Although some would argue that he never left our hearts, Max Payne’s belated arrival on this generation of consoles comes with a set of laden questions for the ardent fan. The words on lips of gamers with only a nodding acquaintance with Max’s illustrious legacy of shootdodging and painkillers run along the lines of: “Is this a Max Payne game?" "Is Max Payne 3 soaked in goofy melodrama, ridiculous writing, liberal daubs of Hong Kong action and neo-noir style?" "Is this the same Max Payne that was made legendary all those years ago by the crazy Finns we know as Remedy?"
Well no, really. With Max Payne 3, Rockstar has no qualms with ripping out everything that made the Max Payne series what it is. Though it bears his name and his voice, Max Payne 3 is a linear, story-driven Rockstar game to its core and it couldn’t be more dissimilar to the tone and narrative sensibilities of its Remedy-built predecessors. That being said, it’s difficult to care about such things when you realize Max Payne 3 is one of the more exceptional shooters of this generation.
Make no mistake though; Max Payne 3 is defined by its Rockstar-ish qualities, complete with all the exaggerated caricatures, black humor, and ridiculously-high production values that you’ve come to expect from the Houser-brothers. Although there are numerous callbacks to events of the Remedy games, the narrative is Max Payne-like in premise only. For reasons that will be explained over the course of the game, Max has abandoned the neo-noir setting of New York to the sunnier, dirtier Sao Paulo, Brazil. This gives Rockstar free reign to paint their own cinematic influences of Michael Mann and Tony Scott over Remedy’s love of Hong Kong action films.
The comic-book panels that did the bulk of Max Payne and Max Payne 2’s storytelling have been replaced by in-engine cutscenes that transition seamlessly between story and gameplay. It’s here that the Tony Scott influence is on display. Seemingly random words from character dialogue will show up onscreen and almost every shot has jarring levels of color separation. It’s a striking effect, and although it occasionally gets overbearing, these scenes nail the alcoholic and drug-addled daze that Max constantly reminds you that he is in.
Max rocks Tom Cruise's suit from Collateral. This is a good thing.
For all its inspiration taken wholesale from modern Hollywood action, there hasn’t been a more wordy Max Payne game. It’s clear that Rockstar, and writer/creator Dan Houser in particular, wanted to make the character of Max their own. While in the first two Remedy games Max was prone to occasional self-deprecation and dry humor, here Max is continually spouting sarcasm and irony directed at his own alcoholism and nature of the rich against the poor in Sao Paulo. Strangely enough, this social commentary fits Max’s character better than expected, and the writing only falls apart when Rockstar try to extend their criticism of society beyond their dislike of capitalism, USA-style.
What you get in return for taking in Rockstar’s harrowing view of what Max himself calls “one angry gringo” tearing through the nightclubs and favelas of Sao Paulo is an exceptionally paced, mechanically sound action game that takes the core conceit of what‘s awesome about Max Payne and touches it up with just enough modern trappings to make it feel fresh again.
It's been nine years since we last navigated staircases with Max's spine.
Bullet time, the mechanic that is pretty much synonymous with the series, returns in force, governed by the same rules that regulated how you used it in Max Payne 2. Killing enemies boosts your bullet time meter, allowing you to stay in slow-motion throughout a firefight if you can maintain a string of kills. Sadly the series’ iconic act of shootdodging, where Max launches himself into the air for a diving shot, has become incredibly risky. While you can leap out of cover (a new addition in and of itself) and pop heads with impunity, you’re likely to be shot to pieces when you hit the ground and pick yourself up. As a result, Max Payne 3 requires a lot more strategic thought than prior games -- picking your moment to charge out with both guns and bullet time on tap now being essential for anything other than seeing Max’s forehead shot open.
The difficulty is where one realizes that beneath the sound and fury of the gunplay, Rockstar isn’t as good at tuning a shooter as they’d like you to believe. Though the controls are sharp and the feel of weapons excellent, Rockstar has seen fit to make Max exceedingly fragile and his enemies intelligent and powerful to the point where you’ll be gunned down by a single enemy as soon as you leave cover. If you’re not willing to exploit the bullet time and shootdodging to their utmost extent, then you’ll end up playing Max Payne 3 like a conventional cover shooter because the punishment is so severe for anything less than perfection in using such tactics. However, the new “Last Stand” feature that gives you a final chance to pop a painkiller (Max has no truck with regenerating health) by popping the guy who shot you mitigates this issue somewhat until later in the game when huge numbers of enemies and explosions make it tricky to discern which gun-toting merc shot you last.
Deep down, it disgusts me that you occasionally need to hide behind things.
When it works, which is about 90% of the time, Max Payne 3 is a fantastically fun third-person shooter that provides a sometimes stiff but satisfying challenge. Not only are the controls and shooting spot on, but the way you and your bullets interact with your environment looks and sounds phenomenal. Effects like papers flying up in the air when peppered with gunfire or bullets tearing through scenery are what make ordinary firefights worth playing again and again, just to witness the chaos kicking off around you. Unfortunately the numerous set piece action sequences are often marred by a dipping framerate on the PS3 version. It’s rarely pronounced enough to detract from the experience and is usually covered up by bullet time, yet it’s not what you want or expect from an otherwise well-crafted shooter.
It's hard to show 18 frames per second in a screenshot.
At least Max Payne looks and sounds on par with what you’ve come to expect from post-Red Dead Redemption Rockstar titles. Textures and lighting are clean and appealing with plenty of thoughtful details littered about the environments, but it’s the animation and effects on the character models that steal the show. Bullets do very bad things to people in Max Payne 3 and Rockstar make sure you get a good look at skull plates breaking and eyeballs exploding at the end of every firefight via a kill-cam, even giving the option to slow these scenes down if you’re sadistically-inclined.
If you’re more into shooting real people than Max’s enemies, you can partake in the game’s online modes, which support the shootdodging endeavors of fifteen other players. As you don’t have access to bullet time unless you choose it as a burst (read: killstreak bonus), matches are much more frantic than the single-player game. When you do activate bullet time in multiplayer, only those in your line of sight are affected, which is a neat idea until you get caught in the radius of someone else’s bullet time and are left to slow-mo your way forward until you break line of sight. Rockstar try and weave a bit of context into familiar modes with Gang War, which mixes the game-type up each round with a dash of narration justification in-between, and Payne Killer where Max and his pal Raul serve as player-controlled juggernauts with everyone else out for their blood.
And of course, you can unlock all sorts of things to make your not-Max avatar look stupid.
Strangely, the player-base has been split between the no auto-aim “Free Aim” and the snap-to-target “Soft Lock” options, with the latter seeming to have the most players. There’s no telling how this will affect the development of a community, but the exceptional gameplay ensures the matches are chaotic and the rewards are appealing enough to keep you playing past the first few levels, so there is potential for a cult following to stick with it for the long haul. For the more insular player, an arcade mode and the returning “New York Minute” will give you enough of a reason to see the main draw that is the single-player experience.
Though Max isn’t the same dry funnel of flowery exposition he once was and his world not the amalgam of neo-noir and John Woo you remember, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Max Payne is a superb shooter in its own right. Regardless of how you feel about Rockstar’s removal of almost everything a Max Payne fan holds dear, Max Payne 3 has the most well-crafted action in Rockstar's stable, and possibly some the generation’s best.
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-16 (Competitive)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), PC