Max Payne 3
Only Rockstar would take Max Payne out of New York, replace the snow with the tropics, the leather jacket with a bad Hawaiian shirt, and see the titular hero as a gun-for-hire rather than a lawman. Indeed, in Max Payne 3, our grizzled cop has left the NYPD behind. Nine years and 5,000 miles later he finds himself guarding shady corporate types in Mediterranean sunshine. But some things never change. As the painkillers rack up, so do the bodies. Max is older, heavier, more battle scarred. He’s slower, a tad less agile. But make no mistake, he’s still able to launch into a room, pirouetting in a 360 degree killing arc, all while in slow-motion. For while Max Payne 3 is certainly a different game, it also fits snugly within the series’ canon, providing thrills and spills aplenty.
Bullet time is a thing of beauty. Depress the right analogue stick and the world suddenly slows. Bullet tracers tear the screen. As Max leaps into the air he can gain the upper hand on targets behind cover. That elusive headshot is suddenly manageable. Once you hit the ground, you don’t jump back straight to your feet. No, Max will lie prone until you order him up. But it’s often a giddy pleasure to remain prone, then roll around and pick off targets. Kill the last man in the room and a “bullet cam” gives you a close up of the bullets piercing your victim’s flesh. You can keep firing, watching the bullets arrowing in on their target. Flesh and blood becomes indistinguishable. It’s a gruesome sight. Yet cleverly, it’s more than a visual gimmick: it lets you know you’re safe for the time being.
There’s a story underlying the gore, and a good one at that. Writing credit goes to Dan Houser, the man who used the dime-a-dozen novels of the West as the backbone of Red Dead Redemption, the same writer who made sociopathic Niko Bellic irresistibly likeable in Grand Theft Auto IV. In Max, Houser layers on the cynicism, painting a character unable to escape the tragedies of his past. Rarely is a protagonist so caustic. Yet he’s very much your character, narrating the story in its entirety. This keeps you abreast with what’s going on. But it also lends a narrative frame to moments of downtime. Instead of idly searching for collectibles, you’re also listening to Max remark on the world, and as such, there’s always a sense of progression in the campaign.
Max works for the Brancos, a wealthy Sao Paulo family whose high-rise lair overlooks a city falling to poverty. Ostensibly, you’re there to guard their wealth. By extension, you protect the Branco trio of Rodrigo, Victor and Marcelo. When Rodrigo’s wife is kidnapped, Max is off in pursuit, accompanied intermittently by his comrade Passos. As the leads stack up the web of deceit thickens, bringing even his relationship with Passos into doubt. This is a story of betrayal, and of course bloodshed, and for the majority of the campaign the forks in its tale keep you guessing. It ends in disappointing, mind-numbing fashion, but the ride there is nothing if not entertaining.
Then there’s Sao Paulo itself. Brazil is a far cry from the New York of past games. Rockstar has ensured that you never see the same location twice. Early on, Max careens from a party at a dimly lit club to the quiet, eerie interiors of an empty football stadium and both are beautifully recreated. In one scene later in the game, you chance upon a group of boys playing the world’s game on a hard asphalt pitch. Rockstar has embraced the topography of the land, but also its culture. Gone too are the graphic novel panels of Max Payne 1 and 2. Traditional cutscenes are used, but with tinted overlays and jarring camera angles they’re a nod to hyper-stylized palette of the originals. Max’s booze-addled state is emphasised in these moments and the way in which his oft corrosive yet lyrical phrases are stamped across the screen is a neat touch. It’s all very Tony Scott; lacking in subtlety perhaps, but visually striking all the same.
Of course, being a Max Payne game, Rockstar mixes the serial musings of our protagonist with a barrage of gunfights. Scripted and linear, Max Payne 3 is a stark departure from previous Rockstar games. Here, the developers control the pace of the action, setting up scenarios in which you’re forced to make prudent use of bullet time. Arcing through the air in slow-motion is a thrill, but the game also affords you the opportunity to hunker behind cover. The latter is a nod to modern convention, and at the press of the button, Max snaps into position, able to blindly fire or take aim down his sights. You’ll be surprised at how much time you spend hunkered beneath an upturned shelf, or at the mercy of a wooden box being stripped bare by bullets – Max Payne 3 is a difficult game, principally because the enemy AI is so smart. Your combatants make use of cover themselves and look for opportunities to flank your position. It proves a cunning challenge, if a less arcade thrill than the previous instalments.
The world is beautiful. But Rockstar’s achievement is not only a technical one, for Max Payne 3 is also indebted to the artists’ vision of the city. Praise too goes to the level designers themselves and the game is at its best when Max makes a scripted dive through the air and the world slows, serving up enemies at your mercy. From here, it snaps back to real-time, and you’re forced to deal with any other foes on ground level, the world an obstacle course that requires precise navigation and a steady aim. At its worst, Rockstar loses steam and becomes lazy, such as a shootout on a train that sees you forced to expel wave after wave of enemies. In this instance, the world is an obvious façade, a stage for mind-numbing shooting.
Max’s navigation of the world is, like the scenery, beautifully realized. A robust physics engine lends a physicality to his movements that the previous Payne games simply didn’t have the chance to exploit. Topple a chair and it will fall realistically. Jump through the air and land awkwardly and Max’s body will accurately mimic a dive gone wrong. These days, an accurate physics engine is nothing new. But games are often at fault for making the character’s navigation of the world feel flimsy. Max traverses Sao Paulo with a certain solidity, which matches his middle age spread rather well.
While the fourteen levels are well crafted, they aren’t exactly huge in scope. Nonetheless, Rockstar has littered the world with collectibles to discover. Easily my favourite are the clues Max comes across, which shed light on the story at hand. They’re a nod to LA Noire, replete with a gruff voice-over from Max himself, and can be especially illuminating of the murkier details of the plot. As aforementioned none of the levels proffer much in the way of scope, but I still didn’t manage to find all the clues in my first playthrough.
At just shy of fifteen hours there’s plenty of meat to Max Payne 3’s campaign. Of course, longevity also comes in the form of an arcade mode that forces you to beat the campaign’s levels in under a certain time. Headshots give you time bonuses, and there’s an incentive to deal with enemies quickly and efficiently. To the delight, I’m sure, of series fans, you can play as Max in a variety of different skins, two of which hark back to the original games. Max wears the constipated frown of the first game, though it appears to have been exacerbated for comic effect. Elsewhere, you can join friends online and take part in various modes, such as Payne Killer. Payne Killer sees you either play as Max or Passos, while other players make up the body of an invading army. Whoever kills one of the principal characters takes over their bodies, meaning allegiances are ever-changing.
The bulk of the game lies in the singleplayer campaign, though. Max Payne has always been a story-focused experience, and who better to further this mantra than Rockstar. Dan Houser and his team portray a man bristling with angst. For all his downbeat musings, he’s easy to like. He embarks on a crusade against the warring Sao Paulo factions, embodying the sort of man that the original Max Payne always hinted at. When we find Max he hasn’t so much evolved as stagnated, his beard unkept, his drinking habits unabated. But when the second act opens, Max sees the chance for redemption. He shaves off his hair in an act of cleansing, slips into the bad Hawaiian shirt and ditches the drinking. It’s a pity the game’s final levels lose their way, becoming uninteresting chambers of death and shepherding the story to an asinine conclusion. But at least the message is loud and clear: that spilt blood is justice delivered. Max Payne 3 then is a visceral thrill. It’s a safe house for the trigger happy but also an engaging tale, told with the sort of introspection missing in other games: Max is letting you in on his darkest secrets, and these are secrets to cherish.
While this is by no means the genre defining experience of the original, careful refinement stands Max Payne 3 in good stead with modern shooters, while the world Rockstar has crafted is, at times, unmatched. And despite the change in setting, it’s still very much Max Payne. For that, we should be grateful.
Eight out of ten
- Beautiful world full of neat touches
- Bullet time is a blast
- Plenty of meat to the singleplayer campaign...
- ...which ends disappointingly
- The odd on-rails shootout dampens the game's spirit