By Marty Mulrooney
Max Payne 3 is the third instalment in the Max Payne video game franchise, with development duties this time being undertaken by Rockstar Vancouver in collaboration with Rockstar New England, Rockstar London and Rockstar Toronto. Its release marks the first Max Payne game not created by Finnish game developer Remedy Entertainment of Alan Wake fame and not written by series creator Sam Lake. Max returns in 2012 with a major booze and painkiller addiction as he takes a job as a private security guard for the wealthy Branco family in São Paulo.
Max Payne 3’s bright box art initially seems at odds with the franchise’s dark reputation. After all, when Max was first introduced to players way back in 2001, the first level saw him returning home to find his wife and newborn daughter murdered by junkies. Long-time fans of the series will therefore no doubt breathe a huge sigh of relief when Max Payne 3 first loads. Max is shown out of his mind on painkillers and whiskey in his new apartment – the death of his family still haunts him. He knocks back drink after drink, smoking cigarette after cigarette, as the opening cinematic splices together scenes from Max’s past, present and future.
This is a stylish and apt introduction to Max’s latest adventure, as throughout the course of Max Payne 3 the player will explore the narrative in the form of chapters that dart backwards and forwards through time. Some levels feature Max as long-time fans will fondly remember him, leather jacket clad and miserable. Retired from the NYPD, he now resides in New Jersey, wasting his days away in a bar, trying to find solace in the bottom of a glass. It is in this bar that he meets an old friend, Raul Passos, who convinces him to take a job as a private security guard in South America. This job involves Max and Raul protecting the wealthy Branco family from threats of abduction, murder and blackmail.
The flashback levels set in New Jersey should help to appease fans who are worried that Max has changed too much. James McCaffrey returns as the voice of Max, this time also providing his movements and mannerisms through motion capture. Whether running and gunning through the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey or the dangerous streets of São Paulo, Brazil, Max is the same cynical, likeable bastard. The backwards and forwards style of storytelling isn’t new – but it does allow Rockstar Games to show Max undergoing a series of transformations. To see Max evolve from a washed-up cop into an alcoholic bodyguard and then later into an all-out mercenary helps to vary the levels and the environments without the new approach ever feeling too heavy-handed or far removed from the previous games.
The Max Payne games have always centred around a core mechanic – bullet time. Technological advancements have finally allowed this gameplay idea to blossom and become fully realised. Max can still run, gun and dive in slow motion, but he now does so with much more finesse. Incorporating the Euphoria engine that was used to great effect in previous Rockstar titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Max now moves much more realistically. The gameplay has improved as a result. Max will now drop out of bullet time if he dives into a wall and shot enemies react dynamically amidst sprays of gore that take into account each individual bullet fired. The player can also choose between three aiming modes: Hard Lock, Soft Lock and Free Aim.
The only mechanic that hasn’t been updated is the use of painkillers. The difficulty is high regardless of difficulty level and there is no regenerating health. Players must use painkillers manually to recover health. Being critically shot with painkillers to hand offers Max one last chance to survive in the form of the ‘Last Man Standing’ mechanic, where the game slows down and focuses on the enemy who fired the fatal bullet. If the player kills this enemy in time, Max pops a painkiller and leaps back into action.
Picked up weapons are accessed via a weapon-wheel. Max can hold two sidearms and a machine gun/rifle/shotgun at once. The animation during firefights is fantastic: switching from a two-handed weapon to a sidearm sees Max holding the machine gun/rifle/shotgun in his unused hand, rather than it simply disappearing like has been the case in many other third-person shooters of the past. Reloading in such situations sees Max jamming the two-handed weapon under his arm while he reloads his sidearm.
Choosing to duel-wield two sidearms results in Max dropping his two-handed weapon on the floor. Even after diving, Max will stay on the floor until the player gets him back up. From this position, the player can rotate the camera 360 degrees and carry on shooting, with Max moving dynamically. All of these little details greatly enrich the gameplay experience. The enemies have also been improved – assailants will now flank Max and run for cover rather than standing out in the open.
Thankfully, Max can now also take cover too. It doesn’t always work as well as it should, but when it does, it’s essential. Running and gunning like in the previous instalments just won’t cut it here. The enemies are too resilient – most wear bullet-proof vests – and as previously mentioned, the difficulty is sky high. Taking cover gives Max some breathing room and popping out of cover in bullet time allows the player the pop off some precise headshots and thin the number of attackers in a room before diving back into the fray.
The gameplay never strays too far from this strict blueprint from beginning to end. There are no puzzles – Uncharted this certainly ain’t – and the only real interaction with the environment is via pressing buttons and collecting clues that shed further light on the story. Killing the final enemy in an area even shows a bullet cam controllable by the player to convey the damage done in all its gory slow-mo glory. The story itself is told with panache and style, the cutscenes covering up loading times so that the entire game feels like a movie. The visuals are strong and during the cutscenes they are overlaid with visual effects such as flickering and strobing to convey Max’s damaged state of mind. These scenes also often break into panels and it isn’t uncommon to see random spoken words pop up as text on screen, a nod to the comic book panel cutscenes of Max Payne 1 & 2.
The story is fairly gripping but the only character with any real development is Max himself, and even then you only really care about him because of the strong performance of James McCaffrey. He may throw on a Hawaiian shirt and shave his head later on, but he’s still the same old killing machine caught up in something he doesn’t really understand. To be fair, the story acknowledges that Max is in over his head and Rockstar makes it perfectly clear that the plot is simply there to serve up one setpiece after another. They just about pull it off – you won’t care too much about the lack of emotional involvement when Max suddenly pushes a kidnapper through a glass window, plunging towards the packed floor of a busy neon-lit nightclub as the cutscene transitions to gameplay and you start popping off headshots in slow motion.
Another new addition to the series is multiplayer. Many players – this reviewer included – were understandably dubious prior to release that the gameplay of Max Game 3 would translate well to the online arena. Incredibly, Rockstar has managed to offer 8-16 player deathmatch and team deathmatch modes – along with ‘Payne Killer’ and ‘Gang Wars’ modes – that include the signature ‘Bullet Time’ and ‘Shootdodge’ gameplay mechanics. This is achieved via the implementation of technical wizardry that actually delivers – players activating bullet time cause everyone within their line of sight to slow down too, resulting in some truly stunning online firefights.
Unfortunately, Max Payne 3 does have some bugs that crop up throughout. Sometimes the sound disappears during a cutscene and at a certain point in the game this can also occur after failing a checkpoint a specific number of times, requiring a hard reset of the PlayStation 3 console. During my first playthrough, I also encountered a bug where a cutscene stopped midway through, dumping Max in an unfinished map that he shouldn’t have had access to, outside of the main levels. Again, this required a reset of the PlayStation 3 console. Finally, the ‘Last Man Standing’ mechanic can sometimes trigger when the enemy that shot you is behind a wall, making it impossible to strike back.
Max Payne 3 is a stylish, violent adventure that is presented like a Michael Mann film and plays like a John Woo flick. The phenomenal soundtrack by HEALTH rounds off a cinematic single player campaign that is joined by a surprisingly solid multiplayer component. James McCaffrey sells the entire experience, even when it falters – his hardboiled voiceover is certainly worth playing for. It’s a shame that some strange bugs mar the experience at times and the shooting can admittedly get somewhat repetitive towards the end of Max’s adventure. Regardless, this is one of 2012’s most enjoyable third-person shooters – possibly its best – and once again proves that when it comes to quality game design, Rockstar are second to none.
9 OUT OF 10