Max Payne 3 ReviewOmar Elaasar
It wasn't going to end well. As we are reintroduced to Max Payne we hear him promise himself a new life, away from the history of his past. A promise quickly thrown against the walls, drowned in drink, and numbed away with painkillers. Welcome back, Max.
This time Max's tribulations find him working as bodyguard for the wealthy Branco family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Things go bad of course, and the wife of the Branco patriarch is kidnapped. It always starts with a woman.
The chase sends Max off from one location to another, stretching out the limited time he has in slow motion, dual pistols in hand. This is a thoroughly modern Max. Rockstar's slick cinematics and integration of the events of the plot into the game push relentlessly forward from one location to another. It's perhaps here that the hand of Remedy, the studio behind the original two games, is missed. In their best moments, the first two games were like a Mars Volta album: filled with droning atmospheres, surrealistic allusions, and punctuated by stiflingly intense pockets of chaos. Max Payne the Third is instead a product of an era of videogame blockbusters, filled with grand set pieces and mechanics that audiences expect from the genre, and will probably feel a bit familiar to players of the Uncharted series. Ever run through a burning building as mercs without a proper sense of self-preservation fire at you?
It's a bit revealing of where the series stands now. The first two games were technological marvels at the time. The first game introduced us to bullet time, an unexplored mechanic at the time, which now proliferates shooters. The second refined it, and was one of the first games to introduce ragdoll physics, which saw both Max and his enemies fly through the air realistically upon death. What's left for this third outing but for Rockstar to refine it to a point?
With that in mind, Rockstar has done precisely that. The Euphoria physics engine previously seen in GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption makes a comeback, providing fluid and naturalistic animations while still allowing you to maintain precise control of the gunplay. Overall, it lends itself effortlessly to the world of Max Payne. Bullets can be dodged by activating slow motion and scraping past the storm of bullets, or leaping through the air, guns in hand. Either will highlight the animation systems at play. Characters will twist and contort themselves into positions to maintain a clear shot while navigating the environment, and react and collapse to every object and shot fired. A particularly cathartic technique lets you, for instance, shoot the legs of enemies in slow motion, dropping them to the floor and lining their heads into your crosshairs for an instant kill.
The kills are spectacularly brutal as well. The series' signature kill cam returns, slowing down and cutting to a shot of the last enemy as your bullets pierce their bodies, complete with gaping entry wounds and hemorrhaging exit wounds. It feels cruel and violent, and at times might make you feel a bit queasy, especially since holding down the trigger during the sequence allows you to riddle their corpse with bullets until your clip runs out. Though you'll probably be less sympathetic when you receive the same treatment, gaping eye wounds and all. To prevent that, Max will need to be supplied with a steady stream of painkillers, which relieve him from any of the damage sustained in gunfights, presented in a silhouette that quickly fills with blood when shot. It's a clever mechanic, both thematically and mechanically. It means you never need to slow down to patch yourself up, because for Max, that is an unaffordable luxury.
Rockstar has also cleverly solved the problem present in previous entries of the series, where mistiming or forgetting to use painkillers at an appropriate moment would lead to a sloppy death. Here, taking the final bullet with a pill in possession sees the Last Man Standing mechanic kick in: Max collapses, the world slows down, and the camera zooms in on your would be killer. Get a round into them and they'll receive your fate, with Max coming to, collapsed on the floor. It's brilliant and seamless, preventing the frustration of being sent back to a checkpoint for being a second too late with the painkillers.
This is where the Euphoria engine reveals a new frustration. For every seamless recovery, slick slow motion set piece, and dramatic kill, there will be an occasion where failure simply isn't your fault.
Whether it's the fact that Max snaps out of slow motion upon hitting an obstacle while shoot-dodging, or that Max's collapse upon exiting Last Man Standing leaves him open to gunfire and likely forces you to take another painkiller to relieve the damage inflicted while recovering from the fall. Additionally, while mostly void of the awkwardness of navigating indoor spaces that plagued GTAIV and Red Dead, Max will occasionally take a second to properly reorient himself, not responding as quickly as you'd like to move in another direction or take cover.
Ah, that cover mechanic! Let's talk about for a while, eh? No doubt purists, myself included, will decry the inclusion of such a loathed modern mechanic. Max Payne is not a series known for shootouts that occur between two sets of chest high walls. To Rockstar's credit, cover feels natural for the direction they've taken with the series, and the game is still at its best when kicking in bullet time and gunning down multiple enemies before you hit the floor. Cover crumbles, and is generally a temporary reprieve from enemy fire to get your bearings and pop a painkiller. However, during the second half of the game cover becomes more necessary, as enemies come in larger numbers, equipped with body armor that negates your life saving, instant killing headshots, and are generally much better armed than you. You'll find yourself diving away from grenades, which Rockstar kindly denies you throughout the entire singleplayer, and the all too familiar weapon limit returns, which limits you to two single-handed weapons and a single two-handed one, which gets dropped if you decide to dual wield.
For the most part, all of it works. When it doesn't, you'll be reminded of all the modern mechanics that it seemed Rockstar felt inclined to include. On rails shooting sections, the singular quick time event, sniping set pieces. Too often Max Payne 3 feels like a checklist for modern shooters, and it all comes off as rather derivative. Whereas Remedy's Max Payne used modern technology to present a convoluted film noir tale, leading the way and standing out with bizarre trips to the inner parts of Max's mind, funhouse antics, and a sense of self-awareness, Rockstar presents a character study of man in a downward spiral, living in a world void of morals. While the downward momentum and breathless pace of the action are compelling enough to drive you to finish the story, they lack the character of previous entries. Max is a vastly changed man, and much more difficult to relate to, and the other characters remain vague strokes of personalities, none of them likeable. Aside from a few throwaway references to the events of the second game, you could even be forgiven for thinking that Max Payne 3 occurred in an alternate history where the events of Max Payne 2 never transpired, and Max was crushed under his traumas. In fact, the overall set up of the game, and a single choice line seem to invalidate the second game's events entirely.
These are of course troubles only to die hard fans of the series. For everyone else, Max Payne 3 is a highly refined, exhilarating plummet to an explosive climax, punctuated by fluid gunplay and relentless violence. You'll release the trigger, and it will be all over. The final moments an exclamation mark to everything that lead there.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
Omar Elaasar is an hobbyist artist, writer, and game developer, and is dedicated to playing obscure games in order to maintain his status as a most pretentious hipster.
About the Author: Omar Elaasar
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