After Remedy moved on to Alan Wake, Rockstar was left holding the bag for the Max Payne franchise, having published the first two games in the series for consoles. Instead of bringing on a developer with experience in the third-person shooter genre, Rockstar decided to tackle Max Payne 3 themselves. If I’m being kind, the shooting in the Grand Theft Auto games and Red Dead Redemption were passable, mainly because there were so many other things to do in those games that you could kind of work around it. Max Payne, however, is all about the shooting. The normal shooting, the slow-motion shooting, and the slow-motion-diving-backwards-down-a-flight-of-stairs-it’s-so-bad-ass shooting.
Developed by Rockstar Vancouver and written by Dan Houser with a serious case of Man on Fire envy, does Max Payne 3 deliver the same pill-popping thrills the series is known for?
Max Payne 3 marks a big change in location for the series, moving out of the boroughs of New York to the sun-washed locale of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Max, having been run out of Brooklyn, is shacked up as a private security guard for the wealthy Branco family, spending his days and nights half-cut on booze and pills. Max is a washed-up, out-of-shape has-been and he knows it.
The game presents its story in a very cool way, somehow blending the unique visual language of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire or Domino and the gritty sensibility of a hard-boiled detective story. Random camera cuts and words super-imposed over the imagery and Max’s inner monologuing work together very well, keeping you invested in the game’s story. Although the overall plot is serviceable enough, the visual flair combined with the dialog, the voice acting and the absolutely killer soundtrack by Health create a strong package. There’s one extended action sequence where a song slowly builds, transitioning from the beat to the music and finally adding lyrics, creating another moment where Rockstar proves that they can create killer moments that blends action and setting.
It also helps that the game looks incredible and runs well even on somewhat older PCs. While it may take up several discs on the Xbox 360, the disc-swapping is worth it just for seeing what vistas the game will conjure up next.
There are, thankfully, no ridiculous drug-induced sequences in Max Payne 3. The game is just a straight-up story about power-hungry politicians and self-destruction leading to redemption, told through current events and flashbacks. Unfortunately the larger plot elements of the story are loosely connected, and even the big reveal feels kind of hollow because there isn’t really anything building up to it. The game tosses so many red herrings at you, even after the twist, so it’s kind of hard to be shocked when the main villain finally reveals himself. The game also leans a little too heavily on Max’s nationality, with him and several other characters riffing on America’s heavy-handed foreign policy, as if Max himself is running around Sao Paulo waving the American flag. While commenting on America’s jingoistic excesses is par for the course for a Rockstar game, it sometimes feels a little out of place in a story that’s mostly about Max getting over his personal failures, not about how he’s trying to bring an American sense of justice to another country. He’s just a tired ex-cop, trying to make things right after dropping the ball.
That just a personal taste thing, but there’s a time an a place for social commentary and it just doesn’t jell with Max Payne 3’s setting.
Rockstar took a gamble with Max Payne 3 and added a cover mechanic to the game while still trying to keep the old Max Payne standby of Bullet Time. What that means is that you use the slow motion shooting primarily to get perfect headshots from behind cover as doing a dive in the open will leave you vulnerable to hail of gunfire. Max is older in this game and it shows in the way he moves and reacts, from grunting painfully every time he slams against a wall for cover to slowly rising to his feet after crashing to the floor. Max’s physique, combined with the reliance on cover and the risks inherit to using Bullet Time means that you need to be a bit more tactical and considered than you would have been in games past.
Not that Max Payne 3 suffers for this decision; it actually pulls off the cover-based shooting admirably, and the controls are tight enough that you can make headshots easily without the assistance of Bullet Time. There’s a large variety of weapons to use from the iconic Desert Eagle to several submachine guns and assault rifles, so you have a lot of tools to use throughout. Rockstar manages to mix up the gameplay by throwing you in a lot of different locations from office buildings to derelict hotels and airports, placing enemies on all sorts of elevations to add a little challenge and presenting you with a variety of enemies from AK-47 wielding thugs to a highly-trained SWAT team with body armor and advanced weaponry.
Max Payne still relies on copious amounts of pills to keep himself going and the game accompanies each swig of painkillers with a wavy static burst effect to show how Max’s consciousness is being altered by the medication. The game also has as tendency to be very graphic, especially when you kill the last enemy in a combat scenario. The game slows down and zooms in on your victim and allows you to continue pumping bullets into him until you release the trigger, each impact highlighted in its visceral glory. This is totally optional, but the game forces you to do it the first time around. Max himself isn’t immune to the realistic effects of the impacts either as dying will lead to Max gaining several new holes to breath out of.
Perhaps against expectations, Rockstar has made a fun cover-based shooter that honors the legacy of Max Payne with a twist of the developer’s own brand thrown in. Max Payne 3 is the very definition of a C game; it doesn’t do anything terrible enough to note but it doesn’t exactly try to break boundaries and conventions, either. It’s very easy to recommend this game as a rental or even a purchase if you want to invest in the multiplayer mode, which, like all of Rockstar’s titles, will have a long tail.
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