Max Payne 3 represents Rockstar’s attempt to wake Remedy’s noir detective shooter from a decade-long slumber. It also represents a pattern I’ve noticed lately, that when sleeping PC franchises return they tend to inspire a lot of passion in people. Max Payne 3 and its decade-in-the-waiting PC game cousin Diablo III (and Deus Ex: Human Revolution last year, and StarCraft II the year before that) either made glorious comebacks or disappointed old-time fans. Ten years are a long a time to wait for a new series entry in a gaming landscape that has changed a lot. There was no iPhone back when Max Payne 2 and Diablo 2 were out. No Portal, Minecraft or Angry Birds. No Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, DLC, or real money auction houses. Max Payne and Diablo had to conform and adjust to the “evolution” of a decade of game design and game business practices. Well, they didn’t have to, but that’s what Rockstar and Blizzard, did to varying results.
Max Payne 3 is probably the more successful sequel. It’s definitely the more exciting one — you shoot instead of click! — and it’s likely Rockstar’s best game yet. It’s their most game-like game, free of the problems of kitchen sink open-world game design. Without a huge world to hog resources the game’s engine pumps out some superbly detailed environments — Sao Paulo and Hoboken, NJ look like real lived-in places — and the shooting controls, unlike those of the finicky Grand Theft Auto games, respond how you want them to. Max’s overall motion-captured movement grants the game a grounded, realistic feel. Bullet damage reinforces that. When enemies get shot they get perforated. It’s gory, even disturbing at times. Max Payne 3 reminds us with slow-mo money shots that guns are scary, and they do terrible things to the human body. But hey, shooting’s the crux of the gameplay. Though the game shows us the unflinching results of said shooting,we keep on shooting anyway. In short bursts it’s simple fun, especially later in the game when the deeper-than-you’d-think noir plot gets out-of-the-way and shoot-outs get hectic and more climactic. It’s when you play the game for extended amounts of time that the cracks appear.
In our inaugural podcast, Gabriel Zamora and I talk a bit about how a good sequel streamlines the gameplay of the previous game. I’m going to take that back now and say “streamline” was the wrong word to use in the case of sequels. A good sequel should refine and build upon what’s worked in the previous game. Super Mario Bros. 3, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — oh, Max Payne 2 — do just that. When I tried the Xbox 360 version of Max Payne 3, I saw Max couldn’t carry all the guns you want like in previous games. This is true for the PC version as well. Rockstar limited the amount of weapons to four. Three, really: two single-handed guns (pistols and SMGs), a heavier weapon like a rifle or a shotgun, and then the fourth option, dual wielding pistols and/or SMGs, John Woo-style. This is due to streamlining, or the “console-ization” of a game series that was once PC-exclusive.
On a PC, you’re limited to the number of keys on a keyboard to equip a weapon, which is to say, you’re not limited at all. To accommodate console controllers and their lack of input, Rockstar had to scale back the number of weapons available. This could lend the game a somewhat strategic element in the vein of Halo — which weapons should I carry? — but that’s being generous. All the weapons do the same basic thing, some just might be faster than others. To limit the amount of weapons Max can carry feels like a step back. Besides accommodating consoles, the scale back on weaponry is most likely due to Rockstar’s insistence on realism. Max visibly carries the extra unequipped weapon in one hand while his other hand wields the equipped one. If you equip dual pistols with a heavy weapon like a shotgun in tow, Max drops the shotgun so he could use both hands for the pistols. It’s just like what a real person would do! Though the life-like animations, impressive as they are, got me killed on multiple occasions. Shoot-dodge into a wall or chest-high obstruction and Max will crumple to the ground and lay there. Hopefully he’ll land behind cover so he can take time to get up back up and duck behind it, otherwise his getting-up animation takes its sweet time, allowing a goon to pop him full of holes for a cheap death.
When enemies get shot they get perforated. It’s gory, even disturbing at times. Max Payne 3 reminds us with slow-mo money shots that guns are scary, and they do terrible things to the human body. But hey, shooting’s the whole crux of the gameplay.
Gameplay gets interrupted by cutscenes all the time. Take a few steps, cutscene. Open a door, cutscene. There’s one level in a slum that stutters and stops so often from constant, lengthy story interruptions it’s practically a walking tour. Nearly every cutscene’s impossible to skip, too, since they double as loading times. Replays are a drag because of this.
The pushy story bleeds into level design as well. Max Payne 3 constantly pushes you down its hallways and corridors, even when there are collectibles and “clues” around the environment to seek out. Lollygag for a few seconds and Max’s inner monologue will drone something like “I must hurry on,” or the A.I. partner the story occasionally hoists upon you will yell at you to hurry up. The game’s at odds with itself at moments like this! Let me play at my own damn pace, game, since you have things strewn about for me to look for. Not that collectibles like the Golden Gun parts do anything except change Max’s weaponry to a shiny gold color. It’s pure vanity. There’s no backtracking allowed either. If you miss a Golden Gun, or any of the painkillers required to replenish health, you can’t go back since doors close behind Max permanently. You gotta push forward!
Like most other third-person shooters of the day, MP3 eschews PC-friendly quicksaves of the past for convenient checkpoints. Except they’re often inconvenient as all hell. When I died, usually due to a cheap animation-related death, I got sent way, way back in a level before a setpiece where I managed to kill dozens of guys. This happened a couple of times, and at that point the game was just wasting my time.
For another example of unfair death, there’s the “Last Stand” mechanic, a move that grants Max an extra chance at life. He can come back from the brink so long as he has at least one painkiller in possession and he kills the guy who “killed” him. It worked for the most part, except for the dumb luck times when I ran out of ammo right before the Last Stand kicked in. Despite the click-click-click-click of the empty gun, Max always saw the slow-motion desperation move to the bitter end. Very aggravating. Worse, there were a few times when Max got shot from behind and couldn’t turn around in time, or the camera was positioned in such a way that it was impossible to aim for the guy who “killed” him, rendering the Last Stand useless. Again. Ugh.
The industry standard cover mechanic makes an expected appearance. While it doesn’t tarnish the game, I feel a game centered entirely around a bullet-time ability would have no need for cover. You can manipulate time! Yet cover has been a mainstay in games so long it goes by unnoticed in Max Payne 3. It fits. It has to. Almost every area is designed with it in mind. To compensate for Max’s new hiding ability, enemies flank him or outright suicide dash towards him. Other modern staples show up, like guided vehicle sections where another character drives a boat or car and it’s up to Max to dispatch thugs in pursuit like he was in a level of Time Crisis. Unlike Resident Evil 5 or Gears of War 3, these sections are timed pretty well and don’t outstay their welcome. Still, I wish these moments, along with the unskippable cutscenes, wouldn’t drag down replays.
Max Payne himself gets tiresome, as does Rockstar’s usual we-saw-Scarface-so-we-know-how-to-write-movie-dialogue script, full of all the adolescent cursing, thuggish caricatures, and macho posturing we expect from their games. Max keeps above all that, settling instead for self-loathing and one-note guilt.
There are a few other messy parts, by the way. The pacing could’ve used tightening. The story flashes back and forth between Max’s time in Sao Paulo, his escape from New Jersey, and one perfunctory side-trip to the Panama Canal. Some levels dragged on and on on the same pattern — enter room, clear room of bad guys, run through hallway, etc. — that I couldn’t help but get tired playing. This game is best in short bursts.
Max Payne himself gets tiresome, as does Rockstar’s usual we-saw-Scarface-so-we-know-how-to-write-movie-dialogue script, full of all the adolescent cursing, thuggish caricatures, and macho posturing we expect from their games. Max keeps above all that, settling instead for self-loathing and one-note guilt. He grumbles variations of the same sad sack “I’m a drunk, I’m a loser, I’m a gringo, somebody shoot me” over and over. Self-pity can sustain a character for so long until you really wish he’d shut up and end it all already, and it comes close to that. Things pick up once he shaves his head and goes into hero mode midway through the plot, but you have to endure a miserable wretch for a while. Wry and sarcastic as he can be, no one wants to hang out with that guy for long – and there are a few good noir-ish metaphors for old time’s sake.
Multiplayer, a first for the series, is your usual team deathmatch and objective-based turf war stuff. Hopefully, it gets fixed soon. I encountered too many cheaters and hackers to make it enjoyable. People ran by me at impossible speeds and I was killed instantly. The few times I found a match with normal players my speed I stuck with them for as long as I could. Once that happened I found that, surprisingly, Max Payne‘s gameplay can sustain a multiplayer mode. It’s nothing elaborate — just shoot, duck, and bullet-dodge — but it’s satisfying to frag fellow humans for a couple of rounds, and the maps are put together well enough. When the main plot’s finished it’s not a bad distraction.
And that could sum up the whole game. Despite all the stumbling described above, none of it is game-breaking enough to not recommend Max Payne 3 as a discount purchase. Full-price, maybe not, but on sale? Sure. Despite all the changes and “modern improvements” it’s great to have Max back. There’s nothing sacrilegious about what Rockstar’s done here. Except for the DLC maybe. But if you want to bother with all that noise, that’s up to you. If/when you do get Max Payne 3, make sure it’s the PC version, available on Steam as a monumental 30 gig download (all those textures, man) or through a retail disc. Be sure to avoid the console version. You don’t want to deal with sluggish aiming controls using two analog sticks, and if you choose to auto-aim, well, you might as well go down to city hall and hand in your Gamer’s Cred card right now. Max Payne started out as a PC game series, and that’s no different today.