Right now, I’m reviewing Max Payne 3 for Gamer’s Guide to Life.com. Since there’s no actual embargo anymore, I feel okay in telling you that I like what I’ve played, as well as confident that the forces at Rockstar Vancouver won’t breach through my window and smash my head in with empty bottles of whiskey and pharmaceuticals for doing so. I enjoy the shooting mechanics so far, what with the Bullet Time® and Shoot Dodge™ing*, but I’m having the most fun with the aiming system. Max Payne 3 features several settings for aiming, including the ability to turn off the game’s targeting-assist. When I played Max Payne 3 earlier this year at PAX, I had trouble wrangling headshots out of the game’s auto-aiming system, so I disabled it shortly after firing up my Xbox 360. I waste more ammo with the snap-to system turned off, but I’ve slowly gotten better about training my cursor on baddie foreheads, and I’m starting to appreciate the level of skill it takes to aim au naturel.
After a few missions, just to see what would happen, I turned the auto-target back on for one firefight. Much to my surprise, I found that Max Payne 3‘s thrilling slow-motion gun battles feel significantly less thrilling when the aiming mechanics more closely resemble Call of Duty. In fact, with the auto-target on, Max Payne 3 goes from a stylish shooter made in the vein of John Woo action films to a gritty, high-def version of Duck Hunt.
I don’t usually feel this way about games with snap-to targeting. I’ve always thought Call of Duty‘s auto-aim was one of its most ingenious design decisions (it allows for less-skilled players to move through the game like a badass, broadening the series’ appeal), and it’s never bothered me in myriad games that have copied it. Yet, for some reason, turning the aim-assist off feels like the “right” way to play Max Payne 3 and anything less seems tantamount to cheating.
I think design objective is a big part. The recent Call of Duty games are all about putting the player in the thick of huge, bombastic setpiece moments, and the fast-paced, deadly gunplay helps facilitate this; survive from point “A” to point “B,” and do it with as little friction as possible. It’s all very fun, but it also doesn’t leave much room for deeper, less-straightforward ways to shoot stuff up real good.
Max Payne 3 feels different, even from other third-person action games. Max Payne 3‘s gunplay is rich and layered, like it’s the main event of the game rather than a way to shuttle players from one setpiece moment to another. Max can seek cover, dodge, enter bullet time, and rack up revenge kills, allowing for a wide range of options during firefights. Using auto-targeting to hone in on enemies feels cheap, like I’m not enjoying the game “properly.” It’s almost as if the game is saying, “Yeah, he’s dead, so what?” whenever I kill an enemy; “Did you have fun taking it down, or did you enjoy how we did it for you? LOL!”
The thing is, the game wasn’t as fun when I could immediately put an enemy in my sights. It becomes automatic, simply another thing I have to do on the way to the next big gameplay moment. Which is a poor way to play Max Payne 3, because there are no setpices, at least that I’ve come across so far. Each gunfight is its own reward to participate in, challenging to survive and gratifying to master; lining up three headshots in one leap all by myself may end up being one of my favorite gaming moments this year. Automatically targeting each baddie with a pull of the left trigger button squanders the thrill of using Max Payne 3‘s many combat elements in favor of reductive simplicity, similar to reading a plot summary to The Sixth Sense immediately before watching it, or someone telling a joke and immediately explaining it afterwards.
I’m now very curious to play fire up Modern Warfare 3‘s campaign again and try playing it without auto-aim, if it’s even allowed. The game has such a linear, driving focus, and I wonder if stopping to actively aim would cause the game’s pacing to suffer.
Last point: playing without auto-aim fits well with the slightly old-school design that Max Payne 3 adheres to. After all, Max collects healing items instead of regenerating health automatically and can hold more than two weapons at a time. With the auto-aimed turned off, Max Payne 3 becomes a worth successor to the PC and Xbox* classic; without it, Max Payne 3 changes into yet another post-Modern Warfare shooting game with a third-person camera angle.
Playing without snap-to targeting is devilishly tricky and I don’t recommend everyone try it, especially since the difficulty ramps up something fierce during later chapters. All the same, I will continue to enjoy working for my kills in Max Payne 3 sans auto-aim, just the way I didin the first game. Some things weren’t meant to change.