Max Payne stumbles as he rises to his feet. He tucks his rifle under his arm and reloads; his white shirt is streaked with bullet-holes and dried blood. He stalks the darkened corridor, guzzling painkillers, readying himself for the firefight to come. ‘Time moves forward,’ he tells himself. ‘Nothing changes.’
With respect, we find ourselves unable to agree with Max on the point. In the 9 years since the release of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, time has marched inexorably on and the gaming world has seen many a change. Remedy, having long ago sold its Max Payne property to Rockstar Games, has moved on, leaving its iconic hero in the hands of its former publisher and industry-juggernaut and the series’ fans concerned about the future of the franchise. Originally revealed in 2009, Max Payne 3 has been long in the making at Rockstar Vancouver and subject to considerable scrutiny: would its overweight, bald-headed Max bear any resemblance to the grimacing anti-hero who so memorably traipsed the rain-soaked streets of New York? And what of the game’s Brazilian setting and seeming abandonment of the film noir graphic novel style? Sorry Max, things definitely change; the question on the minds of gamers, however, is whether Max Payne 3 evolves the franchise for good or ill. Fortunately, Rockstar’s latest creation ably demonstrates that change is healthy, and that its still possible for an old dog like Max to learn some new tricks.
Max Payne 3’s biggest departure is undoubtedly its notable shift in aesthetic and narrative philosophy. Where Remedy infused the series’ earlier titles in the series with a lurid, dream-like atmosphere replete with fourth-wall shattering humour and a flowery script by Sam Lake that simultaneously paid homage to and subtly parodied the hardboiled style of Raymond Chandler, Max Payne 3 takes a more grounded approach, weaving a gritty tale of violence and redemption which sees a burnt-out, alcoholic Max Payne exiled to the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo to take up work as private security to an idly rich family who survey the slums from rooftop bars and glittering skyscrapers. Before long, all hell breaks loose, forcing Max to confront his own demons and unravel the web of conspiracy in which he is trapped.
Rockstar takes some big risks in the delivery of Max’s tale, taking stylistic cues from the filmography of Michael Mann and Tony Scott, distorting and blurring the game’s numerous cut-scenes to evoke Max’s drunken, addled state. While some fans will find the stylistic shift almost impossible to bear, most will appreciate the vibrancy and psychological realism afforded to Max as a result. Assisted by outstanding acting from voice actor James McCaffrey, Rockstar has managed to significantly evolve the series’ eponymous anti-hero, elevating him from a mere noir trope to a multi-dimensional character with an arc. Few game developers have the inclination or ability to imbue their characters with, well, character, and it is both a credit to Rockstar and an honour for Remedy that their icon has been treated with such affection. Cleverly juxtaposing Max’s natural ability with his crippling flaws, his fragility with his indefatigable drive, Rockstar offers up its first fully rounded character and, wisely, hinges its entire game on his shoulders.
Moment to moment play in Max Payne 3 is as muscular, singularly-focused and driven as its lead, adopting the series’ signature ‘bullet-time’ and ‘shootdodge’ mechanics and letting them loose in environments governed by the laws of the Euphoria physics and animation technology. Max Payne 3 is, at its most crude, a series of shooting galleries in an interconnected series of corridors and arenas, punctuated by narrative interludes or one-off (and always exciting) set-piece moments. While the game’s syntax is fairly basic, Max Payne 3 shines in its vocabulary, deftly mixing the series’ stylishly choreographed maneuvers with more modern, cover-based shooting to create the most vivid and convincing interactive recreation of Hong Kong action cinema yet. Controlling Max as he seamlessly vaults from behind cover in slow-motion and topples a series of enemies with precisely-placed headshots from dual-wielded handguns is terrifically satisfying, even more so when one picks off any remaining stragglers from the floor while Max lays prone. The game is not without its flaws, however; Rockstar’s interpretation of the series’ core gameplay is undoubtedly satisfying, but purists may baulk at the emphasis placed on the game’s cover mechanics and level design and enemy A.I. which sometimes discourage John Woo-styled acrobatics in favour of more cautious play. Couple this with unsatisfactory default control settings (we preferred to increase the game’s horizontal and vertical aiming sensitivities and disable all aiming assists), Max’s fragility, and more than a couple of frustratingly placed checkpoints, and certain moments in Max Payne 3 threaten to cross the line from challenging to maddening until players find their groove.
Even so, repeated death in Max Payne 3 is somewhat alleviated by physics and animation which are quite simply the best in their class. The game’s world and everything in it, from Max, to his enemies, to each individual bullet fired, is rendered with attention to detail and grounded with realistic weight and inertia, elevating the simple act of firing a gun into a deeply satisfying endeavor. The game knows it, too, cheekily framing the last kill in any given room in a slow-motion close-up, emphasizing the carnage and the realism with which enemies crumple to their knees, tumble down stairs, or slump against walls. Shooting is not merely something you do in Max Payne 3, it is essentially is the game, and it looks and feels good enough to sustain the entire experience and give substance to what would, in any other game, be a staccato series of kill-rooms. Coupling the gorgeous bullet ballet are sumptuous visuals courtesy of Rockstar’s proprietary RAGE engine, which takes full advantage of art design that captures every inch of the grime and glamour of Sao Paulo, and a superlative original soundtrack by L.A. experimental rockers, Health, making Max Payne 3 an aesthetic triumph.
It is fortunate that the game looks, plays and sounds so good, because there is quite a lot of it, with a story mode that spans 10-12 hours on the regular difficulty setting. Max Payne 3 is a generous game which continues to up the ante and maintain forward momentum, meaning that while the game is lengthy for a linear third-person shooter, it never runs out of steam and remains compelling until its conclusion. When the story is over, players can look forward to eking out all of the game’s collectables, attempting harder difficulty levels, and trying out the newly-introduced arcade mode which takes the single player story and overlays it with a score-based system which rewards players based on their speed, style and efficiency, earning them experience points which can be transferred over to the game’s fully-featured multiplayer suite. Unfortunately, while the game’s multiplayer mode is rich with options, such as customizable avatars, load-outs, and a robust perks system which makes smart use of the bullet-time conceit, it is, at least on the PS3 version of the game that we tested for this review, beset with matchmaking issues, lengthy loading times, and frequent disconnections, many of which may or may not be as prevalent depending on players’ individual circumstances and may be rectified in future by way of post-launch patches. No matter which way you cut it, though, the single player story is at the heart of Max Payne 3, and it is good enough to warrant multiple plays and render the multiplayer functionality as something of an added bonus.
Max Payne 3 is as driven and focused as its star, intent on delivering superlative gunplay and exciting, cinematic action at every turn. Remedy’s idiosyncratic touch may be absent, but for those who can appreciate the game on its own terms, Max Payne 3 is hard to beat. Rockstar have taken Max Payne, shaken him up, stripped his soul bare, and made him relevant again. Max Payne, one of gaming’s great figures, and the wounded lion at the epicentre of all the expertly executed bloodshed, has been made greater… and we can’t wait to see where his journey through the night takes him next.