Nearly a decade has passed since Max Payne last brought his brand of violent street justice to a dark and unjust world, and videogames have changed dramatically in this time. And Max has changed with it, under the new direction of Rockstar Vancouver who are contributing the first game in the series not created by originating studio Remedy.
Max Payne 3 is a game which is instantly recognizable by its gameplay tropes yet manages to achieve a fresh take on the character and his world without betraying his origins. Packed with fast action, brutal violence, and a striking cinematic style, all of the stops have been pulled out to make this the most exciting entry in the series to date.
The story mode takes Max from the mean streets of New Jersey to the equally mean streets of São Paulo, Brazil. Keeping with tradition, the entire plot is experienced in flashback, narrated throughout by Max as he reflects upon the recent state of his life. Beyond that, events are frequently presented out of their chronological order so that the settings constantly shift and blur together, keeping the player constantly guessing where they'll wind up next.
By this point in his life, Max has effectively hit rock bottom and has been spending all of his time searching for meaning in a bottle. That pursuit doesn't stop just because he's hired by a wealthy Brazilian family to work as a bodyguard, with the promise of good pay for babysitting socialites. But the job doesn't turn out to be the cakewalk it was supposed to be, and a drunk Max fails to protect the family when a local street gang targets them, leading to a series of events which will leave hundreds dead in the wake of his efforts to redeem himself.
Throughout the series, Max has always been the unfortunate victim of circumstance. He's the guy who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, either through no real fault of his own or due to the concerted efforts of others surrounding him. In some ways, you can make the same argument about Max Payne 3, but it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. Yes, there are secrets to be learned and villains to be punished, and Max is still the guy who gets stuck in the middle of a bad situation.
Unlike prior games, though, Max has to bear far more responsibility for his role in the course of events. Throughout the story, it becomes clear that most of the situation could have been avoided had Max chosen a better way to deal with his problems than becoming a drunk. While it may make him a less sympathetic character, the story is considerably better for the change as it provides an opportunity for Max to be more than just the man standing between evil and its goals and experience genuine character growth.
The tale may be dark, but the presentation is flashy as hell. Max Payne 3 transitions almost seamlessly from cutscenes to gameplay sequences and back, rarely giving the player an opportunity to have the time to think about doing anything but playing further and driving the story forward. The non-interactive sequences give the impression that they fold in and out organically, but serve another function as cover for the game's lengthy loading sequences. One has to wonder if some of the rather lengthy story sequences are of the length they are simply to cover up the fact that the player is playing a game, particularly upon discovering that many of the longer scenes cannot be skipped until they're almost completed. Nevertheless, they are entertaining and effectively maintain immersion by never disconnecting the player from the narrative.
There's a lot of visual style imparted on these sequences. During cutscenes, bits of phrases in Max's narration will pop up on the screen to provide emphasis, and Max Payne 3 makes heavy use of a blurring effect aimed at giving the game a modern, cinematic tone and connecting the player with the sense of disorientation Max feels. While the bits of text are used to great effect throughout, the blur wears out its welcome over time and feels a bit tedious eventually, but it appears so often that it eventually becomes easy to ignore through repetition.
What cannot be ignored is Max's narration. When he's not shooting other people in their heads, he's inside his own, and Max has gobs of dialog throughout the game. He is constantly contributing wry observations about whatever crosses into view, and with fantastic variety. Every time Max picks up health-restoring painkillers, he has something to say about them. If the player tarries too long in a room, Max will pipe up to remind them what the next objective is. His voice is a constant companion throughout the entire affair and expertly performed by returning actor James McCaffrey (who also provides motion capture for the role).
Better still, the writing of Max has been elevated. Gone are the overwrought metaphors in Sam Lake's version of the character; Max doesn't once try to compare telephone lines to a human circulatory system or any such pretentious crap. He's still clever and just as full of pathos as ever, but without giving the impression that his words are forced or disingenuous. He's such a joy to listen to that players will likely be scouring environments in search of more pearls of wisdom, and those who do will be amply rewarded for their diligence.
Controlling Max is also more satisfying than ever before. Max Payne has always been a series where cover played an important role, but Max Payne 3 is the first game to feature an actual mechanic for employing it, allowing the player to hide behind objects, lean out, and blind-fire. The cover mechanic does not provide a means of easily moving from one object to another, however, leaving the player to either rely on a rather slow, rolling dodge, or to take advantage of "bullet time" (earned by being shot at, killing enemies, and more) to slow the action and minimize the damage.
Max isn't a space marine, after all. He may be tough as nails, but it doesn't require much more than a few bullets to take him down, and there are a lot of bullets in his general vicinity pretty much all of the time. But death need not be the end with the introduction of a "last stand" mechanic, activated when Max runs out of health but still has unused painkillers. When in the last stand, bullet time is activated and the player has a few seconds to eliminate the specific enemy responsible for the killing blow. If successful, Max will survive in a prone position with a majority of health restored, at the cost of a painkiller and all stored bullet time.
These new mechanics go a long way toward deepening the gameplay experience, but Rockstar also has an eye for broadening appeal. Max Payne 3 offers a variety of options that gear it toward players of a wide skill range, most significantly by providing aim assistance in the series for the first time in two different forms. When in "Soft Lock" mode, aiming Max's gun causes the targeting reticule to move to the center of mass of the closest enemy. The still easier "Hard Lock" works similarly, with the exception that the reticule will stay with a targeted enemy and try to maintain its relative position on their body even if they move.
Aim assistance is optional; it's set at the beginning of the game and can be switched from the pause menu at any time. Players new to Max Payne or less skilled at third-person action games will likely appreciate the advent of aim assistance, but it's not perfect. Sometimes the game will make questionable choices about which enemy should be targeted, and there's no means of manually switching between targets when the necessity arises, leaving the player no choice but to freely aim. The system works well overall to make a challenging game much easier to manage, up to a point.
That challenge level gets rather considerable late in the campaign. The last third of the game is filled with enemies who are wearing full combat armor, seem capable of taking more rounds than Max, and are best dispatched with a quick headshot. Of course, they are also wearing helmets that will simply fly off their heads when hit, leaving the player to have to shoot them in the head again. Since aim assistance moves the target to the center of enemies, it can go from a crutch to a hindrance when Max is up against these more difficult foes.
Players are able to revisit completed stages in two Arcade modes. First is Score Attack, in which points are tallied for killing enemies and score multipliers awarded for doing so stylishly and effectively. Bonuses are earned for accuracy, the use of bullet time, and a variety of other opportunities which will allow a skilled player to rack up high scores. In addition, the New York Minute mode introduced in Max Payne 2, in which players are given one minute to complete the entirety of the game and awarded more time for killing enemies, also returns; players can race against the clock in each of Max Payne 3's 14 chapters.
And then there's multiplayer content, as well. Players will be able to choose between playlists designed for "Soft Lock" and "Free Aim" targeting, and play in three different types of competitive multiplayer. The standard Deathmatch appears, offered in solo and team flavors. "Payne Killer" is a game in which one player assumes the role of Max (well-populated games allow a second player to become his partner, Passos) who becomes the target for the other players and must try to survive as long as possible to earn points. Finally, "Gang Wars" consists of a dynamically selected series of objective-based scenarios linked together, where two gangs compete to claim dominance.
It's a robust offering, complete with experience progression, tons of customization options, and a host of social features. Players earn experience and cash, which is then used to unlock new weapons. Balance between player loadouts is achieved with an encumbrance mechanic that compensates for a heavily armed player by making him slower in movement and healing.
And since this is Max Payne, the multiplayer would be remiss if it did not include the bullet time system in some regard, though it does function a little differently. When activated, bullet time only affects those players who are within the line of sight of whoever activates the ability. It's also a bit of a double-edged sword to employ, as human players have a far easier time putting a little dot on the head of a slow-moving character and a player in bullet time might find themselves overwhelmed if there are more than a couple of opponents aiming at them.
Rockstar has also expanded this concept beyond just bullet time to create a range of abilities called "bursts" relating to the meter in multiplayer, now referred to as "adrenaline." Whatever you call it, adrenaline is earned the same way as in the solo campaign, but players can accumulate more by looting the corpses of other players. Bursts come in a delightful variety of forms more interesting than a basic damage buff. In addition to standard bullet time, bursts also can allow you to pinpoint the locations of your enemies or even confuse an opposing team by making all teammates appear to be opponents.
It's damn good fun, creating an environment of chaos and thrilling combat. The new Rockstar Social Club features allow players to team up easily in Crews, pairing them up with players on teams who are members of the same Crew, and it makes it easy to get into a game with people you might actually want to play with. Crew members will engage in the game on a whole new level, becoming embroiled in bitter feuds through a mechanic which adds another objective layer to playing online by giving players specific enemies to target based on their associations and prior conflicts between Crews.
Max Payne 3 is a fantastic package, with a top-notch presentation and plenty of content to keep players busy and happy. It may have been a long time in coming, but there's no arguing with results, and Max is the kind of guy who gets them. Fans and newcomers alike are going to find plenty to enjoy in this exceptional title.
THE VERDICT - Max Payne 3
Reviewed by Conrad Zimmerman