Max Payne 3 Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3
With nearly ten years between games and a different developer one has to wonder if Max Payne would have the same impact as he did all those years ago. Bringing with it bullet time and a huge dose of movie style the original two games in the series made a big impact. Since then slow motion shootouts and style isn’t something you could accuse games today of lacking. You would think then that if anyone could breathe some new life into Max’s old bones that it would be Rockstar, after all few developers have got a reputation for having more flair. For the most part Payne’s transition from Finnish developers Remedy to Rockstar is a success but it walks a fine line.
Max Payne 3 feels like a modern Rockstar game. It’s got a gritty edge and style which will be familiar to anyone who has played A Grand Theft Auto game. Max Payne 3 can’t be accused of lacking polish. The cutscenes are superbly done and there are fine details all over the place. In truth though that was never going to be a problem for Rockstar as they have proved time and time again with their previous titles. There are however issues and some of them, no matter how much you want to dismiss them, keep creeping back all the way through your time with Max Payne 3.
One of those issues certainly isn’t the story. Rockstar have dumped the graphic novel style presentation of the previous two games and while this is initially missed it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a subtly moody opening period. Max Payne 3 has relocated itself from the cold of New York City to the raging heat of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Max was always a tragic character but Rockstar have sent him spinning further into hell and armed with a drinking problem he finds himself working protection for a rich family. As with most things in Max’s life things quickly get worse for him as his employers are attacked and he stumbles upon a wider conspiracy in the city. Rockstar have never been ones to hide their influences from plain view and Max’s latest outing feels only a few steps removed from the excellent Man on Fire film by Tony Scott. The whole thing is grim and punctuated, of course, with extreme violence. The story and the way it’s told helps go a long way to move the series forward and can be considered a real success.
Less successful however are other parts of the game. For all Rockstar may have appeared to inject new life into Payne it follows a similar formula to the previous two outings - enemies appear and you shoot them. You clear a room and you move onto the next one. For all its style and flair Max Payne has always been a simple game at heart. What has always saved the series has been the bullet time and slow motion shoot dodge moves. All of course are still intact here and indeed, aside from the polished cutscenes, the only concession to the last few years of gaming history is the addition of a cover system. The bullet time mechanics and shoot dodge moves which launch Max through the air are still brilliantly executed but thanks to the game being extremely difficult you’ll often feel the need to leave these excellent tools in the locker and instead hunker down behind cover and that is a real shame.
It is not so much that the cover system is unwelcome (for the most part it actually works perfectly well) it is just that it ends up becoming your most useful weapon when up against the frequent challenges you face in the game. When you have the ability to slow down time, line up headshots or dive head first down stairs in slow motion whilst firing a pair of handguns, hiding behind cover seems a bit boring. But hiding is something you will find yourself doing a great deal of along with dying. Death, even on the medium difficulty setting, comes often. While a challenge is more than welcome (particularly as games get shorter) the odds often feel stacked against you. Using shoot dodge is often impractical because of the number of enemies you have to face off against at any one time. Elsewhere enemies, even those with just a t-shirt on, take multiple rounds before going down. Thankfully you are rewarded for accuracy and lining up an accurate shot to someone’s head, in bullet time from the other side of a room whilst flying through the air is still as satisfying as it was back in 2002. Occasionally enemies will try to sneak around to where you are hiding but often you’ll have enough ammunition to keep them pinned back and if they do get close you have a basic melee move which normally finishes them off easily. The enemies are also quite fond of sharing their grenades with Max but curiously you never get chance to use any yourself.
Max Payne 3 does a lot better when it creates interesting set-pieces for the bullet time to work. One of the best moments comes when bundling onto a zipline and using the helpless goon in front of you as a human shield. As you slide across to the opposite side of the zipline, your shield long since having departed the mortal coil, you line up your shots and take out a few of his mates who are waiting to greet you. Moments like these are brilliant and make Max Payne 3 well worth persisting with. Elsewhere, away from the shift to in game cutscenes and cover systems the game feels very familiar. Max still uses painkillers to restore his health (something which he makes frequent glib reference to throughout the game) and his inner monologue, despite the booze and drugs, is still going strong. The level of detail in the game is superb with environments brilliantly realised and the same attention is also paid to Max himself. He carries his weapons around instead of putting them into an invisible inventory and shifts them about his person, sometimes tucking them under his arm, whilst he reloads another. These may be little touches but they draw you in.
Aside from the main story mode there are other ways to play including a speed run to keep you busy after the game has finished. In New York Minute, you're tasked with playing through the campaign with a clock counting down from five minutes above your head. The premise is simple: kill guys to earn time. Rockstar have also taken the opportunity of Max Payne’s third outing to bring a multiplayer mode to the series for the first time and it turns out to be solid, well balanced addition. At first it seems a surprise to find multiplayer in Max Payne as some of the mechanics (partially bullet time and shoot dodge which essentially slow the action down) wouldn’t seem immediately suited to play involving large numbers of players. If you have played other Rockstar games such as Red Dead Redemption in multiplayer mode you will see similarities but Max Payne has a slightly slower pace. This is felt even more when you come to select your weapons with each one adding varying weight and slowing you down. Its adds a nice level of balance with the more powerful weapons invariably slowing you down more than the weaker ones. The bullet time is handled nicely as well in multiplayer with people in your line of sight feeling its benefit whenever its get activated. Once again there is a nice balance as the person who activates it doesn’t get a huge advantage over anyone else. While you may have the added time to line up a shot, equally someone else does as well.
There are the standard deathmatch modes but Gang Wars is where the game really shines. In Gang Wars Rockstar have attempted to add a narrative to proceedings. There are four rounds with different objectives to complete all of which alter based on what happens during the round. These involve taking control of parts of the map, taking out a specific player or defusing bombs. The whole thing culminates in an all-out deathmatch at the end. The stories are of course nowhere near as strong as the single player but multiplayer is fun for the most part and the bullet time and shoot dodge moves have also been incorporated as well for added chaos. The multiplayer mode also includes a perks system which allows you to unlock some neat extras (some of which benefit your team as well as you personally) as you progress. Some are fairly standard but some, like Paranoia, can have a big impact with players seeing their own team mates as enemies which can lead to them killing each other. The rest of the multiplayer action is fairly straightforward but the Gang Wars mode does add something which hasn’t been seen before and no doubt there will be more added to it over time by way of downloadable content.
Rockstar have largely succeed with Max Payne. Despite the difficulty and the over-reliance on cover there is a very familiar game here. Bullet time and shoot dodge are still as good as they were all those years ago (even if you do yearn for a few more opportunities to use them) but it is the story which keeps drawing you back for more. It is dark, grizzly and mature. While the game lacks any real freedom and perhaps throws a few too many cutscenes at you (especially early on in the game) all of this is traded off against a great story and characters. Max Payne 3, just like its long suffering protagonist, isn’t perfect but it engages players with a strong story and solid (albeit annoyingly difficult) gameplay. Meanwhile Rockstar have added a decent multiplayer mode which will doubtless get extra attention by them over time but the single player stands out thanks to the brilliant story and is another fine example of games being a medium to tell an engrossing story.