‘Max Payne 3’: A Shooting Gallery with Teeth

I like shooting galleries. Or, at least, in the last few years, I’ve learned that I like shooting galleries. My parents took me to a Bass Pro Shop a few years ago, which is about the last place that an “indoorsmen” like me would ever want to go.

There is not a single item that a person like me (who believes that a night at the Super 8 is roughing it) would ever desire to purchase at a Bass Pro Shop. So, to assuage my boredom with perusing kerosene lanterns and fly fishing nets, I dropped a few quarters into the slot at the shooting gallery.

The Bass Pro Shop shooting gallery isn’t like a carnival shooting gallery, with targets that move or pop up that you might need to lead or aim quickly at. Instead, it is a rather complex animatronic display of cougars, crows, and outhouses with little targets that you can aim and fire at to make the landscape come to life.

Basically, you can take your time, not worry about nasty real life shooting concerns like recoil, for example. Instead, you just take careful aim and fire at unmoving targets that then satisfyingly respond to your shot. Maybe the outhouse door will pop open if you shoot the target, revealing whatever mysteries lurk inside… Then again, maybe we should shoot at that cougar instead.

Oh, his eyes glow, and he lets out a throaty growl when you hit the bullseye. Cool.

Making this more pleasurable was that my daughters accompanied me to the gallery, and while I offered them quarters, they were not such good shots. So, instead, they would call out targets that they wanted to see what happened to when hit. As a result, we would all “oooh” and “ahhh” at what the tiny buffalo on the ridge would do when shot or how the tin can might tumble from the fencepost.

I’ve often heard video game shooters referred to as mere “shooting galleries,” and indeed, the modern shooter (and more retro arcade versions, especially games with light guns and the like) do find their roots in something like a carnival shooting gallery, especially those featuring cover mechanics, since you essentially need to locate a fixed position of some relative safety, targets then move and pop out, and you have to react and respond to that nasty zombie or Nazi in an appropriate enough way.

I’ve never really loved these kinds of games, though, especially the controller-driven shooters of this sort. They test reflex, not aim, especially because of helpful aids like target locking, which really (for me at least) kind of removes all of the notion of shooting something precisely from, well, the act of shooting. They also tend to lack much spectacle beyond making the aforementioned targetable monsters bleed. Another warehouse to shoot through or World War II era European town? Ho hum.

Max Payne 3 differs from its predecessors in that a lot of what made the central combat of the Max Payne series different from modern third person shooting games was absent in that title, as it didn’t much resemble a shooting gallery. Max Payne and Max Payne 2 focus on a kind of replication of cinematic gunplay, in which Max often stands out in the open, moves towards and away from targets, especially because the game uses the “bullet time” model of this kind of gunplay. Max can dive in slow motion to his right or left, forward or back, allowing one to then manually aim and target bad guys in a more slow and (kind of) relaxed manner. This results in John-Woo-style dives in combat and other such slow, but hyperviolent spectacle. Despite that “slowness,” the Max Payne games really make one feel like you are in the thick of it, though, in constant peril of being gunned down, rather than resting secure in front of a shooting range.

Unlike, more modern games as well, Max’s health doesn’t regenerate. So, you can’t locate a very safe position and just hide out until Max is healthy enough to put his exposed body into a precarious position. You need to use good tactics (and maybe pop the occasional painkiller for a little extended health) in order to get Max to survive. You have to manage health, bullet time opportunities, and might have to load a few quick saves to survive a room in his “shooting gallery.”

Compare this to a modern third person shooter, which instead focuses on cover mechanics and hard lock ons (and also that handy regenerating health), and you really have two very different kinds of experiences.

Which is why it is somewhat surprising that Max Payne 3 adds a cover-based mechanic to the otherwise generally similar mechanics of the prior games, since the necessity for using cover in the new title makes using bullet time tactics a less than optimal alternate strategy. The choice isn’t a completely unreasonable one, as this title is clearly more deliberately designed for console release, and the magic of the quick save/quick load resurrection possible in PC gaming makes creating the perfect fight via bullet time far less plausible and survivable.

That being said, what took me by surprise after some of my initial disappointment that this mechanic changed a lot of how a Max Payne title is played was how much this game reminded me of the non-video-game shooting galleries that I enjoy, albeit a much tenser version (due to the fact that Max can at no time just hide out under cover until his health returns). Like the original PC titles, Max’s health is still managed via his rather bad pharmaceutical habits, so each “gallery” that you enter in Max Payne 3 very rapidly becomes a nail biting place to remain long in, as opposed to the more or less perpetually fixed position of a non-virtual shooting gallery or even the safe haven of a good solid concrete wall in normal cover-based shooter of the video game variety.

It really was in the favelas of Sao Paulo when my thoughts drifted to the animatronic spectacle of the shooting galleries that I am most fond of. Max was positioned down behind (I think) a small cement retaining wall only slightly wider than his crouched form, and I looked upward at the muli-tiered shanty town sprawling strangely upwards. It was made up of shacks and hovels cobbled together one on top of the other, and I was struck by the beauty of the environment. This ugly world of the ghetto was juxtaposed against a backdrop of a gorgeous tropical Brazil, making each detail worthy of attention despite the incongruity of the squalor amid natural beauty. Of course, this rapturous moment was being punctuated by the sounds of small arms fire and a host of moving targets bent on killing the beleaguered and pinned down Max Payne. But at the moment, I wanted to investigate it all.

While shooting here was certainly not done in gleeful repose and the chance to aim meticulously at targets clearly not possible, this certainly was the video game equivalent of a complexly designed shooting environment, strange, alien objects and things waiting to be understood better by “triggering them” with a rifle. However, it was a space that required a faster, more intense, and more reactive activity on the part of the player than the slow aim of the Bass Pro Shop marksman. But, again, that is the nature of video games.

However, because Max Payne 3‘s default setting for aiming is to use a soft lock system (locking on to the body of a target roughly around its mid-point most often, instead of hard locking immediately on to vital areas that lead to quick kills), there is still some skill and time spent in figuring out how to best trace rounds up to more vulnerable areas of the body, like the head. In other words, you do “need a bullseye” eventually to progress and somehow this felt to me like the best of both worlds, requiring practice and a kind of patient learning, but also requiring that reactive element and the immediacy that make video games what they are, which is not merely statically presented shooting galleries of things just waiting around to be shot at.

The manner in which Max Payne is paced by switching quickly between fairly brief action encounters followed by brief interludes in which Max murmurs over-the-top noir-inspired observations about his circumstances is as rewarding as hitting the targets to see what they will do in an animatronic version of a shooting gallery. That visual reward is replaced by the salacious pleasure of knowing that another insanely hyperbolic bit of hard boiled wisdom will be read in voiceover soon if you just have the patience to pull off the kills necessary to unlock that juicy dialogue. Reward enough in some sense.

Though the other pleasure here is a story that intervenes on the action that is also a pleasure to earn through well executed marksmanship, a decent enough plot for an action thriller that is made exceptional by the performance of the game’s voice actors. Those voices manage to make even the most insane twists and turns in this shooter resonate with a bit of real humanity and pathos.

The major difference, though, between this shooting gallery experience and the more staid version that I mentioned in the first few paragraphs is related to these two proceeding details, the intensity of the simulation and the intensity of the drama. This is a shooting gallery that is both a gallery as well as a place to tell a story. And both gallery and the tale told in this game bare their teeth and bite down hard.

I’ve had enough of hiding under cover until I feel healthy and safe enough to pop a few rounds into the heads of some virtual shooting gallery targets. I am also not really all that inclined to recreate the repose of shooting at lifeless tin cans and stuffed cougars. I like, instead, that Max Payne‘s world is a place that feels a lot less safe than a bog box store or another World War II simulation. The dialogue is as grimy as the gameplay, which requires some skill to get good at and some gut level responsiveness to survive, making this gallery feel a great deal toothier than any I can recall spending time in before.

Somehow this combination of immediacy, beauty, grime, and pain makes the world of Max Payne 3 a more interesting world to bring to life than either of those two other kinds of shooting galleries, even if that means that to do so I still have to shoot at it to give it that life.