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[Review] Max Payne 3

Nearly nine years have passed since Remedy Entertainment graced the world with Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne and left the series in the hands of its publisher, Rockstar Entertainment. After a worryingly long development cycle and no small amount of fan outcry, Rockstar Vancouver, the team that brought you the excellent Bully, are back with their take on the beloved franchise. What is it with them and bald protagonists, anyway?


Throughout the years, Rockstar has established a specific feel with their gameplay. Especially this generation, with games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and even LA Noire, which they didn’t even develop. That feel is largely present in Max Payne 3, but with definite improvements. I’ll admit that after playing those games, I was more than a little worried about how this game would handle. While the other Rockstar-developed games strengths relied on their immersive open worlds and their sheer variety, Max Payne 3 has neither. Max Payne 3 has shooting, more shooting, and occasionally a little more shooting. Having the gunplay simply be passable would not get them nearly as far here. In fact, it would be more than slightly offensive after considering how impressive both Max Payne and Max Payne 2‘s gunplay were in their respective times.

Luckily, it’s obvious that Rockstar Vancouver put their time in when it came to developing satisfying gameplay. There’s nothing in this game that’s as revelatory as the Bullet Time in Max Payne or the crazy physics in Max Payne 2, but the gunplay certainly feels solid. The weapons all have their own unique characteristics and they all sound like something out of a Hollywood action movie. Again, it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s well-above average. In fact, the entirety of the game reminded me of the Uncharted series, even though I found the simple act of shooting enemies much more satisfying here than I ever did in a Nathan Drake joint.

It even feels like the original two Max Payne games in a lot of areas. The way Max carries himself almost seems ripped straight out of the original Max Payne, albeit with much better animation. Max is significantly more accurate this time around, though, which really lends to how fun the game can be. Popping Bullet Time to get a few precious seconds and getting a headshot from across the room can be a blast.

There are a few caveats, however, that change up the gameplay from the original Max Payne and diehard fans may not be too happy about them. Max Payne has never been a man to hide behind cover. Leaping out from the edge of a wall into a room full of enemies was always more his style. Until now, at least. Like nearly every other third-person shooter, a cover mechanic has been implemented to help modernize the series. It may go slightly against the spirit of the first two games, but to be honest, it doesn’t feel out of place. Snapping to cover is done with a simple button press and the usual leans, blind firing, and popping out are available, as well. Max’s signature dive can also be activated with a button press and can be done from behind cover quite easily.

That signature dive has not been left untouched, though. Now when Max dives, he is left lying prone on the floor, able to aim and shoot, but exposed until the left stick is tilted in a direction. This causes him to stand up, which takes significantly longer to do than it ever has before. This adds an interesting risk/reward decision to the mechanic, but ultimately makes it far less useful. I actually found it more detrimental than helpful. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few times where a good old-fashioned dive didn’t save my skin, but those times seemed outweighed by the times that I would dive, take out two goons, and then be killed while exposed by the remaining enemies. It’s an easy playstyle adjustment to make, but I will admit that it hampered the feel of Max Payne-iness for me just a bit.

 

A click of the right stick activates Bullet Time and, just like always, this is Max’s time to shine. Bullet Time looks and sounds nice and is a major part of what makes Max Payne 3 stand out from the modern shooter. After the original Max Payne game came out, a deluge of releases featuring player-controlled slow-motion mechanics were sent out into the world. Rise to Honor, Viewtiful Joe, and the Matrix games come to mind immediately. The only surviving remnants of this I can think of this generation are Stranglehold, WET, and the F.E.A.R. series. It’s always kind of funny when a game’s major diverging point from its peers is something that was once criminally overused. Running from cover to cover in slow-motion, mowing down all who dare cross your path can be exhilarating, especially during the early parts of the game where a few bullets to the torso can take down a foe no problem.

Later on, when they start becoming covered with body armor, this dynamic totally changes. When fighting enemies with body armor, shots to the torso, arms, or legs are used more to knock your enemies down. The bullets aren’t as damaging to them as they normally would be, but the impact of the bullets on the armor can be more than enough to topple them over. If their heads are exposed, one cranial-focused shot will kill them. No exceptions. If they aren’t, they’re probably covered with a helmet. A bullet can take care of that, exposing the head. This makes headshots so much more important than in the average game. The difference between one bullet to the head and ten or more to the torso is huge, especially in a room full of armored guards. What this means is that you’re far less likely to be moving quickly and volleying bullets. For me, I found the best mode of attack for armored enemies was to stay behind cover and activate Bullet Time just before popping up and carefully taking aim for the head. It’s a weird issue, because even though it’s thoroughly entertaining, it just isn’t very Max Payne.

I mentioned Uncharted before and that’s one of the major reasons why. Uncharted has always been a very headshot-focused experience. The later levels of Max Payne 3 take that focus and make it a little more fun by adding stylish kill-cams and more graphic violence. The headshots themselves are much easier to get here due to the slow-motion mechanic, too, so that ostensibly adds to the fun factor, as well.

It’s less of a problem for me, because there are good story-related reasons for these armored enemies to exist. Throughout the game, they are only present when it narratively makes sense. They also offer up a little bit of variety in the pacing, which during gameplay almost solely consists of pressing forward and shooting people. Forcing Max to take a little bit of time with his shots isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as creating interesting gameplay, but it’s decidedly less Max Payne.

Something that is decidely Max Payne is the use of painkillers found in the environment to regain lost health. The health system from the original games is employed here, straight down to the silhouette of Max that fills with red at the bottom of the screen. That’s not to say it’s wholly unchanged. There is one major new addition to the health system: the Last Stand. If Max has a painkiller in his inventory and runs out of health (unless he’s blown to bits by a grenade), he will enter slow-motion and start to fall down. During this time, the camera will focus on whatever enemy fired the fatal bullet. If Max can shoot them before falling to the ground, he gets a second wind, takes the painkiller, and, once he picks himself off the ground, can continue on his way. It’s a pretty neat mechanic.

A mechanic which can, regretfully, lead to some of the most frustrating points in the game. Occasionally, several enemies will seem focused on the screen, but only one will give you that all-important health boost. It can be inordinately hard to distinguish exactly which one the game wants you to shoot. The reticule only changes from white to red when hovered over that specific enemy, but when there are four or five people shooting at you from the same area it can be a simple matter of trial and error and sometimes you just run out of time. It’s frustrating to die because you didn’t know what to shoot, not because you failed to aim properly.

I’ve also ran into occurrences where the enemy I was supposed to shoot was obstructed behind cover, making it impossible for me to shoot them. This is especially agonizing as your character falls to the floor in slow-motion, dying, for a good few seconds and you’re forced to watch, helpless. The other frustration can come later in the game when the developers sometimes use the mechanic as a crutch. Max is fragile, only able to take a few bullets before he dies or enters Last Stand. Enemies can sometimes show up seemingly out of nowhere and take you by surprise, causing you to enter the Last Stand almost instantaneously. If you’re successful, Max will still fall to the ground, open to gunfire. When you’re overwhelmed, you can sometimes enter the phase two or three times in a row before you either kill all of the enemies who got the slip on you or run of painkillers. It’s useful and fun as an occasional save, but when it happens multiple times in a row, it can be quite annoying and seem a little convenient in regards to the balance of the game. Even more so when considering that there is no fictional reason for Max Payne to be able to shrug off being shot and killed if he can shoot his assailant. Now that I think about it, I guess there’s no context for Max to have superhuman reflexes that give him the ability to slow down time, either. I’ve always been able to shrug off the John Woo-inspired slow-mo as it always seemed more style-related than character-related, but something about this new mechanic seems out of place.

One of the biggest compliments I can give to Max Payne 3‘s campaign is that it’s consistent. There are very few peaks and valleys. It doesn’t have mind-melting high points, it doesn’t have horrible low points, but all in all it’s a pretty steady ride of high quality. The last act can drag a bit and if you ask me there is one too many flashback sequence, but it all comes out in the wash. For me, Max Payne 3 was nigh impossible to put down until I’d seen it through to completion.

Then there’s the multiplayer, a seemingly unnecessary addition that actually turned out quite well. Just like the main campaign, there’s little revolutionizing here, but it’s well-made. There’s a multitude of guns and equipment to unlock, money to gain, and levels to earn. In that respect, it follows the Call of Duty mold to the extreme. Leveling up and completing “grinds”, such as killing 25 enemies during dives, earns you money which can be used to unlock gear. This gear can only be purchased once you reach a certain level, so there’s always incentive to keep coming back and get to the next level. Like I said, this aspect is Call of Duty through and through.

The multiplayer mostly matches the great feel of the single-player campaign, though I would actually argue that it feels inherently more like a Max Payne game if you want it to. The chaotic nature of the game leads to a lot less strategic cover-based gameplay and relies much more on diving into action, though you could always find decently safe cover and play like a turtle if you wanted to.  Like always, killing enemies grants you adrenaline that can be used to activate Bullet Time or use your various killstreak bonuses. The Bullet Time is pulled off ingeniously. Instead of slowing down the entire map, it only slows down those in your line-of-sight. It works great.

As far as the modes go, they’re fairly standard with two exceptions. You’ll get your usual free-for-all deathmatch, team deathmatch, et al., but you’ll also get unique options with Gang Wars and Payne Killer. Gang Wars pits two teams against each other in five rounds of (usually) objective-based missions. The first four missions determine who has a score advantage and how large said advantage is in the last round, which is for all the marbles. It can be incredibly chaotic if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s a pretty fun mode, but I did have quite a few problems losing connection with the servers during the final round of play. That can be maddening.

Payne Killer is Rockstar Vancouver’s take on the classic “Juggernaut” mode. When the mode opens, you and the other players are “at war.” Whoever gets the first kill will become either Max Payne or his buddy Passos. The player who gets the second becomes whoever’s left. As Max Payne, you will be given a full adrenaline bar, increased health, two painkillers, and double uzis. Passos receives the same supplies, but instead of uzis he scores an automatic shotgun. Kills while Max or Passos increase your score. Kill Max or Passos, become Max or Passos. If multiple people work together to score the kill, whoever dealt the most damage is the one who’s rewarded. It’s simple, but it’s fun.

I’ve already ran into my share of cheaters online, I must admit, which has hampered my enjoyment of otherwise solid multiplayer. I’ve seen everything from invincible characters to characters running straight through the walls. Hopefully these issues will be cleared up soon. Rockstar has already committed to several pieces of DLC with their Season Pass, so I can only assume that they will be looking into these issues seriously in the coming days.

[+Solid Gunplay] [+Impressive Bullet Time] [+Stylish Kill-Cams] [+Consistent Quality In Campaign] [Fun Multiplayer] [+Unique Bullet Time Mechanic in Multiplayer] [*Doesn’t Always Feel Like A Max Payne Game] [-Occasional Last Stand Glitches] [-Multiplayer Glitches]

 

It wouldn’t be a Rockstar game if it didn’t have incredible presentation. This is most definitely a Rockstar game. From the minute the game boots up, it oozes style. The menus are slick, the graphics are phenomenal, and all of its individual parts come together well.

For a game as dark and gritty as it is, it’s beautiful. Vistas overlooking Brazilian favellas, grimy American cities, and everything in between can be jaw-dropping. The violence can be absolutely ridiculous. Max Payne 3 features some of the most brutal entry/exit wounds I’ve ever seen in a video game. It never took it to a place that disgusted me, but your mileage may vary.

What really impressed me was how solid the frame-rate was maintained through the entirety of the campaign. I can only remember two moments where frames were dropped at all and it was only for a moment or two during those spots. Keeping the action fluid and moving is one of this game’s strongest attributes.

The comic book-styled cutscenes of Max’s past have been with beautifully done cutscenes. It almost feels weird to see Max Payne in honest-to-goodness cutscenes. They’re pulled off with aplomb and always entertaining, so it’s hard to dwell too much on the story-telling devices of the past.

They haven’t completely done away with the comic book stylings, though. Many of the cinematics involve split-screen cutaways that leave static panels on-screen for a few seconds. Key words or phrases will also pop up for emphasis. Add to this the amount of disorienting noise that is flashed onto the screen and it gives the game its own style. It’s similar, but not as over-exaggerated as the effects in Kane & Lynch 2: Dead Men. 

James McCaffrey returns as the titular character and I can say without hesitation that this is the best he’s performed it yet. Part of this may hinge on the fact that the dialogue is better than ever, but McCaffrey manages to make Max Payne feel less like a superhuman killing machine and more of a vulnerable character. The rest of the cast shines alongside him and make the cutscenes as cinematic as anything else on the market, if not more so.

There are two things about the presentation of Max Payne 3 that really stood out with me and they’re both small details that had a profound effect of my enjoyment of the game. The first was how Max carries his two-handed weapons in one hand when not using them. Even during the cutscenes. Watching Max carry a rifle that I picked up from a guard in his off hand while walking through a cinematic is pretty rad. It’s also fun to watch him clinch the gun in his armpit when he needs to load his pistol. It’s a tiny touch, for sure, but it’s the attention to the minutia that makes this game what it is.

The second, and biggest, thing that stuck with me was that once the game gets started there are no loading screens. It flows seamlessly from cinematic to gameplay and vice-versa throughout the entire game. This constant motion had a profound effect on the way I played through this game. Like any good bag of potato chips, it’s hard to stop until you’ve reached the bottom of the bag and poured the crumbs of the self-loathing directly into your mouth. I finished it in just two sittings. That’s not to say the game is short. It isn’t. There’s probably 8 to 10 hours of content in the campaign alone. There is one exception to this on the 360, as there’s a disc change halfway through. It’s done at a great turning point in the story, however, and almost feels like a reminder that you may want to stop playing for a bit.

We’ve gotten this far without a mention of the story, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. The narrative, like the gameplay, is well-above average but not without fault. Max has been forced out of New York and, addicted to booze and painkillers, finds himself in Brazil working as a freelance bodyguard for a wealthy family, the Brancos. Needless to say, things go bad and fast, leading Max through yet another unfortunate situation.

Throughout the story, Max’s alcoholism is a recurring theme and the disorienting nature of the presentation do a lot to show the character’s perpetually disorientation. In classic style, Max gives the narration himself, disgusted with own bad habits. It’s a bit strange that Max finds himself mortified by his addiction to alcohol yet still cracks wise about his painkiller habit, but as a whole the narration is well-written. There’s not as much done with story thread as I’d like, either. The build-up is there, but it eventually is passed over, leaving it to feel unimportant.

Rockstar has created an interesting problem for Max Payne fans. The character you remember and love is here and intact, but the environment he’s surrounded by is entirely foreign. This leads to drastic tonal shifts between the original games and the current iteration. Max Payne 3 trades the pulpy comic noir stylings of the first game and replaces it with a style more reminiscent of modern film noir. Big-budget Hollywood is an obvious inspiration that permeates the entire project. Even when taking Max Payne 2 into consideration, which was substantially more film-inspired than the original game, the shift is huge.

It’s not unlike Army of Darkness, taking a recognizable main character and putting them in a fish-out-of-water situation, using it more as a character study than anything else. Rockstar hasn’t gone the Sam Raimi route and turned this into a comedy, but watching the same old Max react to situations he is not at all used to is half the fun. Army of Darkness succeeded at being an entertaining movie, but it could seem wholly unrelated to the original Evil Dead in parts. Max Payne 3 is exactly the same way. Conversely, just as Army of Darkness would be a worse movie if it was not an Evil Dead film, Max Payne 3 would be a worse game without Max Payne.

Aesthetically, the change in Brazil brings quite a few changes to Max’s world, color being chief among them. Max no longer lives in a world that consists only of grey. At a certain point this is even reflected on his character, leaving us with the infamous bald Max in the Hawaiian shirt that Rockstar was so quick to show off when details of this game first started coming out. I do have to say that this change is contextualized in the story quite well and doesn’t feel forced. I also have to say that for those who are reticent about the changes to Max’s character visually, they don’t reflect changes to the character, himself. It should also be noted that for a substantial portion of the game, you do not play as bald Max, but Max as you already know him.

The largest problems with the narrative don’t lie with the changes Rockstar has made to the formula, but rather the lack of gravitas. The story does a good job of getting the player from point A to point B while engrossed in what they’re doing and seeing, but upon reflection the story doesn’t really hold up. Much like a roller coaster at your favorite theme park, when you wake up the next morning you remember having a good time, you remember there were twists and turns, and you remember that at some point you got off the ride. As hard as it tries at times to be deep, it ultimately fails. It manages to be an entertaining story and nothing more.

It’s style over substance, for sure. It strikes me as ironic that as many risks as were taken in Max Payne 3 between the gameplay and the change in environment that the story itself seems so safe. Especially for a game with the Rockstar logo and sensibilities slathered all over it.

[+Gorgeous Visuals] [+Graphic Violence] [+Distinct Style] [+Solid Frame-Rate] [+Great Acting] [+Attention To Detail] [+No Loading Screens] [+Great Pacing] [+Story Is Entertaining] [*Tonal Shift From The Previous Games] [-Story Lacks Impact Upon Reflection] [-Style Over Substance]

 

The single player campaign in Max Payne 3 lasts around eight hours for the first playthrough. There are Golden Gun parts to collect in each level as long as clues for discover throughout the environments that help a little incentive to play again. Not to mention the harder difficulty settings that unlock after the initial playthrough.

In a nice decision, any chapter can play replayed at anytime. You can even start from a specific checkpoint. If you’re a completionist, this will be helpful as you try to find all of the hidden items. It’s great for unlocking achievements that may have been missed the first time around, as well.

If this game was solely its single-player portion alone, I would still recommend the purchase. As it stands, it’s not. The addition of a surprisingly fun multiplayer mode makes recommending the game an easy decision. Leveling up your multiplayer character will take a while and from the looks of things online, plenty of people have already dedicated hours upon hours to the game’s multiplayer.

[+Eight Hour Campaign] [+Collectibles] [+Easy To Replay Specific Sections] [+Lasting Multiplayer]

 

Max Payne 3 was a treat to play. I sat down on Tuesday night, played for as long as I could stay awake, and had the campaign polished off on Wednesday. As many issues as I had with the game, I can still whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good shooter. It’s one of the best on the market today. All of the gripes I hold against it are unfortunate, but can’t sink this ship.

If you’re looking for a little stylish action to go along with your bucket of popcorn, this game delivers. Don’t go in expecting a story that will move you emotionally or leave a lasting impact, though. The dialogue is expertly written and suitably well-acted, but nothing about this game will change the way games are looked at today.

Just because there’s nothing revolutionary about this game doesn’t mean it can simply be overlooked. Rockstar Vancouver has delivered an excellent product that is far better made than the vast majority of its competitors. If you simply want a top-tier shooter, you will find it here. Fans hoping for Max Payne to be as groundbreaking as it has been in the past will be disappointed. It may not leave you shouting “Wow!” but it will more than likely leave you satisfied.

 

[+Solid Gunplay] [+Impressive Bullet Time] [+Stylish Kill-Cams] [+Consistent Quality In Campaign] [Fun Multiplayer] [+Unique Bullet Time Mechanic in Multiplayer] [+Gorgeous Visuals] [+Graphic Violence] [+Distinct Style] [+Solid Frame-Rate] [+Great Acting] [+Attention To Detail] [+No Loading Screens] [+Great Pacing] [+Story Is Entertaining] [+Eight Hour Campaign] [+Collectibles] [+Easy To Replay Specific Sections] [+Lasting Multiplayer] [*Doesn’t Always Feel Like A Max Payne Game] [*Tonal Shift From The Previous Games] [-Occasional Last Stand Glitches] [-Multiplayer Glitches] [-Story Lacks Impact Upon Reflection] [-Style Over Substance]

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