Max Payne is a man who’s insanely uncomfortable inside his own skin. He’s still haunted by the death of his family, and in Max Payne 3, his body—more so than any random member of Brazil’s criminal underbelly—is the target of his most vicious attacks. Booze. Pills. Booze. Pills. Booze. Pills. Perhaps the most self-destructive character gaming has ever seen, Max is a ticking time bomb of good intentions and life’s harsh realities. And, for better or worse, so is this game. It claws desperately at greatness in so many places—a gripping cinematic narrative, real character development, a Rockstar-worthy world, utterly sublime shooting—but narrowly manages to fall short every time. In slow-mo.
If you like a linear narrative, look elsewhere: Max Payne 3 bounces all over the place, both time- and location-wise.
For instance, let’s take Max himself. This time around, the story centers on what he figured would be a simple job protecting a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his family. Of course, that goes out the window when a corrupt police force starts making Max’s life hell. Well, more than it already was. “So this was it,” he growls cynically after it’s all gone horribly wrong. “My easy retirement money. My bloodstained 401K.” On the upside, Max’s noir narrations (noirrations?) are back in full force—still fairly campy, but also dragged through a slurry sludge by Max’s nearly terminal case of self-loathing. And, you know, alcohol.
But the story—in spite of Rockstar’s knack for fantastic acting and film-like cinematography—rarely meshes well with the game. Instead, it feels sadly beholden to the whims of Max Payne 3’s real star: glorious slow-mo gunslinging. Max’s narrations, then, are often wasted on bombastic variations of, “And then we walked through a door. And then we shot some guys.” The best bits, meanwhile, dive into Max’s stream of consciousness when the bullets stop flying. Unfortunately, this is a game about shooting people, so that doesn’t happen terribly often.
If only there was some form of superlative we could use to describe how much pain this man’s about to feel.
And yet, somewhat oddly, Max Payne 3’s shooting is equally anchored by the plot, dragging it down as well. Rockstar’s focus on grim plausibility (at least, for a game) demands less over-the-top gunplay, so slow-mo shootdodging isn’t typically your best option. Instead, we ended up spending most of our time taking advantage of a state-of-the-art cover system, huddled in fear of both bullet-sponge enemies and some nasty difficulty spikes brought on by a few truly terrible checkpoints. The checkpoint issue, especially, is a curse that’s followed Rockstar since GTA III, leading to downright infuriating repeated replays of sections that last upwards of 20 minutes.
On top of that, there’s this annoying schism between the demands of Max Payne 3’s rapid-fire plot and the structure of a game. “Explore!” bellows Max Payne 3: The Videogame. “Collect golden gun pieces and look for largely useless and poorly implemented evidence! Don’t worry about the goons gunning down your partner. That doesn’t matter right now.” But then, as though the directorial devil to the freeform angel on your shoulder, Max Payne: The Movie steps in. “Oops, your partner died due to your negligence and you have to start this section over again,” it taunts. “Better luck next time.” And even when lives aren’t at stake, someone’s always whispering in Max’s ear. “What are you doing, Max? Hurry up! Go on! Jeez, you geezer. Did you die of old age back there?”
That said, when all the dominoes are lined up properly, shooting sections are utterly wonderful. The animation and physics systems, especially, verge on astounding, with every inch of enemies’ bodies reacting to each specific bullet impact in gruesomely believable fashion. It simply feels amazing. And, of course, when our slow-mo dives didn’t end with Max’s mangled body clattering to the ground, it was like watching some kind of morbidly graceful bullet ballet. It all looks markedly better on a PC, too, with high-resolution textures popping while DirectX 11 hums along smoothly in the background.
Max has seen much, much better days.
Moreover, Rockstar quite obviously did take into account that players would probably get stuck on many sections, and—though better checkpoints would’ve been much preferred—its solutions are subtly ingenious when taken on their own terms. Foremost, there’s adaptive difficulty. Dying once simply brought us back with full health, but biting the big one twice on the same part yielded full bullet time as well. Three times, meanwhile, handed us a nice big bottle of health-restoring painkillers for our troubles. Bad habits die hard, except when you die hard and it reinforces your bad habit, apparently.
For better or worse, multiplayer nearly matches single-player for sheer quantity of serious ups and downs. On one hand, it encourages far less cover-taking and allows for exciting pockets of bullet time based on line-of-sight, but the shell around it is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. It’s an all-too-traditional rhythm: shoot guys, gain XP, level up, unlock a tediously standard set of weapons, etc. That rusty casing, however, surrounds a couple of modes that are incredibly well thought-out. Payne Killer, for instance, sees two players morph into Max and his partner, Raul Passos, with extra firepower and health items to match. The remaining six players—completely bereft of any extra abilities—then have to hunt them down. The end result is utterly frantic asymmetrical teamwork.
Who said Brazil can’t look dark, moody, and noir-ish?
Gang Wars, meanwhile, is round-based and decides objectives based on the biggest bullet points from earlier battles. So basically, it weaves its own little narrative thread, resulting in, among other things, manhunts for the player with a previous round’s highest killcount, defusing bombs set in your territory, and assassinating prized targets. Then the final round explodes into blissful deathmatch chaos where whichever team is down on points makes a desperate (and sometimes successful) attempt at turning the tides. So, the bottom line? There’s big potential in Max Payne 3’s multiplayer, but—between snooze-inducingly standard progression and a lack of interesting maps—the lasting appeal isn’t there.
Taken as a package, then, Max Payne 3 dual-wields some truly formidable ideas, but never really hits home with any of them. Given room to breathe, its story could’ve been a tale for the ages. With a bit more fine-tuning, its action could’ve been some of the best in the business. And its multiplayer really tried to integrate with the game’s world and setting, which is extremely admirable. As a result, Max Payne 3 is most certainly not by any means painful, but it hurts to know how incredible it could’ve been.
Story’s well-done when it’s at its best; fantastic animations make shooting feel amazing; neat multiplayer ideas.
Story often secondary to shooting; difficulty spikes, bad checkpoints, and constant cover often frustrate; multiplayer lacks real hooks.