It’s been nine years since Max Payne 2. Pretty much everyone Max ever knew is dead, he’s lost his job at the NYPD, and he spends his days drinking, popping painkillers, and drowning in self-pity, all while (on a meta level, of course) developer Remedy went on to develop Alan Wake for the Xbox 360, sending the possibility of Max Payne 3 into limbo. Eventually, it was picked up to be developed by Rockstar, and after years of delays and production restarts, Max Payne 3 is finally here, and it’s as if he never left.
With all the advances in shooting games in the 9 years since we last blew the house down with Max, there was never really any other shooter that felt like Max Payne. With Max Payne 3, we have the return of third-person gameplay, based heavily on first-person shooters, but making distinct use of its perspective. It doesn’t feel that much different from Max Payne 2, but it is also like nothing else on the market today; this isn’t Call of Duty, and it certainly isn’t Uncharted, despite what the internet trolls might tell you. Max Payne 3 wears its old fashioned sensibilities on its sleeve; in addition to the narrative focusing on the now middle-aged character, there’s no regenerating health, there are no objective waypoints, and Max is usually blasting goons on his own, without a team of allies with a big “follow me” indicator over their heads.
To say that shooting comprises the core of Max Payne 3 is an understatement. Max Payne, the man, is so haunted by his tragic past, so crippled by his bitter cynicism, he can barely function in a normal environment. Only when the situation falls to pieces and the bullets start flying can Max do the only thing he was ever any good at. Max Payne 3 combines the precision and tight control of a first person shooter with the agility and weight we come to expect from third person games. Max can dive through the air in slow motion, also known as a Shootdodge, and still maintain tight control of his guns. This technique, as well as the ability to slow down time at will, and a strong emphasis on “run-and-gun” gameplay rather than the modern conventional “stop-and-pop” seen in most shooters, make Max Payne a breath of refreshing air in today’s shooter market. A cover system is in place, and is quite useful, particularly in later stages where the enemies have more health and are more deadly, but it is also the game’s one weak link; there is no way to smoothly transition into cover from running, or even rolling, into it. The only way to enter cover without awkwardly exposing yourself to gunfire is to Shootdodge so that Max lands in front of the object you wish for him to take cover behind. It works, but it never feels entirely comfortable, and could have used more fine-tuning. Thankfully, the focus is not on hiding behind boxes, but in running headfirst towards your enemies in slow motion, scoring free-aim headshots with twin submachine guns blazing. When the game allows Max to engage enemies this way (which it does far more often than it forces you into cover), MP3 is at its strongest, not just because of the flawless shooting mechanics, bullet time effects, and gorgeous graphics, but also because of the little details which define a Rockstar Games production: Max can carry up to three weapons; two pistols and one rifle. When aiming one pistol, he holds the rifle in his other hand, and when dual-wielding, he throws the rifle away. Shot enemies have graphic entry and exit wounds, and every single bad guy shot falls in a unique Euphoria Natural Motion way, a blend of ragdoll physics and complicated AI that would make your head explode if you were to try to comprehend just how it works. Environments are extremely detailed, and nearly everything within them can be shot and blown apart, making frantic gunfights absolute orgies of beautiful destruction. All these and more combine to make a game world which can only be described as completely believable.
More so than any other game to date, the story in Max Payne 3 revolves, not around the events that unfold, but around the lead character. Thanks to excellent writing and performances, especially by our lead, James McCaffrey, who voiced and provided motion capture for the character, the narrative in MP3 is among the best we’ve ever seen. Max narrates the story, not through tired mission briefings and objective updates, but through cinematic cutscenes that follow his life. To spoil the details of the plot here would be sacrilege, but the deep, introspective tale takes us from New Jersey to Brazil, and we see Max evolve as a character, as well as his physical transformation into something in between an avenging angel and a fat, bald dude with a bad temper, as he would say. The soundtrack to the proceedings, by the Los Angeles band, Health, fits the mood perfectly, with loud, bashing drums, dramatically sustained synth lines, and powerful (yet minimalist) guitar riffs. As for Max’s signature narration, don’t worry; he still sounds like Joe Friday gone-bad, barely hiding his rage with black humor and depressants.
The single-player story offers five different difficulty levels, and while enemies in later stages can be very tough, the game is challenging throughout, without ever being unfairly difficult. In addition to replaying on tougher difficulty settings, an Arcade Mode also lets players run through the game on Score Attack and New York Minute modes, testing players to score big points and beat the clock, respectively. The shooting is so solid, and the Euphoria magic is so unique, that each play-through (of which I have had four) feels different from the last, with the only constant being complete immersion and entertainment.
For the truly extensive replay value, however, Max Payne 3, for the first time in the series, features a robust online mode. Flawlessly integrating the unique style of the single-player experience into a Call of Duty-influenced template, online play in Max Payne 3 is fast, violent, and with lots of room for individualization. The various gang factions can be customized, allowing for each player to have six different character models for the team-based modes. Loadouts, as expected, can be customized, with the twist that the more weapons and armor you carry, the slower you run and the longer it takes for health to regenerate. In practice, a single loadout is ineffective over every single map and game mode; for example, in smaller maps, such as Branco Headquarters or Hoboken Alley, it may be wise to throw away the assault rifle in exchange for dual wielding pistols. Before jumping into a match, one must select whether to play using the ‘free aim’ or ‘soft lock’ aiming modes. Less skilled players should start out using ‘soft lock’ before jumping in to the free aim playlists, where, due to the practicality of hip aiming, the game really shines. The multiplayer suite includes standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and the unique Payne Killer variant, in which Max and his partner Passos must fight against every other player, who are on a team together, with the player who kills Max or Passos getting to become them. Gang Wars is Max Payne 3’s flagship multiplayer mode, introducing a narrative into the proceedings, told by a supporting character from the story mode, or sometimes, even Max himself. Fought in five stages, the game types change from round to round based on the outcome of the previous match. Throughout all of Max Payne 3’s online play, the focus on cinematic action present in the story mode remains; using an ingenious line-of-sight system, players can activate bullet-time and fight in slow motion while players out of sight on the other side of the map are unaffected and can engage in their own battles in real-time. In short, MP3’s online experience is a resounding success, and with the promise of additional content (buy your Rockstar Pass today!) through to the end of 2012, expect to get a lot of mileage out of it in the coming year. After all, much like the single player, there is nothing else on the market quite like it.
Of course, no game is perfect, and as close as Max Payne 3 comes sometimes, it occasionally is rough around the edges. During cutscenes, the frame rate chugs when it pushes the engine too far, and Max has an uncanny ability to occasionally get stuck on furniture or loose objects in the game world, when running or Shootdodging. In single player, this means fiddling with the controller until you get unstuck, but online, it usually leads to a cheap death and cursing the gods before jumping back into the fray.
It’s been nine years since Max Payne 2, and a lot has changed, a lot more than Max has. Altogether, Max Payne 3, in the broad sense, is not an astronomical leap ahead of Max Payne 2. Aside from the ability to take cover, the abundance of real-time cutscenes, and ability to hold the left trigger to fine tune your aim (an early prototype version actually was in part 2, with the MP5 weapon, if you remember), there’s nothing here that is completely new to the series. Instead, everything that was there to begin with is simply fine-tuned to perfection. Max Payne 2 had rag doll physics; Max Payne 3 uses Euphoria Natural Motion technology, and so on.
Max Payne is back, and he is better than ever. After nine years, what was old is new again. The shooting, barring a few modern bells and whistles, is straight out of 2003’s Max Payne 2, and the game is much better for it, with most modern conventions removed entirely or stripped down to their cores, allowing the game to focus on Max’s shooting and cinematic qualities. Rockstar has successfully brought Max Payne into the next-gen, and all we can hope is for his journey through the night to continue. In short, Max Payne 3 is the new shooter to which all others must be stacked against, while offering a powerful narrative and a strong online multiplayer mode.
VG Tribune gives Max Payne 3 a 10/10
This review was based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.