Pleasure In Payne
What do you get when you mix dual-wielding, slow motion, mountains of dead criminals, and an excessive amount of pills and booze? You wouldn't be too far off if you guessed "one hell of a Friday night", but it's actually Max Payne. All of these crucial ingredients play an important part in Max Payne 3, Rockstar's first stab at the third-person shooter series, and the first Max Payne title in nine years. One may argue that the New York setting is also completely vital to the franchise, and upon the game's reveal, I was inclined to agree and ready to dismiss it all together. However, having carved a path of destruction more than once through Max Payne 3's campaign, I can safely say that regardless of setting, this is still Max Payne, through and through. Yes, New York is left in the rear view this time around. It's been eight years since the events of The Fall of Max Payne, and Max has moved to São Paulo, Brazil. When he's not in his apartment wallowing in self-pity and depression while fueling his pill and alcohol addiction, he's working private security for a wealthy family that lives high above the slums of the city. His boss' wife is kidnapped by a group of armed thugs with a mysterious motive. Of course, it being his job and all, Max goes after them, but is soon thrust into a plot more grim than he could've anticipated. What ensues is an enthralling, insane bullet-fest with just the right number of twists and right amount of punch to keep you hooked from beginning to end.
Max Payne 3 is tonally different from its predecessors, providing a decidedly darker but more grounded story and atmosphere. Gone are the comic panel exposition sequences that lent the originals a lot of their charm. In their place are fully animated cut-scenes...and there are a lot of them, and they are all laced with an array of strange video filters and effects which you may or may not find aggravating. It's easy to see why many would find them too frequent and disruptive to the pace of the game, but if you're as engrossed in the characters and narrative as I found myself, they shouldn't be much of an issue.
Of course, the plethora of cut-scenes would be nigh unbearable if the voice acting weren't up to snuff. Thankfully, not only is it good, it's fantastic. Rockstar is continuing their trend of setting a very high bar for game performances. The supporting cast is all rock solid, but James McCaffrey, returning as the voice of the titular hero, is of particular note. His performance lends a lot of weight to Max's physical appearance, indicative of just how haggard and world-weary he is. The writing itself may be a striking difference, however. Max, again, has his inner monologue running through the length of the game, but this time around, what he says is far less poetic and subtle than it has been in the past. That's not to say it can't still be slick as hell, but it's a lot more straight-to-the-point and cynical. It's evident Max has lot of disdain for himself and the people he works for. His attitude and sarcasm, as well as his actions, are more reminiscent of a more serious version of John McClane than the Max Payne we know. Given the character's life up to this point, though, it makes a lot of sense and it's a change I was willing to embrace early on.
When it comes to actually playing Max Payne 3, there are few surprises to be had, but that's hardly a bad thing. Max's slim array of abilities are much the same as they've always been, though clearly tweaked in the direction of modern design sensibilities. He still has his trademark (literally) time-slowing Bullettime and Shootdodge maneuvers, allowing him to carefully take out enemies in style while avoiding bullets all together. Taking out the final enemy in an area will trigger a bulletcam, which players can slow down at their will and witness the completely brutal and gruesome ways that your foes meet their fate. While none of those things are exactly new or innovative, that doesn't make them any less fun to use or watch. One thing that is new, at least to Max Payne, is how weapons are employed. Instead of carrying a massive arsenal of weaponry, Max is limited to one two-handed weapon and two single-handed weapons, allowing for the dual-wielding of different guns. Dual-wielding will force you to drop whatever two-handed weapon you're carrying, trading potential raw firepower for visual flair. It may sound counterproductive in the way of effectively taking out armies of ski mask-wearing bad guys, but I promise you that it still looks super cool. Few things are more satisfying than Shootdodging into a room full of dudes and laying them to waste with a pair of pistols. It's just a shame that there are rarely any instances where this is a viable strategy.
While Max Payne 3 is definitely a more-than-functional product, there are a number of bothersome things that go against one of the primary aspects that made Max Payne fun in the first place: mowing down hordes of dudes without the need to take cover. The new cover mechanic in here is easily the biggest addition to the series, though it's hardly a shocking one. This is a modern third-person shooter after all. The introduction of this mechanic perhaps speaks to how often you need to use it, which is to say, pretty much all the time. Max Payne 3 on the default medium setting is substantially more difficult than the first two games. Max himself is very frail; two or even occasionally one well-placed shot can put him out of commission. Add to that the absurdly impeccable accuracy and reaction time of the enemies and you have a game that clearly does not mess around. Shootdodging without a plan will almost always lead to certain death if you land in the open without clearing out the area. Max, being old and beat down, takes awhile to get back up, and he is completely vulnerable during this period. In a lot of cases, this is a game that takes animation priority over gameplay functionality, and even though most of the animation is absolutely superb throughout, this can lead to a lot of frustration. If you're Shootdodging, you'd better make damn sure you're either killing every remaining enemy or diving behind cover.
All that aside, probably the most immediately frustrating aspect was the aiming and movement. Rockstar's biggest titles like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are more known for their expansive and interactive open worlds rather than having technically sound combat. Given the linear nature of Max Payne 3, where combat is the primary gameplay mechanic, it's a bit disappointing to see that the developer has yet to get a grasp on how to give players proper control over their characters. While it is substantially better than, say, GTAIV, it's still cumbersome enough to be of some hindrance for awhile. Eventually, after some fine tuning of the game's sensitivity settings, I was able to find a nice medium. This may not be an issue everyone will have, but if one does, don't be surprised if going back and forth between options menus leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Once I found a comfortable aiming scheme and realized that the game almost demands to be played in a more tactical and cautionary fashion, I found myself having a hell of a time. In any case, the combat itself feels great and impactful, and is further enhanced by some of the best gun sound effects this side of a DICE shooter. It's too bad that the game doesn't allow for more granular precision that is ideal for a game like this. There are 'soft lock' and 'hard lock' aiming options for anyone who would rather run through the game with much more ease.
Max Payne 3 also boasts a multiplayer mode, something else new to the series but also most likely won't leave you taken aback. It comes with all the standard modern multiplayer shooter trappings, i.e. a ranking system with XP, perks, loadouts, upgradable weapons, etc. It's easy to think why this could be simply another needless, slapped on component, but what's offered here is veritably robust. Apart from your typical deathmatch variants, there are a couple of more interesting options, with Gang Wars being the best among them. In Gang Wars, two rival teams compete in a five round match, with the first four rounds being various objectives, such as capturing control points or taking out specific targets. The final round is one of several deathmatch types, where a handicap based on the performance of the two teams in the previous rounds is put into play. It's a neat mode made slightly neater by the story context the mode is given. Unfortunately, with all the multiplayer has going for it, it still ended up being one of the most exasperating online experiences I've had in recent memory. There are a number of balancing issues and bugs (including a notably game-breaking one in which someone can become invincible but is unable to deal any damage themselves), but it mostly comes back around to the aforementioned aiming and control issues. While I was able to find a nice groove in the single player, this was not the case for multiplayer. After spending several hours with the online modes, adjusting the sensitivity quite often, I was never able to discover a setting comfortable enough to gain any kind of footing while playing. I found actually trying to aim and hit anyone to be more of a struggle than it was worth. The gameplay between the campaign and multiplayer is almost identical but it simply does not translate well to a fast-paced multiplayer setting.
Some might be turned off by the lack of both comic panel storytelling and the darkly comedic tone that straddled the line between homage and parody of the noir genre, but what Rockstar has done here is crafted something equally as stylistic as the first two Max Payne's while making something all their own. It's pretty easy to see where the Rockstar influences begin and end; their trademark design philosophies and storytelling devices are plastered all over. Whether you like what the developer has done with their games over the years is up to you, but they have definitely found a way to fit all those pieces into a brand new Max Payne game without making it feel too disjointed. Instead, it comes together in a wonderful, if not entirely original way. The mutliplayer is a disappointment, but the campaign is a wild, ferocious ride that makes the whole package well worth it, despite the ending leaving a bit to be desired. Third person shooters, as well as video games in general, have obviously evolved a lot in nine years, but this third outing, while not delivering on all fronts, manages to feel simultaneously modern and "old school" in all the right ways.