It's been almost 10 years since I last had a chat with my good friend, Max Payne. We were kindred spirits of the early noughties, almost inseparable in those early years. But a lot has changed in the world. Time had played a nasty trick on all of us, because as the years steamrolled by, I grew balder, fatter and increasingly cynical. Not even nostalgia could work her magic. And then, the news broke: Max Payne was in town. He wasn't with his old crew, Remedy Entertainment any more. Apparently, he jumped ship and was now hanging out with his new posse, a strange band of mercenaries, rogues and misfits, called Rockstar Games. I had it on good authority that they were a decent bunch, but the word on the street was that they were probably a little too daring for some sensibilities. On the other hand, I thought that Max needed the push. He needed to get back in the game, even if it meant throwing his middle-aged body through a window, or piling up the body count, like John McClane in Die Hard.
I was eager to see my old friend again. I dusted off the old late-1990s-era black trench coat, and went to meet up with him in a bar. And there he was, a drink in one hand, and a cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth. I didn't recognise him at first. He looked so incredibly old. It was clear that life had continued to deal him sour grapes. Max had never recovered from his wife and child's murder. It was also a topic I had learnt to never bring up during discussions. You know how it is with us old school guys, we never talk about our feelings. He looked at me and said "Jim, I went to São Paulo". I quickly ordered a whiskey and tried to lighten the mood by saying, "If there was ever anyone who needed to pack it all in for the babes, Brazilian night life or Rio's beaches, it's you Max". He just stared into his drink, and sighed "It wasn't a vacation...".
It's been a while since an action game has captured my imagination this much. Max Payne 3 hammers your senses with a solidly-paced story. It's not entirely perfect, and there were a few times that I thought that far too much inspiration was taken from Denzel Washington's 2004 flick, Man on Fire. Or maybe, someone at Rockstar thought it would be a nice touch to add a fitting tribute in memory of author, A.J Quinnell. Nevertheless, Max Payne's adventure in Brazil, and the sordid corrupt political quagmire he finds himself in, is expertly told. The gaps are filled in through exposition, as Max weighs in on the complex tale, through plenty of voice-over narration.
The various elements blend seamlessly, from Max's self-depreciating comments (during the voice-overs), to his shabby clothing and battle-worn features. It almost feels like the game is subtly mocking the flawless, square-jawed, All-American action hero archetype. From the start, you're shown how sad and pathetic he has become. Years of alcoholism and an addiction to prescription drugs have left him worse for wear. Worst of all, his judgement has become impaired, but it all serves as a springboard for an incredible story. You can't help but want to see if he redeems himself, or whether his drinking is slowly edging him towards ruin. It's possibly one of the best applications of schadenfreude in a video game to date (or maybe I'm just one sick puppy). I wanted to see how the game's story unfolds, and more importantly whether he would finally be able to move on, or whether his personal demons would drag him down into the dark abyss. Since the story deals primarily with a kidnapping, Max's personal struggles have broader ramifications, and you're left wondering whether he's actually fit or compos mentis for the task at hand.
Much like with the previous games, Max Payne 3 is a linear third person shooter. Our hero is proficient with almost every gun imaginable, whether its sniper rifles, shotguns, assault rifles or even handguns. And yes, in typical John Woo-fashion, Max is deadly when dual-wielding handguns and submachine guns (SMGs), especially when paired with the series' other trademark gameplay addition, Bullet Time. Bullet Time allows players to temporarily slow down time. This allows Max to dodge bullets, and to rain lead on unsuspecting enemies. The player can activate Bullet Time to initiate a thrilling slo-mo dive, or even while standing still, but there's nothing quite as satisfying as leaping (in slo-mo) off a flight of stairs, and turning your enemies into Swiss cheese. I'm not sure what it says about me, but this gameplay mechanic may not be as fresh as the new cover system, but it remains one of my favourites. Surviving the later stages of the game or even the more advanced difficulties, requires you to make ample use of the new covering system. Your enemies will actively try to outflank you, and on the harder difficulty settings, finding the right balance between finding cover and unleashing Bullet Time becomes a necessity.
Visually, Max Payne 3 is simply breathtaking. The amount of detail in the environments and even for the characters are mind-blowing. The game shifts from flashy nightclubs, to grimy Brazilian favelas (informal settlements) and everything in between with the utmost of ease. Max himself changes before our very eyes, as his clothing becomes soiled and bloodstained, and for a second I even thought he had undergone a physical transformation. There's also an incredible soundtrack that keeps you grounded, and firmly believing that what you're experiencing is actually a 11 to 15 hour long interactive movie. All of which is complimented with exceptional voice acting from James McCaffrey (as Max). The only aspect that became really annoying was the strange flashing lighting effects that kicked in every once in a while during cut-scenes. While the intention is presumably to show Max's impaired mental state (owing to his drug and alcohol abuse), the effect is for a lack of a better word, unpleasant.
The biggest surprise of Max Payne 3 has to be the multiplayer. There's been a disturbing trend amongst traditionally story-oriented single-player games to add on an extra multiplayer mode. The result has been mixed so far, with some games benefiting greatly from the addition and others merely throwing in a few uninspired co-op modes to keep the peanut gallery quiet. Max Payne 3 does make use of the now almost staple (in multiplayer circles) of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, but it doesn't just end there. There are also Payne Killer and Gang Wars (with hardcore variants of all the modes that can be unlocked after slaughtering 5000 miserable souls online). Payne Killer is a clever variant on Team Deathmode (with a hint of the Horde mode found in other games). In this mode, two players can play as either Max or his trusty sidekick, Passos, while everyone else has to work as a team to stop them. The player who manages to kill either Max or his friend (or whoever deals the most damage during a team effort) becomes the next Max or Passos. Points are awarded for damaging or killing them, however if you really want to accumulate a decent points total, you have to show off your killing prowess as Max Payne or his buddy. I should mention that Max and Passos have superior health and firepower, but with your enemies constantly at your heels, the only way to survive is to stick close to your teammate. Whoever has the most points at the end gets bragging rights and is declared the winner. Gang Wars is an objective-based multiplayer extravaganza, that puts you in the shoes of one of the various factions found in the game. With the help of your team you're required to complete a series of mission objectives. These may include assassinating a member of the opposing team, defending checkpoints, planting bombs or even just slaughtering each other in a quick game of elimination deathmatch. Each map has its own faction-based story, that indirectly ties in with events from the main game's story. What's really impressive is that each game has a random set of mission objectives. These are mutable and can change with each game. If a team is being steamrolled into oblivion, the objectives for the next mission may be more in their favour. It's an attempt to give the underdog a fighting chance.
However, this brings up two of my biggest complaints of the multiplayer. While Gang Wars tries to alleviate imbalances in teams, the same can't be said for general matchmaking. At present, the experience isn't "newcomer friendly", because those who are familiar with the multiplayer maps will actively take advantage of the game's rotating map spawning system. Having said that, there is a counter to spawn-camping, with an ability to allow you to see where your enemies are on the map, however, this is well out of reach for your average level 1. The other issue relates to weapon imbalances. While dual-wielding is definitely a feature that is iconic to Max Payne, it does pose a problem in the multiplayer. It's not the dual-wielding per se, but rather the simple fact that hand guns are ridiculously overpowered (compared to automatic rifles, shotguns and their ilk). This is particularly true at range. It runs contrary to what you'd expect, but if you can easily take out a sniper on a roof with a pistol from afar, you know something is not right.
Apart from the issues above, the multiplayer proves to be addictive and ridiculously entertaining. There are elements that those who have ventured online with Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto IV will instantly recognize, however, Max Payne 3 is eager to carve out its own path. For one thing, the game allows for customisation of your online avatar. There are 6 different factions, and each one can be customised as you gain levels during online play. This includes changing clothing items, to even setting up specific weapon loadouts for different occasions. Specific weapons can be customised as well, with various attachments that can be unlocked and added as you play. There is also a chance to unlock and equip specific items and even body armour. However, there is a weight limit to how much you can carry so you have to carefully consider what you can take into battle. It's a mini-game in itself to decide whether you should take an additional handgun, or drop them completely for a rifle (and less protective gear). There are also specific abilities (bursts) that can be equipped. These grant a special three-tiered skill that can be used once you've gained enough adrenaline. Fortunately, kills net you adrenaline, and you can even gain it from looting the recently departed.
Max Payne 3 is definitely a must-buy for fans of the series. It'll even thrill those unfamiliar with the previous games, or those who might be eager to experience an action game with a flair for the cinematic. The developers have clearly not forgotten the core fans of the series, but Max Payne 3 could easily have been a reboot. It effortlessly manages to be a perfect launchpad for newcomers. While the game ships with a meaty amount of single-player modes, the multiplayer is a pleasant surprise. It offers an almost flawless experience, except for some balancing and matchmaking issues.
- Solidly-paced story
- Impressive visuals
- Sterling soundtrack
- Gang Wars
- Matchmaking (online) desperately needs an overhaul
- Epileptic fit inducing lighting effects during cut-scenes
- Minor graphical glitches