Max Payne 3 has sort of gotten lost in the madness of the Diablo III launch, but I want to talk about it! Which is why I was glad to receive this in-depth reader review from Stu Roberts. Be wary, there are mild, mild spoilers ahead!
Take it away Stu!
Max Payne 3
Max Payne has had a difficult life. He’s lost his wife and daughter, been betrayed by trusted allies time and time again, found himself caught in the middle of vile conspiracies and, likely, developed arthritis in his trigger fingers. Max Payne 3 opens with one of gaming’s most appealing anti-heroes languishing in his Brooklyn flat popping pills, drinking Scotch, and taking on suicidal protection missions for a well-connected Brazilian crime family. Wouldn’t you know it, not everything is as it seems and, when it all goes pear-shaped, it’s up to Max to shoot his way through the deception, treachery, and endless waves of enemy foot-soldiers in a relentless quest for truth and redemption. Is it worth us taking up arms for a third time or should Rockstar have just let Max, and the Max Payne license, fade into obscurity?
The presentation: Max Payne has always been a series with a distinctive, dark, noir-inspired atmosphere, and this trend continues cohesively in the latest chapter. The original’s blend of comic-inspired still frames and cut-scenes has been ditched in favour of animated story sequences; however, split-screen transitions and grabs of dialog flashing up on-screen tie the game to the original’s style. Overall, the effect works consistently and adds a unique flavour to the way the plot unfolds. Menus and in-games HUDs are minimalistic and don’t intrude upon the player’s immersion. The slow-motion shots tracking the last bullet of a firefight (and the grisly results) never get old, and it’s all balanced nicely with the occasional splash of Rockstar’s satirical sense of humour.
The Gameplay: Max Payne’s combination of stop-and-pop third-person gunplay with its signature bullet-time mechanics make it a blast to play. You build up your adrenaline meter by killing enemies, which can be activated for intense and satisfying slow-motion shootouts. When Max is close to death, a Borderlands-style Survival mode is activated where you have the opportunity to revive yourself by taking out the enemy who has you in their sights. Occasionally, a kamikaze dive out of cover is the only way to stay alive and the recklessness of these moments is wholly consistent with Max’s characterization. Rockstar mix up the pacing with occasional on-rails sections and cinematic moments where, for example, you’re flung off an exploding vehicle and take out a number of enemies in glorious slow-motion. There’s a real sense of weight to Max’s movements and the guns feel punchy as hell. Weapons are nicely balanced, and ditching an empty rifle to dual-wield uzi’s is endlessly enjoyable. Occasionally Max will get caught on objects or fail to take cover where you want him to, but these moments are rare and easily overlooked.
The Multiplayer: Boasting a broad range of modes and the ability to form crews with your friends, Max Payne 3’s multiplayer is fun, easily accessible, and diverse. Gang Wars especially are a highlight, where scenarios outside of the main storyline are played out across a number of rounds. The perks (“bursts”) you build up by killing people and looting their bodies are well implemented and entirely customizable, and the all-important bullet-time is only experienced by the attacker and their target. Barring a couple of tedious waits during the matchmaking process on PS3, the multiplayer is solid, intense, and, overall, lots of fun. Also, there’s a page in the manual alluding to your crews persisting in GTA:V...
The Sound Design: Everything packs a punch - the bass-driven booms accompanying explosions and bullet-fire really add to the atmosphere. You’ll hear snatches of chatter between enemy troops and ambient noise from the environments ground the game’s context. The voice-acting is consistently top-notch; however, by the end of the game you’ll seriously be sick of Max’s compulsion to narrate his own life. “I needed to find some ammo”, Max will muse, as your gun empties while you cower behind a desk. Really, Max? I hadn’t noticed.
The Visuals: Max Payne 3 is, by far, Rockstar’s prettiest and most polished game to date. The departure from the sandbox nature of GTA and Red Dead Redemption to more linear and controlled environments results in a higher level of detail in the game’s diverse locales, from swanky, high-rise clubs to the dirt and desperation of the Brazilian slums. There’s something immensely satisfying about watching the game’s environments disintegrate during a particularly violent shootout – an element largely absent from games such as Uncharted and Gears of War. Animations are stellar, with enemies reacting realistically to bullet-shots and Max himself having a wide array of side-steps, dives and attacks. The lighting engine has undergone an overhaul since LA Noire, abandoning that game’s constant shininess in favour of a more natural and gritty lighting palette despite the occasional glitches with shadows in cut-scenes. Explosions especially are a highlight - however...
I’m Not Completely Sold On...
The frame-rate: The aforementioned detail comes at a price – on PS3 at least, the game chugs during the more intense firefights and outright crawls during a particularly boom-heavy sequence involving a bus. The game generally runs at a constant 30 frames per second, however, there are moments where a drop in detail could have been forgiven in the service of a solid frame rate. In these adrenaline-fuelled moments, stopping to admire the scenery results in a quick death anyway.
The plot: The story remains interesting and compelling for the first three-quarters of the game, however, once the main story arc is drawing to its conclusion it’s difficult to care about what’s actually happening. Eventually, you just assume everyone is out to kill everyone else and, at the rate pivotal characters meet their demise, it’s hard to get invested in any of the plot’s nuances. It can be argued that this creates a parallel between the player and their avatar; Max is just as oblivious as us, however, this approach doesn’t necessarily serve the storytelling.
The out-of-context quick time events: During cut-scenes you’ll occasionally be required to participate by using simple inputs to block a punch, for example, or to deliver one of your own. They don’t pop up often enough to really annoy, however, they’re rare enough that you can’t anticipate them and they usually result in a checkpoint load. QTE’s can be fun and tense in context but, in Max Payne, they irritate.
Illogical control choices. Down on the D-pad initiates a quick-turn, and the controls for swapping the camera’s view over Max’s shoulder is bound to the left and right buttons on the D-pad, rendering both actions inaccessible when you’re moving (unless you’re a southpaw). This becomes an issue, particularly in multiplayer - I couldn’t help but yearn for Uncharted’s “R3” solution for shoulder-swapping and Resident Evil’s “down-and-a-button” for quick-turns.
Where are my grenades?! Some actions in multiplayer aren’t in the single player! Grenades and a sprint function are par-for-the-course for third person shooters. Rockstar must have decided to leave them out of single-player as a deliberate design choice, but for the life of me I can’t work out what it is.
Max Payne 3 is yet another headshot for Rockstar, who are making somewhat of a habit of acquiring old licenses and breathing new life into them. For fans of the original games and new players alike, Max Payne 3 remains true to the spirit of Remedy’s originals while updating the gameplay and graphics for a contemporary audience; implementing fun, engaging and rewarding multiplayer is just another added bonus. If you like your games tight, chock full of action, violent as all hell and are able to overlook the occasional irritating control and frame rate issues, you could do a lot worse than picking up Max’s latest adventure and helping him decide whether life is worth living after all.