Nine Years Later, "Max Payne 3"
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Distributor: Rockstar Games
Microsoft Xbox 360
Video Game Review: Max Payne 3
by Eric Deters
Published: June 19, 2012
Max Payne has been gone for quite some time. Up until last month, he hadn’t seen a major release in 9 years, and he hit the scene 11 years ago. Time had moved on, and the medium he occupied changed. Storytelling in games evolved, and Max had to evolve as well. Development switched from the original company Remedy to Rockstar Games, creators of the “Grand Theft Auto” series and makers of “Red Dead Redemption.” It’s very clear where Rockstar’s influence seeped into “Max Payne 3,” and it has proved divisive as to whether or not that improved the franchise.
“Max Payne 3” tells the drug-addled tale of the eponymous so-called hero after 9 years had passed since the death of his last lover Mona Sax. After quitting the police force and living alone in New Jersey, he stumbled across a man with an opportunity: a personal security detail for the Branco family in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The setting is easily the most unfamiliar part of this latest installment. Sao Paolo is, for the most part, a bright and colorful counterpart to the snowy, cold streets of New York from the past games. It represents a marked change in Max’s demeanor and the tone of the game overall.
The first two games were self-aware and somewhat satirical in their approach to the material. They told very dark stories but there was a levity that made it easy to connect with and care about. “Max Payne 3” is still self-aware, but also much more brooding and depressing in typical Rockstar fashion. Max is sad, drunk old fool, and he damn well knows it. The first act of the game involves him gloriously botching his job on multiple occasions due to his alcoholism and painkiller addiction. Then, after things get as bad as he thinks they could get, he shaves his head, quits cold turkey, and heads to the vibrant favelas to continue his journey.
It’s a very personal character study, much more so than the previous games, and Max comes across as a pitiable but noble man (despite the simply ludicrous body-count he racks up by the time the credits roll) on an identifiable quest for redemption (minus the whole letting co-workers get kidnapped thing). It may be too heavy-handed and downright depressing for some, but I for one found it enthralling. I think Max is a cool enough dude to care about his ordeals in a more personal way than I care about Drake’s dilemmas in the last “Uncharted” game. In fact, I believe that this game serves “Uncharted 3’s” purpose better than that game did, in that it shows how the protagonist’s actions have serious and irreconcilable consequences and also how that protagonist deals with them. Whereas Drake tends to shrug them off whenever the issues are brought up in random dialogue, Max clearly struggles with this and goes through a fairly believable (in my opinion, of course) character arc because of it.
The tone of the story is one area where diehard fans of the series may find fault, but I really dug it. I’ve heard complaints that the game has lost its film noir sensibilities, but frankly, I think that’s bullshit. The essence of noir is a world that seems entirely against the hero (or most often anti-hero) and a constant sense of confusion and misunderstanding. Of course, the very dark subject matter has a big part in shaping that tone as well, and I think with the subject matter in this game, “Max Payne 3” deserves to be penned as a modern day video game noir story, much like the last two games were.
The story is told in a very “Man on Fire” fashion, with a heavy emphasis on distortion and film effects in cutscenes and seemingly arbitrary lines of dialogue written out in text on the screen. I understand completely how the combination of these things could put people off, but I enjoyed how it conveyed Max’s psyche and the way that Max’s alcoholism and addiction affected him. After a while, the constant effects grow somewhat annoying, but the use of them dies down appropriately when Max quits boozing.
The gameplay should be extremely and joyously familiar to those people who have played the prior games, or any game that ripped the bullet-time idea from “Max Payne” (also, as a side note, “Max Payne” was in development before “The Matrix” came out, so both properties came up with the ideas on their own). The game is a third-person shooter with cover mechanics (though cover isn’t always necessary) with a strong emphasis on the bullet-time mechanic and the shoot-dodge maneuver (in other words, movement through your environment). The games were inspired by Hong Kong action cinema, and by the end of the game, you’ll be pulling off moves Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo would be envious of. The problem that the game has early on in regards to controls is that Max feels clunky and slow when in reality, he’s not. It takes a few chapters of the game before you’ll become comfortable moving out of cover and shoot-dodging like a mad man, but when you do, you’ll want to play every other shooter just like that. The confidence that you build in the game is what sets “Max Payne 3” apart, in my mind, from just about every other shooter out there. It inspires an acrobatic approach to combat that few other shooters can even aspire to.
The game contains a multiplayer component, but what I played of it put me off to it quite a bit. Maybe it is my simple lack of skill in shooters in general, but my first game ended in something like 2 kills and 10 deaths, and every death meant I had less time to learn how the mechanics of the game were different in multiplayer. Essentially, bullet-time isn’t a common thing in multiplayer games. It’s one of many Boost abilities, others of which include disguising as an enemy team member and having extra ammo. If someone does have bullet-time and uses it, it doesn’t affect every single player in the game, and this is where the genius comes in. It only affects enemy targets in your line of sight, which means that the enemy player’s goal is to exit your line of sight immediately or face almost certain death. It’s an exceedingly clever way to implement a mechanic that has never before been done right.
The game’s presentation, as brought up briefly before, is exceptional. I played on a PC and it ran like butter for me on a semi-old machine. The best thing about the graphical settings for the game is a small line at the bottom of the screen on the options menu that tells you how much of your video memory is being used when certain options are changed. The game won’t let you go above your limit, and the result is a way of tweaking the game’s graphical options and knowing that no matter what you choose, it will run smoothly. The voice acting is top-notch, with particular props going to James McCaffrey as Max himself, who brings the classic gruffness and wit that is so perfect for these games. The soundtrack, however, is where I truly tip my hat to Rockstar. The strangely ambient soundscape of the game was done by a band called HEALTH, and their style melds perfectly with the new Max and his new surroundings. Words can hardly describe how brilliant the soundtrack is, and I highly recommend listening to it.
After 9 years, “Max Payne 3” is bound to disappoint people, but that’s just the reality of the situation. The reality of my situation is that I think “Max Payne 3” is on its way to becoming one of my favorite games this year, and I’m extremely excited about that fact. While it may be a fairly different game compared to its predecessors, the fact remains that “Max Payne 3” is a truly great third-person shooter, and one of Rockstar’s finest achievements.