Rockstar’s updates to the Max Payne franchise are well executed and nearly flawless
It’s been nine long years since Max Payne last graced consoles, and a lot has changed in the world of video games in that time. In many gamers’ minds, Max Payne, and particularly Max Payne 2 are swaddled in a warm blanket of nostalgia. Revisiting and updating such a beloved classic franchise is a bold, potentially risky move, but Rockstar Games took the challenge and I’m pleased to say they succeeded. Max Payne 3 manages to keep the aesthetic and tonal qualities of the original games, while incorporating an updated style and modern production values.
Rockstar is primarily known for non-linear games, but this is not an open world adventure. Instead it has created a laser-focused experience that is wholly story driven. The game primarily takes place in São Paulo, Brazil, but don’t let the sunny, tropical setting fool you… you won’t be spending a lot of time working on your tan. This is no idyllic paradise, and leaving the traditional New York City setting (aside from some brilliant flashback sequences) doesn’t mean abandoning the tone of the original games.
The game is steeped in atmosphere and thoroughly saturated with a classic noir aesthetic. In fact, this may well be considered the Maltese Falcon of video games. The story is largely revealed through frequent cutscenes, and though there are a lot of them, they’re never unwelcome. Transitioning from action to cutscene and back is done seamlessly, perhaps more so than in any game I’ve ever played, and the vignettes themselves serve as loading screens so you’re never taken out of the action. The story is compelling, full of interesting, believable characters and loaded with plot twists (some more surprising than others).
Throughout the game, you’re treated to a steady stream of narrative commentary from Max himself. This running monologue is one of the highlights of the game, and creates a tenor that rivals the best of Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane. The dark tone of the story is counterpointed by wry, sardonic witticisms, replete with lines like “I was a dumb American in a place where dumb Americans are less popular than the clap” and “I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one of them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister.”
Visually, the game is gorgeous. Well, perhaps ‘gorgeous’ is the wrong word, since many of the environments you find yourself in are seedy and dilapidated. The cinematics flare with prismatic colors and double images, emphasizing the fact that this is the story of a guy who has spent the last decade washing down handfuls of pills with quarts of whiskey. Your surroundings, whether a glass and steel high-rise or a rundown slum, are packed with details, making them seem tangible and lived-in. The attention to detail extends to every aspect of the game. Clothing becomes dirty, stained with sweat and blood. Cuts and bruises slowly heal throughout the course of the game. Glass shatters and concrete is chipped away with every bullet’s impact… and boy, are there a lot of bullet impacts.
While the cutscenes are visually disjointed and distorted, once the action starts everything snaps into sharp focus. The combat is incredibly fluid and precise, and every battle becomes a beautiful ballet of bullets and blood. Activate the signature bullet time, and it truly becomes a spectacle. Dive off a balcony and time temporarily slows to a crawl, and sounds become muffled and distant, as if your ears are filled with water after swimming. Bullets leave trails as they zip past your head with an audible whining sound. You maintain complete control, and Max’s body twists around realistically as he rotates a full 360 degrees in the air, popping off shots as he goes. Then you hit the ground with a jarring thud, time resumes its normal flow, and you’re instantly reminded that Max is no superhero. Lying on the floor in the middle of a room, surrounded by bad guys with guns feels like a very vulnerable position, particularly since it only takes a few shots to kill you, but you’re not entirely defenseless; you can still twist around shooting in any direction from a prone position.
Max is no spring chicken, and climbing to his feet is a believably laborious affair. Taking cover can provide a brief respite from the relentless onslaught, but it’s only temporary. You won’t regain health while you wait, your cover will likely be whittled away, and enemies will flank your position. Only when you’ve triggered the slow-mo bullet cam, alerting you that you’ve killed the last enemy in an area are you allowed to relax for a moment.
I don’t know the specifics of how Rockstar picks its voice actors, or how it records the dialogue, but there are an awful lot of companies out there that should take notes. The voice acting is top-notch, and the dialogue never feels forced, artificial or disjointed (at least that’s true of the English portions). As you might expect from the Brazilian locale, much of the dialogue in the game is in Portuguese, which further adds to the sense of being an outsider who’s trapped in circumstances beyond his control. The sounds of gunfire, whizzing bullets and ricochets permeate the game, counterpointed by believable grunts and cries of pain. Music is also expertly implemented, often taking the form of ambient noise in a nightclub, or coming from a boom-box behind a closed apartment door. When music does take the forefront, it’s never a distraction and instead helps to drive home the tone of the scene.
The icing on the proverbial cake is the rich multiplayer component. Modes range from free-for-alls, to traditional team deathmatches, and all the variations you’ve come to expect. In addition, there are a couple of modes unique to the game. Payne Killer teams up Max and Raul Passos (a major character from the single-player campaign) and pits them against everybody else. Killing Payne or Passos means you become them, and the winner is determined by who holds the crown the longest. While this may sound daunting, you benefit from added health and some other perks to help even the odds. It’s still pretty daunting, but it’s a lot of fun.
The mode that’s probably going to garner the most attention is Gang Wars. The action in Gang Wars takes place over the course of five rounds, each with its own objectives. Whether a team wins or loses the round determines the objectives in the next round. There are loose story based elements involved, which is a welcome change of pace but falls a little short of the mark. Face it… it’s much easier to create a story around a single well defined character than it is to forge a great narrative involving a group of anonymous strangers. Nevertheless, the mode is an absolute blast and is sure to keep people coming back time and again.
With all this lavish praise, you might think the game is flawless, but it’s not. I have encountered numerous occasions where I tried to crouch near a wall but the animation couldn’t be completed so Max started bouncing up and down as if he was tea-bagging some invisible enemy. Additionally, I at one point triggered a finishing bullet cam which caused an enemy’s body to prevent a door from closing, and the result was that the camera got stuck on his body and I had to reboot the game. Flaws like these aren’t common, but they are there, and in a game this polished they are fairly jarring.
Overall, this is a game that no self-respecting shooter fan should miss out on. There are a massive number of perks, weapon combinations and abilities to unlock in multiplayer providing plenty of reason to keep playing. The neo-noir narrative is engrossing from start to finish, and the visceral action is unrivalled. In addition, the single player also offers score-based Arcade mode, and New York Minute, a speed-run trial through the game. All in all, this is a package that provides massive appeal and bang for your buck. Do yourself a favor, and find a way to play this game.
Tested on 360