It has been ten long years since we have seen an installment in Remedy’s (now developed by Rockstar) neo noir opus: Max Payne. It is known for a violent, yet sophisticated storytelling which resonated with many PC gamers. But for reasons unbeknownst to this writer, the story has shifted to a South American political wasteland where none of the comforts of the previous experiences seem to be present. While the smooth gameplay, superb audio presentation, and beautiful graphics are all accounted for, the soul of Max is all but gone.
I want to turn your attention to an important issue that seems to slowly become commonplace in big budget games, and more importantly, IP’s that have excellent source material like Max Payne: storyline pandering. Back in the burgeoning days of 3D gaming, the original Max Payne (developed by Remedy Entertainment) was a gritty, engrossing police opera that was well-received for it’s close to home storytelling and fluid gameplay which set standards in gunplay mechanics for years to come. Max Payne 2 kept with its predecessors strengths and once again delivered a polished experience with an excellent story to boot. Yet Rockstar has decided to scrap a majority of the main source material and instead stick Max in a world that does not feel cohesive with the series in the least.
Players find themselves thrust into South America, where Max has taken a job protecting a wealthy family that is constantly under fire from drug cartels attempting to seize their power and control over the region. The introduction sequence to the game is impressive: Max drunkenly stumbling over himself while narrating a self-medicated and pathetic monologue lamenting the events that had brought him to this point in his life. One of the greatest strengths the series retained was the weakness that Max succumbed to. This appealed to our inner humanity, we have all dealt with death, and even obsession and addiction at one point and time in our lives, and this trait gives the player a lifeline to Max’s character. If anything, it made him a believable character who you did not have to love, but understood his struggles with the same demons which manifest themselves in all of us. Unfortunately, the visceral reality of addiction and pain seems to take a backseat for a majority of the game due to the fact that since the story is set in another country, the acclimation is undoubtedly foreign to a majority of us, and does not mesh very well with the setting. Where comic book strips with voice backing presenting neo noir is a classy and appropriately dirty fashion was once a driving narrative force, there are now broken English-speaking one-percenters whining about not wanting to die.
This, to me, is a major strike against the game. One of the main selling points of the series was the engaging neo noir setting that placed players in the gritty underbelly of American politics within different organizations. But now we find ourselves in a country that does not evoke any type of connection from the atmosphere that draws in the player. Globe-trotting in an American mental illness horror story does nothing for fans of the series, it only proves the point that Max Payne 3 is a game where the story was tailored to players based on market research on what is popular right now. This represents a decisive shift in which audience Rockstar was trying to capture. There is a problem when I am decidedly uninterested with the main antagonists, or what’s more, they seems to just be a revolving door of racial stereotypes that appeal to the American blood thirst that glorifies the killing of Iraqis/Afghanis/Cartels/Gangs in general. There is no humanity given to these people, it just becomes a shooting gallery of South American residents who are not too fond of a “fat gringo” wandering around their favelas toting machine guns. That last line is not a joke, I am literally paraphrasing Max’s running description of his situation during different parts of the game.
Thankfully, there are faint glimmers of hope that manage to claw their way through the mass-produced storyline that really grabbed me. Not to spoil too much, but players will find themselves back behind the leopard-print tie that started it all. The story takes us to the events following after Max Payne 2, where Max is drowning his sorrows at a dive bar on the wrong side of Hoboken, NJ. The perpetual, almost trademark, winter that breeds sorrow and defines the series permeates the mood in this section as players quickly find themselves on the wrong side of a gun. Even though segments like these felt like a shout-out to long time fans like myself, they quickly retract in fear of losing their core audience who may not have been old enough to experience the original games.
Speaking of the past, it is important to remember Max Payne was one of the first games to effectively employ “bullet-time” gameplay made wildly popular by The Matrix in 1999. Remedy perfected a concept that was introduced in film form, and this was before Enter The Matrix released with the actual creators of the concept behind the scenes. Needless to say, I was a bit wary of a dated mechanic that undoubtedly oversaturated the market in the not too distant past. Surprisingly, it feels almost refreshing to return to bullet time, almost akin to returning to the simple jump and run mechanics of Super Mario World after such a long stay in 3-Dimensional platformers.
Gunplay is fast and fierce, and just like in the first two games, you must successfully hit enemies in order to charge your bullet time meter. Levels have been designed in a way where you are not constantly marred with awkward positions in order to make your diving as smooth as possible. A good example of this is one section that takes place in a hallway: an enemy pops out from cover ahead of you, and your first reaction is to dive. There are vending machines to your right, so your reflexes automatically revert to going right, which conveniently sends you crashing through a closed door and right into cover. it is a careful balance of making the player feel good while evoking the necessary survival instincts that are instilled very early on. Even on Normal mode, putting yourself in a bad situation is most likely going to get you killed, as the game takes no prisoners to poor planning. As much as you want to slow down the action and fly through the air like Superman with an AK-47, sitting behind a wall and sniping away at crazed gangsters is most likely your best solution.
This is not to say the game is not without faults when it comes to negotiating Max once he enters bullet time, as I have found myself crashing into walls simply because there was no logical place to go when trying to find cover and bullet time was my only option. There are also quite a few cover bugs that break the experience. At various junctures I was in search of cover in a firefight, and Max’s body will contort into ridiculous and comical positions that will not rectify until I exited cover. His arms would wrap around his head in impossible ways and fire wildly while trying to rectify its positioning.
There is sufficient variety when it comes to weapons within the game, and the limited arsenal returns once again to force players to evaluate what they feel they need to move forward. The game does a very good job of staying consistent with the selection provided to the player at certain points. You would not be provided with a shotgun unless the level actually dictated a rational reason to use one, and handguns pack enough accuracy and punch that a player can skillfully navigate tough areas with two pistols. There are some areas that desperately need to be adjusted in terms of difficulty, as one portion of a level later in the game is so one-sided that it is almost pure luck that you make it through. Personally, I had to die a handful of times in order for the game to give me more painkillers (a death handicap) so that I could survive. There are a handful of other spotty areas that are in need of some balancing, but nothing that you cannot get through with some will-power.
The real winners in this game are sound and visual design. On a proper machine, such as the one I am currently running (which is in no way expensive), the game is a feast for the eyes. While some may argue the bloom effect runs a bit rampant, it is quite fitting in an environment where you could fry an egg on the blacktop. There will be quite a few times where you will want to sit back and soak in the detail that has been given to every single area. I never felt like I was walking through a level using recycled textures and pathways. Character models are top notch, watching the opening cinematic of Max haphazardly destroying his living space while drunk is one of the best looking depictions of alcoholic depression, and it is simply hypnotizing. These moments, small glimpses into the psyche into Max Payne which are coupled with such incredible modeling technology really bring the character to life. A living, breathing embodiment of a person trapped in a prison of his own mind with the desperate hope of returning to a previous life is represented so well, so believable, but is unfortunately buried under the predictable filler of the main story.
James McCaffrey returns once again to fulfill his role as our self-loathing hero, and he continues to provide us with a top-notch performance from beginning to end. Rockstar has always had a very keen ability to fill a game with excellent voice actors, and Max Payne 3 is no exception. Thankfully, the majority of the experience is filled listening to the internal musings of Max peppered with occasional, but believable, interactions between other characters. Musically, the game is nothing short of astounding. There is a careful balance struck between Greg Edmonson (Uncharted series) and Jack Wall (Mass Effect series), and what has been produced is a heart-pounding audio journey that undoubtedly cause your blood pressure to rise a bit in certain situations. Most importantly, there is an incredibly defining musical moment towards the end of the game that borrows heavily from their masterpiece Red Dead Redemption, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because it fits so well.
One part of this review that I undoubtedly was not looking forward to was the multiplayer. Max Payne is not a series that I played because I wanted to engage with my friends in a painkiller munching frenzy, no, it was because I wanted to roam abandoned apartment buildings alone while listening to the vicious and insane ramblings of squatters. I was surprised to find I had quite a good time in standard deathmatch scenarios. Like in Call Of Duty, the more time that you invest in the game, the more options in character models and other perks open up, but all weapons choices are universal and revolve around which role you want to play in the match. This is an excellent way for new players to ease into the experience, rather then be bombarded by veteran players who have unlocked stronger weapons.
Something I did not expect was the ability to use bullet time while in a multiplayer match. I was under the impression that technology to balance a server-side multiplayer game using time-altering mechanics would be too much technological stress, but here it is in all its glory. Players in a limited area are affected by the slowing effect, which brings some dramatic moments to what normally would be a sterile experience. Planning out and triggering bullet time correctly is an immensely satisfying experience in what I had previously thought was going to be a tacked-on feature to push more copies of the game.
One thing that I am in no way impressed by is the insistence of employing the Rockstar Social Club, which is essentially a tangentially related second cousin to Games For Windows Live! In no way to I want to have to give my name and information to a server just so that I can save my game. Such an arbitrary and unnecessary system is just another intrusive system solely designed to sell DLC to players, or just to place it in their faces so that they cannot forget about it every time they start up the game. Gamers do not want social media, Steam provides all of the messaging and group possibilities they need to begin with, so why must they be hassled to use a service that provides the same exact service in a obnoxiously intrusive way? In fact, the Social Club’s intrusion was so out of hand that it was removed from GTAIV due to a massive outcry against it. Put bluntly, this is a trend that needs to stop, now.
There is no doubt in my mind that Max Payne 3 is a good game, it has everything that someone could want in a third-person shooter. There is a challenging and lengthy campaign, beautiful visuals, an engaging soundtrack, excellent voice acting, and pacing that keeps the player involved. What is missing here is the soul of the Max Payne experience, the essence of what made the first two games so damn compelling. The addiction, the depression, the engrossing reality that some of us face every day was presented in such a believable fashion that it begged for a proper novel to accompany it. What we have now is a detached experience that pulls that personal feeling away from the player, like travelling to a foreign country where you do not understand the language, it is hard to get a grasp on how to react to certain situations.
To be concise: Max Payne is a good game, but it is not a good Max Payne game.
Is It Worth Your Money?
This installment of the Max Payne series should have followed in the footsteps of Serious Sam: BFE. Could they have charged $60 for their product? Sure, but instead they went with a very fair $40 due to the fact that it wasn’t exactly designed to be a cash cow. Rockstar’s heavy promotion of a game on the same level as their AAA titles like GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption to a new audience most likely required a higher price point to recoup those costs. If I was asked to pay $40 for an IP that had lost most of its former charm, but retained it’s excellent gameplay, then I would feel it was justified at that price point. My advice is to simply wait until it goes on sale and pick it up at a more acceptable price.
Max Payne 3 Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 10 hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes. (Detailed Report via WSGF)
- 5.1 Audio Support – Yes
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – Yes.
- Control Scheme – Mouse & Keyboard, full XBOX360 controller support
- DRM – Steamworks
- System Specs – AMD X2 Phenom 3.1, 4GB RAM, RADEON HD 7770
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam, Amazon, Green Man Gaming, GamersGate
- Demo – No
Editor’s Note: At the time of this publishing, Max Payne 3 is on sale via Steam for $40.19. The price could further drop as the Steam Summer Sales event continues until July 22nd.