Max Payne 3: The Rise of Max Payne
Following soon after the premier of the first Matrix film, and not long before the second, Max Payne was one of the first video games to truly capture what it felt like to be a badass action movie hero (or arguably anti-hero) in interactive form. I played through the first Max Payne when I was eight years old, back in 2001. Honestly, I'm willing to bet playing a game like that at such a young age (as well as countless other Rockstar games from as far back as I can remember) had a significantly bad impact on my upbringing, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless that also shaped my taste for quality video games of cinematic style. Its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, released two years afterwards to critical acclaim and mild commercial success. However, nine years after its predecessor's release, Rockstar ultimately brings us Max Payne 3 and I believe it goes without saying that this was no small effort that they chose to endure.
The third in the Max Payne trilogy marks the first time that famed developer Remedy (who developed the first two titles as well as the critically-acclaimed Alan Wake series) hasn't had their trademark splashed onto its development cycle. Obviously the game was not written by Remedy's Max Payne creator Sam Lake, but despite this written by Rockstar's Dan Houser which presents a darker tonal shift to an already extremely grim franchise. And that's not to say that's a bad thing and it's not that markedly different. Don't get me wrong, this is still a Max Payne game, but more like...”Max Payne Modernized Remix” with sharply written dialogue that leaves you perpetually wanting more. The game still has the depressing narration, comic book panels, and the tongue-in-cheek humor (however it takes a much more back seat position this time around), but it also has the spices of Rockstar mixed into its flavor with intensely cinematic cut-scenes that make you feel as if you're watching a movie with interactive sequences that also do a great job of masking load times, which further engrosses you into the experience.
We're not in Hoboken no more, really. Max Payne 3 also presents a brand new setting for a series very firmly established in the New York/New Jersey area. Initially, long-time fans perceived this as a negative sign of unnecessary, inappropriate change to an accepted formula, but this has turned out to be false. The new Brazilian setting of Sao Paulo does a great job of mixing up the background for the grossly over-the-top fire fights while keeping the gameplay strangely familiar and different concurrently. The game's entire story is presented using in-engine cut-scenes that seem like they're straight out of a Scott Free production or even a Michael Mann film, using color/image distortion to signify that all of these events are foggy memories Max is recollecting in non-chronological order through a haze of alcohol and opiate induced attempts to numb his mind from the (no pun intended) pain from his past. While dialogue is spoken by supporting characters to Max or through his own narration, certain words are flashed on screen in a stylish manner to show their significance in Max's perception. For example, a character says to Max at one point “I'm not going to take anything away from him that God hasn't already deprived him of.”, while the only word flashed on top of Max's head is “deprived”, showing that he accepts what this character has said is the depressing truth.
Retired from the NYPD, Max has been sitting in a bar on and off for at least five years or more dwelling on self-pity and trying to forget the horrifying memories of all the loved ones he has lost, a lot of them directly correlated to his actions. An old friend from the police academy Max cannot remember, Raul Passos, attempts to recruit Max to come assist him in protecting a high-profile family in Brazil for private payment. Max initially resists, but when something happens (no spoilers), Max realizes that is the only chance he has to survive in this cruel world and maybe even one last chance at the redemption he desperately needs. Afterwards, the two head down to Brazil to protect the wealthy family that hired Passos, the Brancos.
Gameplay wise, Max Payne 3 is hands-down the best feeling Rockstar game to date. The gunplay feels polished as hell and the shoot-dodge mechanic fits perfectly with how the game has been designed around it. During the lead-up and marketing of this game, Rockstar bragged that Max Payne 3 was one of the few third-person shooters to have the free range movement of a first-person shooter; achieved by the advanced animation and blending technology Rockstar had developed and implemented. I am happy to say that this is the truth, for the most part. I'd say his animations and movement were modelled very precisely, but probably only worked how I intended 90-95% of the time. Then again, that's pretty damn good since no other game has been able to achieve that. However, the only mechanic I did have trouble with was the cover system. And while it's not bad in the least, I did have times few and far between of getting stuck in cover, or not attaching to the cover I intended (just look at Grand Theft Auto IV).
Max Payne 3's presentation is nothing short of fantastic and honestly, I find it surprising that seven years in an Xbox 360 game has managed to impress once again on the visual fidelity it can produce. The faces in this game are honestly some of the most convincing I've seen in a video game, even surpassing LA Noire in certain aspects. Especially Max Payne's face himself, which was modelled this time around after Max's voice actor James McCaffrey, who did full-body and facial capture for the role. Back-tracking to what I said before, the cut-scenes are of such high quality and so well-produced, it feels as if you're watching a movie with exceptionally sharp writing that does a better than decent job of making load times unnoticeable and throwing you directly into the action Max manages to dig himself into. It's also worth pointing out that the game sports a new edition of the Euphoria animation/physics engine that has been cranked up to max (once again, no pun intended) resulting in death animations from enemies that look savagely believable as well as depend on what gun and what caliber gun you're using. I have never seen a game achieve something of this magnitude before.
Lastly, the newest edition in Max Payne 3 is the multiplayer that Rockstar implemented for the first time in the series. Based around its signature bullet-time mechanic, the multiplayer plays similarly (but noticeably a little different) than the single-player and does a great job of keeping the multiplayer quick-paced and different from most other multiplayer games out there. Like the single-player campaign, you gather bullet-time by killing enemies the old-fashioned way then triggering it using the right bumber of the controller just like you do in the campaign. Nevertheless, the main difference is...how the hell would Rockstar implement a slow-mo mechanic in a multiplayer game? Well, the talented dudes there have made bullet-time only activate for enemies in your line of sight (either they are aiming at you, or you are aiming at them) when you hit the right bumper, which results in them slowing down while you do a bullet dive in full aiming speed, giving you a clear advantage. I've still done my fair share of killing enemies who have tried to kill me in bullet-time, though, so it's not as if it breaks or severely unbalances the multiplayer aspect, but actually works quite well for the most part. In fact, alongside the signature Gang Wars game type and the addition of Bursts (sort of like Call of Duty killstreaks), the bullet-time mechanic in multiplayer truly makes this game feel special. It really feels like the multiplayer Matrix video game I always wanted but never got as a kid.
Max Payne 3 delivers. If you have been craving a sequel to this beloved franchise, then by all means go purchase this game today. But, if you love Rockstar, a good crime story, or just want a shooter to hold you over these next few dry months, then I'd definitely give Max a chance if I was you. With Arcade mode (which is like leaderboard score attack), the classic New York Minute mode that unlocks after completing the game, golden gun collectibles and other challenges that lead to unlocks like unlimited bullet-time, painkillers, bullets, etc...ON TOP of the multiplayer that keeps you coming back; Max Payne 3 certainly has replay value long after you've finished the main story of the game. Either Borderlands 2, Assassin's Creed III, or Resident Evil 6 really need to impress me or I've already found a strong contender for my Game of the Year 2012.