Developer: Rockstar Vancouver / Publisher: Rockstar / Played on: Xbox 360 / MSRP: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol]
I’m not sure there’s another game developer on the planet with as much thematic consistency across their properties as Rockstar. So with Max Payne 3, an identity shift for the third-person noir-inspired shooter series was inevitable. And, yes, Rockstar does a lot, to the game’s benefit, to inject their own voice and style. This is a much grittier, grounded experience with the character of Max at the center of it all. And a refinement of the series’ mechanics along with the introduction of a serviceable multiplayer mode complete the modernization (and Rockstar-ization) of Max Payne.
Max Payne is in a bad way. He’s a man with a lifetime of regrets and a weakness for alcohol. In hopes of resetting it all, he takes on a gig in Sao Paulo, Brazil working security for a rich and powerful family. His day-to-day involves being surrounded by their shallow house-music-and-cocaine-fueled lifestyle. And he hates it. But it’s a job. So regardless, Max remains dutiful, even if he needs a glass of whiskey and a handful of painkillers to do so. But as you’d expect, bad shit follows Max just about everywhere he goes and soon the kidnapping of his client’s wife sends Max on a dark journey into the seedy underbelly of the South American gang world.
Despite how hard boiled and bitter Max is, there’s something incredibly endearing about him. His frequently self-deprecating inner monologues are equal parts tragic and hilarious. And despite how over-the-top and ridiculous everything about Max is, his problems are relatable ones. He’s a man filled with self-doubt; ghosts from his past constantly haunt him and his only reprieves are his vices and his duties. He sees himself as washed up, committing to his job by any means necessary not because he cares about those he’s protecting – he couldn’t give two shits about them – but because without it he has nothing. And the phenomenal performance from voice actor James McCaffrey, backed by some fantastic writing, is glue that holds the character together.
Rockstar practices no restraint with the distinct cinematic presentation of Max Payne 3. Cutscenes and gameplay alike are constantly filled with heavy color separation and fake film artifacting reminiscent of what Kane & Lynch 2 was attempting to accomplish. There’s a subtle but perpetual sense of confusion invoked from all of this that really manages to enforce how screwed up Max is.
The noir trappings of the first two Max Payne games are definitely present, mostly coming through in Max’s first-person narration, but really take a backseat to a much more fast-paced action movie vibe. Max Payne cleverly masks its load times behind its cutscenes and seamlessly transitions back into gameplay in a way that makes the game feel like it never stops moving.
I’m not one to criticize for extreme levels of violence in games but in some cases Max Payne 3 feels gratuitous and unnecessary. The end of each combat scenario allows you to unload bullets into the last remaining enemy. Max Payne is a killer but only out of duty. Filling someone with bullets long after they are dead is borderline psychopathic, making this mechanic feels disconnected thematically from the rest of the game.
You might think that introducing a cover system along with Max’s Bullet Time ability might make for an experience that lacks challenge but this is an older, more fragile Max Payne and he needs all the help he can get. The game’s ruthless AI will teach you early on to make use of all of its mechanics, as death comes easily and often. You’ll be forced to employ strategies about when to use Bullet Time while popping out of cover or making sure you’re not recklessly diving into an enemy-filled room. Enemies will flank you while you’re in cover, often forcing you out of cover, so mobility and situational awareness are key. But some lack of feedback at times can inject frustration into the otherwise smartly designed encounters. For example, your life indication meter is tucked away in the bottom right of the screen, which isn’t exactly easy to spot in the middle of a firefight.
Max Payne 3 flirts with some interesting ideas in its multiplayer but overall it ends up being rather middle-of-the-road. Along with pretty standard deathmatch and team deathmatch, there are a couple of unique modes, the most notable of which is Gang Wars, which keeps switching up objectives at the end of each round. There’s also Payne Killer in which two players must try and survive an onslaught of other player-controller characters. Both modes are enough of a twist on the normal multiplayer affair to feel novel.
But where Max Payne 3 finds its multiplayer identity is in the smart execution of Bullet Time. Players must score kills, assists, and/or loot bodies in order to build up their Bullet Time meter, treating it similarly to a Call of Duty killstreak. Spending this meter will only send players into your immediate field of view into Bullet Time with you. Surprisingly this ends up being a pretty balanced way to handle what should be a mess of a mechanic. Plenty of times I was killed despite being the one to initiate Bullet Time.
It’s cool to see Max Payne make a come back. Mechanically, the series holds up better than expected. But where Rockstar’s influence really shines through is in the character of Max. He’s one of the most compelling characters in recent memories and following him on this messed up journey of self-discovery is reason enough to play Max Payne 3.