Games 5/22/12: Max Payne 3, Mario Tennis Open, MotoHeroz

Max Payne 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Price: $60

If there’s a story-driven third-person shooter checklist for “Max Payne 3,” rest assured every box is filled. In terms of gunplay and presentation, it’s bloody, beautiful, cinematic and all kinds of refined.

But for those who loved the first two “Max Payne” games because they dared to be weird and were proudly unrefined in exactly the right ways, the polished but mostly disposable “MP3” may ultimately amount to little more than a bloody, beautiful, cinematic and refined bucket of cold water.

As cover-based shooters go, what’s presented here — set mostly in Brazil, with some flashback missions in Max’s old New Jersey haunts — is mostly terrific. Enemies are numerous and relentless. The levels (favelas, two crumbling skyscrapers and seemingly every square inch of an airport, among other places) are magnificently detailed and built to accommodate shootouts that develop vertically as well as horizontally. The guns are diverse and powerful. And while the firefights are stiffly difficult even on normal difficulty, any failings on your part cannot be blamed on the aiming controls, which are precise regardless of whether you elect to use aiming assists or not.

The problem, of course, is that “Max Payne” isn’t supposed to be a cover shooter at all.

To the complete contrary, it was the original “Max Payne” that popularized the virtues of the “Matrix”-esque Bullet Time, which let you briefly slow time, dive right in front of a quintet of enemies and blast every one of them with prodigious precision before hitting the floor and resuming normal speed.

For all we know, Bullet Time was simply an easy fix for a genre that, back in 2001, was still finding its footing with regard to control, perspective and difficulty balance (and was still years away from embracing cover as the cure-all). But who cares? Bullet Time looked awesome and was extremely fun to use, and the first two “Payne” games designed its levels and enemy arrangements expressly to inspire players to run, gun and go absolutely nuts with the mechanic.

“MP3” brings Bullet Time back, and it’s as glorious as ever to harness. But its levels are designed to accommodate cover instead of blazing guns. Enemies stream out at a much higher rate, and the penalty for taking damage from their guns is significantly higher. Tally it up, and diving into the middle of it all becomes a recipe for disaster. You’ll still get your chances to go crazy, but they’re rare, and you’ll either have to accept that or repeatedly die in denial.

Additional signs of lost identity lie elsewhere. Though “MP3’s” story is thoroughly entertaining, it’s a mostly humorless action movie that only fleetingly evokes the wonderful thematic insanity that defined its predecessors. Full cutscenes replace the graphic novel motif, and while (again) they look and sound terrific, they (again) do so at the expense of the series’ cherished identity.

(Max, to his credit, still mutters film noir-isms to himself between shootouts, so all is not lost. While his world has become less interesting, he’s still the best tragic hero in the business.)

Interestingly, the place “MP3” most closely plays like traditional “Max Payne” is in the one frontier — multiplayer (online, 16 players) — that’s wholly new to the series.

Multiplayer offers plenty to like in terms of match types (solo/team deathmatch, a story-driven Gang Wars mode, a 2-on-14 co-op/competitive survival mode) and amenities (upgradable characters/loadouts, mini-achievements, the ability to form crews with friends).

But while the multiplayer maps are built for cover as well, having teammates and fewer enemies creates boundless opportunity to run and gun with abandon.

You can even activate Bullet Time (albeit sparingly, and only after accruing it through kills and assists). Doing so doesn’t necessarily affect other players’ ability to continue playing at normal speed, but anyone whose line of sight crosses with a slowed-down player will slow down as well. The clever implementation allows Bullet Time to be as effective and fun as ever without disrupting other players who are fighting their own battles elsewhere on the map.

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Mario Tennis Open
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Camelot/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

At its core and where it counts most, “Mario Tennis Open” has a whole lot in common with the preceding six games that had some variation of “Mario Tennis” in their titles, and for many, that’s probably all that matters. In terms of the finer gameplay details — control responsiveness, A.I. competency and the balance struck between pure tennis and the fantastical nature of the Super Mario universe — it’s the most polished game of tennis Nintendo has published since the Nintendo 64 got its version 12 years ago.

Or rather, it will be once you go into the options screen, select “Gyro Sensor” and, perhaps regretfully, disable it.

Along with the overdue addition of online play, “Open’s” neatest new trick might be the ability to dynamically change the camera angle by holding the 3DS differently. Holding the 3DS flat and looking down at it produces an overhead view of the court, while holding it upward and looking forward toward the screen switches, appropriately, to a behind-the-back perspective.

Problem is, “Open” degenerates into a mess when the behind-the-back view is active. The gyroscope allows you to tilt the 3DS to tweak the camera’s horizontal angle, but it also handles shot aim (which the circle pad capably handles by itself in the top-down view). The circle pad can still be used to control your player’s position on the court, but whenever you aren’t using it, the game automatically moves your player for you.

Compared to the top-down view’s classically simple controls, the weird mix of motion, auto and traditional controls is a clumsy mess. And because “Open’s” flimsy options screen makes the dynamic perspective a package deal with all those control conditions, you might be best off disabling the whole thing completely. There’s no way to have complete control while dynamic camera control is active.

Perhaps fortunately (though not really), “Open’s” use of stereoscopic 3D is so tepid during gameplay that you’re not missing much by disabling the feature. The 3D pops beautifully during menus and replays, so it’s clearly a conscious choice, but it’s a puzzling one given the obvious applications for 3D in a game where a ball flies at you at a fast speed.

The nullification of those features leaves us, for better or worse, in pretty much in the same place “Mario Tennis” always has been.

On the plus side, that means “Open” likely gives you what you came for in terms of how it plays. It’s polished per usual, and while the court designs are extremely festive, the emphasis on different shot types and court control makes this a sports game first and everything else second.

At the same time, It’s a shame “Open” sees no need to introduce new characters (besides your Mii) to a small roster that’s stagnated for a decade despite there being no shortage of characters in Mario’s universe. The modes are similarly thin, with the same old tournament cups instead of a season mode or the role-playing features that typically reside in Nintendo’s portable tennis games. The small handful of minigames is nice — a mode that lets you play World 1-1 of “Super Mario Bros.” by hitting enemies with tennis balls is especially clever — but their novelty is fleeting.

Per usual, “Open” shines brightest as a multiplayer game, and while the online offerings aren’t exhaustive, they provide some valuable versatility to the game’s biggest selling point.

Via either local single-card wireless or online, “Open” supports multiple combinations of four-player co-op/competitive/singles/doubles tennis among friends. Those with a competitive streak, meanwhile, can play random opponents online and accrue performance-based points that contribute to their ranking on a monthly regional leaderboard. The quality of play online will ultimately come down to the community, but “Open” does its part: Matches are low on lag, and finding opponents is fast and easy.

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MotoHeroz
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: RedLynx/Ubisoft
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

Maybe three years ago, the iOS debut of “MotoHeroz” — an off-road racing/stunt-driving game from the same studio behind “Trials HD” — would be nothing but good news. “MotoHeroz” operates almost identically to “Trials,” providing a large array of short stunt courses and tasking players with completing them either under a par time or (in the case of non-race events) over a par score. Because you’re driving a four-wheeled vehicle instead of a motorbike, “MotoHeroz” is a little more forgiving with regard to its physics — but only a little, and not so much that mastering those physics won’t spell the difference between getting a three-star score and coming away empty. Unfortunately, a fully-upgraded vehicle proves more important to your success than even your skill, to the point where achieving two- and three-star results isn’t necessarily even possible until you upgrade each level pack’s corresponding vehicle. You can, of course, accomplish this by replaying courses ad nauseam while you gradually accumulate the in-game currency needed to slowly upgrade each vehicle. Or you can watch some video ads and earn a handful of coins that way. Or, for the price of $4 per vehicle (that’s $32 for all eight vehicles), you can fully upgrade and cruise to a three-star score. And if you want the option to just drop $5 up front and play “MotoHeroz” like you would a fun, skill-based game instead of something that nickels and dimes your time and money and sabotages its own gameplay merits in the process? Sorry. “MotoHeroz,” the latest victim of the absolutely joyless freemium model, won’t allow it.