with an obvious lack of girls, he quickly deduced we were gamers and journalists of some sort. And he wanted in. He offered booze and girls, but we had to decline, this was a fan site event God dammit! It's exclusive and shit, ya know!? He went on his way, and we went on inside.
Far from the early 1900s theme we were welcomed with two years ago, this time the warehouse had a much more modern day urban feel about it, spent bullet casings all over the floor added to the dark atmosphere Rockstar had created.
The evening started off with a Rockstar representative giving us a brief introduction to Max Payne 3, giving those of us who hadn't been keeping up to date with the series' progression an overview of where Max was at and what he was doing. Earlier in the day Rockstar had released the first TV trailer for the game. While we were all still gathered around, the trailer was projected across the warehouse wall for us all to watch. It's quite different from Rockstar's previous TV spots for other games, but it got a huge round of applause, and personally I absolutely loved it.
Following the epic trailer, everyone took a seat in front of a TV and Xbox 360 dev console and jumped straight into the game. We started out early in the game, with Max currently in São Paolo, Brazil, protecting wealthy real estate mogul Rodrigo Branco and his family. Rodrigo's trophy wife Fabiana wants to go clubbing. Naturally, we jump into a heli and are flown to the club. Accompanying us for the ride is Fabiana's sister Giovanna Taveres, and Marcello Branco - the youngest child of the Branco family, and a bit of playboy.
While the cut scene is playing out, the first thing I took in was the voice of James McCaffrey - the man behind Max's voice in the first two games. It's great that he returned to play this part, as his voice is perfectly suited to Max's character, and it helps to create an incredibly believable image of the man. While the game arguably has a less noir-y feel about it thanks mainly to the exotic setting, Max Payne 3 manages to successfully retain much of the old feel through its visuals, of course coupled with McCaffrey's excellent voiceover work. The impressive visuals continued to hold me in awe during this cut scene - poignant and/or important phrases spoken by Max and other characters would stylistically flash on to the screen. The old comic book dialogues are gone, having what I feel is a pretty cool replacement, whereby in some moments, the cut scene would be broken up into several images, with notable parts captured as a freeze frame turning to black and white, separated from the ongoing live action in a way that is somewhat akin to how artwork is separated in the box art of Grand Theft Auto games.
It looks like the cutscene is coming to a close, Fabiana has been taken hostage by masked gunmen, and Max, with no time to finish his drink, dives through a glass window. I witness an epic transition from cut scene to gameplay, suddenly I am in full control of Max as he is flying through the air in a Shootdodge moment. I could not get enough of this. Cut scenes transitioning seamlessly into gameplay was an awesome part of the game, and something you will see a lot, since there are no loading screens in the game. It really made me feel completely immersed in the game world and I was enjoying every second of it. Back to the game, I take out as many gunmen as I can before crashing to the floor. I then continue through the level while exploring and getting used to the game's controls.
One thing to point out first of all is weapon aiming. By default, you have completely free aim. On PC this feels perfect using the mouse, however, as with any shooter, console gamers may find it a bit of a challenge to accurately aim using the analogue stick. Thankfully, the settings contain an option for "Soft Lock" - a feature that will helpfully shift your reticle on to your enemies you are trying to target, allowing for an easier shot. Relishing the challenge, I stuck to using free aim throughout the night as I became used to it after a while. According to one Rockstar rep who was walking around chatting to many of us as we played the game, I was actually the first to reach the later stages, and I'm not even that good a gamer! The reason I point this out is because I feel Rockstar have achieved the perfect level of difficulty with the game - successfully balancing enjoyment, challenge and general playability.
At first I found myself dying quite frequently. I soon figured out I needed to make much more use of Bullet Time and Shootdodge, and I was happy I did - I never got tired of flying through the air shooting bad guys in the face (does that ever get boring?). Shootdodging, if you're familiar with the previous games, is where Max dives through the air in slow motion, while you retain full control of his body and weapon aim. It's stunning. Bullet Time will slow down time even more than shootdodging, with the difference being that you stay grounded, moving very slowly. Both of these are awesome features and can be a huge assistance when multiple enemies are shooting at you, and it's incredibly satisfying to get slow motion headshots. It's also just really cool.
Some parts of the game are genuinely quite a challenge, but I enjoyed this aspect. The AI appeared to be somewhat adaptive to how you were playing. I noticed on a couple of occasions after dying at the same point repeatedly, that when I next retried, one or two of the enemies did not appear, or appeared slightly later in a spot where I had the upper hand - thus allowing me to actually kill them and progress through the level. Of course unlike Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 has classic linear gameplay. That said, in some parts of the levels there may be more than one way to get yourself through a certain section, and you may find some routes offer you a greater chance of succeeding.
A recent trend in games over the past few years has been to introduce new or "casual" gamers by starting with long, drawn-out "tutorialised" parts of the game, where you the player are told exactly what to do every 10 seconds and what buttons to press and where to go, which, in my opinion, completely ruins the enjoyment of getting stuck in to a new game and discovering things for yourself. I am happy to say that in keeping with the harsh overtones emanating from the game, Max Payne 3 does not coach the player in this patronising way.
Painkillers make a welcome return, serving as replenishment to your health. While not found as commonly as in the previous games, they do seem to help more, refilling a decent amount of your health. With this in mind, it's usually best to only use them when your health is very low, there's also quite a nice effect that appears on screen for a couple of seconds after taking one.
A new feature I like is "last man standing". When you're on your last bit of health and get shot, you obviously go down. But you're not dead yet, instead, you are thrown into Bullet Time and your reticle is gradually moved towards the person who just shot you (you can still control it, though). If you kill them, you'll get back up and continue on your way, if not, you'll die and need to restart from the last checkpoint. Speaking of killing, there are also some uniques killcams you'll see when you shoot some enemies. Remember in the previous games where you could shoot someone and the camera would follow the bullet in slow motion as it sped towards the unfortunate enemy? Expect lots of cool stuff like that, but even cooler.
Speaking of coolness, I should point out that the game contains quite a few absurdly over the top, but simply epic moments. I don't want to spoil any of these for anyone so I'll refrain from giving any specifics, but I can safely say you will be in awe. Some of the exquisite detail Rockstar put into the game is also worth noting, such as the individually modelled bullet casings, partially destructible environment, the way glass breaks dynamically at the point you impact it, rather than having a set animation - there is so much for you to discover in the game.
In fact, I don't want to spoil any more for you, there are many other cool things you'll undoubtedly come across. So I'll just say that, put simply, the single player story is amazing. While we only got to experience three chapters early on in the game, I was left with an insatiable craving for more. I think this game would be a huge hit based on this alone, and I haven't even told you about multiplayer yet...
After reaching the end of the three chapters we were allowed to play, I took a brief break to eat and drink and speak to a few of the other webmasters to hear what their thoughts of the game were so far. Overwhelmingly positive vibes all around. A few multiplayer matches were next on the agenda, we all resumed our battlestations and were directed through the multiplayer menus to get into a game together.
Multiplayer in Max Payne 3 offers a lot of customisation, a great deal more than any previous Rockstar game. Custom loadouts were the first stop. Those of you who play games such as Call of Duty of Battlefield will already be familiar with the concept of loadouts. Here, you have a number of slots for saving different loadouts which you can switch between at any time during a game. You can customise you primary and secondary weapons (there are quite a lot in the game!) along with any attachments or enhancements. You can also select your "bursts". Bursts are special abilities that can be activated when you hit a certain level of adrenaline. You have up to three of these available. At Level 1 you have your most basic burst which you get on filling up your adrenaline a third of the way. Filling it up two-thirds will get you to Level 2, and filling it completely gets your Level 3. Bullet Time is an obvious burst to mention, in multiplayer this affects you and any players in your line of sight - this is good as it prevents the person having an hugely unfair advantage. There are a ton of different bursts available and I won't reveal all of them, I can't even remember them all. One cool one I did use was "Paranoia" - this made players on the enemy team see all players in the game - including those on their own team to appear as enemies - resulting in much friendly fire! The higher the level you use your burst at, the greater effect it has.
Other obvious customisation options included aesthetics. You can choose various base character types, and then go into more detail and select different faces, hairstyles, clothing and accessories etc. There are also selectable characters for deathmatch modes.
The last customisable option is gear. Here you're able to select various items for your character, examples being a bulletproof vest, or a gas mask. One thing to be aware of when customising your loadout is that weapons and gear all have a weight, the total of which is shown in a meter on the bottom right of the screen. Becoming too heavy will mean you move slower, but you may be able to take more damage. Conversely, being lighter will enable you to move around quicker, but you may have lower damage resistance.
Once we'd all spent a few minutes sorting out our loadout, we entered a Large Team Deathmatch. I must admit that after being blown away by the single player, I wasn't expecting multiplayer to be a big part of the game, and I wouldn't even mind that. However, I was pleasantly surprised after playing the first round, and quickly came to the conclusion that multiplayer was an excellent addition to the game which will add huge amounts of replayability. It seemed to feel a little different from single player at first, but I got used to it after a short time, figuring out when to use bursts and what all the HUD items were representing. If you're killed two or more times in a row by the same player, you can choose to place a vendetta on that player when waiting to respawn. If you (or another team member) then proceed to kill them, you'll gain additional XP. I ended up performing pretty well in the first match, placing second on my team if I remember correctly.
Payne Killer was the next mode we delved in to. In this, two players become Max and his partner Raul Passos, and these players must stay alive as long as possible while everyone else in the game attempts to kill them. I really enjoyed this mode, especially when I was able to become Max a couple of times. You're obviously outnumbered when this happens, but to even things up you have a lot more ammo and painkillers at your disposal. Once you get killed, the player who killed you then assumes your role, while you go back to being one of the other regular players.
The last mode we got to try out was Gang Wars. This was great mode where you play as a gang or faction from the single player mode, in a series of game types that feature elements from the single player story. Objectives will change based on the outcome of each round, and it was a lot of fun to play.
After this we were free to continue playing the game in whatever way we wanted. Some of us stayed in multiplayer, while others went upstairs where Rockstar had three high-spec PCs set up with the game on. I grabbed some food and headed upstairs and watched a couple of the other webmasters play the PC version. From what I saw, the game looked even better. Of course being able to use the mouse and keyboard meant aiming was so much more fluid and easier to control your precision. Bullet Time was relied on a lot less because of this, however, it was still used a fair bit just because it looks so awesome. In terms of graphics, the game can go above the 720p/1080p resolution of consoles, providing your hardware is good enough, so it appears even more detailed.
I spent the rest of the night playing a little bit of multiplayer, specifically Gang Wars and Deathmatch, and watching other guys play the PC version. Overall it's a really fun game. I loved even just watching others play it. I cannot wait to play the game again, and I'm looking forward to getting into some multiplayer with everyone.
One final thing to mention on the multiplayer side of things is "Crews". Crews are gangs that you can set up or join, where you can set an emblem and tag for your team. These are all centralised in the Rockstar Social Club, and as such, they'll be carrying over to future Rockstar games, including Grand Theft Auto V.
After the events of the previous night most of us were pretty worn out. I spent Sunday morning watching the Formula 1 Grand Prix in my hotel room while complaining to fellow F1 fan Drew (RockstarNetwork) about how bad the American commentary was in comparison to what we get in the UK. Once this was over I got up and packed my bag, then headed downstairs where other webmasters and a couple of Rockstar reps were waiting, and I checked out of my room. Since the weather was bad, the majority of us decided to stay inside and we sat in the lobby area and just chilled out and ate lunch. We talked about the game, about GTA and other interesting things. As the afternoon went on, the group became smaller as more of the guys had to leave to catch their flights home. The British and European guys amongst us had the latest flights so we were some of the last to leave. We left the hotel at about 3:30 PM, heading to JFK for out 6:50 PM flight back to London Heathrow.
Once again we faced huge queues at the airport, but eventually got through these, picking up some duty-free goods soon after. 7 hours later I was back in London, with one final massive hassle of queuing to get through Heathrow airport which involved a number of angry people shouting at the inept staff who had no idea how to properly separate the lines of EU and non-EU people. But nevertheless, I made it out alive and a couple of hours later I was home and ready to sleep off my jet-lag for the rest of the day.
In closing, I'd like to say a huge thank you to Rockstar Games, what awesome people they are! Once again they provided a fantastic experience in flying us all out to New York and giving us the amazing opportunity to play the game before most others can get their hands on it. It's a great pleasure to meet various Rockstars and indeed the other webmasters, all of us sharing a passion for the games Rockstar make. Best in the industry.
Finally, The GTA Place was of course not the only site present at the event, so you may be interested in reading some of the other fan sites' takes on the whole experience. As I mentioned at the start of this recap, Dom a.k.a rockstarrem from our forums was attending, he also runs our Max Payne sister site PayneKillers.com and is probably the biggest Max Payne fan I have ever known. His review is from the point of view of a hardcore fan of the series, so his recap would definitely be worth checking out. In addition, you can choose to read any, all, or none of the following fan sites' recaps...
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