Just when he thought he could lose his tragic past in a booze and pill-addled haze, Rockstar Games drags Max Payne out of retirement for a third series of unfortunate events. If I were him, I'd go after them first.
Luckily I am not Max Payne. My family is still, for the most part, alive. Going from bald to a full head of hair is no longer an option. And the only pills I take on a regular basis are less about helping me forget all of my troubles and more about making sure grass and pollen doesn't kill me while I'm not looking. My life would make a horrible video game.
May Payne's life, on the other hand, seems to have made a pretty good one. Hopefully none of the assembled video game reviewers scored Rockstar's latest because they identified with the main character.
When Max Payne switches from a two-handed weapon to the handgun in his holster, he doesn't reach behind his back to plant the larger gun firmly on the adhesive outer surface of his jacket. It doesn't vanish inside the TARDIS-like confines of his pockets either, sent to that mysterious alternate dimension called the inventory screen. Instead, he loosely dangles the weapon by his side, while getting to business with the pistol in the other hand. You'd think this would make reloading tricky, but Payne has a system. He tucks the big gun in the crook of his arm, grabs and inserts a clip into his pistol with his freed hand, and lets the larger gun fall back into his grip.
The first time you see this, it's a delight, the smooth animation showcasing Payne's efficient weapon-handling skills, while also throwing down the gauntlet to games that think details such as the practicalities of juggling a videogame arsenal don't, or shouldn't, matter. By the fourth reload, it already looks more canned, but by then the statement of intent has been made.[assocaite]
Even for Max, a lot of time has passed since Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, to the point that the dramatic, traumatic events of the first two games are little more than old scar tissue now. Having long since ruined anything worth ruining in New York with booze and pills, Max has retreated from his own life and taken up reluctant employment as a personal bodyguard for the wealthy, powerful, and treacherous Branco family in São Paulo, Brazil. For as comfortably as Max and his black jacket fit into the shadows of New York's underworld, he's a stranger in a strange land here. His leathery American frame sticks out like a sore thumb in the washed-out sunlight of both São Paulo's rich playgrounds of privilege and its rusted favelas, which he fumbles through with as little grasp on the local language as to why he's really in São Paulo. Max has never been a particularly sunny soul, but here he regards his idle rich clients with about as much simmering contempt as he does for his own half-drunk, careless ineptitude as family members get kidnapped and his bad situation continues to find new ways to get worse.
Rockstar has never been particularly shy about its specific influences, which are often cinematic in origin. With Max Payne 3, the setting, character situations, and overall look of the game make comparisons to the Tony Scott movie Man on Fire inevitable, and apt, though there are strains of director Michael Mann's slick latter-day crime dramas in there as well, all of it spiked with a spare synthesizer score and shocking moments of extreme violence. Though it's not couched in the caricatured satire of GTAIV or the bleak revisionist period trappings of Red Dead, that same authorial voice still rings like a gunshot.
The shooting is a revelation. It's so good it evokes a worrisome existential crisis: Yes, it's another eight-to-ten hours of killing everyone in the world, but what if this is, and will always be, what games are best at? Max Payne 3 nearly makes you roll over in defeat, knowing that Rockstar has harnessed impeccable technology to make people die real good.
It's a simple process served up with peerless presentation. You enter one side of the room and the henchmen, who rarely differentiate in their plan of attack, dutifully show up to be blown away. As a grizzled grump who reeks of alcohol and sweat, your movements are rugged but reliable – and you can forget about the frantic momentum of Vanquish, or the nimbleness of Drake in Uncharted. Max is an expert at falling down with style.
As a rule, Max Payne 3 is dutifully considerate to its players, considering its brutal difficulty. As well as seeing to it you don't get too stuck in a rut, the game offers varying degrees of aim assist and difficulty levels to tailor the challenge to your needs. Meanwhile, small things like the briefest flicker of your crosshair when you register a kill offer an excellent level of feedback, essential when in the midst of a chaotic firefight. So it's strange that Max Payne 3's most glaring flaws are so counter-intuitive to that. Checkpointing is infuriatingly mean at points, asking you to replay large, difficult chunks of areas to progress. It's faintly wearying at times, particularly when the game is tough enough as it is. It also has the odd habit of switching your assault rifle or shotgun for a pistol following a cutscene, and considering the cutscenes tend to bleed fabulously into action, that split-second to swap to a more powerful weapon can be damaging.
It's also something of a shame that the game's best bits tend to be closer to the beginning. The opening two acts are stuffed full of spectacular set pieces: Max using a sniper rifle to cover his ally as he sprints unarmed through the bleachers of Sao Paulo's football stadium; using an enemy as a surfboard as he smashes through the window of a nightclub's VIP lounge to the dancefloor below, picking off bad guys under the neon lights; a rain-swept infiltration to a dockyard at night that leads to an astonishing speedboat chase. It's a game full of highlights, but it's a little too front loaded. As the story reaches its denouement, the levels become harder and more stuffed with enemies. It can become a little gruelling, exacerbated by the staccato nature of reloading checkpoints. Still, there are some stunning moments right up until the end, and that raw excitement of the shooting endears across the game's campaign.
Max Payne may not seem like a franchise that lends itself well to multiplayer, but Rockstar has found a way to keep Bullet Time alive and well for deathmatching purposes, and uses it to anchor a robust offering of competitive modes.
Deathmatch and team deathmatch prove to be fun, grinder-like experiences with average lives lasting for 20 to 30 seconds. Becoming Max or Raul Passos (an old colleague of Max's) in Payne Killer mode delivers that "how many foes can I down before I fall" thrill. This mode starts with a standoff between all of the players in the match. The first player to land a kill becomes Max. The player that was killed becomes Raul. These two characters are more powerful than the others and must work together to earn as many points as they can before they are taken out. The player that takes out one of these characters takes their role.
The coolest multiplayer mode offered is Gang Wars. This mode pits two teams against each other and incorporates story threads from the campaign to shape the five rounds. How a round ends dictates what the next objective will be, a design that keeps the battles fresh.
Max Payne 3 is a technological tour de force that will have you screaming "Dear lord!" more times than midnight mass. The performances are top notch, the action plays out with unrivaled fluidity, and the multiplayer is deep and rewarding. Silly distractions aside, Max Payne 3 is an action lover's wet dream that also happens to employ some of the slickest direction and transitional trickery this side of a David Fincher box set. Lock and load. It's bullet time...time.
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.
I've already popped some painkillers in anticipation.