Max Payne 3 Review
June 10, 2012
Over a decade ago, developer Remedy revolutionized action games by casting a man with gastrointestinal problems as the lead character in Max Payne. Among his other super abilities was control over the flow of time and diving around while maintaining incredible accuracy. Like nothing else at the time, the game was a comparison to The Matrix in more ways than its Bullet Time mechanics. Ever since its release games have attempted to shoehorn super slow motion Bullet Time gameplay into their formula, often with mixed success, and never as well as the original Max Payne. Nothing would closely mirror the success of the first’s execution until Remedy released Max Payne 2 in 2003. Elevating and refining the original’s gameplay, it became the new benchmark, as well as a memorable game with lasting appeal. I still install it roughly every year and run through it again. This is all without mention of user mods, which both games supported, launching with editing tools in the box. This encouraged hundreds of mods for the games, several of which were of legitimate quality, and a few of which had incredible production values for mods. Now, a decade down the line, the keys have been passed down to Rockstar, and it’s a question of whether or not the power-developer was able to make a worthy successor, trading mod tools for multiplayer.
Among the most immediate and apparent changes are the aesthetic and thematic divergences from the first two. Gone are the visual styling, the over-the-top caricatures, and the gritty noir dime novel story and pulp dialogue. All these classic Max Payne elements are exchanged for Rockstar’s trademark realism and imperfect characters. Affecting more than just the story, even the gameplay is changed by the character and narrative differences. Obviously these changes don’t affect the gameplay as much as Rockstar’s tried-and-true mechanics, but nonetheless they’re very tangible, even if they are overshadowed by other things Rockstar introduced, such as their cover system.
To many players who enjoyed the previous games in the series, mention of a cover system is met with belligerent scoffs and disgusted groans. Max has never before been able to press up against and hide behind walls. The first two games were about running forward and diving through doorways, shooting everyone in the room as fast as possible before diving through the next door. Gameplay was very rarely about stalling or staying in one place for long, but the introduction of a cover system completely reverses that. Redefining Max Payne to be stop’n’shoot rather than run’n’gun lends some credibility to those hesitant reactions, but the quality of the execution refutes nearly all of them. This is all the more true due to the fact that the game also allows you to dive around the level and just walk around in Bullet Time shooting bad guys. The flip side is that, while not ineffective, these techniques are much less practical, partly because the cover system is so pivotal to the game’s design. Anyone familiar with the cover mechanics in Rockstar’s other titles (Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire) will know immediately what to expect in Max Payne 3. The only major difference seems to be that cover is less of a magic shield granting immunity to bullets, though whether by design or by the nature of bullets being actual projectiles isn’t clear. Another minor difference is the incredibly curious absence of the ability to go around corners or across gaps while remaining in cover, something so prominently featured and underutilized in L.A. Noire.
For those stringently adhering to old-school play mechanics, never using the cover system is an option, albeit a deadlier one. Max has never been able to take a lot of bullets at once, and that’s seemingly more pronounced here, especially on the higher difficulties. Luckily enemies play by the same rules and die after a few shots. Some key differences made to Bullet Time and shootdodging also increase the difficulty of this method. Bullet Time doesn’t last nearly as long as it seemed to, and it also doesn’t seem to replenish as much per kill. It seems much more suited to quick bursts of slow motion. Provided he has one last painkiller, when Max is shot down he starts falling to the ground in Bullet Time, offering the player one last chance to shoot the guy responsible for killing Max. If he’s able to shoot him, Max gets another chance at life and recovers, hitting the floor ready to try again. Shootdodging is one of the primary recipients of those aforementioned narrative changes. Max is an old, fat, white guy. With this in mind, it makes a lot of sense that when he launches himself through the air and slams into the floor he’s rather slow to get up, waiting until the player tells him to, and even then taking his sweet time. Deciding to let Max stay on the floor allows him to slightly roll around and shoot attackers from a different position, as well as rest his feet. Anything played relying on Max by himself mirrors his character, behaving slower, more plodding, and chunky. All of the movement has weight to it. However, that’s not to say he’s incapable of quick bursts of aggression and pinpoint finesse, and that’s mostly due in part to the phenomenal gunplay.
One of the series’ hallmarks has been unparalleled shooting, thanks mostly to the fact that every bullet is modeled and simulated, having to actually travel on its trajectory. Guns are deadly accurate, with enough spread to require skillful wielding aided by clever use of Bullet Time. This goes for enemies too, their fire often far more accurate than you would care to receive. On the reverse side from the player, where Bullet Time makes Max more accurate, it seems to lessen enemy accuracy overall, and causes them to start shooting nowhere near Max, sweeping their fire towards him, even if they were in the middle of automatic fire when Bullet Time was activated. It’s a little disheartening that the game pulls certain punches like this, but otherwise Bullet Time would be significantly reduced in its usefulness. Still, the gunplay feels incredibly tight, and exchanging fire with the bad guys is always exciting and dangerous. The gunplay also has the same kinetic feel as the past two games, with things exploding into pieces and shattering when hit, as well as people staggering under the force of being shot. Everything destroys extremely nicely in this game. There were a few striking moments after firefights where I would turn around and wonder how I ever survived the encounter. An odd divergence from the first two is that Max no longer has any grenades or molotovs, made more odd when enemies occasionally do, and they’re present in multiplayer.
The game is a challenge on the normal setting and downright hard on the higher ones, something surprisingly refreshing among other games in which their hardest difficulty is still relatively easy. Again, Max cannot take much damage, and the amount lessens on higher difficulties. It’s not clear whether enemies get a whole lot more accurate as the scale goes up, since they start out as fairly good shots on the normal level. The game actually only throws a handful of ridiculously unfair situations at you, one of which is an infuriating timed end to a level, only to be met with an armored enemy where you have little cover and the checkpoint is a few minutes away.
Hands down the biggest change from the other titles are the thematic elements and the story and characters. Characters are no longer larger-than-life cardboard cutouts spouting dramatic lines but are surprisingly well fleshed-out. Any and all elements of film noir are gone, replaced with modern “digital glitch” styling. The comics are no more, replaced with long-winded, droning cutscenes. Occasionally they do a side-by-side panel in a cutscene, but mostly it’s just a standard cinematic. The one concession are the stylistic flashes of color and blurring of the screen to reflect Max’s feeling. When he’s drunk the screen gets fuzzy, and violence or yelling sees flashes of red overlaid on the action. The effect isn’t subtle, and it doesn’t feel like they were attempting to be, but instead of presenting a visual inner monologue it simply provides annoying flashes over relatively pointless and boring cutscenes. The other effect of removing the noir elements is that Max’s once iconic inner dialogues no longer have any poetry. Instead he sounds like a tired old drunk, spot-on for the character, but incredibly annoying to listen to. For the most part, Max is the only one affect by the narrative shift negatively, with everyone and everything else conceived around this new realistic style. Max’s past is barely brought up, and the few flashbacks are still later than the events of Max Payne 2. All of the new characters at least start grounded enough in this gritty reality to be believable, even if they quickly do things to break that. The story is penned by Rockstar’s head writer Dan Houser, who also wrote GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, which makes the almost complete lack of “I’m a good guy who’s done bad things” as a constant theme both weird and refreshing. Sadly, Max instead comes across as a whiny “oh woe is me” character, earning more contempt than sympathy. The story also takes some pretty poor turns and is overall lackluster, but it’s a more than competent vehicle to get from one shootout to another. It’s unfortunate that half the cutscenes are pre-rendered, but the real-time cutscenes transition to gameplay extremely well, going from one final camera pan to following Max through a door and suddenly popping a HUD up on your screen as it relinquishes control.
In tandem with the writing and the gameplay, Rockstar’s forte in soundtrack choice comes shining through in Max Payne 3. The Max Payne theme returns, though it’s a much more subdued part of the soundtrack on this outing. Where Remedy went the route of creating actual background music for their titles, Rockstar has brought in their usual echoing sparse notes to create the soundtrack here. It gives the game an atmosphere of being disheveled and uneasy, something that reflects well upon Max’s character. True to Rockstar form, they also know when to kick the door in and play a licensed track. All such instances in the game flow real well, the songs fitting in naturally and adding a much more cinematic feel. It also didn’t hurt in the least that the songs were generally something you could bob your head in time with. But even for all the Hispanic/Latino gangster rap they threw at the game, the most striking moment of the soundtrack for me was in the final level. Max had cleared his mind of everything except getting the man he was after and simply picked up his gun and started walking. In one area of the level the player is tasked with fighting down an extremely long and large corridor against several dozen enemies. The song so perfectly captured both Max’s mindset, and how I as a player felt about the moment, as well as it just gave me the magical ability to keep Max walking forward while scoring headshots on the onslaught of enemies rushing to try and kill me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was never hit in this sequence, or perhaps it was the fact that I was getting one-shot headshots on all the enemies, but the general bad-assedry overlaid with music made this the most memorable moment in the entire game. For those four minutes I felt completely untouchable. The Angel of Death with a personal vendetta.
Worthy of special mention are the animations and the Euphoria engine powering them. The animations are already top notch, and now, with Euphoria, multiple animations can be seamlessly combined on the fly to create all new ones for the situation. It’s also a system of reaction, with bad guys tumbling and trying to keep their balance when shot, staggering their last few steps and grabbing for support when killed, and thrown back against objects far better than any traditional ragdoll. The system also works on Max, making him smash into objects from a dive beautifully, putting his arm up to shield his face in slow motion while he crumples up and slams painfully to the floor. Since he can now only carry two sidearms and one large weapon, they’re all always visible, so Max has to juggle the larger gun when using a smaller one, and always does so with absolute fluidity.
Something else worth singling out, though this time in a completely negative light, are the “load times.” The “load times” in this game are utterly horrible, but they aren’t actual loads. Instead, they just lock you into a cutscene with the inability to skip or quit to the menu, meaning you have to sit through them no matter how many times you’ve already done so. Each button press is met with “still loading,” which might make sense during the pre-rendered cutscenes, but not during the real-time ones, especially mid-level. The reason I claim they’re not loading is because it says it is for an entire five minute cutscene, while I can quit to the menu and load any other checkpoint that goes directly into gameplay in less than half a minute. Any cutscenes that allow you to skip are already on the last few shots before the camera pans into gameplay by the time it allows you to, negating the use of skipping it. In the same vein as cutscenes, there are a few on-rails segments in the game where Max is firing from a vehicle, and these are a particular weakness of the game. They allow you to shoot plenty of bad guys, but they remove all of what’s fun about the gunplay sticking it into what is essentially an interactive cinematic.
The visuals in the game are fairly spectacular, and even on aging rigs the game runs extremely well. The game takes advantage of new DirectX 11 features, and while they aren’t the most pronounced thing in the game, they’re certainly noticeable. It’s pleasant to look at Max’s bald head and not see any sharp corners sticking out. The texture work is also pretty good, although these high resolution assets come at the cost of a staggering 35GB of hard drive space. Even worse is that it seems some of the textures have broken and look like they were taken straight out of Duke Nukem 3D.
Finally, the multiplayer seems like an afterthought. That may seem very weird, considering that GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption both had significantly sizable multiplayer experiences that even received post-release updates, but the multiplayer presented in Max Payne 3 is a very poor showing, despite some obvious planning for it. Rockstar has implemented traditional game modes and a leveling and load-out system, as well as an account-side clan system called “crews.” But for all the thought into the underlying metagame for the multiplayer, the game itself plays very poorly. Both GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption had multiplayer where taking your time and using cover was rewarded, and the inherited mechanics from those two make Max Payne 3 seem like you should be using cover. But the mechanics inherited from the Max Payne series make it seem like you should be running around carelessly shooting anyone who isn’t you, which is what the game leans towards more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make up its mind and leaves the gameplay stranded in the middle, feeling much more spastic and chaotic than it should. The gameplay is no longer tight but instead is an uncontrolled mess. This is slightly reduced in the more advanced, team-based objective game modes, but it’s never fully rectified. This is made worse yet by the fact that such modes must be unlocked by playing enough rounds of the truly terrible deathmatch or team deathmatch.
But ignoring the multiplayer and concentrating on the singleplayer, Max Payne 3 is a very enjoyable experience. The gunplay is incredibly fun, and it has some sizable replayability, partly due to collectables scattered throughout the game and challenges to get X number of Y, but mostly due to the fact that the gunplay is so tight and entertaining, as well as being different each time you load the game up. Some deeply buried flaws infect the game throughout, but hopefully they can be patched out, and even if not, it doesn’t break the game, it just slows it down to a crawl for several minutes at a time. Remedy may have moved on, but Max Payne has far from withered and died without them.