California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Max Payne 3

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May 30th, 2012 at 11:01 am

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Max Payne 3 box art
Max Payne 3

Release Date: May 15th & 18th (Console), 29th (PC), 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: 3rd Person Neo-Noir Woo Shooter
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 6-9 Hours
Auteurs Attached: The Houser Bros.

CLR Rating: ★★★★½


Rockstar’s Redemption Remedies the Payne

The Max Payne series has always been about contradiction. On the one hand, each game is archetypical Noir: a cynical anti-hero set against the gritty, grimy underworld who wryly waxes poetic via internal monologue. On the other, the actual gameplay is derived from Hong Kong action cinema: bloody gunfights accentuated with lots diving through the air while firing guns akimbo in Matrix “bullet time,” a technique as flashy as it is impractical.

Max Payne 3

The “shootdodge” would be silly if weren’t so damn cool.

The same contradictory nature is naturally found in the title character. Mr. Payne has always been a luckless, desperate man with nothing left to live for after his wife and child were slain, and every other plot point in the first two games just made his life more miserable. Yet, despite wanting (and probably deserving) death, Max continues to survive against all odds.

He’s been beaten to a pulp during a mafia torture session. He’s been drugged with an overdose that should have left him a gibbering lunatic. He’s been tossed off cliffs, blown up, and shrugged off a blizzard covered only in a leather jacket and rage. He’s been shot more often than a Stanley Kubrick scene, and at least once in the skull – with a magnum – and he still keeps going.

Yes, Max’s fate has always been to fulfill the promise of his grim jest of a name. Worst of all, he has to endure it and carry on, too broken to truly live and too stubborn to ever die. He’s a walking, talking, wound of a man that never heals properly, but at least he makes enough wisecracks to make it bearable.

Max Payne 3

“It hit me like brass knuckles to the spleen at 3 AM. My brutish nature barred any balm for the soul. Also that these blinds were ugly as hell.”
Max Payne soliloquies in a nutshell.

With such a tendency of spitting in death’s face it’s hardly surprising that his franchise ended up following suit. If you ignore the terrible 2008 “Marky Mark” Wahlberg film (and you should), Max has been absent for almost a decade, and it seemed likely that he would forever remain an early post-millennium gaming footnote. But now he returns to the world via Rockstar Games, and as could be expected the quality they’re synonymous with shows through yet again. Max Payne 3 is thankfully an excellent game.

However, Rockstar has had to struggle with taking stewardship of a series bogged down by history they didn’t write. Max Payne 2 ended badly for the characters involved; everyone but Max was dead and he lost everything that mattered. Again. To move forward, Rockstar has elected to let such an outcome reach its most natural (and depressing) conclusion and let Max hit rock bottom, if only to build him up once again.

In the intervening years Max went looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, and when we meet him in MP3, is still down there. Now a rampant alcoholic and relapsed smoker on top of his pill popping (prescription painkillers being the games’ ironic recovery system), Max’s battered body is increasingly showing, as Indiana Jones once said, “not the years, but the mileage.” He’s gone fat and going gray, and the between mission interstitials consist of him drinking alone in his skivvies.

Max Payne 3

Truly, next generation graphics were meant for disheveled middle aged men to finally be appreciated in all their glory.

But hey, unlike many in our tough economic times, at least he has a job.

Though the narrative jumps around, the game starts with Max working with yet another new partner, Raul Passos, as an armed bodyguard for the wealthy Branco family of São Paulo, Brazil. Needless to say, our drunken hero quickly finds himself in the thick of local social issues. Namely, that the poor and destitute in a country with one of the largest income disparity gaps in the world really like to kidnap the wives of rich industrialists for ransom and tend to shoot their ornery American bodyguards on sight.

What follows is a plot that’s essentially Man on Fire set against City of God, with the healthy dose of Michael Mann’s influence that Rockstar injects into almost all of its games. This time, the “Mann effect” is through his sexy, audio-visual poetic realist style as opposed to plot or character, which is dominated by Man on Fire’s “alcoholic tough guy retribution” arc. Of course, all these influences are blended into a paste filled with enough grit to be an asphalt smoothie; it is a Max Payne game and has a reputation to maintain, after all.

The plot twists and turns, flashes forward and backwards, and tosses in some of the primo social commentary and solid writing Rockstar is famous for, but by and large, remains true to core of Max Payne. Max still has his back to the wall, still has his big mouth and half-hammy and half-hardboiled narration (which is still voiced by the same actor, James McCaffrey), is still a poor judge of character, and still has a major habit of screwing up and making his situation worse long before it comes close to getting better.

Max Payne 3

Like shaving the wrong end of his head once he cleans up. And buying that shirt. I’m pretty sure Helen Keller could hear that thing a mile away.

Of course, Max usually gets away with bumbling planning and poor decision making by being able to kill every last guy in the room before they can reload. The hook is of course, “Bullet Time,” and the version in Max Payne 3 is the best in the biz. The now familiar system has you build up a meter to either manually trigger it for extreme slow motion during normal gunplay, or automatically when you perform one of the fancy “shootdodge” maneuvers where you leap through the air like Chow Yun Fat (minus the doves).

Other than the shootdodge, the entire system works similarly to Red Dead Redemption’s, as it also includes a cover mechanic and Rockstar’s Euphoria physics simulation to allow for some spectacular animation. However, the camera’s pulled back from RDR for a better field of view and there’s a nifty “last stand” ability to the health mechanic to prevent being snuck up on by a mook with a shotgun from being too annoying. Although some aspects (like a critical rolling move) are poorly conveyed and there are more on rails sequences than previous games – which break up the flow but aren’t as fun as the on-foot portions – it’s a great system overall that actually highlights how well Remedy Entertainment made the original MP games, because it actually feels as similar to them as it is to Red Dead.

Max Payne 3

All of this shooting is pretty much as gory as you’d expect. But with slow motion, even blood spray gets to be a bit beautiful!

Speaking of “MP,” Rockstar avoids one of their biggest problems (ponderous length) by making a lean single player story that stylishly moves along at a solid clip, so in order to keep people around, added all sorts of post-game bonuses including an update to the “New York Minute” mode that has you rushing Max through levels on a clock and a fully featured online multiplayer mode that could theoretically be played until the end of time (or at least until Grand Theft Auto 5).

Multiplayer is Call of Duty deep in terms of level progression and features a lot of fresh mechanics amidst mostly stale match types. Not only do they actually manage to include bullet time in a way that’s fair by making it a radius effect, but a lot of the other abilities you unlock for the various gang/mafia/police used for avatars (which have very customizable appearances) are quite clever. One screws up your opponents’ perceptions to entice them to fight each other, another actually makes the quality of their guns worse by breaking causality and having you deal shoddy merchandise in the past. There’s plenty of fun to be had in any game that lets you pull Bill & Ted antics like that.

Max Payne 3

Now you can reenact the modern lawlessness and brutality of still ongoing Brazilian gang wars from the safety of your cushy apartment! Yay!

While such extras are nice and there’s certainly a large contingent of gamers who want ever more ways to shoot people over the internet, it’s not the focus. Multiplayer, even well done multiplayer, doesn’t really matter to the overall quality of this game, just the length of time you’ll play it. What matters most is the story because the story’s about Max.

It isn’t another story about desperation driving a good man to do bad things. Quite to the contrary, the ultimate theme of Max Payne 3 is of Max realizing his true nature. Not that he’s a video game character, he already knew that.

No, Max finally realizes that he’s beyond saving, beyond healing. That it’s time to bury the contradictory belief that he can be a “decent murderer” and so drown in the hopes of who he once was. That what he is, is nothing more than a killer, and he’s damn good at being true to himself, at least in that aspect.

Max Payne 3

It’s safe to say Max doesn’t find much “fun in the sun” while in Brazil. He does find scalp-burn, however.

Frankly, it works because it’s the ugly truth behind not just Max Payne, but most video games that appeal to our inherent lust for violence. It also works well with the theme of redemption Rockstar’s put into their last few protagonists, forming an interesting multi-game meditation on the concept. John Marston in RDR found it temporarily, Cole Phelps of L.A. Noire couldn’t accept it, and Max Payne flat out rejects the notion.

While he might regress and come back with some new tragic chapter to his life, personally, I’d be happy to see this as the last Max Payne game. Max might actually be over his personal conflict and finally moved on. Even if coming to terms with his terrible nature and accepting the monster he’s become is a rather bleak way to find self-acceptance and a measure of, if not peace, then something close to it, it’s still a way to do it.

Besides, it was either this or the sudden stop that occurred when Remedy sold him a decade ago. Depressing as hell, it’s the best end I can think of.

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Max Payne 3 Trailer

  • http://www.ogeeku.com/ DukeKataron

    Neat. Honestly, I’ve been really worried that this game would turn out to be terrible. I played the crap out of the earlier games, especially the first one. Bullet time blew my mind back when it came out. This might actually warrant checking out. Of course, if I do that, I’ll have to play through the first two games beforehand, which I own on Steam anyway. Guess I’ll have to deal with Max’s scrunched up pug face for a bit.

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