Sunday, May 27, 2012

REVIEW - Max Payne 3.

"If you're still alive in an hour, let's speak again,"
says the plain, bookish-looking cop as he hands a gun to Max Payne.  Max is an old, heavy, strong-and-silent type, but he takes the gift all the same.  He doesn't ask why and the cop doesn't offer to explain - but we get it.  Detective Wilson da Silva - perhaps the only un-bent cop in São Paulo - is also the only person in Max's world who understands what it really means to place a pistol in those very special hands.

Sure, Max is old - but he knows the score.  A soft-spoken, often very polite and empathetic man who's internalized so much.  Sure, Max Payne is an absolute psychopath - numbed by five hundred gallons of whiskey, a thousand bottles of painkillers and the infinite corpses of those who crossed his path - but he is uniquely perfect at doing one thing.

Max Payne suicidally jumps from rooftops and kills every mother fucker within fifty yards before he hits the ground.  Max Payne will bust through the doors of a room full of body-armor-wearing, machinegun-toting paramilitaries with nothing but eight rounds and a casual suit - and he'll be the only one walking out, popping the cap on a bottle of Tylenols as he does.

You can't throw a grenade at him - he shoots them out of the air as a matter of course.  You can't overwhelm him with force of numbers.  Your high-end equipment does you no service, here.  Your military tactics won't win the day.

You can't kill him.  You can't survive him - because once those very special hands find their way to the grip of a firearm, Max Payne makes the impossible possible.

Max Payne 3 brings a great deal of new mechanics and abilities to the table, at odds with the (comparatively) spartan and analog gameplay of his last outing (2003).  Back then, there were only three things you needed to know about Max : he can slow time with a limited resource called Bullet Time, he can leap into the air for a slow-motion Shoot Dodge (aiming and firing as he flies), and if he is exposed to his enemies for any longer than a half-second while not doing either of those things, he will die.

This is how it's always been - and Max 3 adheres to these principles - which puts it in a precarious position.

In the nine years since Max Payne 2, a lot has happened.  Resident Evil 4 happened.  Gears of War and Uncharted happened.  Dead Space and Vanquish happened. The third-person shooter genre has evolved.  It's picked up a few new toys and a few neat tricks - the most pronounced being the ubiquity of cover systems.  Born of the last gen - then an under-ripe, mewling babe of a mechanic - cover-based third-person shooting is now the standard of the form, featured in everything from the open-world Grand Theft Auto 4 to the upcoming Resident Evil 6.  It represented a massive shift in gameplay pacing for all third-person shooters save those that specifically subjected the player to meleeing enemies (Dead Space, Resident Evil 6, Shadows of the Damned.)

Max never had cover.  He didn't need it back in 2003 - but if Max had shown up in 2012, ignoring how far gaming has come in the past nine years, he would have been no better than the egregious Duke Nukem Forever.  If, on the other hand, he had been entirely based in the new mechanics and language of shooters, he would not have been Max.

He had to be both.  At first the cover, the weapons wheel and the occasional rail shooting sequence feel totally at odds with those ten-year-old sensibilities, but over time and given experience, they reveal themselves to be the foundation of a title that is more Max than Max has ever been - if that makes sense.

What those three simple mechanics allowed in 2001 and 2003 - shooting, Bullet Time and Shoot Dodge - was the opportunity for the player to express themselves.  To take a run-of-the-mill parking garage and turn it into a spectacular set piece action sequence that would make John Woo weep with pride.

Max's language was once very simple, and Rockstar has added a great deal to his vocabulary.

As it turns out, a larger vocabulary - well-executed, as it is here - allows the player to be much more expressive, while harder and smarter enemy types make the game a more involving and reactive affair than it was at the dawn of the century.

Here, the old and the new meet, compliment and dovetail into each other beautifully, and join to form something glorious.  Once you've mastered the feel of it, there's nothing like raining blind fire with an LMG from behind cover, building up a precious bit of bullet time, emerging from your shield in slow motion, rattling off three headshots as you break into a run, watching the bullets cut through the environment towards you, tossing the big gun to draw two pistols from your holsters as you launch into a Shoot Dive which sends you crashing through a window (bangbangbangbangbang!), landing behind some cover and snapping on to it as you reload.

Somewhere, a New Jersey mob goon cries "what the fuck are you?!"

It's wonderful.

With (Max 1 and 2 developer) Remedy turning their attention to Alan Wake, it's heartening to know that the stylish, liquid-smooth, expressive feel of Max's gameplay is retained, but a dazzling veneer of Rockstar-quality polish pulls the entire experience to another level.

Here, Rockstar shows they understand well that - noire-y sensibilities aside - Max Payne is an action hero, first and foremost.  He is video gaming's El Mariachi - launching himself backwards off a rooftop, firing two pistols into foes as he falls.  He is our John McClean, morphing from a clean cut fellow into a bruised, battered, bloody wreck over the course of his story.

As such, Max Payne 3 wisely and skillfully transitions through a wonderful variety of gorgeously-realized set pieces, with many recalling the best of Max Payne 2's design and nostalgia while exploiting 3's scale and destructibility. It ping-pongs back and forth in time, revealing our hero at various stages of hitting bottom - which turns out to be an action-packed place - and allows him to beautifully evolve (or devolve) before our eyes.

Clearly, gameplay wasn't the only place Rockstar felt Max needed an update. has been glammed up across the board to reflect modern gaming sensibilities beyond the mechanical. This is a welcome change - particularly in the writing department.

The writing team of Houser, Unsworth and Humphries breathe new, authentic-feeling life into Max's world, maintaining the hero's bleak world view while avoiding the self-indulgent pitfalls of Remedy fame. It's fun - from the dry and very endearing wit of Max himself to the deliciously subtle tells of friends who will be enemies to the casual banter between Max and his partner in death, Raul Passos, making fun of gameplay tropes.

(Max taps a button to call an elevator.)

MAX: "What am I, your button pusher?"

RAUL: "Well, you're so good at it."

(They enter the lift, and Max hits the button for the next floor.)

RAUL: "Good job."

It's sharp, detailed, human and often very funny.

The only place it feels a bit tripped-up is when 3 leans on the gameplay exposition of modern action titles.  James McCaffrey - returning again as Max - delivers a performance that stands comfortably with the best in the business, but even he can't do much with limp, extraneous information like announcing "this is the only way through!"

The game is linear.  I know.  You don't have to remind me that there ain't no goin' back.

Rare hiccups aside, Max 3 presents a very strong story with excellent presentation. Good thing, too - 'cause this game needed one.

Here, the RAGE engine (Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV) is re-purposed in the name of a linear action funhouse.  Levels still feel as huge as they did in 2, though now suffer from the one major flaw the lovely RAGE engine is heir to - absolutely massive load times.

In RDR or GTA, one gargantuan load when you first boot up the game is fine.  Here, every change in chapter is accompanied by a five minute (or longer) load, glossed over by well-written, beautifully-shot and superbly-acted cutscenes.

This is a standard trick in modern linear action games, but most will have a three-minute cutscene hiding a sixty-second load, and after sixty seconds you're free to proceed.  Here, after three minutes, you'll tap X to discover the game is still loading - and thus, it fails the Cooking Network test.

On an initial playthrough, one is so absorbed and entertained by Max's cruel and beautiful story that this is only a blessing and never a curse.  On subsequent playthroughs, I found myself getting to the end of a chapter and switching the TV to the Cooking Network, or just walking away for five or ten minutes.  I'd go phone a friend, have a cigarette, make something to eat, and when I get back I'll find a restart screen waiting for me - each cutscene ends with you in harm's way.

Happily, once you're there the game takes all of five seconds to reload the last checkpoint, but the flaw remains - between chapters, you spend a great deal of time waiting to play Max Payne 3 again.

But I will wait.  As one peels back the layers and comes to a muscle-memory understanding of Max 3's systems, it is a glorious exercise.  I'm on my third playthrough, and as I ramble my way back through each beautifully-rendered set piece I discover that it is - for a moment - my favorite.

I love when the lights come up on the graveyard scene and I instantly toss myself sideways to rattle off two headshots as I fly, popping the final thug in the head as I gather myself to my feet.

I love launching myself from the catwalk overlooking the bus in the process of being detailed, twisting sideways to take out the two armored U.F.E. thugs beneath me before raining fire through the windshield of the bus and crashing to the ground in a hail of glass shards.

I love it, I love it, I love it.  Here we have an instant and wholly modern classic.

Max Payne 3 is currently one of - and perhaps the - best game of 2012, in competition only with the polarizing Mass Effect 3.  Production values are excellent across the board, with strong performances from the entire cast. It boasts sharp, detailed environments, vicious enemy AI and a fun, affecting, involving story which deeply endears you to the protagonist.

Max Payne the man - drug addict, problem drinker, psychopath, killer - is lovably far from perfect, but Max Payne 3 is incredibly close.  Yes, there are audio bugs here and there and yes, the game's load times are epic - but like Max Payne the man, it is uniquely perfect at one thing.

Any fan of action gaming should look to the example of Detective Wilson da Silva.  Take the time to really understand what it means when you put a gun in those very special hands.

You won't regret it.

  • Liquid, tactical, incredibly fast-paced gameplay for a title that sells itself on time slowing down.  If you're playing, and the game seems too hard?  Be more aggressive.  Every other game with cover mechanics has conditioned us to play very conservatively - and while you always have to be mindful of your placement, I found whenever I was having a problem with any section, this little voice in my head would whisper "you're not being aggressive enough." The answer was to do something awesome/crazy/suicidal - which ends up being the most gorgeous, cinematic way to do it and leaves you without a scratch. 
  • really, the gameplay gets two - for this one I'll say 'expressive' 
  • James McCaffrey as Max is excellent, and he leads a cast of uniformly high quality
  • sharp, fun, funny, moving writing
  • a metric ton of varied and beautiful set pieces
  • I enjoyed the story much more than Payne 1 or 2 
  • bald Max is awesome Max.  Never thought I'd feel that way
  • the soundtrack by Health is amazing
  • intensely detailed environments
  • it's like playing a John Woo movie
  • the South American setting pays huge dividends, from the ever-pleasing variety in environments to Max's language barriers with the locals
  • Very well-designed.  Take the rail-shooting sequence on a boat, for example.  At first it's like "Goddamnit, I hate rail shooting!" but later it's like "ohhh by forcing me to not use cover or the Shoot Dodge, you've made me focus on Bullet Time all on its own, and I've emerged from this with a deeper understanding of the mechanic."  Nice.
  • ultrastylish
  • I love the very cinematic final kill cams - particularly the ones that fire during a Shoot Dodge - and the amount of control the player has during them
  • rock, rock hard - in the good way
  • excellent presentation across the board; the lighting engine is very impressive
  • there's multiplayer, I hear.  Folks are saying good things about it. 
  • loved the ending
  • the single-player portion has tons of replayability - lots of collectibles to find and alternate game modes
  • I really appreciate all the little touches - and there are too many to list
  • I put one or two hundred hours into Max Payne 2's single-player, and I expect I'll do the same here

  • those load times are epic, but it was nice of them to cover them up with such entertaining cutscenes
  • there's this one cutscene where the audio always screws up 
  • I shouldn't have to play a game on Hard mode to understand how excellent it is.  Rockstar, you should have made Normal mode harder!
Max Payne 3 is uniquely perfect at one all-important thing, and excellent at pretty much everything else.  Buy it.


  1. Hm. Wow. I'm going to have to pick this up. I enjoyed MP1 and loved MP2 to death (I felt as though, even though they both had this intentionally cheesy noir-vibe, 2 ratcheted everything up and was a huge turning point in big budget, big-hype game storytelling, and it was so damn fun).

    I still have to finish ME3 (school, Diablo 3, and other PS3 excursions like Journey and MLB 12 have gotten in the way), but after that, I'll get to Max, per your recommendation.

  2. Btw: including a track at the top of the review to have playing in the background while reading was a wonderful and unique touch. It meant a lot more than seeing "Sound: 9/10" or something in a review and being forced to just take the reviewer's word for it.

  3. Good review. I enjoyed reading it, even though I totally, 100% disagree. I found Max Payne 3 to be a - well, maybe not a "horrible" game, but a disappointment, to say the least. Its gameplay was clunky and just not thought through and while playing I had the feeling Rockstar didn't understand at all what the Max Payne series stood for. A shame, really.

    Still, good review.

  4. Thank you! I found Max 3 to be less accessible than 1 or 2, but given time with its systems I stand by the review. It feels very, very comfortable and elegant to me.

    I continued putting a great deal of time into it since writing the review, and I mean to do up a second one. I'm pretty surprised by how polarizing MP3 has been - my biggest gripe remains the amount of time you have to wait between gameplay when going through story mode or chapter select.

  5. I had a lot more to criticise - pretty much everything save for graphics, voice acting and overall presentation. I did a review of my own on a site I'm writing for, but it's not in English and the Google translation is horribly wrong, so I won't link it here.

    If Max Payne 3 was released back in, say, 2006, it would have been a stunning game. Unfortunately, it's 2012 and we got more cover-based TPS on the market than we ever wanted - Max Payne 3 just can't keep up. The genre moved way ahead, and Rockstar just decided not to notice. Seriously - every single modern TPS released this year, from Binary Domain to Mass Effect 3 or Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, works better than Max Payne 3.

    The cover mechanics feel especially outdated. You have to leave cover to get around corners, you have to stand up and run to another piece of cover because there's no rush, jump or roll feature to quickly switch between cover (like even the first Gears of War had). You can't simply slide into cover when lying on the ground, you have to stand up and get shot. The list goes on. It's clunky and becomes tiring and frustrating fast. And that's just ONE point of critizism - one of many. This game had so many big and small flaws and design errors it made me wanna throw the disc in the trash sometimes during my first playthrough (on Normal).

    I usually am able to see why people like games I'm not into (like World of WarCraft). I can see their reasons, even though I don't agree with them - but the praise Rockstar got for this one is beyond my understanding. I respect your opinion, really, but it makes me genuinely curious (like every other positive MP 3 review I've read) because it's like I experienced a totally different game.

  6. Well... take the issues with the cover system, for example. If you're lying on the ground next to cover, you don't have to tap the analog stick to move to get up and then go into cover - just tap the cover button, and Max will gather himself into cover. When moving between cover, there's a run (hold down X) and a roll (tap X when running), but for the most part - I found - you don't need it.

    As a general rule - much like Max Payne 1 and 2 - you shouldn't be out of cover if you're not using bullet time. Any time you're exposed, you'll get your ass shot off.

    For me, all that was ever necessary was a single non-bullet-time kill. This would give me enough bullet time to basically stay in bullet time long enough to finish any combat sequence.

    My friend Chamberlain had a similarly disappointed reaction to Payne 3 - and he describes it in much the same fashion you do - to the point that yes, it's like we're playing two very different games. The game I played was - load times aside - an absolute pleasure.