Hot damn, am I enjoying Max Payne 3. Though… well, "enjoying" might be the wrong word for it, you know? It has me in a vice-grip, and every time I play I find myself locked in a tense, curse-shouting battle with the deadly enemies inside of my Xbox 360.
The game is relentless, always pushing forward, throwing me into deadly, sharp situation after deadly, sharp situation. And underscoring every blood-drenched shootout and explosive setpiece is HEALTH's undulating, astonishing soundtrack.
It's an uncomfortable experience, this game, from the blurred alcohol haze that covers everything to the way my enemies keep shouting in Portuguese to the sheer disorienting lethality of it all. Even on "normal" difficulty, every nook and cranny holds another ignoble death. In every gunfight, I almost forget to breathe. Here I am, I've got a hair of health left, and yet I know there are more enemies ahead. Around this corner lies the unknown, and almost certainly death… time to reload my weapons and plunge in.
HEALTH, a Los Angeles-based four-piece, provided all of the music that pulses beneath each of Max Payne 3's many action scenes. Their music is never overly cinematic or dramatic; rather, it's dark and driving, with few peaks or valleys to break up the dirge. It's the music of drug-addled hangovers, of splitting headaches and metallic stink. It is, in many ways, the music of death. It's perfect for Max Payne 3.
How does Rockstar keep doing this? How can their musical tastes be so far out front of every other AAA game developer? I ask that mostly rhetorically—clearly, these folks pay attention to modern culture in a way that few other game studios do. It would have been so easy for them to simply farm out the Max Payne 3 soundtrack to any of a number of Hollywood-influenced composers who would have added dark strings, electronic beats, and other familiar sounds.
By choosing a band like HEALTH, a band with a distinctive sound and a clear sonic identity, Rockstar improved the quality of Max Payne 3 remarkably—the game's story is a bit of a mess, its protagonist is a lunk with no clear arc... there's really not much to it but a series of increasingly unbelievable combat sequences. But it is a goddamned unforgettable experience, and it's an experience driven hugely by music.
Despite the all the driving darkness, HEALTH's work has, at times, a similar low key, mournful vibe to Cliff Martinez's excellent work on the film Drive, which took a different tack by offering both dirge-like and remarkably celestial electronic music as a counterpoint to the weighty, pushing action onscreen. For example, HEALTH's now-well-known track "Tears":
You can buy the Max Payne 3 soundtrack on iTunes, and while it makes for stressful work-music, it will certainly pump you up every time armed thugs burst into your home or apartment. You can also read more about the background of the soundtrack on Rockstar's page, and listen to several more tracks, including "9 Circulos" from Brazillian rapper Emicida, on Rockstar's Soundcloud page.
Hey you know what? Let's close out with that one.
Okay, every other action-game developer in the world. The gauntlet has been thrown. Please rise to the challenge.