Max Payne 3 is a pretty good game. It’s lathered in world-class production values, amazing graphics, some pretty tight controls, and it’s a pretty competent shooter in its own right. The first game in the series since 2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne by previous developer Remedy, this entry is instead produced by an amalgamation of Rockstar’s studios. This seems pretty coincidental considering Max Payne 3 feels like an amalgamation of other games and movies, rather than a solid creation in its own right. Oh sure, it’s a pretty good game, as I mentioned, but I didn’t buy it to indulge in the Houser brothers‘ love letter to international crime thrillers, I bought it to continue the Max Payne lore. So how does it do in that regard? Not quite as well.
Feeling The Payne
In this year’s magnum opus from Rockstar, you play as the remains of the titular character, who’s now progressed into his forties and allowed alcoholism and a happy addiction to pills to kick his ass. You’re reminded of this in every other cutscene as Max stumbles around his squalid apartment or hotel room, fumbling for a bottle or the toilet. His wife and child were murdered long ago and he’s still allowing it to serve as the wedge that drives him apart behind the scenes. For reasons I won’t spoil, you’re no longer based out of New York, but rather the sunny slums of subtropical São Paulo as a bodyguard for a rich, prominent family that he despises, dissecting them in detail in the introduction.
Max Payne 3 pays as much tribute to the lore established by the first games as the 2008 film did, which is to say very little. When the game was first unveiled in Game Informer some years back, the sight of a bald and bearded Payne in Brazil was bewildering to fans. Feeling the backlash, Rockstar lay low for a bit until they could bring the more traditional New York-in-snow levels to light and show that there was some bridge between the games. But it’s all an illusion. Max Payne 3 feels like the spliced up script for every Denzel Washington action flick for the past decade, casting a husky New Jerseyite who won’t ever stop beating himself up as the protagonist. Whereas the first two games felt like the geeky result of some Finnish nerds writing out ‘the coolest game ever’ in a dark basement while watching Syfy channel reruns and accumulating Cheeto dust in the cracks of their keyboards, this one fails to feel more than the sum of its influences. From Vice City to Man on Fire, Max Payne feels like a puppet here in a strangely different way than previous titles, where he was a pawn in vast conspiratorial games. Not here. You’re just here to shoot dudes and corrupt officials. In fact, some of the set pieces even feel like Sam Houser walked into a board meeting and said ‘Guys, I just watched the coolest thing, we need to put it in Max Payne 3, I don’t care how you do it!’ I still can’t recall why I spent an hour in a Panama level two-thirds of the way through.
Max Payne 3 (wisely) ditches the static comic cutscenes of the first two games in favor of moving-comic narratives that seamlessly integrate title cards and transitions into the engine as you play. It works, although when phrases appear on screen, they seem arbitrary and sparse. (I never became a fan of the constant color separation.) While Rockstar worked hard to replicate the narrative style of Max Payne’s inner monologue, gone is the somewhat memorably bizarre, noir writing of the Remedy games in lieu of more stream-of-consciousness casual banter that would feel right in a Grand Theft Auto or Michael Mann film. It works, but there are no memorable zingers or wise, introspective notions here, just the same ol’ tropes you’ve heard everywhere else. In fact, there’s very little weird at all here, it’s pretty standard, by-the-numbers stuff as you progress through the levels. Even the New York levels told in flashback feel oddly detached from what you’d play in previous titles. There’s no Vlad or Woden here. In fact, there’s no mention of any of the madness of those games at all.
As much as I’ve just ranted about it, there are many things that Rockstar does get pretty right… most of the time. Max Payne’s greatest weapon was always Shootdodging (no, not BulletTime(TM), that was already owned), in which Max could slow down time and cap thugs as he slid, tossed, and dove (or just stood there, really) and watch as bullets wizzed by, just like The Matrix. It was a revelation in 2001 and not even the games based on those films could ever reproduce its ingenuity. But times have changed since then, notably with the arrival of the Gears of War series which made intuitive cover a necessity in any third-person shooter. This means that not only do you have shootdodging by your side, but you’re now able to snap to cover and fire blindly. The game actually grants you trigger pull enemy lock-ons akin to Call of Duty while also offering a Free Look mode similar to the first games (being a wimp, I opted for Soft Lock and felt good about it).
On the flip side, as a concession to this extra gameplay twist Rockstar has also made Max more vulnerable than previous games which changes much of the feel of the gameplay as well. Instead of experimenting with shootdodging, you’re often forced into meticulous shooting gallery sequences from behind cover, over and over. Much of the charm of Max Payne’s time manipulation is lost save for a few moments where you’re granted close quarters combat or are simply being overwhelmed. Painkillers still serve to restore your health and they’re just as sparse as ever. If you’re coming off Gears this won’t be a big deal, but it’s something that I didn’t quite enjoy as, yet again, another small army of baddies roll into an area and I need to time when their heads pop out of cover so I can blow them away one by one. Being built on
id’s Rockstar’s own gorgeous RAGE engine, killing people has never been quite the pleasure. Just like the similarly titled release, bodies fold and crumple as you lay into them, leaving each death as unique as a snowflake. This sometimes works to your disadvantage at times when foes you thought you’d dispatched rise right back up and send you the one or two final bullets needed to kill you right before a checkpoint.
Speaking of which, checkpoint placement is downright hoary at times. The levels themselves are top-notch, as are the animations (which sadly don’t use the facial capture tech from last year’s L.A. Noire), the voice-acting, and the graphics, but I nearly tossed my controller at some of the gauntlets contained here. The game thankfully doles out an extra painkiller if you’ve been dying repeatedly, but some of these gunfights had me traversing the same areas a dozen times or more (or worse, having to watch even a small-ish cutscene before diving into the action again). I’d mentioned the levels are fantastic, and they are, each with its own unique flavor and with so much detail you can’t help to stop and look… when you’re not being shot at, of course.
She Was A Nine In A Six Outfit
If you go into Max Payne 3 blind, you’ll probably have few complaints. It feels a lot like its contemporaries and the production values are top-notch as always for a Rockstar release. The problem is that they made a game called Max Payne that isn’t Max Payne at all. I’m all for reboots when done properly and in the proper context, and yeah, I suppose I was getting a little weary of the dark monolithic version of New York that Remedy brought us in the first two games (they learned well with their next game, Alan Wake), but cutting out most of what made those games great, namely the twisting insane stories of clandestine organizations secretly running the world from epic mansions, in favor of a derivative South American crime cartel story is sadness. It doesn’t matter how much gold or how many jump-cuts Rockstar drops into this game, it simply can’t mend the vast hole that their new whiny, reductionist Max Payne lives in.