Max Payne 3
“The sun went down with practiced bravado. Twilight crawled across the sky, laden with foreboding.” These words set a chilling preface for the original Max Payne released in 2001. The titular anti-hero was about to travel down a road with no light at the end of the tunnel. Sex, drugs, and violence. And pain. Lots of pain. 11 years later, Max finds himself at his most vulnerable: washed up, addicted to painkillers, and bathed in self-loathing. As Max says, “Time moves forward, nothing changes.” Max is now working a personal security job in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It’s no Noir York City, but that’s okay. The snowy doom and gloom of the first two games is replaced by a scorching heat, and the series’ signature graphic novel presentation makes way for slick new cinematic storytelling. Seems to me like a lot has changed.
Series diehards may be thrown off by all of these changes but spend five minutes playing Max Payne 3, and you’ll feel right at home. Even so much as the opening credits before the main menu evoke such a distinct Max Payne feeling that it’s hard to say this game is anything but a true sequel. James McCaffrey’s expertly delivered lines and Max’s classic internal monologues carry the game, but it’s also the tightly crafted story and amazing technological achievements in animation that help propel Max Payne 3 into a league of third-person shooters that few of this generation can achieve.
Classic Max Payne run-and-gun returns, hand in hand with the series’ signature bullet time shooting and dodging, but a cover system has also been incorporated into the gameplay in keeping with other contemporary shooters. But Max has never been content with just being contemporary. True to form, combat is fast and fluid and transitioning from real time to bullet time is as simple as ever. Using cover isn’t a necessity, but rather a convenience. Shootdodging from around corners allows you to get right back up behind cover and do it again, creating a natural and fluid process to it. The ability to remain prone following a shootdodge is also a new concept to the series, and one that looks as beautiful as it feels. Max’s distinct animations, motion captured entirely by James McCaffrey, are some of the game’s most impressive aspects.
The way he holds his weapons, whether dual or single-wielding pistols or using a two-handed weapon such as a rifle is simply astonishing. These animations carry over through the game’s cut scenes, although their consistency is sometimes off the mark. A rifle you may have been holding in your left hand prior to a cut scene will disappear during it, but then show up the next time. The game endures a number of other similar or smaller glitches: the occasional audio drop out or desynch, texture pop-ins, and the rare freezing. These aside, Max Payne 3 remains a huge technological feat and sets a standard for character animations for years to come.
With all of these new convenience features – cover, prone shooting, and bullet time – it’s possible to be lulled into a false sense of security. But make no mistake, Max Payne 3 is aggressive. Enemy AI is consistently intelligent, often flanking you around cover if you remain hidden for too long and providing suppressive fire for their allies. On harder difficulties, painkillers are less frequent, and bullet time is a must. You earn bullet time multipliers while in slow-motion and for every accurate shot you make. Headshots and other feats award greater multipliers, which in the end increase the length of your bullet time. Wild shooting will most certainly deplete the meter very quickly.
A new feature has been added called Last Man Standing. Similar in vein to Borderland’s Second Wind, if you’re killed, and assuming you have at least one painkiller left, Max will enter an increased bullet time mode wherein you have the opportunity to shoot down your attacker. If you can get the kill, you’ll survive. A helpful feature in concept, but various circumstances often get in the way of this and cause it to be more of a nuisance than anything else. The greatest flaw is your inability to move: from wherever you are shot, you’re stuck. This leads to some situations where you may be hit while moving around cover or during some kind of transition, which means you likely won’t have a clear shot on your attacker (You must kill the person who shot you. Anyone else will not work). Secondly, you can’t reload or change weapons while under the effects of Last Man Standing, meaning if you’re out of bullets when shot, or if you run out during it, you’re out of luck. And lastly, assuming you survive, Max always falls to a prone position, rendering him a sitting duck unless you happen to be behind cover (in which case you probably didn’t survive Last Man Standing anyway because you didn’t have a clear shot). The game’s Old School mode, its hardest difficulty, disables Last Man Standing, but somehow I think that helps more than it hurts.
The game’s single player is propelled by a classic series of unfortunate events. Taking obvious strides from the Denzel Washington film Man on Fire, Max Payne 3 shortly finds its own groove thanks to the excellent writing on behalf of Rockstar and McCaffrey’s unique portrayal of the tortured anti-hero. There is a noticeable lack of metaphors in Max’s personal waning, a signature trait of series writer and Remedy employee Sam Lake. The first two games were filled with literary color and an abundance of expressive language, and while Max Payne 3’s content is by no means below par, it does create a mental juxtaposition. Max no longer waxes poetic. He’s more direct, blunt about his circumstances. But it’s a necessary evolution of the character. He’s growing older, wearier.
Transitions between cutscene and gameplay occur seamlessly. One second Max is running guns blazing through a set of double doors into an overrun office, and the next second you are. Make no mistake, however: these cutscenes are sometimes long and cannot be skipped, but they mask the load times of the game which allow it to transition so naturally, so it’s a permitted evil.
Once finished with the game’s 10-14 hour campaign, a new series addition – multiplayer – provides some extended life in the form of various traditional and new exciting modes. Classic Deathmatch games set in various locations of the single player provide crazy amounts of fun, particularly as a result of the inherent excellent gameplay. Bullet Time works in an interesting fashion: anyone within line of sight of the person who enabled it is affected, but then anyone in the line of sight of someone who is under its effect is also slowed down. It works almost like a ricochet, bouncing between players as long as you remain in view. Others perks, called “bursts,” are also available and each one provides a unique experience (particularly the Paranoia one, which causes all the players on the opposing team to see their own teammates as enemies).
The two unique multiplayer modes of Max Payne 3 are Gang Wars and Payne Killer. The former is a 5-round, objective based team struggle to control various objective points or other such goals. Each round is randomized, keeping the struggle fresh and never predictable, culminating in the fifth round of pure team deathmatch glory. Payne Killer, on the other hand, offers a distinctly cooperative and competitive feeling that is unique to any multiplayer shooter. In this mode, two players will take on the roles of either Max himself or Raul Passos, Max’s partner in the single player. Everyone else is out to kill them. Score a kill on either of these two players and you become that character, now fending for your own safety. To even the odds Max and Raul are both equipped with a more powerful weapon load-out and access to some defining abilities which allows them to survive longer.
Max Payne 3 is also the first of Rockstar games to incorporate Crews, which allows players of similar online networks to create and join private or public groups for multiplayer. Crew-specific objectives exist once created, allowing players who are part of one to earn even greater XP rewards for the online experience. This feature will persist in all future Rockstar online games, most notably Grand Theft Auto V, and all crews made from Max Payne 3 will be allowed to carry over into GTAV.
Furthering the game’s post-campaign life are classic arcade modes: Score Attack and New York Minute. Score Attacks allows you to play through any of the game’s chapters, earning points for more precise kills and smart use of bullet time. New York Minute, a series staple, starts you off in a stage and starts ticking down a timer from one minute. Killing enemies will add time to the clock, and a headshot will earn even more. The nice thing is that bullet time will stop the timer, affording you a few extra seconds to rack up those kills and better your odds. Death, or letting the timer reach zero, results in failure and a restart of the whole level.
The game’s stunning presentation will certainly be much talked-about in months to come, as the game offers a unique cinematic flair to its storytelling. The series has never particularly been known for its originality in plot or themes, but it has always set the standard for the way it presents these ideas to the players: the graphic novel, neo-noir style of the first two, and now the chromatic, almost experimental in quality filmmaking. The colors on screen will often splash about, with jarring chroming and shaking, particularly frequent during Max’s many isolated scenes of drinking and pill-popping. This creates a feeling of uneasiness with the player, and sets the tone perfectly for the brutal and sometimes uncomfortable story that’s about to follow. Though the graphic novel approach has been replaced full time, certain cutscenes will freeze-frame and invert colors, creating dynamic panels as the story calls for it. Words are emphasized on screen in more poignant moments, as well, keeping the comic spirit alive.
The game’s flawless audio track is amongst Rockstar’s best, incorporating classic Max Payne sounds and the usual Rockstar touch. A particular scene near the very end of the game involves the theme song, running down a long section of the map, mowing down several dozen bad guys. It would be one of those rare “stop in awe” moments, if not for the crazy gunmen trying to kill you. Grabbing painkillers is even a treat unto itself. Rather than a canned sound effect for picking them up, Max will retort with a witty or self-reflective comment dependent on the area he’s in. The supporting cast manages to hold up well in the presence of James McCaffrey, but with such a booming and distinct voice, it’s hard to compare. Max’s personal anguish is played out brilliantly, from his internal monologues to his natural dialogue – of which he has much more this go around considering the larger cast of characters.
Rockstar proves time and again that they are dedicated to their craft. One of few developers left in the industry who will take the time they need to make the game they want and know they are capable of, Max Payne 3 soars as one of their crown jewels. With a gripping and emotionally exhausting story, top-tier voice acting and potentially Rockstar’s best OST, and with character animations that define a new industry standard, this is every bit as worthy of bearing the Max Payne name as well as the Rockstar logo. Fluid and precise gunplay serves to elevate this into a pantheon of only two third-person shooters worthy of being replicated for generations to come, the other being Vanquish.
Rockstar’s most impressive looking game to date, with beautiful textures and tremendous use of color and lighting. But it’s the animations of the characters and Max in particular that make this beautiful game something special.
Exciting gunplay mixed with Max’s classic bullet time and a host of new features revitalizes the third-person genre in so many ways.
A perfect noir-and-action inspired soundtrack and a handful of voice actors so intimately involved in their characters harmonizes in tonal bliss.
An impressive single-player length, plenty of collectibles and clues to find, arcade modes, and some truly fresh and exciting multiplayer features insure an extended life for Max Payne 3.
Cinematic storytelling, hard boiled narrative, and precise gunplay form the trifecta of Max Payne 3’s brilliance.