"This isn't going to end well."
Start up Max Payne 3 and the first menu screen just loops an endless sequence of the title character sitting alone drinking and smoking. Stare at that for more than a minute and you can't help but think those six words.
It's been almost a decade since we last saw him and the eight years between Max Payne 2 and this new threequel have not been kind. In the real world, the kind of character-driven action that made Remedy's hard-boiled franchise a hit got supplanted by big-spectacle war games and other, safer-feeling fare. And inside the fiction of the franchise, let's just say that Max's ability to dodge bullets never extended to his psychological side. He's bruised and clearly doesn't care about himself anymore.
It's good for gamers everywhere, then, that Rockstar still gives a damn about this pill-popping, whisky-chugging ex-cop. Max Payne 3 delivers a bleak yet thrilling experience that manages to balance the expectations of what a shooter feels like today with the traits that made Max a beloved cult character. Max Payne 1 & 2 let you feel like an out-of-control badass who—once this last bit of vengeance gets dealt with—might still get his life together somehow. This game blows up any such delusions. This man is functionally dysfunctional, and barely that.
Max Payne 3 finds the title character working as a hired gun in São Paolo, escorting members of the rich Branca family through a society where the haves live in explosive proximity to the have-nots. The game's filled with existential dread and self-delusion. Still reeling from the death of loved ones long ago, Max talks of talk of a fresh start but he's still so haunted by his past that you know even he doesn't believe that. Since this is a Max Payne game, all manner of hell breaks loose. This installment—the first created solely by Rockstar, without the help of Max's creators at Remedy Entertainment—isn't as self-consciously affected as its forebears. Remedy writer Sam Lake's quirky use of language and fondness for metatextual touches aren't in evidence here, though Rockstar tries to honor those sensibilities. This game's shinier, faster and altogether more modern, with a more stripped-down presentation to heighten its cinematic feel. It's a different kind of gritty, more Michael Mann than Jim Thompson.
It's hard to overstate how graphically stunning this game looks. If you've stuck with Rockstar since the GTA III and Vice City days, you'll remember just how butt-ugly some of those games were. But Max Payne 3 serves as a pay-off for Rockstar having crafted their own engine. All the power of their RAGE technology gets shown off in an inverted way; instead of rendering vast locales like Liberty City or the Old West, here the engine packs smaller spaces full of true-to-life detail. Piles of garbage in the favelas, stacks of paper in office buildings and ubiquitous decay in a decrepit hotel make the environments feel disgustingly real. That great sense of place is exemplified by your time in the favelas. You're not pornographically shooting shit up—at least not at first. Instead, you walk through confused and then humiliated, an interloper with his own agenda as the people who live there go on with their daily lives. You'd never want to visit any of these places. And yet here you are.
Hints of the comic-book panel narrative sequencing remain, but get a slick update that splashes key phrases onscreen. Sometimes the camera will weave and sway in drunken fashion with images strobing in and out of double vision, as if the whole affair's been pickled in whisky. But there's very little that's unintentionally unsteady about Max Payne 3.
Mechanically, it's Rockstar's most self-assured game to date. The publisher never executed brilliantly when it came to the shooting experience in its games. In any given GTA game, you aimed in the general direction of enemies and hoped for the best. Not here. The mix of cover-based combat with Max's signature shootdodge and bullet time abilities manages to work extremely well, letting you feel constantly focused and precise. The kills you can pull off in MP3 feel beautifully choreographed, especially when you pause the game mid-game and spin the camera around to take everything in. There's an odd tension at the core of Max Payne 3's gameplay. It holds a cover mechanic nested inside a system that dares—hell, encourages—you to be reckless. If you gamble poorly and are at death's door, you can use your last bit of energy in a Last Man Standing slo-mo sequence to take out an enemy and limp away to keep on fighting. None of this creates any kind of dissonance. Instead, it feels in line with the character. "Throw caution to the wind and then, in those moments, that's where you find your reward," it whispers to you.
You already know you're playing through a man's self-destruction, the question remains what the exact nature of that breakdown will look like. Perversely, you're going to have fun doing it. That's because Max Payne 3 boasts incredible set pieces, like where you ride the concussive wave of an exploding water tower in slow motion and need to gun down the thugs on the rooftop below you. It's a micro-moment where a tableau turns into a shooting gallery and these sequences never get old.
Those set pieces get balanced by more prosaic but still tense gunfights. The enemies prove to be smart enough to be really dangerous and different factions have different behaviors. The gangs stay in cover for a shorter amount of time and come after you, while the paramilitary outfits you fight will attack from both the foreground and background. I lost count of the times where I was so concentrated on one threat that another thus managed to creep around and get way too close to me. About halfway though the game, I ground my way through the same gunfight in a tight space three times, my attention so focused during the final attempt that I didn't realize I was holding my breath that entire time. And you know what? That exhale into a temporary respite? It felt incredibly good. Counter-intuitively, I made me all the more eager to run into the tapdance of triggers that I knew lay waiting in the next room.
The challenge in Max Payne 3 might drive you to drink, too. For a while, you think there might even be some redemption for ol' Max. That's a driving factor in the single-player, too. Does he deserve it? Can you make him survive long enough to get there? You'll find yourselves near death without painkillers and, sooner or later, you're going to jump out behind that cover and find out what you're made of. Guns have personality, you feel the difference between a .608 Bull and a 9mm, for example, even though they're both pistols. Some I wanted to hold onto for as long as I could, others were just implements to get me through the next firefight until I could find another lethal true love. It may feel like enemies are bullet sponges but as it turns out they're harder to put down outside of Bullet Time. But you'll need to use Max's hyper-reflexes judiciously. Bullet Time gets earned by killing enemies and/or shooting them in specific parts of their bodies. The game always gives you enough bullet time to pull off a shootdodge or a headshot if you're skilled enough. So, the difficulty feels balanced.
The tension between the safety in cover and the thrill of driving into a hail of bullets makes Max Payne 3 a great adrenaline junkie simulator. That accomplishment carries over into multiplayer, as well. Yeah, you can hang back and assist or pick off enemies from cover but true glory is only found in play Max Payne-style.
As Stephen Totilo noted, MP3 marks Rockstar's most ambitious implementation of multiplayer yet. You'll collect bursts—power-ups like Call of Duty's perks—as you progress through a match. Bursts use adrenaline, which you build up by killing opponents or looting dead bodies. Looting also can discover cash for buying weapons and upgrades. The adrenaline meter can be used for either Bullet Time/shootdodging or for Bursts. The Bursts grant buffs like better guns, more health or enemy location awareness and provide strong strategic advantages when used correctly.
You'll know when the tension just rises and rises and releases spectacularly in a multiplayer match? Max Payne 3's online modes have plenty of those. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch play fast and frantic as expected, but feel distinct from other games out there thanks to the looting and Burst/Bullet Time options available to players.
But the standouts are the Payne Killer and the Gang Wars modes. The former is a king-of-the-hill style mode where the first two players to cap someone else become Max and his partner Passos, getting more robust abilities and weapons to face off against anyone trying to take them down. Gang Wars weaves a story narrated by Max across four match types, making rival factions fight for turf or deliver packages across the maps. This mode culminates in a winner-take-all team deathmatch where the scores from the previous carry over. If your team screwed up in the missions before the final showdown, there's still a chance to come out on top.
Max Payne 3's multiplayer comes across as impressive and intricate, full of intriguing quirk that will grow in unexpected ways. I'll be updating this review in two weeks to see how the multiplayer evolves.
"This isn't going to end well." That's the key phrase hiding inside all the creative endeavors that identify as noir. The protagonists get beat up, get fingers cut off and noses sliced open. They literally leave parts of themselves on the table or in an alley. And that's just the physical part. Other game franchises fit you inside the armored boots of a space marine or give you quips to mitigate the carnage you dole out. And, yeah, heroes may suffer. But not like Max Payne's drunk, drugged-up ass. You don't want to be this guy.
Noir isn't about heroism, you see. It's about failures and foibles and the innermost demons lurking inside human nature that some unlucky slobs just can't outrun. Horrible, horrible things happen in Max Payne 3, many of them because of the title character's superhuman ability to fuck things up. Things that made me gasp out loud and avert my eyes. But this game isn't a fuck-up. In fact, it's anything but. If you get Max Payne 3, you'll see how good it feels to have your stomach heave with this anti-hero's signature brand of self-loathing and cunning. And then go online and see just how you manage the balance of caution and carelessness with thousands of people trying to do the same. Welcome home, Max. It's good to see you again, you poor bastard.