Max Payne 3 Review
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
In the opening moments, you notice one of Max Payne 3’s biggest changes: the distinct lack of darkness. In the first two entries, the night was thick and smothering. Shadows hid everything under its canopy, making the especially grimy alleys of North Jersey the perfect habitat for the gritty bullet ballet to be performed in. The oppressive night was a character in and of itself, a nagging tag-along to constantly remind players that the rabbit hole only gets deeper, and never safer. Walking further into the shade, you would be making the non-verbal commitment alongside Max, agreeing that things will only get harder with each step.
The sun drenches almost every part of Max Payne 3, but it doesn’t bring warmth and happiness. Sao Paulo burns under its gaze, frying the super low class in their shanties. Urban decay is illuminated like an ant under a microscope, and sits it stark contrast to the city’s power families who lounge amongst clouds. The rich and famous hide at the top of skyscrapers, as if fearful that if they get too close to the ground, they’ll never get free. They’re not completely wrong, in that sense, as this particular fear is what brings Max out of the states into Brazil in the first place.
Set five years after the events of the second game, Max is convinced by an old friend to take up a personal protection job, and live out the next chapter of his life on easier waters that the last. Of course, that doesn’t last, and Max is thrust back into the madness. This madness is the type he hasn’t yet encountered, though. Yes, a gun wielding professional isn’t exactly new to Max, but the sheer brutality and hostility in every single corner of the brave new world keeps our protagonist in a position even he had never been.
There are similarities: damsel in distress, guilt driven acts of heroism, but none of it with this new sort of isolation and loneliness that he feels being in such a foreign place. In America, at least the people who wanted to kill him spoke English. And there are his personal struggles to contend with. Max has developed into new depths of alcoholism and debauchery. Before, painkillers and booze kept him motivated through the pain to find vengeance, but with the vengeance gone, Payne has kept with his vices simply to just hide from the pain.
I spend a lot of time highlighting the narrative because it is Max Payne 3′s strongest feature by leaps and bounds. The story is well thought and the plot does a good job of keeping you on your toes. The writing however can be very hit and miss. Dialogue is often tight and quippy, bringing out the best parts of each character with every conversation. Max’s self-narration, though signature, works only most of the time. There are many moments of brilliance in it, when Max’s thoughts are woven in the words in such beautiful ways, you’ll wonder if there were any more perfect way to put it. Other times James McCaffery (Max’s very capable voice actor) stumbles over some of the more lofty metaphors. Noir is known for its melodrama, and even without Sam Lake, this game does the subgenre justice, even if the feel of this game is more Man on Fire than Maltese Falcon.
The visual direction re-enforces this idea, the presentation now featuring scan lines, film warping, and super imposed subtitles ala many Tony Scott. It’s a big adjustment to make, that surely many older fans will have an issue with, but It’s more than stylistic frivolity. It’s supposed to make you feel as out of place as Max does. When the color distorts and the screen begins to deteriorate, we can assume that we are viewing the world through a drug addled vigilante. When certain lines are super imposed over the cinematic, it’s because Max tends to hear selectively, putting more stress and attention on particulars. All in all it is a neat design choice and does enhance to storytelling of the game.
Textures aren’t the most impressive on any console, especially if you’ve played L.A. Noire or Uncharted 3, two games that have very recently changed the game on digital graphics. That being said, the linearity of the story doesn’t give you much time to stop and smell the roses, and when not under critical microscopes, really aren’t bad. Character models are more or less generic, as most of the NPCs are on screen to be blow away, anyway. The new Max model does a good job of showing an aging action hero, no longer a svelte and boyishly handsome as previously featured.
The sound is all in all a win. Gunshots boom with conviction, and explosions fill every map a dangerous roar. Voice work is solid on all counts; from Sicilian mobsters to Brazilian thugs, almost everyone sounds pretty authentic. The music is a great mix of moody theme scores, to heavy dance beats, depending on the situation. Its never out of place or confusing. Better still, the music will change based on your actions, for example hanging out in one place too long may start a secondary soundtrack that may serve to compel you to move on. HEALTH, the prog rock outfit the Rockstar enlisted to manage the soundtrack, does a fabulous job.
Gameplay, though, isn’t as consistently smart and sound as the rest of the game. General gunplay is reminiscent of the first two installments, with some noticeable additions, like lock on assist, which is more or less a standard in today’s world of shooters (though free aim is an option for die hards and trophy/achievement hunters). Bullet Time is back, and works just like it did in the first two games, slowing the action down like your favorite action movie, to sufficiently dodge bullets and line up shots. Shootdodge also returns, and will become the MVP of most gamer’s playthroughs, as it allows a brief amount of invulnerability and relieves you of the duty of reloading for as long as the jump lasts.
A new combat condition called Eye of an Eye has also been developed, which jumps in the games signature Bullet Time mode when you have painkillers on deck and take a shot that should have otherwise killed you. You will have until you fall to the ground (in slow motion) to kill the man who is attempting to kill you. An interesting idea, but more often than you would like you find yourself being hit from a flank, or being shot so hard that your twisted around, spending most of this finite time spinning back into place so that you can spend your last second trying to line up a shot, if you realign at all. And if you run out of ammo in this mode, you will spend the rest of what now becomes the longest fall of your life, clicking helplessly at a man who’s already won.
Guns damage also seems a bit unbalanced. Shooting an enemy anywhere but the head lacks any real rhyme or reason, and the differences between firearms are incredibly basic. Using what you think is cool is pretty much all you need to worry about, as choosing weapons tactically isn’t required much. This approach is a bit archaic; serviceable, but lacks the vision displayed in the rest of the game, and seems to be the only part of the game that doesn’t push the bar at all.
Multiplayer is an interesting distraction, which follows the modern trend of RPG like character growth through playing. Killing other players across the games multiple online modes adds adrenaline to your meter, which can be used for shoot dodging (just like in single player) and bursts, perk like abilities that raise your damage output, vitality, or other such effects. It’s fun way to play with the games mechanics, but not its main attraction.
Max Payne 3 is long overdue, and on its comeback tour process to push the boundaries of game writing and storytelling like it did back in the early 00′s. Though gameplay is standard fare, it lacks the inspiration found in every inch of the rest of the experience. But this shouldn’t dissuade gamers. MP3 is a masterpiece, and should truly be played, no matter what your gaming pedigree.