It wears Max and Me Down
Max Payne 3, and many video games like it, are filled with excuses. The effort and sweat required to create a conflict and sustain it, like so many attempts by other non-military shooting video games, the way college roommates or distant uncles attempt to tell a bigger tale than the one before in an effort to impress a family, is near obvious. I played Max Payne 3 in one day. I had walked into Blockbuster with a previous Max Payne in mind, and a broken Xbox (I played using my roommate’s), and a small amount of time before I moved out from graduating college. The drive to finish was excruciating, and I blame myself.
São Paulo, Brazil, the locale, where the beer is cleaner than the water, bunched up corridors, endless urban territories, has been seen before. What could I expect? Only that after seeing a brutish destructive fist fight in Rio de Janeiro in Fast Five between The Rock and Vin Diesel, and a bullet ridden chase through the rusted sheet metal shacks in Call of Duty, I was not surprised by the scenery; while it should not be an issue, the graffiti and over-stereotyped Latin American cultural references began to leak. Ironic, or just a plain shame, considering that Max Payne 3’s locations in this game are some of the most extravagantly designed. So well pieced together, it almost transcends a video game in detail for brief moments in time at the introduction and reflects Heavy Rain levels of narrative.
The moment is dissolved through several bouts of stylistic choices without merit, and muddled plot excuses for conflict. Ryan Davis mentioned Man on Fire as an influence and is spot on: Max Payne, sponged with booze and forgotten besides his infamous loss of his wife and daughter, is scratching the edges of a psychological cliff in order to pay the bills, and has turned bodyguard for a wealthy real estate businessman and husband, Rodrico Branco. With a beginning like Boardwalk Empire, characters are flung so quickly at the player through internal monologue with Max Payne’s voice acting (exceedingly well done as it is), there comes a realization from a phrase that was made on Giant Bomb: “there are two kinds of people in the world, Max Payne and everyone else,” that becomes painstakingly true. Resulting to quick stereotypes like the highly visual introduction to characters in Halo: Reach through military archetypes (Jun is a sniper, he is holding a sniper rifle), Marcelo Branco, Rodrico’s youngest brother, is a wealthy playboy. Victor Branco, another brother, later a major player, is skimmed. There was a possibility for a contrast in character dichotomy in Payne’s private security partner, Raul Passos, but this is largely ignored. Raul is missing for the majority of the second half of the game, and between action has little to show for plot or character development except as a facilitator and instigator of certain action sequences. For Max Payne 3, Payne stands alone.
Rodrico’s wife, Fabiana starts the initial conflict in the game as she is kidnapped under Payne’s drunken stupor at a loud European dance party. Fabiana Branco, is also a flat character, and this is most likely where Max Payne 3’s narrative falls short. Unlike Man on Fire, in which Denzel Washington’s character is able to emotionally bond to the victim of the kidnapping through bouts of the daughter’s swim training, there is none of that here. In fact, by the end of the story, instead of attaining narrative resonance in a noir-style ex-cop drama, I concluded that there was nothing left for Max Payne, before or after the events in São Paulo. That is a problem.
The style of cinematography (just using the word cinematography for a video game shows Rockstar’s attention to its narrative) is similar to Tony Scott’s Domino, with an almost ADD sensibility to scene cuts, changeovers, and comic book examples of multiple camera angles that reminds me of Ang Lee’s Hulk. Max Payne’s loss of cohesion in reality is manifested in splits in color, in prism-like scatterings of light, and while this style is impressive in a video game, it becomes a gimmick. This also goes for the frequent words from the script hand picked to be displayed on screen. At first, I paid careful attention to the words chosen, but in the end was only baffled by how repetitive it became.
Repetitive seems the ideal choice for Max Payne 3. It all seems there: a conflict requiring multiple set pieces to be an Uncharted equivalent for the Xbox 360, an attempt for an every man with wit and grit to do extraordinary feats, amazingly detailed and different places between parallel stories of Brazil and flashbacks in deepest New Jersey, and weighty gunplay mechanics that most certainly grant the player some agency in dealing death and destruction. But the moments that distilled the experience into fundamentals for me, for an excruciating one day, ten hour experience, was the excuses. Max Payne in his internal monologue expresses self doubt to an almost masochistic degree, a self-awareness that we respect in Max, but we cringe at when overused. “I was not fit for this assignment,” grunted by Max in certain simple or verb laden phrases happen to an extent that I wondered if his self-efficacy would effect my shooting in-game. There also comes a schism, often seen in shooters unrelated to the military, in which the characters must explain how or why there are so many enemies to shoot. Much in the case of video game conflict resolution: gunfire is typically easiest and most entertaining. But by the time the challenge badge appeared at the bottom of my screen to announce I had 500 kills, I began to doubt all the validity Rockstar had taken to ensure this as a realistic depiction of deep crime-ridden noir. Repeatedly, listen for it, Payne has to sound off that he has seen this group of street gang members before, that certain dirty cops or para-military members are well equipped, that they must be really interested in the Branco family to attempt to kidnap members three separate times. It wears Max and me down.
Playing in one day, and playing on hard difficulty, caused such a canned experience, this review may not be valid. Often times frustration over a game played too quickly is impossible to dodge, but something about Max Payne 3 in the way it concluded, something about the way it jerked me forward with its incredible production value, the belief that something so beautiful could not be stifling, helped me establish Max Payne 3 as a beautiful and well technically designed shooter to play, but a lackluster plotted narrative in Rockstar’s history as a game developer.