Max Payne 3: A Bullet In Time
The origins of everyone's favorite pill-popping time manipulation aficionado slash ex-cop trace back to the rise and subsequent reign of the PlayStation 2. Our introduction to Max Payne's tragic universe begins with a punch to the gut with the immediate death of his wife and baby daughter. The perpetrator of their murder was a band of drug-infused psychopaths, and the substance they took in was being produced under the name "Valkyr." From then on, Max sets off on a case to locate and halt the production of the drug indefinitely. Along the way, he is accused of killing his partner and is placed on the police's most wanted list. Both of the game's biggest selling points were the noir-inspired panel-by-panel story scenes largely written by Sam Lake and the birth of Bullet Time, a gameplay feature that allows the player to slow time to nearly a standstill to avoid bullet spread and improve their accuracy. The game was a humongous success, earning praise from a ton of critics and gamers and spawning a first sequel that delved deeper into Max Payne's steamy relationship with the mysterious Mona Sax.
I was gifted both games to me by my friend during a Steam sale, and I was taken aback by Max Payne's elegant narrative. The way the title character monologues about the dystopian hellhole of a world that surrounds him made me want to keep playing more and more, even if the gameplay felt stale at times. The sequel was also a pretty big improvement, too. The physics were buffed, more guns were added, and the story was fleshed out with plot twists and tragic moments. All in all, I loved them, and this made me finally eager for the release of his third debut, which took five forevers to finally see a release. Does this game live up to its predecessors? Was the storytelling gimped or built upon? Is the newly-added multiplayer anything to give a hoot about? These questions whirled around in my head like a kite, and the answers were stuck behind a barrier of thought. The review was only just beginning and I was giving myself a cerebral hemorrhage trying to piece together the sentences, but I still succumbed and nearly wrought out my wrist writing my review of Max Payne 3. I popped some aspirin, hoping to clear my mind, but the fog in my head shrouded any material thought. To my chagrin, I began my description of the game's story.
First things first, if you haven't played the first two Max Payne games and you're worried that this game will spoil the entire series for you, fret not. Max Payne 3 contains no dialogue that would ruin the plot of the first two. I was actually surprised by the lack of references to Max's past outings. The only one I could find through playing the main story was an incredibly brief mention of Mona, and it's never brought up again. So there you have it, Max Payne 3 is pretty much a spoiler-free sequel.
Our story begins with the titular hero reminiscing about the events that brought him to Sao Paulo, starting with his job as a bodyguard for the prosperous Branco family. Things go dark when a group of thugs jumps in to crash the party, and it's Max's job to dispose of them. While not quite as wordy as its brethren, the writing is still lengthy, metaphoric, and clever, with the VO for Max doing a stellar job at reprising his lead role. The supporting cast is very believable as well. Passos is made out to be just as big a badass as his protagonist partner, and the supporting cast holds up the intense tone of the game as well. The story also flashes back to some scenes prior to the events in Sao Paulo, which give exposition on how Max got where he was.
The single-player feels like a mix between the original games and Red Dead Redemption. Instead of focusing the camera on Max's backside throughout the game (which was something I could almost never get used to in the first two outings), Max Payne 3 shifts from the backside view to a third-persion aiming mode whenever he encounters heavy resistance. Most of Max Payne's signature guns are back, although fans of the original might feel unwelcome to the new mechanic that nerfs Max's carrying capacity. Our hero can only acquire two single-handed and one two-handed weapon at a time, and attempting to switch to your pistol while carrying a rifle or shotgun will leave you with a slightly slowed movement speed, as well as just dropping the gun if you decide to dual wield. He can still carry and chug down as many painkillers as you wish, though.
The added realism to the combat in this game aims to make firefights more challenging, but Bullet Time once again steals the show. When activated, all movement in the game world slows down and Max can dodge oncoming bullets or put a few rounds in between someone's eyes with enhanced precision. The slow-motion kill cam has been brought back from the past few games and improved phenomenally. As if it wasn't enough fun watching your foes topple over in a shower of bullets, on occasion you'll get a slowed down shot of the last bullet you fired piercing through your victim's skin. If you're really cruel, you can continue firing and turn them into Swiss cheese as they tumble to their doom. In addition to having the ability to bend time to his will and dodge out of harm's way Matrix-style, Max can now utilize cover to his advantage much like Gears of War. At the press of a button, Max snaps behind cover, avoiding enemy fire. The advanced destruction physics allow for cover to be damaged and broken, forcing the player out of hiding. The AI isn't remarkable, but they often use tactics like this to flush you out and fill you with holes. Oh, and for those of you that are still wondering, no, Max Payne does not carry the regenerative health trait like many other shooters these days do. Only painkillers do it for the head honcho, although they seem to be surprisingly scarcer in this game than they were in the first two.
Aside from being able to take cover, the game also allows you to play through the story using a semi-lock-on feature that helps your aiming recticle track their movements. The game allows you to switch between this and the classical Free Aim mode at your leisure, so if you simply cannot get a good shot off of your foes, you can turn on soft lock and blast them to pieces. This, along with the cover system, is strikingly similar to Red Dead Redemption. In both games, you can perform a dodge roll, stand behind cover, execute your enemies up close coup-de-grace style, and activate a slow-motion power that allows you to get easy kills. Hell, you can even loot corpses in multiplayer! Rockstar definitely left their mark on Max Payne's gameplay, to say the least, and there's even traces of governmental corruption in the story, similarly to RDR and GTA IV.
My biggest problem with the gameplay (and, by definition, the entire series) is how often you have to rely on Bullet Time to progress. I played the game on Normal, and the first few levels aren't too terrible. Later on in the game, however, I found myself constantly popping painkillers if I so much as stuck my foot out of cover for 2 seconds. The greatest way to avoid getting hit is to use Bullet Time almost nonstop, and since the Bullet Time meter doesn't stay full forever, it often means you can get yourself stuck in situations where you have to take a sacrifice hit in order to build the meter back up, and sometimes that sacrifice hit can be just enough to kill you and force you to start back at the last checkpoint. Yes, I said 'checkpoint.' No more save scumming for you, Cheater McCheatpants.
There are a few modes aside from single-player that also stand out, the most prominent being the new multiplayer feature. How does that hold up for a Max Payne game? Well... it does it's job nicely, but there's plenty of traces of modern-day shooter elements in there, like the custom loadout system, excessive bullet damage and even a nod towards killstreak rewards called Bursts, which, true to its name, gives your character an immense burst of power, whether it be slowing time to a crawl like the big man himself or giving you an infinite stamina bar for a set amount of time. The multiplayer is essentially Max Payne's answer to Call of Duty, although there are a couple of game modes that stand out above the rest. First, there's Payne Killer, a unique twist on Juggernaut. In this game mode, players fight against each other until one of them scores a kill. That person becomes either Max Payne or Raul Passos, who are heavily armed and each have prolific use of Bullet Time. When another person kills either of the two heroes, they become them and have to fight against all other players. My favorite game mode introduced in Max Payne 3's multiplayer, however, has to be Gang Wars. Unlike most multiplayer settings, which seem to only take place in a location brought over from the campaign and are loosely based off of events from the story, this game mode pits two factions against each other in a variety of game modes and throws out exposition as to how they got where they were. It's very clever, and I absolutely love the narration by De Silva and Max Payne in between rounds. In each game, there are five game modes chosen at random. The first four are often objective-based modes which range from target assassination to bomb planting. After those four modes, points are added to the teams who won their respective rounds, and a final battle commences, which usually is a team deathmatch. After that, the team with the most points (or the team that survives) wins the entire thing. One of my favorite mechanics is the wager mechanic. Three people are selected at random from either team each round, as well as an overall goal such as 'Getting the Most Kills,' and you have the option on betting which of the three players will achieve the goal first or achieve a larger score. Winning nets you cold, in-game cash that you can use to buy perks and weaponry from the loadout menus. It's one of the most interesting takes on a multiplayer mode I've seen in a while, ever since Conquest in Halo: Reach.
Max Payne 3 has seen a long development cycle (the game was originally supposed to be released in 2009), but unlike Duke Nukem Forever, the payload that was delivered was nothing short of a spectacular way to end the series. The soundtrack is voracious, the dialogue and story modes are as engrossing as its predecessors, and the gameplay holds up to the series standards while giving it that traditional Rockstar flair. Now, as tradition with the end of my reviews, I'll make a plethora of terrible Max Payne-related puns in a paragraph summarizing my feelings about the game.
You would think with the long development process that the designers were stuck in Bullet Time, but they delivered on all fronts. There are tons of new ways to bring Max-imum Payne to your enemies, and the cover mechanics are as smooth as riding a Branco. If given the chance, don't Passos this game up, and Punchinello amount of money towards renting it at least.