Published by: Rockstar Games
Developed by: Rockstar Studios
Release Date: US: May 15, 2012
Also Available On: PlayStation 3, PC
Sorry for posting this review so late, I was ill for days. So here is an exclusive preview of max Payne 3!
Max Payne has suffered beyond reasonable limits. (It's all in the name.) Nine years have passed since the last game in the series, yet little has changed for its long-suffering protagonist, who remains deeply traumatised by the death of his wife and child. ‘Trauma’ is the key word – in Greek, it means ‘wound’, and Max is someone who has never let his fully heal. To move on would be to forget – a betrayal of those he loved – and so instead he chooses to wallow in the past and the pain, with the help of brown liquor and white pills.
But thankfully, Max Payne 3 isn’t content to simply relive the past, and makes bold stylistic and narrative decisions to avoid stagnation. And though these choices have significant consequences on the game’s pacing that may prove divisive, Max Payne 3 is overall a brilliant, darkly-engrossing third outing for one of video games' most troubled characters.
Ostensibly, Max Payne 3 looks very different from its predecessors. The rundown tenements and shadowy sidewalks of New York have been replaced by the hedonistic nightclubs and baking heat of São Paulo, where Max has taken a job working private security for wealthy businessman Rodrigo Branco. Unsurprisingly, things don’t work out for Max: Rodrigo’s trophy wife, Fabiana, is kidnapped on Max’s watch, which sets in motion a chain of events that draws Max into a much larger, more sinister story.
The change of location is underscored by a raft of cinematic effects: scan lines, chromatic aberration, shifting film stock. Initially, it all seems a bit much, too noisy and distracting, but after a while you acclimatise and it becomes part of the game’s distinctive texture. But it’s not just stylish gloss – like everything in the game, it feeds into the characterisation of Max, emphasising his jaded disconnection from the world around him.
Despite swapping the shadows for the sun, the series hasn’t lost its hardboiled heritage. The non-linear narrative, the cast of suspicious characters, a plot twisted by deception and corruption – it’s all present and correct. If you’re not a fan of genre fiction, you might find the supporting cast risibly generic, the plot a bit flimsy, but there’s a marked difference between using archetypal characters because you’re creatively spent and deliberately tapping into a rich tradition. Max Payne 3 does the latter – it’s a game that is fully literate in the genre of which it strives to be a part, and judged on those terms it’s one of the finest executions of game noir to date. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in James McCaffrey’s standout performance as Max Payne. It’s gnarled and bitter, as you would expect – he effortlessly delivers the script’s many Chandlerlisms with calloused cynicism – but it’s also a surprisingly nuanced turn. Throughout the game, you're never sure if Payne's searching for absolution, trying to save another man's wife, or if he's really on a protracted suicide mission, trying to embrace his own destruction.
Almost half-way through this review, and I’ve yet to mention gameplay. Maybe that’s a tacit criticism in itself. It’s not that Max Payne 3’s gameplay is substandard – far from it – but it’s always firmly in the service of its overarching narrative. Consequently, the game is heavily punctuated by cut scenes – some brief, some quite long. And it’s easy to see how their frequency may prove too intrusive; some players might feel that control is being taken away from them too soon or given back a little too late. Ultimately, it’s a trade-off, and if you buy into Max’s plight, cut scenes become engrossing, and it’s joy to see them bleed seamlessly into the furious action.
The core gameplay is simple yet refined. Although there are a range of distinctive weapons in the game, you can only carry two side-arms and one two-handed weapon at any given time. And if you choose to dual-wield, you’re forced into dropping the larger, potentially more powerful weapon. It keeps things straightforward and uncluttered. Max’s signature time-bending moves – Bullet Time and Shoot Dodge – return, and are easy to pick up and master. The game’s fully-destructible environments really intensify firefights – seeing the air around you slowly woven with spiralling bullets, fractured glass, and plumes of shredded paper is genuinely thrilling. They’re simple mechanics, but once you’ve mastered combining them, the action and destruction you can orchestrate is breathtaking. It’s a little disappointing for a game that invests so heavily in the development of its protagonist not to reflect this at the level of gameplay: Max has no new abilities available to him that aren’t there from the start. But the inclusion of a non-regenerating health system does a great job of forcing you to play like a desperate man on the edge. You can’t cowardly hide behind a pillar waiting for you health to return – it won’t, and the pillar will crumble.
Max Payne 3 is unapologetically violent. In fact, it lingers on violence, but not in a tawdry or sensational way. Yes, it focuses on some of its most visceral manifestations – ragged bullet wounds, charred flesh, dismembered limbs – but it also peers into the unseen causes that lie behind such acts of violence. It touches on the disparity between rich and poor, and how resentment and desperation can fester in the slums and the penthouses alike. This isn’t only tackled in the main story, but also in nice scraps of incidental narrative recovered in clues dotted about the meticulously-crafted environments.
The game’s kill camera -- another one of the game’s many visual flourishes -- tracks the final bullet from Max’s gun to its intended target, but it never sublimates the violence. Although you’ll kill hundreds of people in Max Payne 3, it remains a grisly business throughout.
However, the action set-pieces seem a little muted, especially when compared to, say, the spectacular recent capers of Nathan Drake. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The difference in execution is perhaps best explained through a comparison. In Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, there’s a well-known scene in which Sully and Drake must escape from a French château before it burns to the ground. It’s exciting and adrenaline-inducing, but it doesn’t really serve much purpose in terms of the game’s narrative. It’s just another one of Uncharted’s many impressive set-pieces. A similar scene occurs in Max Payne 3; a building is set on fire and Max must escape before he is incinerated. But this isn’t just eye-candy or glitzy spectacle. Admittedly, it’s less exhilarating than Uncharted’s equivalent scene but it’s also has greater significance. Max has found himself at his lowest ebb inhabiting an environment quickly resembling hell – the metaphorical significance of which isn’t lost on Max. This is when the game is at its strongest – when gameplay, character and narrative all wonderfully fuse and interplay. For adrenaline junkies -- those who lust after bigger and fierier explosions, more extravagant death-defying scenarios -- the set-pieces in Max Payne 3 might seem a tad sedate. (Saying that, you still get to shoot missiles out of the air in slow-motion while dangling from a helicopter.) But it’s a game that is more concerned with making its spectacles mean something within the confines of its story.
For a Rockstar game there’s also conspicuous lack of freedom in Max Payne 3. It’s easy to imagine how Sao Paolo’s favelas could have been realised as kind of destitute labyrinth, with a disorientated Max lost amidst its ramshackle alleys, but instead the game always provides you with a well-defined pathway. There’s never any doubt where to go or who to shoot, since you can always feel the spectral touch of an authorial hand pushing you forwards, towards the next checkpoint, the next cutscene. Occasionally the promise of liberty is dangled in front of the player – when Max is equipped with a silenced weapon, you wonder if sections can be tackled with a more stealthy approach – but it’s never long before the excrement collides with the industrial turbine.
The single-player story lasts around 10-12 hours. Max Payne 3 has a variety of Arcade modes – from score challenges to speed runs to keep you busy once you finish the main story. In New York Minute, you're tasked with playing through the campaign with a clock counting down from five minutes above your head. The premise is simple: kill guys to earn time. It's like Time Crisis, and a lot of fun, but it's unlikely that you'll play through the entire again exclusively in this mode. Still, it's nice way to sample key parts of the narrative again, especially if you're partial to a state of constant anxiety.
It’s the multiplayer that is the real surprise, however. It’s gleeful pandemonium. Gang Wars, in particular, attempts something rather ambitious, trying to weave narrative into what is usually a player-determined mode. You'll play four rounds, with different objectives that alter depending on what happens in each of them: from claiming territory to defusing bombs to assassinating a randomly selected leader of the opposing gang. This accumulates a point advantage going into the fifth and final round, which always takes the form of an all-out death match. Bursts, which function like perks, are central to this mode, and confer advantages to the members of your crew, from raising the calibre of your weapons to inducing paranoia in the opposing team, making friendlies appear as enemies. Gang Wars has lofty aspirations, and it's not entirely successful - you're not left with enduring memories of these vignettes, nor does it feel as if they're really filling in gaps in the game's narrative once Max has exited stage left pursued by hooded thug. But it doesn't really matter since the gameplay itself is relentless fun, giving players a sense of freedom absent from the single-player campaign. It's also laudable to see a developer trying to innovate in the multiplayer space, rather than simply rehashing the mainstays. Max Payne’s multiplayer is definitely not an afterthought, and will certainly reward players with months of enjoyment.
There are plenty of games which are celebrated for their gameplay but lack anything in way of story or character. Max Payne 3 is a different type of proposition. The gameplay is simple yet satisfying, but it’s entirely in the service of a strongly-authored narrative. Players aren’t at the liberty to roam, to explore, or to shake things up. Some might find this too controlling, but in return for your freedom, you’re rewarded with a mature genre piece which is also a finely-realised character study. Action games continue to inch the dial towards 11, sometimes at the expense of their narrative integrity. Max Payne 3, however, has the conviction to reign in the action, imbue it with purpose - the spectacle still sparkles but it also makes sense.