Remedy’s first two Max Payne titles were a real rarity in the lurid world of action games. They wore their nostalgia for film noire and Hong Kong cinema on their sleeves, but were also cuttingly self-aware, pointing out the more ludicrous aspects of their own genre with a protagonist who could sometimes scarcely believe the situation he was in. Max Payne liberally broke the fourth wall in the first two games but when the jibes were over, the titles served as some of the best third person shooters of their era.
Max Payne 3, then, focuses on Max as a drugged out, liquored up mess, and this is fitting. Max Payne 3 isn’t a bad game by any stretch but it has clearly sacrificed some of its wit and soul on the path back to prominence. Remedy is no longer at the helm, which leaves publisher Rockstar to develop the game internally…and all that it implies.
Maybe it’s just bad luck, but pretty much everything that’s annoyed me about Rockstar for the past few years shows up in Max Payne 3. Their titles have always been hit-or-miss for me. GTA was always merely tolerable and clunky, Manhunt was excessive, but Bully was sublime, simply because it embraced and breathed the kind of sophomoric juvenilia that seems to be the hard limit of what Rockstar can write. Max Payne 3 is a jumbled mishmash of all those games, taking bits and pieces and cramming them into a rough approximation of the first two Max titles. This has some advantages but overall it is an unwieldy amalgamation, resulting in a game that feels both behind the times and irritatingly in-step with some of the more tiresome conventions of modern gaming.
For starters you need to join Rockstar Social Club just to play the game, solo story included. Just about every publisher and developer has these so-called communities and online passes these days, to make absolutely sure you paid for the game and shame on you if you bought it used. I can tolerate these passes and such for multiplayer—that’s where they’ve really got you—but I’m damn tired of setting up yet another useless username and password every time I want to play a new game.
Max 3 starts promising enough. Max has apparently fled New Jersey for a private security gig in Brazil, working with an old friend from the police academy named Passos. Max and Passos are charged with guarding a prominent Brazilian politician and his family, and the easy paychecks and opulent atmosphere have allowed Max to sink even deeper into his alcohol and painkiller habits. Rockstar may like to spend way too much time watching Max get absolutely trashed on vicodin and whiskey in his apartment, but that wouldn’t make for a very exciting game, so it isn’t long before the family is attacked by paramilitary thugs and Max and Passos are off on an ill-conceived hostage hunt.
The gameplay, particularly the movement and shooting feel much tighter than GTA4, and this has a lot to do with Rockstar apparently imitating the first two Max Payne games. Aside from Max only being able to carry one set of dual wielded handguns and maybe a rifle or shotgun on the side instead of an entire military arsenal, the aiming, shooting and acrobatics are replicated almost perfectly in the new game. Max also doesn’t have recharging health; you have to grab painkillers and slam them back when his HUD silhouette starts filling up with red, just like the old days. The first few levels make you feel right at home, but then things start to fall apart when the difficulty ramps up quickly.
The problem is that Rockstar tries to implement current shooter mechanics—big emphasis on cover combat, limited ammo reserved, huge set piece rooms filled with enemies—with the game design from the old Max Payne games and it just doesn’t work very well, especially if you try to play Max 3 like Max 1 or 2. If you do a graceful slow-mo gun ballet dive out of cover, expect to get shot to pieces. If you happen to bump another piece of cover or some other extraneous object, it automatically kills your slow-mo, and this is a common occurrence considering how cluttered the environment gets later on. Focus-diving just isn’t a good tactic anymore and the only time you’ll be able to use it effectively is during scripted events. It’s a shame because these bullet time moves are the signature of the Max Payne series and they look really, really cool in Max 3.
The mix of Max’s classic bullet-time acrobatics and the rote, modern waist-high cover gunplay is a clumsy one at best. I often found myself hunkering behind cover, leaving my time-slowing focus to languish. As the game got harder and enemies became inexplicably tougher I was even less inclined to dive out and instigate a bullet ballet; the only way it could end is Max clumsily landing in a heap, scrambling to his feet and rushing back to cover, taking several unnecessary bullets to his hide in the process.
I was getting mad enough to snap my keyboard in half until I realized I had been playing Max 3 the wrong way, using the slow-mo focus to create cool gun ballet fights the way I did in the old games. In Max 3 it is much more useful to use focus to slow down a fight while you’re in cover, then use the extra reaction time to execute four or five easy headshots in quick succession. The game gets almost trivially easy when you do this, and aside from a few “emergencies” where enemies surprised me, I never used focus for anything else. Considering the game’s history this seems like kind of a waste of the bullet time.
Franchise disappointments aside, once I got to about the halfway point I was genuinely enjoying Max Payne 3. It was easy to get into the groove of the gunplay and unlike many other cover based shooters, Max 3 didn’t feel stale for quite a few levels. But a game is more than its gameplay, especially with something like Max Payne—the game’s story needed to stand on its own and this is where Max 3 falters again.
At first the storytelling and presentation are great—if anything Rockstar knows how to make a good first impression. The cutscenes are done in a dynamic comic-panel cutaway style, with various frames sliding into place and important or witty dialog superimposed with eye-catching subtitle boxes. It really makes the sometimes overlong, load-time disguising cutscenes bearable, at least on the first play through, and lends the game both a traditional film noire attitude and a vague South American cinema sensibility as well. The only issue with the cutscenes is that the developers put this neon afterimage in them, which flashes intermittently to indicate Max is bleary and doped up on painkillers. If the effect were a little more subtle it would’ve been more effective, but as it is the constant flashing is really quite distracting and overdone.
The plot itself also jumps back and forth to Max’s flashbacks, exploring a few snatches of his past, including how he met up with Passos and was forced to flee Jersey and New York. I think it’s telling that I enjoyed these flashback levels more than the main story.
About a third of the way through, Max develops a serious case of cutscene stupidity for the sole purpose of progressing the plot. I’m not talking about when he shaves his head and I don’t want to spoil anything, but a little past the head-shaving the game starts to get a bit too ridiculous and just keeps going farther into double-cross conspiracy insanity, as Rockstar’s crime dramas have a tendency to do. This is really aggravating because when Max isn’t being inordinately stupid I really enjoyed his dry, sardonic personality, and his sarcastic quips never get old. He just doesn’t react to the insanity by breaking the fourth wall.
Max Payne 3 runs into the same problem I’ve had with a couple other Rockstar games—instead of the game laughing with you and winking about its own ludicrousness, it plays things so dark and extreme that it becomes an unintentional parody of itself. So many people get ventilated and Max gets shot, beaten and shredded so many times in the first few levels that you can’t possibly take the hard boiled plot seriously. It’s an ugly uncoordinated mix of traditional shooter gameplay and a story that desperately wants to be considered edgy and adult. Max can make all the dryly fatalistic jokes that he wants, but without him actually pointing out how ridiculous the story got like he used to, it got harder and harder for me to sympathize or even care.
After the first few levels I started to get flashbacks of Kane and Lynch Dog Days and its own incomprehensible concoction of grit, grime and constant, utterly unrealistic shootouts with dozens of thugs and paramilitary types—an unfavorable comparison for any game much less a Rockstar triple-A title. Just like Dog Days the plot goes to extreme lengths and contrivances to put Max in one cover-based shooter level after another. I can sympathize with Max when he’s trying to do right by his employers and he’s being double crossed every five minutes, but anytime a character acts like an idiot and the game takes control and choice away from me just to force such an idiot moment, I start to get pretty fed up with that character. Max thankfully never reaches Niko Bellic levels of player contempt but until Max threw away the bottle and got back on track, I was getting rather exasperated with his self-defeating behavior.
Luckily, when you get too frustrated with the story mode you can always swap over to multiplayer. A first for the Max Payne series, Max 3’s multiplayer is a surprisingly robust offering that takes a few risks with the standard cover based formula, and while it’s a little lacking in content it’s the innovation that counts, especially with DLC on the way.
The most striking difference between Max 3’s multiplayer and something like Gears is that Rockstar actually managed to implement bullet time, and what’s more it doesn’t completely break the multiplayer or make it unbalanced. It uses a line-of-sight mechanic that feels very natural and gives you a slight advantage, but just like in single player you need to get kills to fill up that slow-mo bar.
The other aspect of Max 3’s multiplayer that really stands out is the Gang War mode. While the game has deathmatch, CTF and other standard modes, Gang War combines them all into a mini-narrative where these classic modes are turned into objectives. In each round the two teams compete to hold a package, take territory and complete other goals, all of it integrated into a small loose story. Beating the earlier levels earns point bonuses for your team, and then the whole thing culminates in a no-holds-barred team deathmatch finale. It’s a more organic way to spend a couple hours in multiplayer than your average five rounds in Counter Strike or a similar game, or if you want to go a few rounds but want some variety.
Max 3’s multiplayer also implements the new concept of “crews,” which are basically integrated clans, and the developers promise that your crew will be importable to future Rockstar titles like GTA5.
Of course the Rockstar pedigree applies to the game’s production values. The RAGE engine is definitely showing its age but if you can get past the somewhat janky facial animations, the rest of the game is gorgeous. It starts off a little muddy and generic, but that has more to do with how overdone “gritty” visuals are this generation. Once Max gets out into some of the more exotic locales and starts flashing back to the dingy streets of Jersey the visuals really start to shine, and they stay almost sensory-overload good until the credits roll. The slow-mo effects can be breathtaking, with bullets whizzing toward the camera after just barely missing Max, and each firefight is capped off with a bullet-trajectory killcam that highlights the last lethal shot, focusing in on a goon’s perforated gut or fractured face.
The sound design is equally good. James McCaffrey reprises his role as Max Payne and realistically pulls off the character as older, number and more jaded, but with a killer edge that comes back out when needed. The plot’s writing may be kind of messy but Max’s dialog is as good as ever, even if it got less snarky and more doom n’ gloom as they game wore on. In any case McCaffrey just nails the delivery every time, even making wry justifications whenever you pick up yet another bottle of pills. The rest of the voice acting is hit or miss; as usual, Rockstar likes to have lots of incidental characters freaking out and screaming when all hell breaks loose, and after four or five of those cutscenes it starts to get old. The music does a good job of mixing the somber noire-inspired flavor of the earlier games with new Brazilian infusions, although the in-game music can get a bit repetitive as it’s mostly dynamic pieces set to the action.
I really wanted to love Max Payne 3 but I had some serious reservations going in, and it turns out they weren’t completely unfounded. The shift in developers didn’t go off without a hitch; Max 3 is wrapped in a beautiful package but at its core it is far from a glorious return to form. It’s taken a few years too many for gamers and the press to realize it but Rockstar’s pretense is finally wearing thin. They’ve made too many games stuffed with jerkily animated tough guy stereotypes wearing pinstripe suits and swearing at each other, and when they apply that same tired formula to something as self-aware but equally noir-nostalgic as Max Payne, the cracks really start to show.
I know I’ve been saying this for a while, but Rockstar just doesn’t know how to mix humor and serious drama. They always end up with a whiny, mopey anti-hero cast against a world full of dick jokes, cliché gangster parodies and other assorted “mature” humor and it all comes off like some angsty fanfic written by a 13 year old trying to look cool. With a character and world as strong as Max Payne’s some of that pretense is mitigated, but it’s still clear that the storytellers at Rockstar have trouble growing up. That said, I’m optimistic. The story of Max Payne 3 is ultimately a fresh start for the character. Hopefully, after a somewhat rocky return to slow-mo dives and epic gun fights, the Max Payne series has a brighter future ahead.