Sparky's Update - The Great and Terrible Max Payne 3

Grab a can of compressed air, quick-like. You feel that heat coming from your computer? That's not from you watching eighty-seven porno videos while designing some 3D image of Pauly Shore putting boots to asses in your dream sequel to In the Army (tentatively called In the Army: Even Armier). Nope. That's the power of this blog, honey dumplin', and it's about to make your shit 'splode!

OK, probably not. This blog, however, will very likely ruffle a few feathers. Although truth be told, I think the three of you still reading my blogs won't probably give two farts. In any case, I'm devoting this blog entirely to Max Payne 3, a game both lovable and jarring. I started this off as a review, but I thought it might serve better as a blog. If you want my review thoughts, here it is - play this game. It's actually pretty great, and if you don't mind a bit of repetition in its stop-and-pop gameplay, it's a meaty, sweaty brick to the forehead, in all the delightful ways a brick to the forehead can be. The story is terrific, simply one of the best of the year, if not this generation of consoles (which puts it highly ranked in terms of stories told in vdeo games, period).

But upon completion of the game, I didn't find myself in a good place. You see, much like the terrific music theme of Max Payne 3 (and you really should check out the music from this game - it's striking and filling in a way that video game music rarely is outside of Bear McCreary's work), there are some jarring notes when you expect something different. These notes aren't awful, but they do strike a bit of a despondent chord in me. That seems like a bit of an oxymoron. I plan on rambling for a bit, so bear with me, but I hope to explain.

A Bad Man in a Bad Land

At one point, roughly halfway through the game, Max Payne is finding his way through a maze of narrow streets in Sao Paulo. He's a bit lost, and follows a young guide to a street party. Things go south (in Max Payne 3, things always go south), and soon Max is own his own again. Left at that, it would have been an unremarkable scene, fleshing out the world a bit more but not really accomplishing much beyond setting a scene. But Max makes several comments throughout the party and afterwards in his rough inner monologue that change the face of the scene entirely - as well as adding a very, very tough backdrop to the entire game. I'm going to paraphrase here, and likely badly, as I can't find the exact quote online, but here goes:

"...they danced like this for the amusement of the rich American tourists who could take pictures from their armored buses..."

And later...

"Who could blame them for not liking me? I was just another middle-class American gun for hire, and they had nothing."

The theme isn't a new one. We've seen the American fish-out-of-water story in many games. But I don't think a game has found a way to quite get so personal with it as Max Payne 3 did, and you know what? I'm sort of grateful they addressed this so bluntly through Max. Throughout the game, one of the things Max deals with constantly is a sense of guilt about the poor fortunes of others - not that he's necessarily taken anything away from them, but that he's succeeded even as miserable as his life may be where others are living in hovels and shanties, simply because he's American and has had more of an opportunity.

The writer and actor have nailed something here. It's not a new thought, or even particularly well-spoken. But in its blunt ugliness, Max Payne speaks for what I've felt in the past. How the fuck can I have so much when so many have so little? And how do I deal with that? Max isn't an altruist. He's not a bad guy by any means, but he's no saint. He wants to get paid, get drunk, and be left the hell alone.

But in a very real-world sense, he's exemplifying the kinds of thoughts anyone American with half a heart has thought at some point or another, that guilt over the state of the world past a few lucky countries' borders. My small one-bedroom apartment would put many places to shame the world over. I bitch about not being able to find work and yet have my every need tended to thanks to the hard work, sweat, and blood of countless other people. I play video games. I watch TV. I dick around on the Internet. I have an extraordinarily good life, and thousands of miles away, whole groups of people are starving and making do with practically nothing.

It's one thing to say that if I were there and able to, I'd try to help out where I could, but would that be a lie? I'd mostly be like Max, shuffling through the people I met, trying to keep my head down and feeling angry about their situation compared to mine and those I'm with regularly. Roughly thirty miles from where I sit now, billionaires fly in and out regularly in the summers to their dude ranch for weekend getaways. Fifteen miles less than that, millionaire ranchers get duded up in two-hundred dollar jeans and belt buckles the size of Texas for reality TV show camera crews. Half a mile from me is an overgrown trailer park, so full of broken bottles, scrap metal, and junk that you cannot walk through it except on the street.

It's a bizarre, disjointed world we live in. To the people that will never read this, the people who will starve and never know what it's like to not live in poverty, I get why you might hate us. I do. I'm sorry. We burn through what we have, always hungry for more and giving one day a year to be appreciative of what we have, just before trampling each other to death for a few bucks off some movies and toys. I wish I could say for certain that if I could, I'd put my hand out and help you up.

That's what Max Payne evoked in me. That's how deep this game got to me. But...

On the Other Hand

I wish I could have been there for Rockstar's research trips into Sao Paulo. It would be easy for me here to rage at them for being a flush, money-hungry company spouting hypocrisy without having done a thing to help them down there. But how do I know that they didn't? How do I know that they didn't hire some people down there, temporary or permanent? How do I know that one night, they didn't get together and have a few drinks with the locals, commiserating and trying to lift some spirits if only just for a while?

I don't.

But I'll tell you this much. If they didn't, if they somehow managed to be the assholes Max Payne so deliciously described, then I've got no words. All I can do is hope that they did. Maybe somewhere in Sao Paulo, there's a new business opening up thanks to the executives at Rockstar Games. But the horrible, crass part of me, the part that's seen and suffered first-hand from the unending greed of others, knows that in all likelihood, those same executives are buying third or fourth homes somewhere while there are men and women everywhere scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And One Other Thing

Let's bring things to a close with one last thought, and move it back towards a more technically jarring aspect of the story versus the gameplay. How bizarre is it to have such a reflective, introverted story, and yet have the bizarrely cartoonish and outlandish number of bodies hitting the floor? I think Max Payne 3 would have been a supremely effective game if it had a bit of self control, but then again, that wouldn't quite be a Max Payne game, would it? And maybe that's just it. Maybe I'm looking for more than what this game was. What I want out of games, out of their stories and their potential, it might not be what the world wants out of them. Funny enough, I think I'm perfectly okay with that.

8 Comments
8 Comments
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Grab a can of compressed air, quick-like. You feel that heat coming from your computer? That's not from you watching eighty-seven porno videos while designing some 3D image of Pauly Shore putting boots to asses in your dream sequel to In the Army (tentatively called In the Army: Even Armier). Nope. That's the power of this blog, honey dumplin', and it's about to make your shit 'splode!

OK, probably not. This blog, however, will very likely ruffle a few feathers. Although truth be told, I think the three of you still reading my blogs won't probably give two farts. In any case, I'm devoting this blog entirely to Max Payne 3, a game both lovable and jarring. I started this off as a review, but I thought it might serve better as a blog. If you want my review thoughts, here it is - play this game. It's actually pretty great, and if you don't mind a bit of repetition in its stop-and-pop gameplay, it's a meaty, sweaty brick to the forehead, in all the delightful ways a brick to the forehead can be. The story is terrific, simply one of the best of the year, if not this generation of consoles (which puts it highly ranked in terms of stories told in vdeo games, period).

But upon completion of the game, I didn't find myself in a good place. You see, much like the terrific music theme of Max Payne 3 (and you really should check out the music from this game - it's striking and filling in a way that video game music rarely is outside of Bear McCreary's work), there are some jarring notes when you expect something different. These notes aren't awful, but they do strike a bit of a despondent chord in me. That seems like a bit of an oxymoron. I plan on rambling for a bit, so bear with me, but I hope to explain.

A Bad Man in a Bad Land

At one point, roughly halfway through the game, Max Payne is finding his way through a maze of narrow streets in Sao Paulo. He's a bit lost, and follows a young guide to a street party. Things go south (in Max Payne 3, things always go south), and soon Max is own his own again. Left at that, it would have been an unremarkable scene, fleshing out the world a bit more but not really accomplishing much beyond setting a scene. But Max makes several comments throughout the party and afterwards in his rough inner monologue that change the face of the scene entirely - as well as adding a very, very tough backdrop to the entire game. I'm going to paraphrase here, and likely badly, as I can't find the exact quote online, but here goes:

"...they danced like this for the amusement of the rich American tourists who could take pictures from their armored buses..."

And later...

"Who could blame them for not liking me? I was just another middle-class American gun for hire, and they had nothing."

The theme isn't a new one. We've seen the American fish-out-of-water story in many games. But I don't think a game has found a way to quite get so personal with it as Max Payne 3 did, and you know what? I'm sort of grateful they addressed this so bluntly through Max. Throughout the game, one of the things Max deals with constantly is a sense of guilt about the poor fortunes of others - not that he's necessarily taken anything away from them, but that he's succeeded even as miserable as his life may be where others are living in hovels and shanties, simply because he's American and has had more of an opportunity.

The writer and actor have nailed something here. It's not a new thought, or even particularly well-spoken. But in its blunt ugliness, Max Payne speaks for what I've felt in the past. How the fuck can I have so much when so many have so little? And how do I deal with that? Max isn't an altruist. He's not a bad guy by any means, but he's no saint. He wants to get paid, get drunk, and be left the hell alone.

But in a very real-world sense, he's exemplifying the kinds of thoughts anyone American with half a heart has thought at some point or another, that guilt over the state of the world past a few lucky countries' borders. My small one-bedroom apartment would put many places to shame the world over. I bitch about not being able to find work and yet have my every need tended to thanks to the hard work, sweat, and blood of countless other people. I play video games. I watch TV. I dick around on the Internet. I have an extraordinarily good life, and thousands of miles away, whole groups of people are starving and making do with practically nothing.

It's one thing to say that if I were there and able to, I'd try to help out where I could, but would that be a lie? I'd mostly be like Max, shuffling through the people I met, trying to keep my head down and feeling angry about their situation compared to mine and those I'm with regularly. Roughly thirty miles from where I sit now, billionaires fly in and out regularly in the summers to their dude ranch for weekend getaways. Fifteen miles less than that, millionaire ranchers get duded up in two-hundred dollar jeans and belt buckles the size of Texas for reality TV show camera crews. Half a mile from me is an overgrown trailer park, so full of broken bottles, scrap metal, and junk that you cannot walk through it except on the street.

It's a bizarre, disjointed world we live in. To the people that will never read this, the people who will starve and never know what it's like to not live in poverty, I get why you might hate us. I do. I'm sorry. We burn through what we have, always hungry for more and giving one day a year to be appreciative of what we have, just before trampling each other to death for a few bucks off some movies and toys. I wish I could say for certain that if I could, I'd put my hand out and help you up.

That's what Max Payne evoked in me. That's how deep this game got to me. But...

On the Other Hand

I wish I could have been there for Rockstar's research trips into Sao Paulo. It would be easy for me here to rage at them for being a flush, money-hungry company spouting hypocrisy without having done a thing to help them down there. But how do I know that they didn't? How do I know that they didn't hire some people down there, temporary or permanent? How do I know that one night, they didn't get together and have a few drinks with the locals, commiserating and trying to lift some spirits if only just for a while?

I don't.

But I'll tell you this much. If they didn't, if they somehow managed to be the assholes Max Payne so deliciously described, then I've got no words. All I can do is hope that they did. Maybe somewhere in Sao Paulo, there's a new business opening up thanks to the executives at Rockstar Games. But the horrible, crass part of me, the part that's seen and suffered first-hand from the unending greed of others, knows that in all likelihood, those same executives are buying third or fourth homes somewhere while there are men and women everywhere scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And One Other Thing

Let's bring things to a close with one last thought, and move it back towards a more technically jarring aspect of the story versus the gameplay. How bizarre is it to have such a reflective, introverted story, and yet have the bizarrely cartoonish and outlandish number of bodies hitting the floor? I think Max Payne 3 would have been a supremely effective game if it had a bit of self control, but then again, that wouldn't quite be a Max Payne game, would it? And maybe that's just it. Maybe I'm looking for more than what this game was. What I want out of games, out of their stories and their potential, it might not be what the world wants out of them. Funny enough, I think I'm perfectly okay with that.

Moderator
Posted by Oni

Not to be a cynical dick, but if Max Payne 3 evoked these feelings in you, I'm assuming you don't read a lot or watch good movies/documentaries.

Like most Rockstar games, Max Payne 3 touches on potentially interesting themes, then doesn't explore them to their fullest. The poverty and huge disparity in Sao Paolo is touched upon, but there's not really any commentary on it other than "This is a thing and it's bad". Yeah, I got that, thanks. At no point does Max help the poor or the downtrodden, or work against them. I guess in the end, you bust the human smuggling ring, but that's not the focus of the story, it's mostly there so you get to not feel like a dick about all these people you're murdering, because they're bad people, right? There's not a single supporting character who isn't rich or at least reasonably well-off. There's no personal investment in this part of the story.

I also feel like you're giving the game's story way too much credit. For one, it's basically 50% Man On Fire, a great film by the late Tony Scott. Seriously, watch it, it's uncanny. From the basics of the plot to the aesthetic, they straight-up ripped his shit off. Then, there's the pacing. You can't open a door without Rockstar feeling that they need to take control away from you so you can see Max opening a fucking door instead of doing it yourself. You wanna make a movie, make a movie. You're making a goddamn videogame, let me play it. Cut scenes are fine, in moderation and with a point. Do NOT, ever, use cut scenes to show me things that I could be doing myself.

And then Max is going on and on about how much of a fuck-up he is, and we see his substance abuse problem in the cut scenes, but there's not a single part of the gameplay that emphasizes or underscores this. You use painkillers, sure, but they boost your health! The substance abuse is a positive in the gameplay, whereas it's portrayed as VERY negative in the story. You're a straight-up murder machine, capable of insane feats. It just doesn't jive with the portrayal of Max in the non-interactive parts of the game. There's a huge dissonance at the core of the story, the gameplay and the character that's very problematic to me, in the same way it bothers me that Nate from Uncharted is supposed to be this good, happy-go-lucky guy, but he's happy murdering hundreds just to get some ancient treasure.

You want a shooting game that actually tells a great story, using its mechanics, cut-scenes and player choices to great effect? Play Spec Ops: The Line.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Oni: You're making a few assumptions here about me personally that are flat-out wrong.

First, I have an English degree and a background in Shakespearean acting. I'm likely as well-read as you'll find on Giant Bomb. Second, yes, I've seen the movie Man on Fire, and I get the references. I'd also guess it takes a few cues from Domino, a movie around that same time with similar visual effects. The color palette from Domino and Max Panye 3 could be perfectly interchangeable with no one the wiser.

I actually agree with you about the painkillers in regards to the story. Most of the gameplay segments other than that brief jaunt through the streets of Sao Paulo feel divided from the story. It's not to the game's favor, as with the body count I mentioned earlier. Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of this type of cover-based gunplay in general.

As for the quality of the story, we're going to have to agree to disagree. I have no problems with the cutscenes whatsoever because a) they're quality, b) tell a story I like, and c) they mean a checkpoint to break up the shooting, which I needed every minute or so because I suck at video games. I fully intend on trying Spec Ops at some point.

In the future, if you want to attack what I say, that's perfectly fine. I invite criticism of my ideas. But I don't invite or tolerate attacks on me personally. Don't ever make the assumption that someone is stupid just because your opinion is vastly different.

Moderator
Posted by Oni

Hey, fair enough, I knew it was a dick thing to say and I did it anyway, you've shown more grace than me. I just think you're ascribing a level of profundity to Rockstar's writing that I feel is wholly undeserved for reasons stated above. Which is what I should've said in the first place, rather than making some condescending assumptions. Sorry.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Oni: Hey, it happens. I'll definitely agree with you that I've overhyped the story a bit much, as it definitely runs into some problems, particularly in its latter half. The bad guys in charge are telegraphed a mile away, the events of Max Payne 2 are completely glossed over, and some of the story could have benefitted from better character development (particularly when it came to the bad cops). I think, though, as a whole, I really liked it. Well, the story anyways. The gameplays not bad, but it definitely could have used something to break up the seemingly endless gunfight. What that something should be, I have no idea. Maybe some investigative elements similar to LA Noire? Don't really know.

Moderator
Posted by Oni

@Sparky_Buzzsaw: I kind of come down on the opposite side of that: I think the core of the gameplay is rock-solid, other than shootdodging into things being incredibly awkward at times. I wish they'd given you more of that, especially in the first half of the game, where the pacing is all over the place due to constant cut-scenes for every single thing Max does, even if it's literally just opening and going through a door. It's not nearly as bad as, say, Uncharted 3's protracted gun battles vs waves and waves of identikit goons that only serve to pad the game out, and, incidentally, caused me to quit that game altogether a few hours in. It's the opposite, like Rockstar was reluctant to let go of the reins for too long.

As for the story, I think it is good on its own terms, if very unoriginal. The writing's decent, though nowhere near Max Payne 2 levels, and it's engaging enough that I really wanted to see it through and in fact, played through the game in one day. But it's not a good GAME story. The gameplay parts get in the way of Rockstar trying to tell their story, which is a problem I have with just about every Rockstar game in the HD era. It feels like they're frustrated screenwriters who never made it big in Hollywood, because everyone is less forgiving of their uninspired shit there, whereas in videogames, any story that even comes close to being Hollywood-quality gets praised to high heaven. On one hand their approach works better in a shorter, linear game like Max Payne 3, because it doesn't force them to needlessly pad the story out, but on the other hand they've shown that they really haven't got pacing down yet. A high-octane action game doesn't benefit from taking control away from the player frequently - I, at least, found it very jarring the first few hours of the game.

I think the high point of the game was the cruise ship level, where an air of mystery pervaded the level, down to the music, your environment, Max's own confusion, and the tight quarters and hallways of the ship, pushing you ever onward. It was noir-ish, and more to the point I felt like Max - confused and really wanting to know what had just happened and why. And the payoff is pretty damn grisly. The last level was another great moment, running through the terminal with that kick-ass soundtrack, mowing down everyone and not stopping for anything. It needed more of that grim determination, rather than more self-loathing and doubt, which doesn't have a lot of room to resonate in a gory, twitchy action game. It rings untrue. Yeah, I get it Max, you hate yourself, but guess what, you're gonna kill a whole bunch more people. The game does reflect on that, yet there's no real meaningful payoff for Max's internal conflict, which is a fary cry from the emotional closure at the climax of Max Payne 2. Max sipping a martini at the end of the game feels a bit unearned, considering his giant killing spree. I kind of wish they'd had the guts to kill him off and send him off with dignity.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Oni: Those are ridiculously good points - we're just looking at it from opposite sides of the river, me thinks. I think you're definitely right about those being the standout missions in the game. That song playing in the terminal as Max just ripped through everyone was all sorts of awesome. I can't say as I was a huge fan of the last big gunfight (when the one boss is throwing grenades at you, I thought I had to center my bullets on him and couldn't figure out that I was supposed to kill his minions instead) - it felt a little anti-climactic after that particular moment, but still, as a whole, that level was superb.

Moderator
Posted by Oni

Yeah the boss fight was dumb, and way too videogamey. I died a couple of times because I didn't do what the game wanted me to do, which is just bad design.