There’s been a lot of reservation about Rockstar’s take on Remedy’s classic film noir third person shooter. People complained that the bright setting was taking away from the noir setting, that bald Max was too much of a change, that the cover system was an affront to the series, and that Rockstar was just doing the game wrong. Well, it’s good to see that these reservations were mostly for naught, as the game feels, plays, and looks like a true Max Payne game. Fans of the series, rejoice. If there’s one game that’s finally rearing its head after a years-long hiatus to glory, this is it.
Rockstar delivers an excellent story and narrative yet again with an older, more cynical, and more hopeless Max who has taken to pills and booze to get through the day. He’s found himself kicked out of the NYPD and spending his days killing his liver, until one night when a bar fight goes awry and the son of New Jersey’s biggest mobster winds up dead. Max flees to Brazil with an old friend and enters into the private security industry. That, too, turns sour when his employer’s wife is kidnapped by a guerrilla group.
The story is delivered much better than usual for Rockstar. Thanks to Max Payne 3′s linear levels and scripted sequences, the pacing comes through a lot better than in an open world game, where key story moments can be broken by hours worth of shooting boar or jumping ramps. It’s every bit as dramatic as Read Dead Redemption’s or Grand Theft Auto 4′s but with none of the fluff of extra tertiary characters or amusing banter during car rides. It’s tight, focused, and written to a polish. It’s perhaps Rockstar’s best narrative yet. It may not have the one big shock like Grand Theft Auto 4 or Red Dead Redemption has to keep it memorable, but only because, as a Max Payne game, it’s full of those moments.
The gameplay is invariably Max Payne through and through. Very little has actually changed since the original games except that the camera now rests over the shoulder instead of directly above Max’s head. Switching shoulders is a crucial mechanic to progress as it helps players see around corners, something which they will need to do whenever they decide they need a break from getting shot. Enemies in the game are no pushovers, they don’t simply stand and shoot. In fact, it’s probably the best AI in a game since the original F.E.A.R. Enemies will react to suppressing fire, charge Max’s cover, shoot the cover out from behind Max, flush Max out with grenades, flank Max from the sides, etc. They also have very good aim and no intent of following the Hollywood model of attacking one at a time.
Consequently, Max Payne 3 is not an easy game and all the better for it. Firefights feel intense and satisfying to play, each encounter feels different enough to keep the game from getting repetitive or stagnant, and resources have to be managed or you’ll quickly find yourself staring down a handful of deadly enemies with nothing but the butt of your gun and three holes in your body. Constantly swapping out weapons, collecting ammo and stocking up on painkillers is integral to getting through many areas.
The new gameplay mechanics fit in well with the game. The maligned cover system actually works well with a Max Payne game. It’s not the crutch that most third person shooters rely on anymore, where players simply sit behind a chest high wall and occasionally pop up at opportune moments to kill enemies. Cover is, at best, a temporary reprieve before it’s either shot out from behind Max or he’s flushed out by grenades or flanking maneuvers. Past that, shootdodging, bullet time, and constant movement are the keys to success, as always. In fact, I found many moments of the game easier to get by with constantly moving from place to place instead of taking any cover at all.
There is a new mechanic called Last Man Standing where if Max is gunned down while having a painkiller on hand, the game will enter bullet time. The player then has a limited amount of time to kill the enemy that delivered the final blow so that Max instead receives the health benefit from the painkiller and the enemy winds up dead. This latter mechanic makes the game far easier than it might have been otherwise, but considering it’s still a difficult game for other reasons, it isn’t a bad compromise.
The audio of the game is superb. Every gun sounds great, the voice acting is top notch, the music is excellent, and the sound design blows most games out of the water. It truly is Hollywood quality, like something you would expect to hear in a Michael Mann film. From the sound of bullets, to the click of the guns, to the bullet time silence effect, to the various musical tracks, the game’s audio lends a very unique feel to the game as a whole. Max’s cynical noir narration adds another layer to it as he comments frequently on his environment and his situation throughout the game, sometimes with dark humor and other times with typical noir melodrama. Houser’s writing for Max is a lot less lyrical than Lake’s, and so some of the verbiage is a bit suspect (especially the constant sexual references for a character who was effectively asexual outside of one love interest), but the tone otherwise stays the same.
Where Rockstar’s involvement truly shines is the graphical department. While Remedy has never been any slouch with graphical quality themselves, Rockstar’s animation takes it to a whole other level. Max Payne 3 has the best animations of any game out there. Every little detail is animated wonderfully from Max dragging his feet across counters while diving over them, to his hand opening a door as he bursts through it, to enemies reacting to exactly where they’re shot. It goes far enough that enemies even make the distinction between being shot in the head, the torso, and the neck. Most games only go torso to head. Like our reviews editor Zach mentioned before, certain enemies are actually susceptible there since they don’t wear neck armor. The animations for carrying and reloading weapons are also nothing short of breathtaking. Max doesn’t just place a gun into a pan-dimensional jacket pocket anymore, he actually carries a two-handed weapon in his off-hand and will drop it if duel wielding. Each weapon has a different reload animation that changes even further if he’s carrying a two-handed weapon as well. The sheer breadth of animations in the game is nothing short of massive.
The multiplayer mode is Rockstar’s most involved offering yet. It features a ranking and customization system like Call of Duty and the Rainbow Six: Vegas games respectively, and a bevy of game modes from the traditional death match to a Juggernaut mode where two people play as Max and his partner Raul. The real draw is Gang Wars, which is an objective based game mode that goes between maps where one side can get an advantage or objective based on who won the previous map.
Game quality aside, there’s one little bit that ardent Max Payne fans will be interested in. With all these bright locations, how could the game possibly be noir? Well… it isn’t. Max Payne 3 is not very noir at all. The only noir in the game comes from Max’s own personal narration. Otherwise, it’s more Man on Fire than Maltese Falcon. There’s also much less of the dark satirical humor that defined the previous two games either. Max Payne 3 is a straight crime/action drama with a very dark, but not necessarily melodramatic, story. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it is a stark difference from Remedy’s games.
Dan Houser’s writing is also very different from Sam Lake’s. Where Lake’s writing was poetic and metaphorical, Houser’s is more character-focused and direct, with more swearing and sexual references. It’s a bit weird to hear Max drop the F-bomb so many times and talk about his non-existent sister’s copulation. I also found it a bit jarring that there was no femme fatale to balance Max as their had been previously. In fact, there’s not a single strong female character at all. It would be nice to see Houser finally write a good female character and this game could have been perfect for it but, alas, it’s not to be.
Max Payne 3 is definitely Rockstar’s best effort yet in terms of storytelling and narrative. It’s nice to see them tackle something other than an open world game after all these years and, really, what they have made is every bit as cinematic and action packed as the Uncharted games but with a more realistic styling. The bullet time, shootdodging, well made cutscenes, voice acting, and sound all come together to make something that’s even a pleasure to watch. It’s very rare that a game is just as good to watch as it is the play and Max Payne 3 hits that mark wonderfully. One could easily considered it to be the best third person shooter of this generation.
Max Payne 3 was released on May 15th, 2012 for Xbox 360 and PS3, and will be released on June 1st, 2012 for PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.