Max Payne 3 review
You could take one of Max Payne 3's bullet point features and make it a metaphor for the game itself. Once you've downed the last enemy in a section, the game turns on the slow-mo, allowing you to fire further bullets into the lifeless corpse as he falls. It's 100% gimmick, offering no incentive or gameplay bonus and therefore completely unnecessary, but it's there anyway. You could say the same about Max Payne 3 itself. Were people crying out for another sequel? I certainly wasn't and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the first two games, developed by Remedy, I didn't feel the need for another, particularly after such a long gap (nine years, in fact). Is Max Payne 3 just a gimmick, then? An attempt to cash in on a once-popular brand? I thought so too when I first heard about it, but now that the game is out, let's take a closer look.
Unsurprisingly, Max Payne 3 is a story about, well, Max Payne, who finds himself in São Paulo, Brazil, body-guarding a rich and influential family. Upon arriving in Brazil, the game portrays Max boozing and self-medicating in his hotel room, with the now familiar heavy violin chords playing. Max has certainly sunk to a new level of depression, still not over the loss of his family. Now it wouldn't be particularly entertaining if nothing happened on his first day at the job so, sure enough, within a few minutes of you being introduced to the situation, the group gets attacked at a glitzy party. The game follows Max from this moment, and the events that are a direct consequence of it, bringing him to Brazil's nasty underbelly. You get glimpses of life on both sides of the poverty line, which is commented on equally by Max who perceives the country as an outsider looking in. You get to experience a night club shoot out, creep through the broken shacks and disused industrial buildings of the nearby swamps, and then back to the heart of São Paulo, the city's airport, which serves as a frame for the game's narrative - it is Max Payne's first and last sequence. Along the way you meet characters typical to this sort of tale; corrupt cops, manipulative politicians and the lone straight man on the force who's doing his damnedest just to survive. Many of these archetypes are typical to games set in this region, such as the brilliant film, "Man on Fire", whose kidnapping story and redemption of the main character has many parallels to the story of Max Payne 3. But while the elements may be formulaic, it is Rockstar's ability for polish and their history of great storytelling that make the game stand out. This is equally as true of the environments which are amazingly detailed and vibrant in colour in both its rural and urban settings. The weather system is also a marvel to behold, such as a tropical storm at night when creeping through the swamps in São Paulo to the gentle snow fall in New York. A nice touch Rockstar have put in is to allow you to pause the game then remove the HUD, letting you pan the camera around, seeing the world in all its detail.
Max likes to play hide and seek. With guns.
Rockstar have gone for a comic book style approach to its storytelling. The game highlights key words that crop up in cut-scenes, used to provide emphasis to Max's often monotone, cynical and deadpan commentary on the world. If you weren't a fan of his voice-over from the first two games, then this is not the game for you. This isn't tied to the cut-scenes either as Max will often comment on other situations he finds himself in, most noticeable when he takes painkillers, often making a mockery of his pill and alcohol addictions. During these situations, as well as other emotionally charged environments, the camera's colours will also distort on screen, breaking them into their individual components, in a manner very reminiscent of Kane and Lynch 2. If you attempt to play it through in one sitting you won't see a single loading screen as they are well hidden beneath the cut-scenes and set pieces which Rockstar do a great job at transitioning between one to the next; with characters remaining in place, with the world fading around them to illustrate the passage of time. Whilst it may initially seem overly slanted towards the kidnapping storyline, Rockstar are still able to focus on the titular character, with a number of flash back episodes set in New York. These help frame Max's state of mind after the first two games and help illuminate how he ended up in Brazil.
Those who are familiar with the Max Payne series will certainly tell you that the game's trademark gameplay mechanic is slow-motion third-person shooting. Wisely, Rockstar have kept this gaming staple in Max Payne 3. For those who never touched a Max Payne game, then I'll explain. At the touch of a button, Max jumps into a dive (the direction based on the analogue stick) and time slows down to a crawl, allowing you to unload a clip onto oncoming bad guys as bullets whizz around you. It also sports a cover system, unusual in this series but a regular staple of modern games. I found this to be more useful that the dive mechanic, as you can still trigger Max's slow motion ability whilst having the additional protection due to cover. This may be moving too far away from the original formula for some, but I really enjoyed the ability to snap to cover, activate slow motion, pick off a bad guy and then duck back down. This ability is tied to a meter, so you don't get unlimited slow-motion, but it does recharge quite quickly (more so in the middle of a gun fight) and as soon as you hit the ground, time flows normally again, often leaving you in a very vulnerable position. On the console, if you're after a bit more of a challenge, you can turn the aiming assists off, or alternatively, to make things easier, turn hard lock targeting on.
Max's hair returns in flashbacks
Also returning to Max Payne 3 is the series' health system, which takes the form of pain pills that have been left by lying around for Max to pick up and abuse. These are distributed quite loosely with only a handful scattered across a single level and will restore about 75% of Max's health in one gulp. Another helpful new addition happens should you lose all your health in the middle of a gun fight. If you still have a pain pill, slow motion will automatically kick in and the game will pan the camera to the guy that downed you, giving you a chance to kill him and get a second wind. You don't get an explicit weapon selection menu, starting off with whatever the previous cut-scene warranted and picking the rest up from goons that you take down. This ranges from pistols and SMGs, to rifles and shotguns, and the game allows you to carry a couple of the former weapons, which can often share the same pool of ammo as well as a single, more powerful, weapon, like the latter two. None of these are memorable enough for you to form your favourites and are used more as a means to an end than a system in their own right. Despite that, there are a few sequences where you get a sniper rifle and have to take out a number of enemies in quick succession. Combined with the slow-motion gameplay, these prove to be quite memorable moments in the game. Likewise, those looking for a little more flair in their bullet time moments won't be disappointed. A number of times the game will throw you into a session of prolonged slow motion, such as when you are dodging out of the way of a speeding car, or diving from the top floor of a night club down to the dance floor below, proving to also be memorable moments and are some of my favourite parts of the game. So despite the alterations Rockstar have made, this is still a Max Payne game at heart, from cynical voice-overs to popping kills and slow motion gunplay.
Hopefully, I've established that Max Payne 3 features a fantastic single-player experience. It's curious, then, as to why Rockstar decided to include a multiplayer mode. It's unfortunate that we're moving back to the situation where developers feel the urge to needlessly include multiplayer or are forced to do so by publishers. In this case, Max Payne 3's certainly seems tacked on. The developers have, of course, included the bullet time combat from the single-player, taking the form of adrenaline, which players earn through the course of the match. At the tap of a button, players can trigger a dive causing all players to go into slow motion. If you haven't filled your adrenaline meter you can still dive for cover, though. This is only really interesting for the first few matches, but as you get past this you'll discover that the multiplayer is a very bland affair. Combat itself appears uninteresting without the flash and style that accompanied it in the single player and with only the standard types of game modes to keep you going, I lost interest in playing it pretty quickly.
So, whilst a sequel to the 2003 hit May Payne 2 may feel like it was unwarranted, Rockstar have not squandered the opportunity to resurrect this brand. Much like they did for Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 is a great return to form. It may not offer the exact experience that you may have remembered from the last decade, but it definitely has that Rockstar magic for story telling and set pieces, whilst keeping some of the famous gameplay mechanics that the series is most well known for. I heartily recommend this game to series veterans and newcomers alike.