John Woo people in the face and forget the consequences
Max Payne has got to be the most down on his luck and depressingly grim character gamers will have ever been invited to inhabit.
Not only is the guy chronically addicted to painkillers (a health device neatly incorporated into the narrative), he’s blind drunk through most sections of the game and possibly the most incompetent bodyguard of all time.
Set many years after the second game, we pick up with Max escaping his troubled life following his wife and child’s murder to Sao Paulo, Brazil where he’s charged with protecting a wealthy family from kidnappers.
Rockstar have picked up the franchise and while it’s definitely recognisable as a game put out by the same publisher responsible for Grand Theft Auto, the trademark darkly sardonic wit has been switched for grim cinematic realism. This is the most serious game Rockstar has produced. The comic strip cut scenes are gone and the weird dream sequences the featured in previous installments have been given the boot.
The script is expertly written and delivered with a terrific performance from James McCaffrey. Max is seriously down on himself and McCaffery is constantly reacting internally to the progressively worsening situations he finds himself in. He’s a drunk fuck-up with more bad days than Jack Bauer and you’re constantly asking yourself: “How can this situation get any worse?”
That’s the game’s great triumph. That feeling of vulnerability, of being outgunned, past it and unfit for the task. The visual style somehow captures that feeling of being sensitive to light the morning after a massive bender. It puts you in Max’s shoes. Landing after jumping in the air has a weight to it and Max feels achey, slow and chubby around the edges.
The shooting mechanics are largely successful too. Bullet time or “shoot dodging” still forms the basis for the gunplay and there are touches of amazing realism with Max holding on to a shotgun in one hand when he switches to a pistol, rather than it magically disappearing or sticking to his back. The sound, weight and violence of the guns are also handled brilliantly, reminiscent of films like Michael Mann’s Collateral or Heat.
It’s slightly disappointing that as with most third-person action shooters Max Payne does have to employ a cover system. It’s become a necessity with modern games and it adds to the realism I suppose, but it means that in most cases you’re unlikely to recklessly slow-mo dive constantly like you might have done in the previous games. Rockstar create set pieces which call the shoot dodging into action and it seems as though that’s happened because it would technically be possible to avoid going into bullet time all together.
The gunplay is extremely gory and this is intensified by the ability to pump the last thug in the room with as many bullets you have left in a magazine. It’s totally visceral and the damage done to arms/legs/faces is really graphic. Great for sadists but i’m not sure if it’s totally in keeping with Max’s personality. Would he actually do that? He’s not a monster.
One thing to be aware of is just how difficult some of the chapters can be. Even on the easiest setting, getting through the levels provides a big challenge. Enemy AI are smart and that intelligence mixed with body armour in the later chapters mean you really have to pick your shots. God knows how anyone has completed this on hard. The save point locations are also pretty unforgiving. If you’ve cleared out the first room of tough guys and die in the second room you’ll be faced with clearing out that first room again.
The shoot dodge ability can also be a pretty risky manoeuvre. If you do choose to do it and don’t finish off every enemy you can become really exposed to seriously damaging gunfire by anyone left standing. This element coupled with the harsh save checkpoints mean you really have to weigh up the risk reward before stupidly flinging yourself down a flight of stairs in super slo-mo. But isn’t that the whole point of Max Payne? I want to John Woo people in the face and forget the consequences.
Ultimately, the solid gunplay, splitting head ache visual style and superb voicework can’t hide that fact that just like Max Payne, it gets old long before you reach the end of chapter 14. It’s a testament to the writers that the story hooked me in enough to want to get to the end as things really start to get repetitive.