A Modern Day Max Payne for Better and Worse
When Rockstar set out to make the next Max Payne game they planned something different. From the very first press images we got of a bald, bearded Max running around a sunny, tropical paradise it was apparent this wasn’t going to be your typical third entry in the series. In an age where repetition reigns king and sequels are scarcely more than expanded DLC packs that throw in a few new gameplay elements it was interesting to see if this bold (heh) new direction would pay off in the long run.
You’re Max Payne - a New York City cop whose wife and child were brutally murdered and who went to hell and back in order to punish those responsible. Those experiences have left Max a bitter, broken man with an alcohol dependency, a pill problem and an overall apathy for life itself. Now no longer part of the NYPD, through a set of events that you play through via flashbacks you find yourself in São Paulo employed as a private bodyguard to a wealthy family of politicans, playboys and party girls. After the kidnapping of his employers young trophy wife Fabiana, Max is charged with safely getting the girl back. Not the most original plot you could find in a video game, despite several twists toward the end that while not completely obvious are not particularly unexpected. The story is not as important in Max Payne as the emotions associated with it. Rockstar decided to go with an extremely mature theme for this title, and the silly pulp narrative seen in past titles has been replaced with a much more grim approach. Unlike a game like Uncharted, you won’t find anyone joking around, or smiling much for that matter. The tone is quite somber throughout. The world you’re introduced to is full of drugs, violence and hate. While Max escorts his employers wife around to expensive nightclubs in private helicopters, down below in the favelas poor people are struggling to make odds meet in between living among violent gangs and being oppressed by the corrupt police force - things you get to experience first hand down the road. Whats unique about Max Payne is that the character that Rockstar crafted is very unique in the gaming world. Max is not a hero out to save the world or an avid treasure hunter trying to get the big score. Max is a man that has experienced tragedy and has himself become a tragic figure. As a person he doesn’t enjoy the mass murder he has to go through in order to achieve his goals. While the game is inherently very graphic in nature about the violence it portrays, it’s all there to highlight how ugly that world looks and how much Max despises it and himself for being part of it. What is interesting is that this isn’t a revenge tale, or a story about getting even. When the second act of the game begins, and Max has reached a breaking point his actions aren’t driven by honor, greed or a lust for payback - he does it all for himself..
Mechanically Max Payne 3 does not hold up nearly as well. The at a time revolutionary bullet time technology has seen use in many games and is not a novelty anymore. To bring Max up to date with current third person shooting standards cover mechanics are introduced. You are still able to initiate slow motion bullet time at will or by doing a cinematic dive in either direction, but unlike past titles such techniques have to be used sparingly and wisely. Max is quite frail compared to his opposition and a poorly timed slow motion jump can leave you mercilessly stranded on the floor as enemies pump you full of lead. Apart from bullet-time the game plays much like any other third person shooter. You stick to cover with the press of a button and the triggers work as you’d expect. There are three separate options for aiming that control how much your reticule will snap to your enemies - although plenty of achievements require the use of free aim without any assistance. At any given time Max can hold two pistols and a rifle or a shotgun - which incidentally is the range of weapon types you’ll encounter throughout the game. A feature that Rockstar had advertised prior to release was the revolutionary aiming mechanics that granted the precision of first person aim to the sensibilities of a third person shooter. While visually this plays out quite well as Max realistically twists and bends his body bear his weapon down in the direction of your crosshair - in practice there is often a strange disconnect between your lower and upper body that makes controlling Max feel sluggish. While introducing the franchise to modern gaming, regenerating health did not make the cut and you still have the oldschool system of a static health bar that is regenerated by popping painkillers you find throughout the levels. Non-regenerating health can be a huge pain and it is no different here although some pains are alleviated as the game will automatically restore your health if you die too many times in a row eliminating the fear of getting checkpointed with barely of sliver of health left before a huge gunfight.
Be prepared to do a lot of shooting as there will be no shortage of enemies. In each of the 14 Chapters of the game you will have killed nearly hundreds of enemies that relentlessly assault you at every chance. The gameplay is divided into controlled encounters, usually while entering an area you will have to dispose of every living being before you can continue onwards. There are no puzzles and no greater thought placed in these shootouts. Throughout the game there are several scripted instances that have you performing a crazy feat in slow motion like being pulled by a chain up to an upper floor simultaneously twirling around killing enemies as you rise upwards - but other than that it’s room after room of pure slaughter. The pace of the game is non-stop action and it can get quite overwhelming and exhausting at times. In the latter levels especially, as the amounts of heavily armed enemies you encounter combined with the not always conveniently placed checkpoints can lead to complete exasperation. With such an overbearing emphasis on combat Max Payne can start feeling quite transparent despite the heavy narrative throughout. At times it’s hard to not see it as anything but a game with small story beats broken up by mindless gunfights.
Visually Max Payne 3 is quite impressive. Character models are well detailed and despite having to mow your way through half the population of the planet you never quite get that feeling of fighting an army of clones. While the fighting can get monotonous, thankfully the levels do not. Credit has to be given to Rockstar for constantly changing up the environments in the game. Each chapter has it’s own unique theme and you’re never fighting in one place too long. The locations you do visit are lush with detail and destructible elements that go flying in the heat of battle. Max himself goes through several wardrobe changes that appropriately reflect the dreary back alleys of New Jersey to the bright, heat streaked favelas.
Max Payne 3 is an interesting title. Rockstar has left just enough of the original formula to recognize this game as a Max Payne title - but the unique new direction they took can make old school fans feel uneasy in this dark new chapter. The combat while nuanced is not fully explained which can lead to playing the entirety of the game without ever knowing theres a roll button or how to quickly recover from a shoot-dodge. Several systems are barely glossed over in the scant tutorial portion that is integrated seamlessly into the opening level. Even on the normal difficulty even earlier areas can present a challenge as painkillers are scarce to find, enemies can soak up bullets by the bucket load unless you get clean headshots, and coming out of an encounter with a sliver of health will just mean imminent death upon the next wave of bad guys you hit. Despite all this the evolution of the character is interesting to behold. While some just brush Max off as a self-loathing drunk, if you stick around you start to see him evolve unlike many other modern day video game protagonists that stay true to their form through thick and thin. Despite several instances where the combat got so overwhelming that I wanted to pull my hair out retrying the same areas over and over again - I felt content by the roll of the credits. Definitely not the best game I’ve ever played, or even a top five for this year - but the interesting new take on a modern day game protagonist had me intrigued enough to keep going. The soundtrack is great and if you take a liking to the combat which I personally couldn’t get a feel for throughout the entire campaign then theres a very competent multiplayer portion thats full of the usual game modes and level progression you might find in a modern third person shooter. If you’re a die hard fan of Max Payne then this might not be the game you’re expecting it to be for many reasons. That said, those same reasons that make it different from the classic Max Payne experience are not all bad.