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PLATFORM: 360, PS3; PC (June 1st)
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Rockstar Games
PUBLISHER: Rockstar Games
Just because the sun is shining doesn’t mean it’s not noir.
A lot of the trepidation from gamers about Max Payne 3 seems to stem from this simple, profound misunderstanding of what makes a gritty noir drama what it is. It’s based solely on the fact that the game takes Max out of the grim and grimy streets of New York into the sun-baked favelas of Brazil. Never mind the fact that there’s a nice chunk of the game you’ll spend in New Jersey, taking out mobsters like he used to, Max Payne 3‘s tone, its darkness of humanity, its cynicism–you know, the shit that actually defines film noir–hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, ironically, even though the series has never been flashier than it is here, the game might be one of the darkest chapters in Max Payne’s already bleak life so far, without relying on the military industrial complex wankery of the first game, or the Greek tragedy elements of the second. Max Payne 3, in every single aspect, is a harsh, nihilistic son of a bitch.
It also happens to be fucking brilliant.
10 years after the events of Max Payne 2, Max has retired from the NYPD to a life of self-medication in New Jersey, when a plum job offer in Brazil falls in his lap. However, nothing is ever easy for Max Payne, and what should’ve essentially been a paid vacation playing bodyguard to Brazil’s rich, young, and dumb turns into a bullet-ridden criminal fiasco.
Fundamentally, Max Payne 3 is still very much the child of its predecessor, and if not for the fact that the controls are now locked to a couple of presets–none of which are foreign for anyone who’s played GTA or Red Dead Redemption–instead of the fully customizable days of yore, this would almost be a pick-up-and-play situation. The devil is in the tiny details. Once upon a time, Max ran like he was on rollerskates, and always had an element of floatiness when he jumps and maneuvers. Now there’s a heft and weight to everything he does. Max isn’t Nathan Drake. The man’s in rough shape, and you feel the mileage every step.
What this also means is that every shootout now has new considerations. Where you could once rush in, guns blazing, to any old bullet carnival and clean house, Max is older, bulkier, slower, and most of his enemies are fresh young faces with lethal AI. Will Max be able to get on his feet after one of those trademark dives without getting a few new holes in his face? Is he fast enough to dive untouched through a hail of gunfire before his enemies are able to adjust their aim? How many shots can you put into a guy with a minigun before he manages to point the gun your way. Even once you’re comfortable with the way Max moves, your best guess at those questions can often be wrong, and enemies are always conceiving new ways to put Max down like a dog. In fact, I’d thank your lucky stars the new Game Over screen is as cool, stylish, and brutal as it is, because you’ll be seeing it A LOT.
Oh, yes, even on the Normal difficulty setting, this is a hard game, but in that old-school, iron-willed Ninja Gaiden way, where if you fuck up, you really have no one to blame but yourself. Success means thinking like a cop, knowing the layout of rooms, how many enemies you’re up against, the best vantage points to take shots, and where to hit the enemy to make it count. Once you get in a groove, however, you’ll find yourself begging for more heads that need new holes.
And even if, or rather, WHEN you fail, Rockstar at least allows you to take out your frustrations at every turn. Die with at least one painkiller on you, you get a last ditch chance to take out the asshole who shot you. Succeed, and you continue on, albeit on your back, instead of your feet. The last kill in an area triggers Bullet Time automatically, allowing you to pump bullet after bullet after bullet into your enemy after the fact. This is a game of harsh retribution, and the story, with Max failing over and over again only to pick himself up and attempt to triumph one more time, is echoed wonderfully in gameplay. As long as you have the patience to deal with the often unforgiving difficulty, this is easily one of greatest, and most satisfying shooters of this gen.
The easy part is telling you that yes, Max Payne 3 is a gorgeous game, the RAGE engine gets quite the workout, rendering upper and lower class Brazil with painstaking, lush, vibrant detail, and Health absolutely kills on the soundtrack front. Part 1980s throwback, part moody post-rock ambience, part asskicking tribal beat cacophony. Especially in a landscape where dubstep is the new supposed shortcut to cool, this sounds refreshingly unique. Your mileage may vary on the Tony Scott subtitles and screen flickering. They seem to be pretty deliberately executed to reflect Max’s state of mind–as in, they actually ease up quite a bit as Max begins to sober up–so I’m gonna go on record as liking them.
All this is in service of a new dedication on the part of Rockstar to making Max Payne as seamless a piece of interactive pulpy storytelling as humanly possible. The graphic novel panels of games past are mostly gone, though, in a truly slick move, they show up during game’s only major noticeable load times: After pushing Start, the events of the last stage you completed are recapped in static comic panels. For the most part, however, once you start the game, aside from a few flashbacks, the story moves by with a bare minimum of obvious chapter stops. A deathless game (ha….right) would unquestionably play like a 6-8ish hour movie.
So, the real question is, how is that movie?
As mentioned, in snatching the helm away from original developers Remedy, Rockstar stripped away some of the overly symbolic poetry of Max Payne, and replaced it with harsh reality. The very first shot of the game, in fact, is Max mindlessly downing drinks in his shithole apartment, while a Bummer Version of the piano melody from the first game tinkles in the background. Fast forward ten minutes later, he’s at an upper class shindig, sliding down rooftops, and rescuing rich assholes from masked paramilitaries. We’re given the not-so-subtle implication this is because he has a death wish. The disconnect early on here, and in the other games, is that playing as Max is just too much goddamn fun to join him in his misery. We can understand it perfect, considering all that’s happened, but not entirely follow. What’s kind of awesome about Max Payne 3 later is that it’s less a story about a kidnapping and ventures into Sao Paolo’s criminal underworld as it is about Max Payne fighting to snap himself out of his pity party. It’s damn near symbolic when the game spends an hour or two back in New Jersey, with Max literally being forced to leave the past behind, thanks to him playing hero to a woman being harassed by a mob boss’ son, and never being able to look back. When Max goes full on Heisenberg later in the game, and goes for a stroll in the most dangerous cross section of favelas, looking for trouble, he even makes the self-aware comment that it’s his midlife crisis. Every stage has him trying to nurture that part of himself that’s still, fundamentally, a good man, still fighting a good fight. His introspection about his every thought makes much more sense in this game than the arbitrary “because it’s cool” logic of the other two.
That does leave, of course, the actual criminal plot to contend with. There’s a kidnapping, some political shenanigans, some double crossing, and money changing hands for the shadiest of shady acts. It’s a bit on the roughshod, sloppy side here, and it’s got plot holes you can suck planets into, but as a simple cattle prod to Max’s development, it’s damn effective, and because it’s him we want to see succeed to begin with, the obstacles the story throws in his way give Max’s risk taking an even more badass, heroic context. By the time the final hour or so of gameplay rolls around, and the Health track from the trailers plays out in full during a full on airplane shootout, Max, and the player by proxy, feel like the goddamn Angel of Death come to collect. And Rockstar pays off the effort in spades. Max isn’t the most fun to be around all the time, but like all the best noir detectives, he’s got drive, and though he might not know right from wrong at the start (best/worst line in the game paraphrase: “I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one was feeding the poor, and the other was fucking my sister”), he certainly does by the end. And seeing him sort that out with extreme prejudice is one of the best bits of storytelling gaming’s seen in some time.
But credit where credit’s due, the fact that we side with Max to begin with is series voice actor (now, mocap actor) James McCaffrey giving an utterly amazing, grizzled, bravado performance here, milking every single line, every tiny emotion for all its worth. Even the Housers’ clunkiest lines just sounds great from the guy, and even with Rockstar pulling off these kinds of miracles every single game now, they still stand alone in this medium, instead of leading the way. As always, one hopes others are taking notes.
After the main game was over, I was more than ready to hit New Game and fly through it all over again. And then I raised the difficulty and discovered that was a bad idea. Luckily, the game offers two Arcade modes allowing you to move through the normal game with a few new twists on gameplay. New York Minute’s a holdover from the previous games, where every kill extends a countdown clock. Especially once enemies start donning the armor, this gets intense in a hurry. Score Attack is exactly what it sounds like, a true Arcade mode where points are tracked, and can be put up against your friends/the rest of the world.
By all rights, multiplayer shouldn’t work in this game, but Rockstar’s put a lot of love into it, including figuring out how to pull off Bullet Time during a live game. The bursts in particular (similar to COD‘s perks) are great, including my personal favorite, Paranoia, which makes it so your enemies see their own teammates as hostiles, and, at its highest level, places an actual cash bonus on one of their heads. It’s a lot of fun, and the game finally integrating the Rockstar Social Club in a meaningful way again is also welcome. Well worth the inclusion. The only issue being the need to switch discs back and forth to access the multiplayer on the 360 version.
When the first Max Payne hit the scene, a shooter so dedicated to telling story first–and not just any story, but ones with symbolism, character development, and pathos, even if they were clunky–was virtually an alien concept. A little over 10 years later, this is still, bafflingly, the case. Like Max, Rockstar’s fighting the good fight here, and with this game, they’ve shown again just what can be accomplished when the medium’s potential to deliver narratively and kinetically is tapped by the best. The studio’s delivered one for the ages here.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars