The technology of Max Payne 3
1st Jun 2012 | 13:45
We check out Euphoria with Rockstar and NaturalMotion
Resurrecting a gaming icon is never an easy task, but when the developer responsible is the mighty Rockstar the pressure is ratcheted up even further - something that everyone attached to Max Payne 3 is well aware of.
Better known for their open world games like the phenomenally popular Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has been developing the latest chapter in Max Payne's turbulent life for years, mindful that reputations are on the line.
The original Max Payne was a PC game which hit the ground not so much running as diving and rolling while loosing off several shots in the much imitated but rarely bettered bullet-time that came to define the series.
Developed by Remedy Entertainment, Max Payne was released in 2001 and quickly garnered critical and popular acclaim for its noir leanings and gruff titular hero.
A sequel arrived in 2003, but sold poorly despite decent reviews, and the series also chalked up the [possibly back-handed] compliment of a bad Max Payne movie starring Mark Wahlberg.
Despite this, Max Payne has carved himself a niche within the sentimental world of gaming, and that legacy means that Rockstar's Max Payne 3 not only has some mighty large shoes to fill, but also a wealth of background and expectations as to how the game will play.
Obviously the key to success rests on how Rockstar brings the dynamic shoot-dodges, comprising rolls and dives, and integrates the wealth of cut-scenes into the non-stop action.
That is achieved partly through NaturalMotion's Euphoria engine, mixing animation and physics and blending them in a way that makes Max Payne move and act realistically (in the context of an action hero at least).
That, along with the seamless integration of the many cut scenes brings a whole new level of immersion to Max Payne 3; with no loading screens even the cut-scenes afford only momentary pauses, often launching you straight back into action without any warning.
Speaking to TechRadar, NaturalMotion's Torsten Reil explained how the Euphoria engine works hand in hand with other parts of the game.
"It's worth pointing out that we are really running two systems because a huge part is played by Rockstar's Rage system as well the engine and, of course, the physics engine," said Reil.
"But Euphoria runs on top of that and essentially controls the physical characters that, at a base level, are dealt with by the physics engine.
"On a fundamental level that system works across all the characters that are simulated."
Reil started his relationship with Rockstar with the seminal Grand Theft Auto IV, giving his vision a thrilling start in the gaming world.
"We started the company a few years ago and the original idea was to simulate humans," he explained
"That [involved the] physical accumulation of the body, the muscles but also the nervous system that controls humans. We had simple prototypes that were essentially running like stick figures but it kind of worked.
"We thought it would be amazing if we could make them run in real time on the console and have, for the first time, fully interactive characters in a game.
A dream come true
"We started talking about using the technology for Rockstar's upcoming games, and obviously that included Grand Theft Auto IV," he continued.
"For us that was a dream come true; the biggest game franchise that we could imagine, and a particularly good fit because GTA is all about creating living breathing worlds – that's the case for all Rockstar's games.
"So that kind of approach and the commitment to quality and at the same time what we were trying to in terms of creating living, breathing characters was, for us, a great combination."
Obviously as you ramp up the complexity of the game you tend to hit some pretty spectacular bugs – although Reil believes this is a necessary evil.
"It's true that the more complex technology becomes, the more propensity there is for bugs, but it's also true that when you open a game up and allow it to be more emergent in many ways it's desirable because it can actually surprise you," added Reil.
"You want to make sure that you control it to the extent that it doesn't break the gameplay – that's the goal and target for those games, but in general I have to say that you can meet those challenges. You can still control the game but also allow emergent gameplay.
"You need to understand what the triggers look like because not all of the visual references we have from the movies are actually realistic.
"What you and I might imagine a car colliding with a wall looks like, for example, might very often come from movies and not look like what it actually looks like. You want to combine realism with artistic licence… to get the best of both worlds.
"It is possible, it's not all simulation and you are always able to control it and I think over the years we have been able to make big progress with that with Rockstar, and you'll see that through Max Payne."
Rockstar art director Rob Nelson told TechRadar that keeping the essence and playability of Max Payne but also making it feel and look more polished was central to everything they were trying to do.
"What made the first game special was the movement and the shooting and that's what had to make this one special, so we put a lot of time into that," he said.
"We really just focused on that. And yeah we wanted it to be as polished as it could be, and look as beautiful as it did, and have a story that was very engaging, but for us the core element of this was the motion and I guess yeah we were worried [about the reaction].
"We felt we had it after several years of working on it. We felt we had it or were approaching it, and my fear was actually that people might not notice it because there's a lot of subtle stuff going on there.
"Actually it's tons of different subtleties, and we don't think everyone will notice every thing, but everyone will notice some things."
Max Payne, max problems
Making Max feel like the Max of old, but also with the modern Euphoria touches and the modern physics in games was clearly a massive challenge.
Non-playable characters (NPCs) were far simpler, but with Max not only does he need to appear to move realistically but also to be controllable to the player.
"There's actually another layer on top of all of this which is player control - because you want to have a character ideally that looks realistic and reacts with the environment, you also want the player to have control of the movements in a way that looks believable," says Reil.
"You just have to be systematic about using simulation and how you let player control override it, but at the same time you want input from the creative side.
"The difference that you will get with the main character Max to the NPCs is that you need to have control over him, so in bullet time for example you want to have as much control as possible because it's gameplay.
"That's obviously not something you need to worry about with NPCs. The other thing is the degree of environment awareness which I think is unprecedented out there.
"Max is even able, in bullet time, when he goes towards a door to push his arm out and open it. That's something that as a main character we are able to do but obviously not something we are running all the time."
Max Payne 3 is clearly a game at the cutting edge for today's modern consoles; but Reil is not champing at the bit to get working on the PS4 and Xbox 720, insisting that the current crop still have more tricks up their sleeves.
"People often think we are at the capacity of the [console] processing power, but actually it's always possible to top it," said Reil.
"Max shows that; it's still the same hardware that it has been in previous years, but we've always been able to push things further.
"It's about two things – one is just to understand how to use the technology better and how it's integrated in the game, and on the other side it's code optimisation at a really basic level to make things run even faster."
Rockstar's next big thing
Discussing the future inevitably brings up how the lessons learned in Max will apply in the next game coming out of the Rockstar studio – a little title in a small series called Grand Theft Auto V.
Rockstar are inevitably staying a little tight-lipped about GTA V, but Nelson was prepared to talk a little about the differences between using the Euphoria system in Max compared to an open-world environment.
"Max had a set of mechanics where we could look at combining elements of Natural Motion with those things, GTA V may have different mechanics we can look into and we're always looking to improve the general reaction and the way those read and the ways those look," said Nelson.
"Whether it's just walking down a street and hitting people or cars with guns or whatever it is those are things we'll look to expand on it and improve as much as we can.
"It's a different environment in terms of the open world, because in Max you couldn't go around and interact with people in the same way as you can in an open world,
"But in terms of how people respond to gun fire and fire back that's quite similar.
Inevitably we questioned Nelson as to whether this would bring some spectacular death scenes in GTA V. "I would hope so!" he laughed.
Nelson is overjoyed that the tech behind Max Payne 3 has picked up great credit from both reviewers and the public since its console launch.
"To me it's really gratifying that people seem to be picking up on [the technical accomplishment] and it makes us want to go further with each one we put out," he concludes.
"Sometimes in your dark moments you wonder are people even going feel this and it's really nice that they respond in the way they have."