It’s brutal, unapologetic, visceral, and unsurprisingly addictive. Rockstar has managed to capture the very essence of Max Payne in the latest long-awaited installment, and it’s dark and a little depressing. But that’s exactly what the first two games were all about; Max Payne is a singular character, one you question and root for simultaneously. And at its core is a blend of ridiculous over-the-top action and a quality story that keeps you playing. Enjoy the Payne.
Although there’s some brightness and vividness I didn’t expect – Max Payne has never exactly exploded with a colorful palette – the gritty, authentic, bloody nature of the game shines through. The special effects take center stage as bullets rip through bodies with bloody splashes, eyes are shot out of heads, and bodies fly in an almost comical fashion. It’s gleeful sadistic fun, and the visual presentation goes a long way towards making it…uncomfortably enjoyable. The detail sometimes falters on a close-up inspection but that’s minor.
As usual, Rockstar excels in the sound category. The voice actors they hire for their excellent productions are often a step above, and the soundtrack is always varied and fitting, and it ultimately enhances every aspect of the experience. The balance is a tad off as the effects and music can drown out the sound of the voices during cut-scenes, but this is hardly a crippling drawback. When you combine the stellar audio with a graphical palette that emphasizes the hard-edged artistic style, you get a technical package that simply oozes attitude and appeal.
Max Payne, the grizzled, conflicted ex-cop, has decided to leave the city streets loaded with a torrent of painful memories. He takes a job working security detail for a big business so-and-so in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the rich flaunt their good fortune before the unfortunate impoverished masses. Max isn’t too thrilled with his employers but hey, it’s a job. And during his downtime, he drowns away the images and voices that have tormented him for years; the dead wife and child and other failures just won’t recede into the steamy South American night.
Then, of course, all hell breaks loose when an unknown gang kidnaps the boss man’s wife, Fabiana. Max has to get her back but he finds the problem is more complex (surprise, surprise), so he continues to dig deeper into a violent and unpredictable criminal underworld. He does so with an almost despondent reluctance; one gets the feeling that he’s only braving the bullets so he doesn’t have to drown out those memories with booze. Besides, if he fails, the bullets will kill him faster. Yes, it’s an awfully dark picture Rockstar paints and it works .
The interesting part of this production is that there are no loading times. After tossing the 5.5GB onto your PS3 hard drive, you will experience a seamless adventure that moves between story cut-scenes and gameplay action with no breaks. This adds to the immersion and continually demands our attention; you just never know when it’ll be time to press some buttons. And when that time comes, you’ll start to realize that although this game is definitely Max Payne to its very core, your approach can’t be as cavalier as it was in the past.
Maybe Max is more vulnerable because he’s older this time around. I’m not really sure. But I know for a fact that staying out of cover for too long will inevitably result in death; a potentially spectacular death, but death nonetheless. You will have to utilize cover quite a bit, which is just a touch disheartening because I had expected something a little more empowering and freewheeling. But despite the fact that Max will still absorb a gazillion bullets throughout the course of another harrowing adventure, this game is more realistic than one might expect. The AI isn’t stupid at all ; they’ll flank and they’re crack shots.
So making liberal use of cover and that patented bullet-time mechanic is essential. And of course, the latter element ushers in the backbone of the gameplay; the silly, gory fun of slo-mo carnage. You can either click R3 to simply enable the slowdown, or you can hit R2 and Max will dive and initialize the bullet-time simultaneously. This is that “shootdodge” skill that is incredibly cinematic and can, performed and timed correctly, be devastatingly effective. But this is also where we run into the first of a short list of issues that unfortunately have to be mentioned.
When you dive/dodge and you smack into an obstacle the camera can go absolutely goofy. Obviously, you should give yourself some room when attempting such a move, so it’s partly your fault. But at the same time, it’s too easy to get screwed up with this ability; I’ve been left staring at the floor or at Max’s back and unable to change the view. There are also a few small glitches and inconsistencies, and although the camera and control is – for the most part – plenty solid, both the shootdodge and fast action in a cramped area can cause problems.
Also, the difficulty can become horribly, controller-smashing frustrating later in the game. If this was a fighter or a flight sim, I’d blame a portion of my failure on myself, but this is a third-person shooter and I consider myself quite adept. The bottom line is that because your foes absolutely never miss and Max really is quite vulnerable, you will see that annoying albeit stylish death screen many, many times. Furthermore, there just aren’t enough Painkillers lying around even on Normal difficulty, and enemies with body armor and helmets don’t help matters.
The checkpoints are a little far apart, too. Lastly, strictly from a subjective standpoint, I’m not the biggest fan of the constant shifting and distortion during story scenes. I get the artistic element but it just gets disconcerting and even irritating after a while. Beyond that, there’s no doubt that this game is a blast; the campaign will take you at least 10 hours (more like 12 with all the deaths), and the story and characters are good. It’s well written, well acted, and nicely paced. You always want to keep pressing forward because both the gameplay and plot is top-notch.
The multiplayer is a big draw, too, believe it or not. You can unlock all sorts of skills and weapons; the abilities are called “bursts” and instead of the bullet-time meter in the campaign, you get the burst meter in multiplayer. This takes time to build up and you have to be strategic in determining how you spend what you’ve acquired. Get yourself a full meter and enjoy the absurdly destructive power of the grenade launcher, for instance. By the way, bullet-time is available as one of the bursts and if you’re wondering how it works, it basically slows down foes in your line of sight, rather than everyone on the battlefield.
You’ve got the basic modes like deathmatch and team deathmatch, but there are also additional like Gang Wars that will demand your attention. Gang Wars is great because the objectives are always changing; it’s a five-round match and with each round comes a new goal. This can involve placing bombs (one team tries to place ‘em while the other team defends), for example, and it’s always refreshing to get a new objective. Then there’s Payne Killer, which is akin to other survival-based modes you’ve played before, but it still manages to feel unique.
Max Payne 3 is a rip-roaring success on many levels. It relentlessly hammers at your emotions and nerves and keeps you perched on the edge of your seat. The borderline unfair difficulty towards the end of the campaign, noticeable issues with the shootdodge, and a couple minor glitches notwithstanding, this is one hell of an experience. I just wonder why I was never covered out there in that stadium…my buddy’s got a sniper rifle and he said he’d cover me. And yet, not a single shot was fired. …the hell was that about, Rockstar?
Oh, anyway, Max is back. And you gotta love his style.
The Good: Slick, seamless presentation. Great audio, especially in the effects and voiceover categories. Fantastic, relentless shoot-‘em-up action. Interesting story and characters. Top-quality production values. Multiplayer is fast, diverse, and rewarding.
The Bad: Minor sound balancing issue. Frustrating difficulty due to crackshot AI and questionable checkpoint placement. Some persisting control issues.
The Ugly: “Oh, it’s all disturbingly, gloriously ugly.”