Eight years after his “Fall” and twelve after his bullet-riddled introduction, tragic video game hero Max Payne returns for a third outing in Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Trading the noir-tinged New York winters for the overstimulated intensity of São Paulo’s urban sprawl, does this vacation from hell carry the same heat its lauded precursors did or does it land itself in a body-bag?
Few games hold the sort of narrative and stylistic gravitas the iconic Max Payne franchise built its reputation on. Back in 2001, developer Remedy Games’ first series outing broke industry standards with clever implementation of the now somewhat overused “bullet-time” effect in its innovative gameplay, offering a uniquely cinematic experience gamers had drooled over in the wake of basement-dweller opuses like The Matrix. Paired with a staple film-noir atmosphere and an engaging, character-driven revenge-yarn, Max Payne rightfully found its way into the pantheon of highly celebrated video games. Likewise, its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, found equal (if not even more abundant) praise two years later, deepening the narrative experience, bolstering player’s attachment to the tragic title character, and doubling out the amount of digital destruction and bloodshed to boot. Then, with Remedy’s sights locked on Alan Wake and publisher Rockstar Games focused on their numerous open-world titles, it seemed the days of Payne were numbered. However, eight years after the release of his “Fall”, Max is stepping back out of the snowy New York twilight and into the hazy, electronic simmer of sunny São Paulo circa 2012 in Max Payne 3.
With publisher Rockstar now in the developer’s seat, Max Payne 3 promises the same slow-mo bullet-ballet gameplay of its predecessors with the signature style and auteurism Rockstar is famous for thanks to big name franchises like the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. It is important to note, however, that while Rockstar’s track record with the open-world market is celebrated and practically spotless, its forays into the more linear action-genre have been notably less successful. Games like Red Dead Revolver and the more recent LA Noire boasted high quality production values and exceptional narrative construction, but sacrificed a honed focus on innovative gameplay for the sake of a cinematic experience. Where LA Noire gave players the option to explore the entirety of a meticulously detailed 1940’s Los Angeles, for example, it also barred its audience from interacting with it in meaningful ways outside the context of heavily linear investigations and the occasional 911 response encounter. As cherished a developer as they are with certain games that boast gameplay freedom, Rockstar has also earned a reputation for shackling experiences when it comes to more linear franchises, a rep that furrowed a number of eyebrows back when it was announced Max Payne 3 was getting developed in-house at the game studio.
For those of you who held your breath, however, its time to come back up for air: Max Payne 3 is easily the most rewarding action-game experience Rockstar has offered up outside its open-world titles and it’s every bit a worthy successor to the franchise that birthed it. Picking up nearly a decade after Mona Sax died in his arms, Max exists at the bottom of a bottle, drinking himself half to death in New Jersey as a washed up cop and a self-made mess. Lucky for us, the pity party takes a backseat to explosive gunplay quickly enough as Max is approached with a proposition to bodyguard a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his trophy wife. After a little more moping and absentmindedly shooting the son of a mob-boss, Max accepts the deal with entire New Jersey mob at his heel. Of course, trading the snow-tipped streets of Hoboken for the over-saturated glare of São Paulo proves less of a picnic when Max’s new hire becomes the target of drug-running kidnappers, ruthless paramilitaries, and favela-clearing death squad cops. Needless to say, conspiracies, plot-twists, and cleverly written narration quips mount with the body count as Max kills his way up the underworld food chain once again, offering a uniquely cinematic and wholly entertaining single-player experience that proves as engaging as it does brutal.
Aside from the satisfyingly explosive story, Max Payne 3 does a fantastic job capturing the mechanics of the original game’s “bullet-ballets” while integrating new gameplay innovations (such as the now seemingly inescapable cover-system pre-requesite) to fit current-gen standards. For the most part, Rockstar deserves ample cred for introducing some truly unforgettable action centerpieces here, particularly in close quarters situations that ask the player to utilize space strategically with well-timed slow-mo jumps and aiming precision (free-aim is the way to go). Rockstar has proven no slouch on the presentation side of things, either: the visuals pack quite the punch, with stunning character animation, destructible environments, and visceral particle effects bolstering the experience. The appropriately vibrant and detailed environments are pure eye-candy. The percussive, atmosphere-soaked score from LA-noise rockers HEALTH adds a lot to the game’s unsettling, dark vibes, offering an abrasively endearing marriage between the look and sound Rockstar aims for. “Tears”, the closest thing the band gets to pop-structure, particularly highlights the outfit’s musical strengths, but is sadly underplayed as a whole. It was kind of a bummer.
For everything Max Payne 3 has going for it, though, certain issues do shine through the immaculate presentation and relentlessly intense firefights. As polished and well written as the story-line is, Rockstar’s decision to trade loading-screens for fully-rendered in-game cutscenes ends up feeling like a cheap diversionary tactic in subsequent play-throughs. This becomes all the more apparent once players realize how much the first half of the game’s cutscenes are spent observing Max drinking alone in his cruddy apartment (the first three are great for setting up how far Max has fallen, but after a while it becomes pointless filler). The initially novel neon flash-effects used to highlight the super-stimulated feel of São Paulo’s electric-tinged metropolis quickly become a tired motif, and, paired with the screwy design choice to have random bits of internal monologue litter the screen during cutscenes, the look and feel of what could’ve otherwise been a totally tasteful traditional approach is diminished by Rockstar’s attempts to take narrative-design integration to annoying new heights (jeez, what a mouthful…). Rockstar’s decision to occasionally offer players wide open shooting-ranges in certain outdoor levels also downplays the game’s strengths when it comes to contained and elaborate combat maneuvering. Often times these moments are still very playable, but lack the same strength and memorable character of intense corridor-to-corridor shoot-outs.
On the plus-side, though, Max Payne 3 offers a surprisingly robust and rewarding multiplayer experience for players looking to stray from the sometimes constricting single-player experience. Taking hints from Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV‘s multiplayer, game-types run the gamut (sans the unnecessary open-world aspects of those titles) and an XP-system that earns players new tools for destructive goodness. Perhaps the most impressive gameplay innovation Rockstar brings to the table, however, is the newly implemented bullet-time system that allows certain players to go head-to-head with one another at crucial moments, dueling mid-air in a deadly dance of digital death. It’s a crowning moment for Rockstar, who’ve managed to offer something once thought impossible to do on the multiplayer side of things.
So, while it’s not a perfect experience, Max Payne 3 rises to meet its predecessors as a worthy followup to a franchise built on pixelated blood, sweat, and countless tears. A harrowing tragedy and raucous revenge-ride, Max’s third outing offers ample playability, unabashedly cinematic presentation, and all the carnage you’d expect out of a Rockstar package while retaining the signature feel of the franchise it came from. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?