Less Red Dead. More Redemption.
After a “brief” hiatus from the video game scene (“brief” meaning nine years), Max Payne is back to shoot first and ask questions later. This time, Rockstar Games has fully taken the reins of Remedy Entertainment’s detective noir franchise and exposed it to plenty of direct sunlight, moving it from the iron-gray snowed-in alleys of New York City to the sun-bleached slums of São Paulo, Brazil. Replacing Remedy’s Sam Lake in the writer’s chair is the man responsible for penning many of Rockstar’s open-world epics, Dan Houser.
The changes in style and influence, however, do not come at the expense of the series’ trademark grit and grime; Max may have traded in his greasy trench coat for a sweat-stained floral-pattern shirt, but the old man’s cynical manner has only grown that much more pronounced, if anything. Moreover, the game doesn’t sacrifice any intensity for the sake of tropical beauty – São Paulo’s poverty-stricken favelas are just as run-down, dangerous, and crumbling at the edges as the dingiest of dark back alleys. Rockstar has set out to prove that it can tell an engaging crime thriller, and has delivered in spades. Through all the Bullet Time gun battles and punching holes through your opponents’ Kevlar armor by the score, Max Payne 3 is a gripping human drama first, a violent “soap copera” second, and a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish!
Darkness in the Light
Max Payne has never been a light-hearted story about a happy-go-lucky guy; the first two installments in the franchise have heaped so much misery and misfortune on its protagonist that he might well be likened to Atlas, being crushed by the unbearable weight of the world on his shoulders. But Max Payne 3 takes this premise to unparalleled lengths; Max has spent the last several years of his life mourning the deaths of his family, and slipping further and further into an alcohol-and-painkiller-induced stupor. Numbing his body and muddying his senses, the now-retired cop has wiled away his existence ordering drinks at seedy gin mills in town and crawling into a bottle each night in the hole in the wall he calls home.
Told almost exclusively in flashbacks (and often even flashbacks within flashbacks), the game opens up on Max as he stands over the mutilated form of a man in a police uniform, who’s struggling to crawl away from him, but finding it exceedingly hard to do so with only fleshy stumps where his limbs had been just moments before and charred to a crisp from head to knees. The game explores Max’s journey to this point, and how he went from addled addict with no reason to live, to hired gun paid to protect a family of wealthy Brazilian socialites and politicians, to a reckless force of nature with nothing left to lose. Along the way, players will get taken on a ride through bar fights and strip clubs, nighttime cemeteries and glitzy million-dollar yachts, hi-tech boardrooms and condemned shells of once-glamorous palatial hotels, and all across New York, Panama, and Brazil, and see just how deep this rabbit hole of corruption, money, power, and illegal organ trafficking really goes.
Is That a Cutscene in Your Pocket?
Max Payne 3 follows the mantra “Go big or go home”. The game will delight players looking for a meaty narrative to back up their gunplay. Max’s memories dart back and forth through the game’s timeline, fading from place to place, gradually revealing disparate pieces of a puzzle that ultimately places him dead center amidst a web of intrigue and plotting. Gang warfare and police corruption are tearing up São Paulo, neatly dividing the city in crisscrossing patterns of hostility, with Max bouncing between them in a desperate hunt to protect his employers and give his life some degree of purpose. Stakes rise as Max makes enemies everywhere he goes; with every faction out to get him and the number of trusted friends dwindling rapidly, he finds himself in situations with odds impossibly stacked against him. The narrative makes no excuses and pulls no punches – anything can and will happen in the course of Max shooting a path through the city.
The game’s production design is perhaps the biggest friend to its movie-script quality story; a beautifully composed soundtrack featuring a few Max Payne classics perfectly complements the adeptly voiced dialog. Pitch-perfect performances hit the mark with each and every character, led by the return of James McCaffrey as the voice of Max Payne. Interestingly, a large portion of the game’s dialog is performed in its native Brazilian, with no translations provided, putting players without the sufficient linguistic knowledge right there on the outside with Max, looking in. The writing itself simultaneously includes some of the best in worldly smart-assery and shows a deft hand at recreating both casual and tense conversations amid large groups of people; sometimes, it’s hard not to believe the sound team simply pushed the “Record” button and told the actors to have at it – it’s that naturally good!
The game does feature lengthy dialog-heavy cutscenes, and lots of them, which is either a pro or con, depending on your preference. In fact, the 360 version of the game ships on two discs, due to the length and frequency of the animated cutscenes. That said, Max Payne is a very different animal from Rockstar’s usual open-world approach; the game plays out in a very linear fashion, and the story is pre-dictated. Aside from providing the exposition, the game’s movie sequences serve the purpose of essentially transitioning the game from one action scene to the next. At rare times (two or three times throughout the entirety of the game), timed button press sequences also make cameo appearances.
Hit and Run
Max Payne 3‘s actual gameplay consists almost exclusively of the classic gunfights series veterans know so well. Max can run into any situation guns drawn, then throw himself to and fro in slow-motion Bullet Time, clearing enemies left and right before they have so much as a chance to react to his presence. However, Max’s bullet-time ability isn’t of unlimited duration, and should its bar deplete, Max may find himself the target at the center of a hail of hostile crossfire real quickly. Popping a bottle of painkillers will restore a good portion of Max’s health should he need it; though he claims to try to go clean off the meds, players will be best served to always carry a supply of the little pills with them. Should Max take too many hits while carrying a spare bottle of painkillers, a “Last Man Standing” mode will automatically trigger, in which time will slow down and players are given a final few seconds to fire a shot at their assailant – if he finds his mark, the enemy goes down and Max’ll automatically down the bottle of pain meds; if he misses or acts too slow on the draw, he’ll be doomed to an instant death, painkillers or no.
The game will actively assist players in completing its story mode. An adjustable auto-lock feature is available from the options menu, and each of the lengthy campaign chapters is sprinkled with checkpoints throughout. Beyond that, Max Payne 3 features a quasi-difficulty curve should players get stuck on a particular section and die repeatedly. Enemies don’t decrease in number or difficulty, but restarting the same segment over and over will trigger the game to start respawning you with additional bottles of painkillers every few attempts; in this way, certain sections awarded me up to four bonus bottles of pain meds after repeatedly failing to proceed past them. Additional painkiller bottle pick-ups will also start to be distributed in the environment to ease the difficulty a bit more.
At times, I did find the singular-minded gameplay to be a bit limiting, though. As much as the narrative drew me into the story and made me want to find out what would happen next, every now and again I found it necessary to break the run-and-gun sections into smaller increments, as they simply lacked a bit of variety. The Bullet Time feature that made the series famous back in 2001 doesn’t generally feel necessary; often, I found it sufficient to hide behind cover, pop out at intervals, lock onto a target, and try to squeeze off a headshot. In fact, there were entire chapters where I simply forgot I had the use of a Bullet Time ability, as the game didn’t seem to constantly push me to put it to good use. The game asks you to search for collectables in the form of clues that start to piece together the big picture of what is happening; a more thorough focus on investigation to break up the gunplay, à la Condemned, would have been a welcome diversion.
I also suffered several cheap deaths at the hands of the game’s “Last Man Standing” feature. Once it triggered, I found myself more than once without a clear shot at my target, who had gone back behind cover. Without a way to take out the opposing gunman, I was automatically doomed to wait out the end of the slow-motion sequence and die an automatic death. Worse yet were times when “Last Man Standing” caught me with an almost empty clip in my revolver; one missed shot, and I was listening to the metallic click of an empty magazine. Simply giving players the ability to reload in the middle of “Last Man Standing” could have alleviated these concerns. Finally, towards the end of the game, a particular chapter caused my game to crash several times, not loading the level properly after I died. To be sure, all of these are extremely minor concerns, and represented only a negligible fraction of the overall game experience.
As bombastic of an experience as the single-player campaign may be, it holds a limited amount of replayability due to its linear nature. A handful of collectables are strewn throughout the levels, and completing the story mode does unlock both Score Attack and Time Trial modes of each stage. But the real heart and soul of keeping players coming back to Max Payne 3 is its online multiplayer mode. Featuring familiar modes like Deathmatch and Last Man Standing, challenges, factions, and plenty of unlockables, and unique match-ups like Gang Wars – which includes several multiplayer gameplay types within a single round, like Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, etc., all stitched together through Max’s voice-over narration -, the developers have given Max Payne 3 plenty of longevity. A new feature implemented through the Rockstar Social Club is the ability to join or create a Crew – a group of players coming together under a joined identity that the game uses to recreate specific gang rivalries and turf wars between opposing crews. Kill a member of a different crew in combat, and you’ll begin to make a bitter enemy out of them. Crews work together to attain experience bonuses and complete challenges. Most importantly, crews joined or created with friends can be taken over to Rockstar’s upcoming Grand Theft Auto V, where you can continue your Crew’s continuing battle for neighborhood dominance.
Pleasingly, the slow-motion Bullet Time effect has made its way into online multiplayer matches, though in a slightly different form than the one found in the game proper. Activating Bullet Time while in multiplayer will slow down time, same as before, but the only ones affected are you and your target – and anyone who can see you or your target, as well as anyone who can see them, and so on, in a slow-motion chain reaction. Basically, if you can see anyone who’s moving in Bullet Time, you will too. However, only the player who actually triggered the distortion will get the offensive bonuses that come with it, everyone else just slows down. A useful (and extremely cool and handy) derivative of Bullet Time comes in the form of bursts, which can be customized prior to a match. Different bursts have different effects, and are triggered the same way as Bullet Time. Depending on how much of your stored adrenaline you’re willing to expend, you can activate bursts such as Paranoia, which makes all players look like hostile targets to your enemies; Weapon Dealer, which grants your team unlimited ammo for ten seconds; and Trigger Happy, which causes your shots to penetrate enemy armor for twenty seconds. Along with wagers that can be made prior to a match about who gets the highest number of headshots, for example, and Vendettas which award bonus XP for killing someone who’s killed you twice in a row, are just a few more of the features that make Max Payne 3‘s multiplayer a valuable part of this standout title.
The Final Verdict
Max Payne 3 marks both a departure for the series in terms of visual style and storytelling approach, as well as a step away from Rockstar’s signature open-world games, but ultimately comes at you hard and fast, both guns blazing. Telling an interesting story with TNT barrels full of cinematic sequences and top-notch voice acting and visuals, the lengthy story mode is a treat in narrative-driven action gaming, and rivals any summer movie blockbuster in terms of excitement. Some slightly repetitive gameplay requires the game to be broken into manageable chunks, but is more than made up for with a robust multiplayer online mode, even going so far as to let players work in groups to achieve goals and, in a stroke of genius marketing, carry those groups over to the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V for even further rewards. Max Payne 3 works as a standalone game or as a continuation of the series, and kicks a triumphant boot in the ass of every contemporary action shooter; Max Payne 3 is an experience that shouldn’t be missed!