When it comes to video games, summer is like having a full bottle of “fine” whiskey and nothing to celebrate but self-pity and the realization that the bottom of the bottle brings no absolution, only a temporary euphoria that quickly dissolves into the decadence that has come to define my life. Ok, it’s possible I’ve played way too much Max Payne that his internal monologue is rubbing off on me like the acrid smoke of a dingy dive bar in a part of town rife with broken dreams and empty promises. Ok, I’ll stop.
What I was trying to say was that summer, usually quite lacking in absolute must-play titles, gives me the opportunity to play games that I would ignore for other titles with gameplay more consistent with my tastes. Deep character customization, RPG elements, open-ended storytelling and gameplay, large variety of enemy classes, and puzzle-platforming elements are features in third-person shooters/action-adventure titles that resonate with my tastes; Max Payne 3 really has none of these things. That not to say that Max Payne 3 is a bad game, or even an average game, it’s just that on paper it’s no longer the type of game that I would normally feel compelled to play through. While that sentiment maintains some truth (Max Payne 3 is a game I probably would not have finished had it not been for its fantastic storytelling) the game far exceeds my expectations. So much so, that my original sentiments and preconceptions are regrettable. Why? Because Max Payne 3 is a fantastic experience.
Taking place nine years after the events of Max Payne 2, Max Payne 3 portrays a Max Payne whose grief and anger has transformed into world-weariness and self-loathing. Living in Hoboken, New Jersey, he has retired from the NYPD and has succumbed to alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers. When an encounter with an old friend from the police academy coincides with an unfortunate exchange with a local crime boss’s douche bag son, Max finds himself in the employ of the wealthy Rodrigo Branco and his family as part of their security detail in São Paulo, Brazil. A seemingly “cush “job that accommodates his affinity for both alcohol and painkillers, Max finds himself in a conspiracy that stretches from the heights of Brazil’s elite class into the murky depths of São Paulo’s favelas.
You’ll immediately notice how intricately detailed the environments are throughout Max Payne 3. The game looks gorgeous; you can almost smell the decadence and self-indulgence of Brazil’s elite, the desperation and poverty of São Paulo’s polluted favelas, the alcohol emanating from Max’s pores. Rockstar Vancouver has done a masterful job of bringing Brazil to life. Each level is rich with detail and everything looks and feels organic; seeing innocent bystanders cower as you annihilate hundreds of enemies throughout the nearly 10+ hour experience is an excellent touch, breathing more life into the world. There is some destructibility to the environments, which can render once viable cover useless during chaotic gunfights. It all adds to the tension and gives the game a nice level of realism, making Max seem a bit more fragile.
Rockstar’s proprietary RAGE engine combined with the Euphoria physics engine – as seen in Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV – shines in Max Payne 3. Animations look great and there is incredible amount of detail to the characters throughout the game. Max can only carry a few pistols and one large weapon (e.g. assault rifle, shotgun) and they will always be visible on his person, whether he’s holding an assault rifle like a briefcase in one hand while shooting enemies with the other. Even his pistol reloading animation takes into account the assault rifle, showing Max reloading with one hand. Use a painkiller and Max pulls out a bottle, pops the cap, and downs its contents before discarding it.
Enemies react convincingly to gunfire, moving into cover when necessary; bodies react accordingly to fatal gunshots, with heads and limbs snapping back in jarringly realistic ways. This is a violent game and Max will plow through hundreds of enemies before the curtain falls. I quite enjoy the slow-motion, posthumous peppering of bodies with bullets after downing the last enemy in a skirmish. It’s similar to Batman Arkham City when Batman’s final attack on the last remaining enemy is portrayed in slow-motion. Of course Max’s killing blow is much more violent, following Max’s final bullet as it enters an enemy’s skull while giving free rein to continue shooting a superfluous amount of bullets into the enemy’s lifeless body. Hit-detection is great, with the occasional clipping and glitches, but nothing that detracts from the overall experience.
The gameplay Max Payne 3 is similar to previous games in the series, with bullet time once again taking center stage as Max’s most useful tool in his arsenal. Shootdodge also makes its return, which is just a much fancier – and in some ways more effective – way of initiating bullet time. There’s a competent cover system, slight variety of enemies, and solid but standard gunplay. It’s all simple and familiar, and while it provides a good foundation for exhilarating shootouts, the lack of any character progression makes the gameplay a bit superficial but nonetheless satisfying. Take note: the single dot reticule can be difficult to see at times as it can contrast poorly with certain backgrounds, so I suggest changing the reticule in the options to be “gun specific” as it does help.
Painkillers, once again, take the place of health packs. Keeping at least one bottle at all times is vital: if Max takes a near fatal shot, the game goes into slow-motion, turns black and white, and Max falls slowly to the ground while aiming at the enemy who last shot him. If you’re able to kill the enemy within a few seconds, the game resumes in real-time, with Max having consumed a bottle of painkillers. Of course, if you’re out of bullets when this happens, you’ll get to hear the clicking sound of an empty gun as Max slowly falls before the enemy puts a final bullet in him. The checkpoint system is mostly fair, with just a couple of times when they felt too few and far between. On gameplay alone, the game would be a mostly standard, competent 3rd-person shooter. However, the game is far from standard because of how Rockstar put all of these elements together while meshing it perfectly with its story, creating a single-player experience that doesn’t skip a beat.
Storytelling is seamless in Max Payne 3. Assuming you don’t die, you won’t sit through a single loading screen. The gameplay and cutscenes are woven together perfectly; you’ll need to stay on your toes as everything is done in engine and you’ll need to be ready to control Max when things go awry, which will happen often. A few cutscenes include some interactivity but not enough to be neither compelling nor irritating, and as such, exist just to change things up for a bit. The cutscenes use a few cinematic filters with shaky camera angles, and over-saturation that will take some getting used to, but gives the game a distinctive feel and works well to augment Max’s persistent hangover and dysphoria.
There are quite a few visceral set pieces, some pretty intense moments that had my adrenaline going. One memorable moment had Max pushing an enemy through a glass window in slow-motion as he took down a group of hostiles in a nightclub, before breaking his fall on the enemy’s corpse. Moments like these did well to set-up the ensuing gunfights which would otherwise feel less grandiose. Everything is so well-paced and well produced the weaving of gameplay and story so well-timed, that you’ll forget you’ve just spent four hours straight playing through the campaign.
It certainly helps that the dialogue is mostly well-written and the voice-acting is impressive throughout. The story moves between the present and past, peeling back layers as you slowly begin to grasp what’s actually going on. James McCaffrey makes his return as Max Payne, providing voice-work and motion capture for Max, giving him the same grittiness and sarcasm we’ve seen in previous games. The supporting cast is no slouch either, and my favorite moments are the witty exchanges between Passos and Max in between gunfights. It sounds natural making the story all the more compelling. I fully agree with Nolan North (Uncharted’s Nathan Drake) in his preference for combining voice work with motion capture performance as it translates much better on-screen than if done separately. It looks so much more convincing.
Admittedly, my expectations for the included multiplayer were low, but I was pleasantly surprise at how fun it actually was. There is ranking and rewards system that allows you to customize your character in the gameplay style and visual aesthetic of your choosing. The simplicity of the gameplay works well here, making it rather easy to jump in competently into matches without fear of getting completely annihilated. Gang Wars is the standout here, a unique mode with varying objectives that change between rounds. These objectives include assassinating a certain member of the opposing gang, defending an area for a certain amount of time or defusing bombs. It culminates in an all-out gang war (no pun intended) with the team’s past performance in previous rounds factoring into this final deathmatch. It feels fresh and Gang Wars is definitely the favorite among the various multiplayer modes. For the most part, the multiplayer allows you to break free from the linearity and lack of customization of the single-player, providing a much larger arena to experiment with the game’s third-person gunplay and allowing you to personalize your character.
Like a politician whose admission of guilt comes only after his infidelities become glaringly obvious, I’ll admit I was wrong. While not necessarily for everyone, especially those with modest sensibilities and an aversion to violence, this is a game that must be experienced. With a surprisingly fun multiplayer as an added bonus, giving the game additional longevity, Max Payne 3’s single-player is brilliant, one that transcends its average gunplay with storytelling, voice-acting, and production that’s thoroughly compelling.