Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne games have an interesting place in gaming history. The first game introduced gaming to the Bullet Time mechanic, the ability to slow time down during a gunfight to dodge incoming fire as well as for dramatic effect, which helped propel the studio to great popularity and lead to the mechanic being used in everything from FEAR to Red Dead Redemption. However, after the financial disappointment of Max Payne 2, the IP was sold to Rockstar back in 2004, and in that span of eight years Bullet Time has become almost ubiquitous with most action games on the market today. With a shift in studio, shift in player taste, and not to mention a different shift in tone, can Max Payne 3 still engage players the way the previous titles did ten years ago?
Max Payne, after losing his family, everyone else even remotely close to him after the events of the last two games, and quitting the police force, has not had an easy couple of years. When he’s not at a bar drinking himself under the table, he’s in his apartment downing bottles of painkillers, tearing the place apart and considering putting a gun between his teeth and pulling the trigger. An old friend of Max’s, Raul Passos, decides to give Max an easier way of ending things, going into the private sector as a security bodyguard for a Brazilian businessman, Rodrigo Branco, grabbing some easy money and retiring. Not even a month after Max settles down in Sao Paulo do things go inevitably south. Kidnappings occur, bombings, gunfights by armored police and gangs, all encompassing a series of twisted events with Max in the center. So much for an easy retirement.
To call the narrative dour would be an understatement. The game opens with Max drugged and drunk out of his mind dressed in a dirty wifebeater, hair in shambles, and crying over a framed photo of his family, and it doesn’t get any more cheery from there. To the chagrin of many Max Payne fans, there are little callbacks or references to the past few games in terms of tone or even characters save for Max himself. Among these themes was Max’s sardonic outlook and uncanny atmosphere that gave the franchise a distinct look and feeling, coupled with the use of Norse mythological metaphors. All of these elements still make the previous games a joy to experience, even when their narratives went to dark places. Rockstar’s narrative however aims to be more realistic and serious, which leads to some sequences that actually left me sick to my stomach. The only thing resembling levity for the game is Max’s noir-style inner monologue which remains safely intact, and his sarcastic exchanges between certain characters which are too few and far in between.
The gameplay tries to combine the more modern sensibilities of a 3rd-person Shooter with the John Woo style insanity that inspired the series. There is no regenerating health, the only way to regain health is by consuming bottles of painkillers, which also double as a get-out-of-jail free card by giving you a small span of time to return fire on an enemy that fatally wounded you with a fatal shot on them resulting in not dying; the popular Second Chance mechanic. There is a cover mechanic, Bullet Time returns in case you want to practice dodging bullets in slow motion, and the iconic sideways shooting dive makes a triumphant return complete with lock-on. All of the above mentioned mechanics are saturated enough so that one method of attack isn’t always preferable to another, but some things still get in the way. Nothing becomes more frustrating than being one shot from death, making it through a gunfight by the skin of your teeth, then get popped in the head by a guy you missed, then due to aggressively little checkpoints having to repeat the past three gunfights again. As for the Bullet Time mechanic, it is used very well. Nothing is more thrilling than choosing to spice up a cover gun fight by jumping in slow motion and shooting the group in the face.
Unfortunately, there are certain issues that no amount of slow moving bullets can distract. The technology being shown off in the game presents human characters acting realistically as possible to shifting of weight, perspective, as well as things happening around them. For example, seeing Max pick up a rifle and holding it in his spare hand as he fires with a pistol, then smoothly holstering it to switch to handling the rifle properly in two hands is quite fluid and impressive, but more often than not this leads to the models taking longer than expected to finish an action. In other words, hitting Reload may not result in a reload for at least two seconds, or not at all if the game doesn’t feel like it. Couple this issue with controls that take a while to get used to, and a tight-lipped tutorial that doesn’t reveal all the game mechanics until almost half-way through the campaign, and the inescapable fact that every single gunfight in the game is extremely intense, and it results in a game that should have been tested more for responsiveness as opposed to realism.
Having multiplayer added to a franchise’s 3rd installment seems to have resulted in being a decent fit with Max Payne 3. There is the standard arrangement of mechanics on display, team-based and solo Deathmatch, an XP-based Rank System, a variety of power-ups and boosts, various loadouts of weapons, and a large diverse selection of maps, all expansive and multi-layered. All of these mechanics are well assembled and decently balanced. There is also the ability to monitor and assemble your own Gang, a dynamic, narratively framed Gang War mode, and a surprisingly well realized use of Bullet Time in a match where things slow down dramatically during a close quarters fight between two or more players. If you have a lot of friends that are looking for a novel twist on a competitive third-person shooter, there is some enjoyment to be had.
Max Payne 3 is a graphical showcase all the way. The detail of every model is nothing short of stunning. The motion capture animation is one of the most lifelike this year by far, and the amount of emotion in the faces of the characters is stunning. Also, throughout the fully-voiced cutscenes, not a single drop in framerate, texture tear, pop, or any other hiccup is seen. Also, while the gunfights can get unforgiving as mentioned above, there are no loading screens, so being set back isn’t as big of a punishment as it could have been in other games, even if it comes at the cost of having cutscenes be unskippable. It’s a shame then that one of my biggest issues with the graphics isn’t a technical one, but an artistic one. There is an abundant overuse of strobbing and blurring effects, plus some effects that make the cutscenes appear as if they were being filmed by a ten year old digital camera with a broken lense. These effects continuously distracted me, and threatened to induce a headache. If the effects were used sparingly to simulate Max’s hangovers or when he’s intoxicated would be one thing, but the effects are used continuously and consistently from start to finish, making them obtrusive, jarring and unnecessary.
Sound design in Max Payne 3 is top notch. James McCaffery returns as the voice of Max Payne, the supporting cast puts in solid work, the music is a great mix of mournful cellos and electronic, and the sound effects, editing, and saturation is pitch perfect.
Max Payne 3 sets the bar in terms of what can be done technologically in the graphics department, and the campaign is long, about thirteen hours, to justify the pricetag, not to mention the addition of an Arcade style Score Attack mode. For fans of the franchise, this installment, depending on your individual thoughts of Max Payne 2, falls under for completionists only. The gameplay hiccups might be enough to turn some people off, and the lack of levity in the narrative might be too much to bear, and the obnoxious use of visual effects in the cutscenes will have different lengths of tolerance for some, but the core is still solid.
If you can forgive sticky controls, cutscenes that will make you want to make your stomach churn and head pound, Max Payne 3 is a solid action experience. It’s not as narratively sound as its previous titles, but the action is intense, and the multiplayer is a nice compliment to the whole experience.
AAG Score: 8/10
+ Impressive Visuals
+ Intense Gunplay
+ Solid Multiplayer
- Headache inducing effects in Cutscenes
- Sticky Controls
- Narrative weak
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey