It’s been years since we’ve seen the grizzled sharpshooting detective Max Payne. In his long awaited return in, glorious HD much has changed, but much has stayed the same. The series was one of the first to incorporate cinematic storytelling into video games and that is a continued focus here, now taking influence from a wider array of movies to reflect a new era. In previous generations, the game came out with obvious John Woo and The Matrix-influenced slow motion bullet slinging ballet, with film noir underpinnings and graphic novel cut scenes. Diving bullet time remains the bedrock of the gameplay this time out, but the visual style and world is a little different. Delving deeper into alcoholism, pain, and failure, our buddy Max is no longer a cop, but a gun for hire. He’s off the rain-drenched seedy streets of New York and killing legions of bad guys in the sun-burned, poverty-scarred, and war-torn world of South America.
Full cut scenes connect the levels rather than animated comic book panels, with a jittery, blown out visual style filled with split screens and abrupt edits to mimic both the visual aesthetic of directors like Tony Scott and the Crank team of Neveldine/Taylor and Payne’s deteriorating booze n’ pain killer fueled mental state. At first this visual approach seems excessive, but gradually things calm down and it settles into an eyeball pleasing groove. Despite the change in locale and color palate, the threequel is still rooted in the endless gunfights and hard boiled crime fiction of its predecessors. Longtime fans should be pleased, but newcomers can still appreciate it as the next hard R genre movie flavored outing from Rockstar. It continues the company’s ever-evolving skill with mind-boggling graphics, long-form storytelling, and lovingly graphic violence. Simply put, it’s 12+ hours of the finest violent video-gaming on the market that should get mouths watering over how Rockstar has plans to top themselves with GTA V.
We meet up with our buddy Max at the bottom of his latest bottle, working as a bodyguard in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His job is to protect the absurdly rich Rodrigo Branco and his spoiled siblings as they have coke parties on skyscrapers and yachts while counting their riches. Payne was never a happy camper, but feels particularly burned out by this gig, self-medicating with gallons of scotch and handfuls of pills. Of course, a quick kidnapping has him back in action and soon the guy is traveling the country in search of his missing clients. Payne dangles out of helicopters, stumbles through urban war zones, blows up decrepit buildings, kicks off a prison riot, and murders hundreds of people on his quest for redemption. You know, just like the old days only bigger and dirtier. There was clearly an attempt to reinvent the character/franchise in this new outing, if only to create a little distance from the vomit inducing Mark Wahlberg movie. As a fan, that seemed worrying at first, but those concerns quickly vanished. Max Payne is still the same guy in a new world. His personality is just a little deeper and harsher while the game’s sense of humor has become more dark n’ twisted rather than campy. There are flashback levels to the old trench-coat New York days, yet the new world with a bearded Max sporting a shaved head (looking very much like Walter White’s alter ego Heisenberg on Breaking Bad, probably a direct influence on this new approach) proves to be far more compelling.
It was definitely a risk to change the style of the series this much and it pays off. The cut scenes are beautifully rendered with facial animation that must have borrowed a little tech from LA Noire and flow into gameplay beautifully with no load times (the cinematics cleverly mask the loading screens). The tale is so ambitious and features such massive set pieces that at times the game feels like Rockstar’s R-rated answer to the PG-13 action movie shenanigans of the Uncharted series. Story, action, and gameplay mix for a potent and delicious cocktail filled some spectacular hard edged dialogue (a few of my favorite lines include: “It was only the afternoon and I’d already been kicked out of a bar and visited a cat house. This latest midlife crisis was right on track” and “I killed more cops than cholesterol.”).
With no open world element, this is Rockstar’s most streamlined plot this console generation, and represents one hell of a writing job that loses points only for cramming most of the action packed highlights into the first half than the second. It’s one of those rare games where you’ll actually be playing to see what happens next in the story and not just to see how many drones you’ll get to machine gun in the next room. The only thing that puts the experience slightly lower than Uncharted on the cinematic gaming spectrum is that Payne’s controls are limited entirely to running, ducking, and shooting, meaning that some of the more ambitious action sequences have to be played entirely in a cut scene rather than constantly cutting between animation and gameplay. It’s a slight letdown given some of the insane things that Payne does over the course of the story. But at least that leaves room for improvement for Max Payne 4, a game that hopefully won’t require another 9-year wait.
The gameplay itself is true to the tracks laid by the previous Max Payne outings. Basically, you’re required to shoot bad guys, but you have the heightened ability to go into slow motion “bullet time” and fire your gun at several foes while diving through the air to ensure they are all good and dead by the time you hit the ground. You can choose various levels of aiming assistance from a tap button auto-aim to fully manual aiming for show-offs. No matter what mode you choose, bullet time works so well that diving down a flight of stairs while shooting some hood in the face with an uzi is just as fun on your 12th hour of shooting as it is the first time around. Improved in-game physics mean that now if you time your jump improperly and dive into a wall, bullet time stops and the falls looks realistic and painful. This makes things either challenging or hilarious depending on how many guns are firing on you while it’s happening. There are a couple of new bullet time additions as well such as levels that kick off while flying through the air in slow motion while trying to kill everyone in the room or a great new feature that automatically enters bullet time if you are about to be killed and gives you one last opportunity to shoot your enemy before he knocks you off. Get a good kill in that mode and you’ll get to see your enemy explode with bullets from multiple angles that you can slow down with the push of a button to create your own Sam Peckinpah climax. The cover-shooting dynamic of GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption is also an option and a life saver in busy rooms. You can still use bullet time to aim from the crouch and it helps, but let’s face it if you’re not diving through the air while you’re firing two handguns in slow motion, what’s the point of bullet time?
The single player story mode in Max Payne 3 is the main draw and it’s a doozy. A deep n’ dozen hour headfirst dive into corruption involving involuntary organ donors, the sex trade industry, drug wars, corrupt prison breaks and just about every other situation that you’d want to take Max Payne into with a gun. Given the care and craft that went into the visuals that will make your eyes explode and a story that will require you to find a new edge to your seat, it is by far the most satisfying element on the disc. However, Rockstar has provided some extras to keep you comin’ back for more. First up, there’s Arcade Mode that allows you to replay every chapter striving for time or points records that are ranked online. It’s a fun enough way to replay the game, but nothing particularly spectacular.
Next up, Rockstar has provided some online multiplayer. It’s essentially a third person death-match situation and fairly fun for what it is. The only issue is that like Red Dead Redemption, you can use bullet time in multiplayer, but it’s rarely useful. If you’re facing off against someone in real time, aiming and shooting is far less time consuming that diving, aiming, and shooting and often you’ll find your head blown off in the middle of some fancy move by an opponent who skipped the acrobatics and pulled the trigger. A couple of original multiplayer modes were also thrown in like “Payne Killer” where one member of the group plays as Max Payne against everyone one else and then whoever kills him takes over as Payne. The other new mode is the lengthy Gang Wars option, which weaves together story elements with a multi-level team battles involving tasks like territorial skirmishes, bomb planting, and palm-sweat inducing single life death matches. It’s an interesting and original multiplayer option, but ultimately if you want story, you’ll play single player. Multiplayer is all about glorious killings and the plot stuff just gets in the way of totally beating that 12-year old from France who thinks he’s so hot. The multiplayer options are certainly nice, I just don't see the community lasting for very long and I'd imagine more than anything else these new modes are a trial run for what will inevitably be a huge multiplayer component in GTA 5.
Max Payne 3 is a gloriously gritty, hard-edged, shoot em’ up. A worthy new chapter to the blood-soaked series as well as an impressive addition to the incomparable Rockstar catalogue. Sure, the designers should have saved some of their best ideas for the second half of the story and the multiplayer mode is more of a pleasant bonus than vital addition, but that doesn’t really matter. The title combines simple, smooth, and endlessly enjoyable gameplay with a surprisingly complex story and a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero (the voiceover performance by series regular James McCaffrey is a work of growling, cigarette scarred beauty). This time out, Rockstar sacrificed their staple open-world freedom for controlled storytelling and created a tale that might not require much brain power, but offers further proof that videogames can be a writer’s medium. This is about as good as action gaming gets and in terms of visceral entertainment, offering impressive console-based competition on the blockbusters currently raking in dump trucks of cash in the multiplexes. If you feel like killing bad guys this summer, there’s really only one option. As drunk, lonely, suicidal, and downright insane as he may be, Max Payne is the man for that job. Bring him back soon Rockstar. This guy has been missed and clearly needs to get out more.