Video Game Review: Max Payne 3
Think Max got a bowl of soup with that shirt?
When my old roommate and I decided we couldn’t go another day without Halo, the only place we could find an Xbox was K-B Toys,and the industrious people there decided that the system itself would only be available as part of a bundle. That meant we had to buy the console and three games. The first, of course, was Halo, but the others were Dead or Alive and Rockstar’s Max Payne.
I still fondly remember my time with Max when we’d run down hallways and shoot people in the face in Matrix-inspired “bullet time.” In fact, Max Payne was the very first review I ever wrote (albeit for free on GameFAQs). Now, almost a decade since The Fall of Max Payne, Rockstar is bringing back its pill-popping anti-hero in Max Payne 3. It may be a culture shock for those that only associate Rockstar with open-world games, but for old-school action fans it’s a welcome reunion.
When a game is as demanding as this in terms of difficulty and precision, the controls are paramount to success, and unfortunately there are some underwhelming elements in play here. Most notable is the cover system, which when compared to a game like Gears of War or Ghost Recon: Future Soldier feels a bit clunky. Part of me thinks it was an aesthetic choice to encourage players to utilize the unique bullet time and “shootdodge” functions more often, but there will be times when you’ll curse Max’s lack of dexterity entering and leaving cover.
Another maddening occurrence is when you get “downed” in cover, which happens when you lose the last of your health from a bullet but have at least one bottle of painkillers remaining. The game switches into slow motion at that point, and if you can line up a shot on an enemy the pills are automatically ingested and you live to fight on. The issue is after standard gameplay resumes you’re left vulnerable on the ground, which is fine except that Max won’t get up directly into cover. Instead you have to stand up and probably get shot again before he nonchalantly ducks behind something.
Outside of those issues with the cover system, Max Payne 3 handles pretty well. Bullet time is engaged by clicking the right stick (a meter tells you how long you have) and shootdodge is activated by hitting the right bumper, launching you through the air for sweet slow-mo style kills. The left bumper brings up a menu for weapon selection and pressing up on the d-pad pops some painkillers. Beware, though, the game won’t prevent you from taking them even if your health is full.
Like other Rockstar games, the aiming reticule is a dot — white when you don’t have a shot lined up and red when you do. There are three methods available depending on your skill, ranging from full auto to free aim. I went with soft aim (the middle setting) and found it effective yet still challenging. That’s because the game sets your crosshair at centre mass, and as you progress it becomes more and more important to get head shots, so you’ll likely find yourself adjusting the suggested aiming point.
Presented through an interesting series of filters complete with image ghosting and textual overlays, Max Payne 3 offers a unique visual experience. In-game flows seamlessly into cut scenes, which slickly hide the loading screens and keep you fully invested in the happenings. In fact, the only time you’ll see any kind of load up is initially when storyboards of the chapter thus far keep you company while the world bakes. The game’s linear approach allows for exquisite detail work that makes you feel like you’ve entered a living, breathing place. Special kudos goes to the inventive and organic way cover has been implemented into gameplay.
Violence is a constant here, and Rockstar never shies away from it. People are executed, hacked up and burned alive — none of it presented as cartoony. These are evil, soulless men you’re dealing with, and you’re not much better. Melee strikes end in point blank rounds to the face, and each time you kill the last man in a group of enemies the game slows down, allowing you to watch round after round pierce their flesh and rip their facial features apart. A simple headshot might result in a foe slumping over and blood pumping out his open skull, forming a pool on the ground. It’s grisly.
While most of it looks great and runs smoothly, issues do pop up now and then. Shootdodge allows an unrealistic range of motion when aiming, resulting in some weird contortionism from Max that looks all the more wonky slowed down. I also had a couple instances when cut scenes didn’t trigger, leaving me to run around with nothing happening before eventually falling through the ground and having to reload my last save.
To me, Rockstar has long equated to audio excellence and in that regard Max Payne 3 certainly does not disappoint. The hard-boiled caricature from the first two can still be heard in the way Max narrates the situations he finds himself in, but he feels even more tortured and bitter now. It’s a solid supporting cast as well, though with much of the game taking place in Sao Paulo you don’t experience the rich mix seen in a game like Red Dead Redemption. Gunfire rings out clear and powerful, and a great soundtrack is highlighted by the final-chapter track, “Tears.”
Max’s life story is one of loss. Whatever he might have become is long gone. Now he’s a broken down ex-cop, a widower, a boozer and a drug addict. That is until an old academy buddy, Raul Passos, shows up in New Jersey and offers him a cushy job working private security for a wealthy family in Brazil. So when circumstances occur that make it no longer safe to remain stateside, Max decides to accept the job. And, of course, it’s all downhill from there.
Told across 14 chapters in decidedly non-chronological fashion, Max Payne 3 is unremittingly dark as various cartels and gangs take aim at kidnapping and/or eliminating members of the Branco family in a tale that takes one sadistic turn after another. It’s easily the best story in the series and is told in a unique way with story elements being unveiled every few minutes. Some may find the frequent jumps from action to cinematic exposition distracting, but I really enjoyed it.
In a loose sense, the game is a cover-based third-person shooter, though that doesn’t really do it justice as this is much more about quick-twitch reflexes and balls-out firefights than strategically moving from cover to cover and picking off enemies. That actually makes for a bit of an odd mix as Max is a flawed man largely grounded in reality — right down to the authentic way he carries three guns (no assault rifle appearing from under his trench coat) — yet the number of enemies Max puts in the ground is so absurd it creates a strange kind of detachment. How can one so frail be so indestructible?
What that body count does allow for, however, is some amazing action. Set pieces in locations like a yacht, a graveyard and an airport terminal barely scratch the surface of what you’ll encounter. You’ll fire hundreds of bullets in a given clash, routinely causing you to drop one gun only to pick up another and continue the fight — something very reminiscent of a John Woo Hong Kong action film
Unfortunately, there are times when it becomes overkill. Not just because of the length of fights or number of enemies, but because the enemies are infuriatingly cheap and resilient. Enemy A.I. is supernatural; they always know exactly where you are, even behind cover, and their situational awareness is a joke. At one point I came across two men with their backs to me, holding guns on prisoners, but as I approached (walking slowly in a crouch) they turned and gunned me down. Another section had Max fashioning a makeshift silencer, but the second I entered a room with enemies the alarm was magically sounded and reinforcements poured in. I understand that this isn’t a stealth game, but at least give me the option to occasionally surprise someone.
That lack of choices in how to approach combat speaks to Max Payne 3’s other big problem: the gameplay narrative never changes. Outside of a handful of brief on-rails shooting segments, the entire thing is broken up into intense one-vs.-dozens gun battles followed by dialogue. Even when it looks like there might be something new, like the silenced weapon, it gets tossed aside almost immediately. It makes for challenging moments to be sure; it just would’ve been nice to see a little variety.
There are some other smaller nitpicks — like the number of bullets your foes can absorb or how Max always draws his pistol for cut scenes, forcing you to manually switch back to your rifle repeatedly — but overall it’s a very impressive effort that results in all kinds of chaotic fun. Depending on how skillful you are and how many of the collectibles (clues, golden gun parts, etc.) you seek out, the campaign can run 12 hours or more.
While it isn’t as long as most Rockstar titles, the game gets some extra mileage by virtue of a Score Attack mode that has you revisit sections of the campaign and rewards points in arcade fashion complete with multipliers. Story elements remain intact since they cover the load screens, but the focus is on points. Along those same lines is the “New York Minute” mode, which is unlocked once you finish the campaign and gives you one minute to clear an area where each kill puts time back on the clock. They’re fine for what they are, though ultimately you’re just revisiting the same places you’ve already been with a new spin on the rules.
Like the campaign, multiplayer is very much a run-and-gun affair despite the presence of cover. Matches are fast-paced and average lives are measured in seconds. Max’s two signature tricks — shootdodge and bullet time — have been smartly incorporated, and that is what helps give the mode some juice. Here you need to accumulate adrenaline by killing enemies (or looting bodies) to use bursts, such as bullet time, so the game isn’t constantly grinding to a halt as everyone tries to kill one another in slow motion. In fact, only those in the line of sight of the person executing the move are affected.
Most of the modes will be instantly familiar to seasoned gamers, including the cryptically named Payne Killer, which is sort of a cross between Halo’s Juggernaut and King of the Hill where two players are hunted by everyone else with the hunters becoming targets after getting a kill. And then there’s Gang Wars — clearly the focal point of the multiplayer. Here you get a pseudo-story with multiple rounds consisting of evolving objectives. It’s an interesting concept, and one that’s implemented quite well, so if you embrace the length and variety of the matches you should get your money’s worth.
As with nearly any multiplayer game out there, Max Payne 3 offers plenty of unlocks — such as guns, accessories, bursts, skins and more — to keep you grinding away with experience required to open up items and money needed to purchase them. All of which makes for a full-featured multiplayer that feels like a legitimate extension of the single-player content and not tacked on.
For untamed, unadulterated action it’s hard to get much better than Max Payne 3. The combination of a gripping story and staggering amounts of bloodshed is a potent mix. Add to that a robust multiplayer and you’ve got a must buy for action fans.