Max Payne 3 Xbox 360
There was a morbid curiosity mixed in with my desire to play a Max Payne game developed internally by Rockstar. As a pinnacle of sorts of early third person action games, the pure arcade appeal at the centre of Remedy’s original – a film noire pastiche and homage to graphic novels and Hong Kong action opera – borders on an anti-thesis to nearly all of Rockstar’s own recent contributions to gaming. As engrossing as a Grand Theft Auto is with its sprawling world, open ended design and best in class narrative, the act of shooting a guy and moving your avatar around has always felt patently terrible. With a track record of favouring animation far ahead of character control, as well as employing awkward lock-on mechanics and sluggish reticules for aiming, I was fully aware that Rockstar could be the worst thing to happen to the Max Payne I know and love.
But first things first. The game opens up with Max Payne currently residing in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Leaving behind his crime busting days in the NYPD, he now works as protection detail for one Rodrigo Branco – a filthy rich real estate mogul. Time has been rough on our smirking New York cop, who’s now an alcoholic and addicted to painkillers – the latter of which is hardly surprising. Stumbling through his assignments in a drunken haze, things go properly south for Max when Rodrigo’s brother, his young wife and her sister are kidnapped on Max’s watch. The race to get them back runs into one complication after another, eventually spiralling into a mess that lives up to the legacy of messes the titular character has left behind so far.
Normally dealing with a mess by diving sideways in slow motion and shooting people in the face, Max Payne sticks mostly to his established ways in his third outing. “Bullet Time” – the trademark slow motion mode you go into to shoot guys before they shoot you – still features heavily. You can either fire “from the hip” or hold down the left shoulder button to aim with more fidelity, and you can move in close and press the fire button to execute a melee kill. Also present is a cover system that mostly works as you’d expect, allowing you to stick to cover, vault over cover, blind fire or pop out to shoot.
The implications of a cover system is that the game is no longer the pure, arcadey bullet time affair it used to be, and there is some merit to that assumption. In the old games, Bullet Time was effectively your only respite from the gunfire directed at you, whereas in Max Payne 3 it’s a perfectly valid tactic to simply plant yourself behind something and hunt head shots. It is balanced somewhat down the line with the introduction of more formidable foes who throw grenades or advance on your position to draw you out. What you’ll find is that the game lets you transition between these disciplines with an admirable dynamism, and it’s often your sheer eagerness to dive into the action that prompts you to quite literally dive into action.
Levels still follow the linear structure of previous games, but by increasing their width it’s one of those cases where dying – or replaying sections – doesn’t feel so terrible. Since you can always zip along a slightly different path in the environment, and approach the situation from another angle, it’s easy to entertain yourself by simply experimenting with the scenarios and combat encounters that the game presents.
Returning to the point I made in the intro, it’s frustrating to note that Rockstar have indeed brought their weighty – though for all intents and purposes rather impressive looking – animation system into Max Payne 3. Not only is there a noticeable delay between pushing the stick in a direction and Max taking off, but you also regularly run into the problem of Max simply not responding to an input because he’s not finished taking a particular step, or is unable to suddenly change his trajectory. These things are snappier than the underwater-like skidding around in Grand Theft Auto 4, but when you are dealing with a straight up shooter like this, not being able to fully depend on the responsiveness of your on screen avatar is very irritating. Moving around in a crouched position, especially, invites self inflicted hair pulling – often getting Max’s legs crossed in a way that causes him to stubbornly keep going in one direction well after you’ve started guiding him in another.
You will get used to it, but it’s sad to note that its two predecessors – both nearly 10 years old – had its priorities firmly set on gameplay, and to this day offer a more responsive and robust core action experience. The good news is that the aiming controls in Max Payne 3 show no traces of the sluggishness and sticky lock-on you find in Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto, and there are a multitude of ways to tweak them to your satisfaction, ranging from free aim with powerful sensitivity adjustment settings, to Call of Duty like snap-to-target aiming.
You can play Max Payne 3 in a number of different modes. Story Mode, as you’d expect, is the vanilla way to play through the game. Returning from Max Payne 2 is New York Minute, which gives you a timer counting down from one minute, and you add time to it by killing enemies in rapid succession. Normal kills add 3 seconds to the clock, and headshots add 5. Unlike its wave based survival incarnation from Max Payne 2, however, this does not take place in specific arena like areas, but rather sees you speed running the regular campaign levels. Arcade Mode rounds out the ways to experience the campaign – it tracks and scores your performance and compares it to your friends on a leader board.
There is also a fairly elaborate multiplayer component this time around, which, chances are, you’re not exactly coming to Max Payne for. What’s here works better than you might expect, but mostly just ticks the usual boxes for multiplayer in a post-Call of Duty 4 world. You earn XP to unlock new load-outs and abilities through standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, and there’s also a mode called Gang Wars that uses chunks of the single player campaigns as framework for objective based matches.
Using the RAGE engine that powered Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption, as well as employing the Euphoria physics engine for top of the line man-flopping, it’s no surprise that Max Payne 3 can look quite striking. Furthermore, shrinking it down to a linear shooter where they can always dictate what you are looking at, the engine clearly has no problem layering on some extra graphical oomph. The density of detail is especially impressive, and there’s a palpable feeling of surroundings being hand crafted, rather than having prefab houses plopped down everywhere. Especially later in the game when it moves away from sterile indoor environments and into rural areas with little alleyways and winding stairs, it just oozes atmosphere.
It’s a shame that the visuals are compromised somewhat by an aggressive image filter that distorts and discolours the image at regular intervals. I assume it’s meant to highlight the pressing heat of its setting and the mental state of its drugged up and drunken protagonist, but the game is nowhere near measured enough in its use of it to ultimately have that effect. It just comes off as rather forced.
In an effort to sporadically honour its predecessors, there are also some carry-overs that don’t quite gel. The game employs some freeze framing during cutscenes, and you regularly get random excerpts of lines the characters say, typed out on screen, all in order to maintain a comic book blurb influence. That may sound inspired, but they are stylized with faux scan lines layered on top, making it look like the feed from a gas station surveillance camera. It doesn’t evoke a comic, and more importantly it’s neither stylish nor pretty. During quiet, intimate moments in particular, it’s disappointing to have the game blast these excessive filters and spam text, because the scenes themselves would be more powerful without them.
The noir trappings it adheres to seemingly out of a sense of obligation has Max constantly talking over everything that happens. Pick up a thing, there’s a throwaway line, stick around in an area for a second and Max will comment on how he should be moving along. Not a moment goes by without a tired, generic metaphor coming out of him. In fact, it’s always in the ways Max Payne 3 distances itself from the original games that it excels. You may initially look for the Hong Kong action influences, but when you realise that Rockstar’s Max Payne is less Hard Boiled and more Die Hard, it takes on a heavy, American slugger action hero feel that is refreshing and unique. It also manages what Duke Nukem Forever failed miserably at; it re-introduces and sets up its protagonist as an action hero that both fits – and doesn’t – into modern video games in a compelling way.
In abandoning the self awareness and self referential humour of past games, it’s not as immediately endearing, and therefore the narrative has taken on responsibilities the first half of the story especially can’t always shoulder. In squandering its snappy arcade centre and branching out just enough, gameplay wise, to invite comparisons to other current third person shooters, the video game underneath takes on competition it can’t quite beat. Rockstar’s continued insistence on favouring animation over character control makes for an unnecessarily sluggish core game, but it is one that eventually settles into its own set piece groove, and ultimately gets swept up and propelled forward by the momentum of its story and impressive portrayal of its setting.