With most Rockstar games these days, it’s pretty easy to know what you’re getting into beforehand. Mature storyline? Check. Violence? Check. Pathos involving the main character? Check. With that in mind, I think you’ll understand it when I say that Max Payne 3 is very much a Rockstar game. Originally developed by Remedy, Max Payne was famous for two things: turning The Matrix’s bullet time into a gameplay mechanic and taking inspiration from dime store noir stories. Max was a character you really couldn’t take seriously, as his over the top and melodramatic method of narration painted a picture of a game world filled with larger than life caricatures, sprinkled with comedy relief via in-game television shows.
Max Payne 3 represents a complete (and drastic) tonal shift from its Remedy forebears. Max still talks like Mickey Spillane, but he’s been uprooted out of his comic book world and placed into one that is grittier, uglier and, more or less, like our own. Story and tone isn’t enough to carry a game and to that end, Rockstar has tweaked the game’s signature gunplay to near perfection, turning the once so-so combat into an incredible spectacle of bullets and blood. Narrative, strong gameplay and incredible production values result in a stellar product that should, nay, must be played.
Set some years after the events of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, Sao Paulo, Brazil plays host to New York’s former detective (who has developed a deeper addiction to alcohol and painkillers) as Max is recruited by an old Academy pal to perform bodyguard duty for the wealthy and prominent Branco family. The gig seemed sweet enough, all the free booze Max can drink at the cost of babysitting a few socialites. As to be expected, things spiral out of control as the Brancos are repeatedly harassed by a group of thugs from one of the local favelas which eventually results in the kidnapping of Fabiana Branco. After the rescue attempts go sour, Max takes it upon himself to launch a one man war against his enemies, sparing no one as he blasts his way to Fabiana.
In many ways, Max Payne 3 doesn’t differ greatly from its predecessors. You’ll guide Max through a series of levels, shooting anyone who gets in your way. Despite his age and dependence on alcohol and painkillers, Max continues to be rather spry in a gunfight thanks to his ability to perform Bullet Dodge, a tactic that slows down time to give you ample opportunity to line up your shots for quick, efficient kills. Bullet Dodge is a finite resource that gradually refills by killing enemies, so you must strategize its use in order to get the most out of it. Apart from Bullet Dodge, Max has now learned the ability to drop into cover in order to protect himself from enemy fire (as per usual, Max can either pop out of cover to aim or fire blindly). While it’s easy to laugh at a game that just now makes use of cover, its use is an absolute boon and greatly needed. If you wanted to dodge bullets in the last two games, you had to stand behind walls which, frankly, didn’t look all that cool.
When Max gets hit (and he will), popping a few painkillers will reduce the damage displayed on a small, superimposed life meter. If you’ve saved a pill bottle when an enemy has inflicted a near fatal shot, you’ll enter into the new Last Man Standing mode, a variant of Bullet Dodge that gives you a small window of opportunity to kill your attacker. During this mode, you are limited to the number of bullets remaining in the clip at that time, so you’ll need a steady hand and a clear shot. Should death give Max a sweet embrace (and it will happen a lot, even on Normal difficulty), a generous checkpoint system will put you back near the start of the firefight.
The game does offer gamepad support, but playing with a mouse and keyboard allows for a deeper level of accuracy. Having played the Xbox 360 version and used a Microsoft controller for the first few levels PC version, I can confidently say that the PC offers the best combat experience.
Max Payne 3, to put it simply, looks absolutely phenomenal. The game is packed with all sorts of high resolution texture work and the detail on every character is stunning in its attention detail. During close ups you’ll notice veins popping in Max’s arms and temples, note as his beard gets scruffier as time passes, and the fabric on his clothes will wrinkle as he moves. In most games, you’d typically expect the main character to receive the most attention to detail, but everyone in the cast, from Pasos to that lowly IT engineer, appear as if a significant number of man hours were spent building and modeling these virtual actors. I thought the game looked fantastic on the Xbox 360, but running the PC version on its highest settings blows the console out of the water.
Max Payne 3 also makes use of all sorts of visual pops and flourishes. Throughout the game, there will be moments in which the screen undergoes visual tweaks and shifts as colors saturate, dim in and out and lose their contrast - something previously seen in Kane & Lynch 2. During cutscenes, certain words and phrase will appear on the screen, highlighting some of the more important bits of a character’s dialog. While the effects may overstay their welcome for some, I liked it. It gives the game a unique sense of life and makes firefights seem more dynamic, visually speaking. My favorite visual camera trick involves Max firing the shot that will kill the last enemy in the room. Without missing a beat, the camera will pull away from Max and zoom in on the fatal bullet as it flies out of the chamber and into the appendages of your victim. The game does give you a degree of camera control as you can slow things down and watch as your bullets cause red geysers of blood to spill out of arms, legs and faces. It’s gratuitous and wholly unnecessary, but there is a strange beauty in watching your enemies fall to the ground in dramatic poses.
I wanted to take a moment and talk about the game’s animations. If this isn’t the sort of thing that interests you then by all means, skip this part head on down to the next part of this review. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar made use of a piece of software called Euphoria that simulated real life body movements. While I didn’t see the logo during the opening moments of the game, I have to think Rockstar is using it again because of how well characters move and behave around the environment.
Characters will transition seamlessly from one action to the next with a 90% success rate and will always react to where they’ve been shot. If you shoot out a guy’s legs while he’s running in your direction, he’ll crumple in a heap and struggle to get up. If another foe dies next to a desk, he will slump over the surface before gravity takes over, causing him to hit the floor. If Max shoots the cover a target is hiding behind, the enemy will freak out and give you a brief window of opportunity to take him out. If Max performs a Bullet Dodge and comes in contact with a wall or other large object, he will collapse to the floor. And here’s something I didn’t notice in the console version: during the Kill Shots, where the camera zooms in on your target’s last moments, their faces will react accordingly. It actually bothered me to watch as their faces constricted in pain before going blank.
As awesome as these little moments are, the best piece of in-game animation comes from Max holding a two handed weapon. Unlike the games of old where weapons would simply disappear when you pick them up or select a different one from the inventory, if Max were to pick up a shotgun or assault rifle he will hold it in his off hand until you select it. When you do, Max will first holster the handgun before gripping the rifle with both hands. When taking painkillers, Max will tuck the larger gun under his arm. It’s this in depth attention to detail that makes Max Payne 3 less of a game and more of a technological marvel.
If you haven’t been able to tell already, I found Max Payne 3 to be an absolute blast to play. The combat feels refined and engaging, it looks fantastic and the story feels considerably more grounded than the last two games. There is room for improvement, however, both from a narrative and technical standpoint. Trying to get the game to run initially was a trial as the Rockstar Social Club service caused some irritating initialization problems and after two reinstalls, a restart and two driver updates, the game was stable enough to play.
Rockstar has done a great job of taking the character of Max Payne and putting him into the real world and while the noirish edge fits, it does tend to come off more than a little heavy handed. There are some cool narrative twists, such as taking Max in and out of his memories of New Jersey, but there comes a point in the story where Max, the most cynical and untrusting man on the planet, comes off like a naive fool. It feels decidedly out of place and remains a noticeable blemish on what is a well written tale. That isn’t enough to unravel the entire experience and the moment of supreme gullibility quickly gets shoved aside to make way for an explosive finale.
When you’ve finished the game, you can replay it on harder difficulties and hunt down hidden golden gun pieces, play through an arcade mode (where points are awarded for kills) or play a few rounds of multiplayer. Max Payne’s multiplayer component has the same look and feel as Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV. For every kill and match played, you’ll earn experience points that will increase your character level, awarding you with various perks and weapon loadouts. Bullet Dodge can be used in multiplayer matches, but it is heavily limited in order to prevent people from gaining too much of an advantage over the other team. My biggest complaint with the online game is that, for some reason, the characters move very slowly. While Max moves pretty swiftly in the main game, it feels like the multiplayer characters have weights strapped to their legs.
I find it difficult to be overly critical about Max Payne 3. While it has a few missteps and lacks the semi tongue in cheek humor of the original games, I found that the experience of Max’s journey to be far more engrossing than I initially expected. This was a game I was ready to dislike when it the change in direction was announced, but in the end I just can’t stop talking about it. Although the experience will largely be the same whether you play the game on PC or consoles, if your machine can handle it then definitely get the PC version for the graphics and precision aiming. Incredibly comfortable gunplay, beautiful visuals and a mature storyline combine to make Max Payne 3 an evocative game that simply must be experienced.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.