Over this past weekend, my new gaming PC (Bruce) and I (not Bruce) undertook a gaming journey over two nights and the majority of a Sunday with Rockstar’s Max Payne 3. Put simply, this game and Doom (2016) rank at the top of my list for games that exist just to make me squeal with unadulterated joy.
Following Max through the roughly 10-hour campaign of slow-motion firefights in skyscrapers, nightclubs, slums, dive bars, and even in a New Jersey graveyard for one glorious level, I was enraptured the entire time.
I have to clarify something - no, you do not use any dark mystical arts to command the dead to fight for you (sorry if that alone sold you on the game). Also, the skyscrapers only get weapons once you’ve beaten the game twelve and a half times.
Of course, those last two sentences were facetious, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the game is properly good. It’s a love letter to 1970s hardboiled Dirty Harry police movies and the cinematography of John Woo all at once sans doves.
The gameplay is tight and uses smart-level design and an engaging story to pull you deep into the world. It was a game that, immediately after finishing, I couldn’t wait to play again.
It also proved something to me. Rockstar shouldn’t be making open-world games anymore.
If you’ve played Max Payne 3 and then naturally progressed to Rock Star’s ode to the classic western Red Dead Redemption 2, you’d be hard-pressed not to find influences from Max Payne 3. The slow-motion effect when you kill the last enemy in a group, the bullet time- I mean Dead Eye power. There are even times Arthur holds his pistol in one hand and his two-handed gun by the barrel… just like Max!
Having played both games, I found I had enjoyed my time with Max much more than with Arthur. I asked myself why and for me, it feels like Max Payne 3 respected the mechanics of its game more than Red Dead. Where the mechanics in Max Payne 3 are the tender slow-cooked beef cheek in a gourmet pasta dish, Red Dead feels like they’re tossing a $2 quarter pounder on top of our order for free as we’re sitting down to eat.
Clumsy metaphors aside, Max Payne just has a much tighter focus. Their levels and gameplay revolve around the kickass gunplay. They craft the story specifically to let players take advantage of how much fun the game is to play. The story and gameplay intersect so that you feel no more out of place entering rooms by diving through the windows than walking through the door.
Red Dead, by comparison, seems too busy trying to be everything to everyone. You can fish for hours, hunt, win your fortune in cards, drink yourself into a blackout or spend the same time sitting in a field blowing raspberries. It’s got so much crammed into its corset that whole game mechanics are being left underutilized or completely unused by players.
There are multiple videos of people playing Red Dead Redemption 2 without using guns or their Dead Eye power, which raises the question of whether these mechanics are essential to the game. Compare that to Max Payne 3, where every part of the gameplay is essential, so much that not using your guns or bullet time feels like you’ve sawn your legs off just to beat someone at a game of limbo.
The fact that some of the game mechanics in Red Dead Redemption 2 can be completely disregarded and not really impact a player’s overall experience with the game makes them feel like an afterthought. This is a real problem I see with many of the open-world games big publishers like Rockstar are releasing at the moment.
All of this comes back to a fundamental lack of cohesion between a game’s story and gameplay. Don’t let anyone fool you; the game’s story is what sticks with you late at night, long after the memories of gameplay have faded away. However, the gameplay for me most times is the initial investment that hooks me with the story a couple of layers deeper, waiting to pull me under.
Before you all jump to the comments, yes, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a well-put-together story. It’s got a protagonist you can root for, characters whose motivations make sense, and the world is full of activity. The world tells its own story and shows its own character at times.
Yes, the large open world is impressive for its scale, and when you want to take gorgeous screenshots of your rugged cowboy outlaw and his equally rugged horse, Whiskey Jones, it’s perfect.
However, the map size is so large that it feels like the writers stretched out the main plot just so players would have to explore more of the world. The world was so massive that the work put undue pressure on the employees as they worked massive crunch hours. The worst part was that most people won’t finish the main story making all that work pointless.
It took me a good 50 hours to reach the end of the main story (as well as an entire epilogue that I haven't finished to this day). Most of this epic western blends together in my mind as a hail of western tropes and cinematic landscapes. By the end, I couldn’t remember the inciting incident that sent Arthur on his journey apart from some fuzzy recollection of a house fire.
Sure, the main plot of Max Payne 3 has a pretty standard ex-cop pulpy serial feeling to it, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The shorter length of the game gives its small moments all the more impact for me because they feel like they’re there for a reason, not just added to pad some game time. The shorter length also leaves me wanting more instead of being relieved it’s over.
Take a scene late in the final chapter of Max Payne 3 where Max can stop in the middle of planting explosives on an abandoned building to play a couple of keys on the piano.
It’s the first time we are given a tiny glimpse of a version of Max that he won’t share with anyone. The game doesn’t announce it with any massive fanfare; it lets you enjoy this little moment that just you and Max share.
I can guarantee you the majority of people that have played the game know about this scene because it doesn’t take over 24 hours of playtime to get there. You’re also not distracted by all the extra baggage weighing down Red Dead Redemption 2.
I know a lot of this is personal opinion. There’s nothing that Red Dead Redemption 2 gave me in its gameplay that I couldn’t get from all the other open-world games Triple-A studios are pumping out. Take out the characters and story, and it’d be hard for me to pick it out of a lineup.
You may be saying, “but the characters and story are what makes Rock Star games so good.” I can’t argue that with you. They know how to craft memorable characters, set pieces, and write dialogue better than the low bar that is the average triple-A video game.
However, they had all of that in Max Payne 3. That game had a good story and gameplay loop, and I didn’t have to sacrifice weeks of my life to finish it.
Rock Star used to be the only guys in town making open-world games. However, like the era of cowboys and the wild west, that time has long passed. What is the point of continuing to make these open-world games if the market attention you get from consumers is split between every other open-world game on the market?
We all know the answer to that question. Their two open-world juggernauts, GTA Online and Red Dead Redemption 2 have Rock Star sitting pretty upon a horde of treasure large enough to make Smaug jealous. They’ve just announced GTA 6 is in the works. They’re making money hand over fist; why would they stop?
The answer is, they’re not, and it’s sad because the ones that will suffer are the developers putting in the hard yards to get the next massive open-world game finished. The games themselves will become more homogenized as the game’s earning potential will continue to come first and the artistic value of the work a far second.
Rock Star, please, listen. People are going to get sick of massive open worlds.
Just like they got sick of rhythm games.
Just like they got sick of point-and-click adventures.
Eventually, they’ll get sick of you as well if all you put out are massive open worlds. Why not take a break from making globe-spanning open-world games and drop a couple of smaller intimate games. I wouldn’t say no to another Max Payne game, and a lot of people seem eager for Bully 2…Just some food for thought.
What do you think about Rockstar’s open-world games? Do you want to see GTA 10 and Red Dead Redemption: Vengeance, or rather have them make something besides another open-world game? Let me know down in the comments.