It has been nearly a decade since Max Payne has been on a revenge fueled adventure. In the lapse of time between Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne and now, the gaming industry has changed a lot. Sony is no longer king of the castle. World War II is no longer the go to front for first person shooters. And games like Gears of War have made third person, cover based shooters a focal point of this current generation of games. The release of Max Payne 3 by Rockstar Games brings with it a plethora of questions. Where does Max Payne fit in with today’s games? Does it even have a place? Can Max evolve enough to be accepted by today’s gamers?
To start off, Max Payne has changed. Both the character and the way the game is played. Max as a character is far more grim than when he was last seen. He is no longer fueled by revenge and without that motivating factor he has little left to live for, instead making his way day to day by numbing himself with excessive amounts of alcohol. This depressing shell of a man is far deeper and more multi-faceted than the Max of old and he is also the best character Rockstar has ever presented in one of their games.
The success of Max as a character in Max Payne 3 comes directly from the narrative that has been developed for the game. The story of Max Payne 3 starts out simple enough, with Max in São Paulo, Brazil as a contracted bodyguard for one of Brazil’s elite. But things quickly spoil and the narrative is filled with numerous twists and turns that spiral down a very dark rabbit hole. In possibly the biggest departure for the series, most of the narrative is told via very stylized cutscenes, filled with film grain, oversaturation of colors, and a kinetic energy usually reserved for the likes of a Tony Scott film. It is a far cry from the comic book noir stylings of the previous two games but it is also feels just right.
Max Payne 3’s narrative is arguably Rockstar’s darkest, most mature and tightest storytelling endeavor yet but it is the gameplay that is to thank for that achievement. While Max and his story are multi-faceted, the gameplay in Max Payne 3 is singularly focused on one thing, shooting people. Stripped to its core, the gameplay in Max Payne 3 can be described as a third person, cover based shooter. Adding cover to Max Payne changes how combat should be approached and as a long-time fan of the series, getting used to the change was a chore for me.
Of course one of the iconic features of the Max Payne series has been the ability to slow down time and use Max’s pinpoint accuracy with his “shoot-dodge”, better known as Bullet Time. And it is still a focal point of the Max Payne 3 gameplay but utilizing it as I would in the original Max Payne games ushered me to more than one early death. And the game will provide plenty of brutal deaths for Max regardless, so learning this new gameplay formula, a delicate balance of playing the game like a modern third person, cover based shooter and utilizing Bullet Time strategically to maintain the upper hand in gunfights, is the key to enjoying the combat.
With the game being a straight shooter, Max Payne 3 could not afford to have Rockstar’s standard mediocre shooting controls and the game does not disappoint. While not quite up to the quality of the genre’s top tier of games, the gunplay is quite satisfying, carrying a weight that many shooters fail to accomplish. The game has three different styles of gun control, Hard Lock, Soft Lock and Free Aim. For shooter veterans, Hard Lock is effectively useless. However Soft Lock and Free Aim give you the freedom to play the game as one sees fit and also to nail headshots with more frequency. And headshots are important because as mentioned, Max is going to die a lot and that is because Max Payne 3 is hard, frustratingly so at points.
Even on the easiest difficulty setting the game can provide an above average challenge and this is not helped by the fact that Max is basically a china doll, a few shots and he drops like a lead weight. Fortunately, if Max has a bottle of painkillers, the game’s version of health, there is a useful mechanic that auto-enables bullet time if Max is on the verge of death. And killing an enemy during this sequence will auto-use the painkiller allowing the game to continue on.
While the difficulty is certainly ratcheted up from standard shooters, many of Max Payne’s difficulty issues are due to mediocre level design and truly awful checkpointing. There is nothing worse in a shooter than navigating a difficult passage, getting killed cheaply around a corner and being punished by having to navigate the difficult passage again and again and again; in Max Payne 3 this is the norm. These issues all amounted in massive levels of frustration for me, to the point where I was becoming less and less enamored with the game. Fortunately, the narrative was enough to pull me through the entirety of the game, with that said I have little desire to return to it now that I have seen the outcome.
Like its predecessors before it, Max Payne 3 is very much a solo experience but following along with the evolution of the industry, the game includes competitive multiplayer. Surprisingly, the multiplayer is extremely fun and feels Max Payne appropriate. While bullet time seems like something that could be extremely game breaking, the development team found a way to make it work and seem fair. Coupling that with a nice mix of traditional and all new game modes, plus a unique sense of verticality reminiscent of Uncharted’s multiplayer, Max Payne 3’s multiplayer suite is something worth checking out. Like all multiplayer suites though, people need to be playing it and I just do not see that happening when there are better shooters already thriving with an active community.
Rockstar Vancouver, taking over development duties on the series from Remedy, faced a huge challenge making Max Payne 3. Change things too much and they risked alienating the fanbase. Change things too little and they risked developing an irrelevant game for today’s market. Faced with this unenviable task, Rockstar Vancouver deftly walked the tight rope between the two evolving the character and updating the gameplay to something akin to today’s standards. Some things work, some do not. Max Payne 3 is not a perfect game but ultimately it is a game that serves the series legacy admirably and is something that fans of shooters should certainly make time for and experience.
- Fantastic audio/visual presentation
- Solid multiplayer suite
- Best shooting Rockstar has done to date
- Auto-pill popping
- Difficulty level is off the charts
- Mediocre level design
- Awful checkpointing
4 / 5
Note: This review was done using the Xbox 360 version of the game. It is also available on Playstation 3 and PC.