I had an odd sense of anticipation for Max Payne 3 shortly before it’s release early last month. I haven’t played a Max Payne title for almost 10 years, revisiting the first game way back in 2002 and I confess I never actually bothered with the 2nd one in the first place. I had a good deal of fun with the first game and remembered it for its dark and sinister plot line and its extremely cathartic, action oriented gameplay. This was back when 3D games were generally less structured, when developers couldn’t necessarily put the resources into games that they do nowadays and make them a rigid experience, totally tunnelled and making sure you experience the game the way they want you to. Back in those days you could still do things that the devs just hadn’t thought of, it was fun to explore and this combined with the riveting bullet time gun play made for a fun experience. That having said I didn’t exactly hold a candle for the series and although interested, I wasn’t all that bothered when the 3rd installment was announced. It was only after seeing some press material on it about 2 weeks before its release that I thought ‘you know what, I could really go for diving through windows killing 25 people at once as a fat bald middle-aged guy.’
Yes Max certainly undergoes some aesthetic changes during the third installment. Rockstar have taken the reins this time round, taking over from Remedy Entertainment and as such the game, as well as the marketing of the game has gone through the Rockstar treatment; that is to say it’s got a hand painted poster like all their big name games do and the game’s gone all cinematic. No, I know that sounds like a dig, but I actually thoroughly enjoy most of Rockstar’s games, they always bring a certain uniqueness to a franchise. In fact I was a little concerned that what with Max Payne being purely a 3rd person shooter, that Rockstar would drastically change the formula as they specialise in open world sandbox games ala GTA or Red Dead Redemption. I’m pleased to say though that, although Max Payne has certainly gained some Rockstar traits, mechanically it feels completely separate from GTA.
Gameplay is in fact very linear for a Rockstar game, consisting of following pretty straight paths (figuratively speaking) through environments from beginning to end. I think this was a wise decision on the developers part as linear, corridor based gun fights are what Max Payne is all about. That having been said, it would have broken the game up a little if it had been more open. The odd thing is that being a succession of levels full of mad intense gun fights, it feels as if Max does absolutely nothing but get shot at by every person within a 20 mile radius. Being able to walk Max into a supermarket and buy a bottle of booze without a gun in his hand might have made him seem more like a human being.
Narrative context aside, the game plays very well, controls are responsive, action is exciting, guns feel nice and meaty when appropriate. You’ll find you’re constantly scrounging around levels for pills (that’s health packs if you hadn’t played a Max Payne game, that’s right, no regenerating health here, no sir!) and ammo as I seemed constantly on the brink of death and always running out of ammo. This is a good thing though, it makes the game much more intense. A quick click of the analogue stick sends Max into bullet time where you can react much quicker to enemy gunfire, line up shots more accurately etc… With a press of the R1 button (PS3 version obviously) you can even send Max into a dive through the air whilst shooting every one in sight in one completely spectacular bad ass move. That is unless you dive into wall, which happens more often than you’d think. I actually ended up using bullet time more from behind cover, probably because I’m very safe and boring when it comes to third person shooters. As I said in the last paragraph, the levels do get pretty intense and pretty quickly too. I found myself glad to be at the end of each level, it’s that familiar gaming trope; the sigh of relief after you’ve finished an intense section, except in Max Payne 3 that happens on pretty much every level. See, good as the action is, it would have been nice to see the game do something other than pure gun fights. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see the next game turn its hand to kart racing, just a little more variety would have been appreciated.
The game’s narrative is a little bit more of a grey area than the gameplay. The degree to which I enjoyed the plot/story and the degree to which I enjoyed the characters should be one and the same in a cohesive narrative but here they were completely independent. I found the characters very well-defined and very enjoyable, in some cases unbearably annoying but those cases were clearly intended by the writers. Max himself is a complete fuck up but I found myself very drawn to him none the less. His constant narration and internal monologues are usually very entertaining. Yeah he’s a grumpy bastard and I’d understand if the constant wallowing in self pity puts some people off but I really warmed to him as a character. He undergoes quite a transformation throughout the game, both physically and emotionally. In the beginning he is still pining after his dead wife and daughter from the first game (it’s been 2 games Max, come on mate get over it). At this point he’s still the same old Max we’ve known from the previous games; a bitter alcoholic, pain killer addicted ex cop. A guy named Pasos, claiming to have attended the same police academy, finds him in a bar in New Jersey and offers him a bodyguarding job for a rich family in Brazil. Some jockish bellends come in and start picking on Max (turns out they’re connected to the local mafia…). Anyway Max doesn’t like this and ends up killing one of them. Max and Pasos battle their way out and he decides to take him up on the offer and heads for Brazil. Things aren’t rosy there either though as soon he finds members of this family keep getting either killed or kidnapped and Max understandably takes this to heart. He takes it upon himself to go after them and discovers more horrors along the way but its his own journey that captured my attention. Around the half way mark, Max makes a decision that enough is enough and he has to get clean and stop living in the past and that no one else from the family will suffer as a result of his continual fuck ups. This is brought home by a striking physical transformation where he shaves his head and dons a Hawaiian shirt and so goes from a slick-looking tough guy in a leather jacket to a fat bald, bearded American in a stupid shirt and aviators…he looks badass, seriously.
However, much as I enjoyed Max’ journey, the games’ plot is a bit of a mess. So many small, seemingly insignificant events happen that are poorly explained. The story also jumps all over the place in terms of location and time so sometimes you’re not sure when something is happening. Suffice it so say that at the end of the game, when Max walks out of a flaming aircraft hangar and puts the business end of a shotgun to the face of a badly burnt, screaming bad guy who just had his limbs blown off…I had absolutely no sense of how the story had come to this point. My only other complaint with the narrative approach is that it takes just a few too many ques from movies. There are so many scenes in the game which are almost shot for shot rip offs from things like Heat, Miami Vice, Collateral etc… don’t get me wrong, they work very well and definitely give the story a feeling of gravitas, it just began to feel odd when I began to recognise some of these scenes…
On the visual side, Max Payne 3 is by no means an ugly duckling. Excellent character models, facial expressions and animation are present throughout the game and textures are usually nice and crisp. I found the odd, slight drop in frame rate when things got particularly busy and some anti aliasing would have been nice but then I did buy the PS3 version so I can’t really expect that. It also does environments very well. Many of them, particularly the expansive outdoor ones play a very nice trick of making them feel a lot bigger than they actually are. The game’s levels are just a series of linear corridors but in the outdoor environments it always feels like there are things going on outside of these boundaries too. The favelas in Rio are a particularly striking example of this as you look out across the sprawling ramshackle city from a top a high vantage point. This level also has exceptional attention to detail, there’s so many bits of rubbish lying around and other small tiny, individually insignificant things. It’s safe to say that the trips that the team at Rockstar made to these locations really paid off.
The audio is generally very well done too. The voice acting is superb across the board, especially Max and Pasos, which is a good thing too because you’ll be hearing quite a bit of Max throughout the game. the music always suits the moment you’re experiencing very well and while none of the score is particularly memorable (I’m jumping on YouTube right now to refresh my memory), at the time it suited the circumstance very well, and the change in music when going from room to room also helps to signify when you’re about to get into trouble. This is actually a very handy thing in Max Payne 3 as it lets you know when you can explore the environments for hidden treasures. See it’s the kind of game where if you don’t focus on the job at hand, you will get killed very quickly so there’s no time to mess around looking for ammo and painkillers. They do tend to overplay the theme tune somewhat, although thankfully they mix it differently for different situations.
Anyway, I better wrap this review up, pretty long as it is. Max Payne 3 is a solid 3rd person action game with some exemplary presentational decisions, solid gameplay, and great characters. The plot lets it down a little, and at times you’ll find the game just a little too intense but these things never spoiled the experience. It may not set the action genre on fire but it’s still a solid game that will tide many over, or at least give them a flavour of Rockstar whilst we wait for GTA 5. Most importantly, it’s a worthy successor to the previous games in the Max Payne series, here’s hoping that it’s not the last we see of the old guy.