Remedy’s Max Payne games of the early Aughts were landmark releases for their time, dropping players into beautifully realized urban noir adventures that were bursting with gunplay that would make John Woo well up, and Matrixesque bullet-time acrobatics. The video game medium has seen some major evolution since those earlier efforts introduced the idea of the “cinematic shooter,” and it’s into this changed arena that Rockstar Games now drops its internally developed sequel, Max Payne 3, this week. The developer’s RAGE engine should need no introduction after delivering such dazzling experiences in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but fans of the series must still be wondering if the newly revised game engine’s bells and whistles amounts to enough of an improvement on Payne‘s decade-old corridor shooter hook.
House of Payne
Max Payne 3 is a one-trick pony that performs its one trick exceedingly well, and in a stunning variety of ways. The basic tenet of “shoot dudes in the face while managing your bullet-time meter” beats steadily at the core of the experience, but lots of thought has been put into crafting scenarios and set-pieces that play well with this basic conceit. You run, dive, dodge, and shoot your way through dimly lit tenement hallways, cubicle hives, bustling police station command centers, crumbling urban ruins, airport monorails, overgrown Sao Paulo alleyways, and many more locales besides. The firefights that unfold on these deadly playgrounds are never the same, thanks in large part to the sharp and aggressive enemy AI.
Strategy is a surprisingly important factor to consider in your approach to the game, but it’s set against the backdrop of this extremely dynamic action. It’s not so much a matter of looking at the big picture as it is gauging things like how long you can hold out in one cover location or how to portion out your stored bullet-time juice against the five enemies that just started firing at you from downrange. There’s cover, but this is not a cover-based shooter. You will be rooted out from your position of relative safety, and you will be made to pay for your camping ways. Max Payne 3 excels at keeping your thoughts firmly planted in the here and now; why worry about what’s around the next corner when this one is very competently attempting to shoot your head off?
That’s where Max Payne 3‘s bullet ballet excels. All of the things that the previous two games left to your imagination are as fully realized as can be here. From the individual bullet shell casings that fly out of your weapon to the slow-motion “final death” sequences in each room — a gruesome coda for each gunfight that exists as its own reward — it’s all rendered down to the finest detail. If there’s any serious flaw here, it’s that the action is often moving far too fast for you to sit back and appreciate it. One can only wonder at the sort of amazing YouTube-ery that would have unfolded if Rockstar had been able to include a video editor for replays.
There’s more than just skillful execution of time-tested gameplay holding up the experience, however. Max Payne 3 is a grim noir set, save for a few key flashbacks, in the sun-bleached Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo. The years since the events of the previous game have not been kind to Max. He’s still haunted by the ghosts of his dead family and he’s still escaping from that pain at the bottom of a bottle. It’s never really made clear if he jumps at his bodyguard gig in Brazil with hopes of getting a fresh start or simply to plunge himself into a deadly world that might put a bullet into him before he does so himself.
There’s no mistaking Max Payne 3‘s romanticized, if somewhat blunt-force, take on the tortured action hero. There’s a well-told story here, and one that demonstrates a Rockstar’s increasingly firm grip on artful cinematic storytelling. The filmic toolbox employed in Max Payne 3 isn’t particularly, with Brazilian anti-fairy tale filled with blurred double vision and on-screen text feeling an awful lot like Man on Fire, but this is by far the most evolved Rockstar narrative yet, and the most capably executed one, precisely because of how firmly it embraces the neo-noir genre.
The stellar execution doesn’t necessarily make for a particularly nuanced or bar-raising story, to be clear. The characters are all rather one-dimensional. They have very visible motivations, so much so that a finely tuned observer of such things ought to be able to figure out early on who’s pulling the strings, who’s being played, and who stands to lose the most. There are a few clever twists and turns, but those are tempered by the odd sudden revelation that feels unearned. There’s no bending of convention here. Nor should there be. Max Payne 3 revels in its noir-ish influences and wears them proudly, and it becomes a better game for not overreaching.
A Payne-full Experience
For a linear third-person shooter, Max Payne 3 has a surprising amount of content to offer. There are four difficulty settings for the 8-10 hour campaign, and three targeting options (hard lock, soft lock, and free aim) that serve to further tweak the level of challenge. The story moves along at a good pace with only minor stumbles. A few sections of the game, particularly the second-to-last chapter, feel artificially drawn out. You’ll also come upon the occasional combat scenarios — one in particular at the very end comes to mind — that feel downright scripted. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it’s jarring to suddenly be faced with a challenge that strips away much of the dynamic action that the game is otherwise so good at offering you.
Then there’s Arcade Mode, which comes in two different flavors: Score Attack and New York Minute (plus a Hardcore New York Minute variant). Both play out in roughly the same way, sending players through chapter-specific chunks of the game while introducing an element of scoring that is based on your kills and building up combo multipliers by not taking any damage. The only thing that really separates Score Attack from New York Minute is the constantly ticking timer in the latter mode, which is in fact a throwback mode pulled from the previous two games.
These modes offer some good times and are worthwhile from a replay perspective, both because of the lure of leaderboards and because the XP you earn feeds into your multiplayer character progression. They’re not perfect though. Both modes essentially present you with the same set of chapter challenges, with the primary difference being the timer in New York Minute. I personally came to prefer Score Attack; the time-based play in New York Minute is cool, but there are no checkpoint saves within the sometimes lengthy challenges and there are (sometimes unskippable) cutscenes to watch. It’s no big deal if you’re getting through a New York Minute chapter in one attempt, but repeated efforts highlight the fine line that exists here between a challenge and a slog.
Then there’s the multiplayer mode. It’s… elaborate. You’ve got multiple game types to choose from and a serious amount of customization to consider. You can unlock additional character skins by completing challenges in the Score Attack and New York Minute modes, but the bulk of your multiplayer unlocks come from leveling up in online play and using money you’ve earned to buy new gear. In short: Max Payne 3‘s multiplayer isn’t in any way a half-assed afterthought. It’s a complete chunk of game, and it’s one that stands easily alongside the story as a compelling reason to shell out $60.
Bringing Payne the to the Masses
Multiplayer isn’t exactly a new idea for the Max Payne series. It was a planned component for the first game and was actually included as part of Max Payne 2. It might as well be a brand new addition to the series, however, for all of the changes made to the mode for Max Payne 3.
I would argue that, for all the strengths of the game’s single player story, the multiplayer is by far the number one reason to run out and buy Max Payne 3 rather than saving it for a rental. Rockstar took all of the lessons learned from the online elements in Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption to craft a progression-driven experience that dangles so many carrots in front of you that you’ll never find yourself wanting for new content to unlock.
You can get a full rundown of how everything works in my Max Payne 3 multiplayer preview. The good news is that all of the promise that I felt seeping out of the game after that preview seems to have been realized. There is great fun to be had in using the unique mechanics of the Max Payne series in a team-based multiplayer setting. The maps aren’t overly huge, but they’re intricately designed and offer lots of options for lone wolves and team players alike.
Having a separate set of multiplayer rooms dedicated to “soft lock” (rather than free aim) is, frankly, a masterstroke on Rockstar’s part. Multiplayer gaming can be hard to get into if you’re a newcomer, and having that soft lock alternative evens the odds for those gamers who aren’t accustomed to twitch-based online action. It works well, too. The soft lock latches onto opponents easily enough, but not so much so that the first person to lock on is necessarily going to take down his or her target.
It would be nice to see a few more modes — Payne Killer and Gang Wars are fun alongside Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, but the offering still feels light — but the only real complaint that I have is directed at the technical execution. I’ve frequently run into error messages and dropped matches in the time that I’ve been playing Payne 3‘s multiplayer both before and after its release. If anything, the issues seem to have gotten worse post-release. I’m certain that this is only a temporary situation and it doesn’t impact the overall quality of the game in the slightest — really, this is an exceptionally well thought out multiplayer mode — but it’s something to be aware of as you step into your first online matches.
Overall, Max Payne 3 is a full-on win for Rockstar. It’s a tighter experience than anything the developer has attempted in recent years, and I think it’s a better game for that narrowed focus. I don’t want to see Rockstar’s open-world games disappear, but it’s nice to see the same high level of craft that Grand Theft Auto is known for applied to Max’s more self-contained adventure. If you’re a fan of video games and you’re old enough to handle the mature content, consider Max Payne 3 a must-own.
Score 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Rockstar Games)