Max Payne 2 came out nearly a decade ago, and things have changed quite a bit since then. Enough time has passed that a radically different Max Payne was in order, and the character of Max has changed as well as the game. Max is much older and has been spending most of his time at the bottom of a bottle since we last saw him.
Two key components remain from earlier Max Payne games. The first is Max’s inner dialog, which is the main focus of the storytelling throughout Max Payne 3. The second is Max’s ability to shoot-dodge which slows time down to a crawl as Max leaps through the air and puts bullets into as many enemies as he can draw a bead on. This time-slowing mechanic stops when Max hits the ground, and it takes a second or two for him to stagger to his feet. The end result can either be clearing out the room or floundering on the ground as a baddy pumps bullets into you. There is also a straight bullet time mode that you can toggle on and off, but the effect drains quickly and lacks the excitement of the shoot-dodge.
The combat is tense and exciting. It took me a little time to get the hang of it, but it was extremely rewarding to feel myself getting better at the gunplay as I went along. Rockstar Games usually isn’t known for having tight mechanics, but they have delivered easily the best shooting of any of their games so far. The AI of the enemies is tuned to make you keep moving. If you try to stay in cover, they will flank you or charge right in. The result is that you need to run and gun, which is absolutely perfect for Max Payne, and a nice change from the cover-based shooters that are so common these days.
Another concept that remains from earlier times is that Max’s health won’t regenerate. He can only get it back through taking pain killers, which can be found throughout most areas. Max will usually reward you with a quip when he scavenges yet another bottle of pills. Max will be popping pills on the regular, and when he does there is an instant or two of heavy video noise and blurring that is the signature look of the game.
If Max has any painkillers on him when he dies, he gets one last chance to take out his killer, reviving himself in the process. Max will use up a bottle of pills, and any bullet time he might have had stored up, but he gets to carry on. You are also rewarded(?) with a slow motion scene of your attacker being shot.
The graphic violence of the game could end up being a turn off, even for jaded video game players. Whenever you clear a room, you follow the bullet from the last killing shot as it leaves Max’s gun. The final enemy is shown being shot in slow motion, and depending on where he is hit, you might see gouts of blood pouring from his body, or his head being blown apart. You also have the option of pressing a button to further slow time, and beyond even that, you have the option to continue pulling the trigger to put more bullets into the man. It’s excessive, but I have to admit that after a particularly hard area, I may have pulled the trigger a few extra times.
The number of enemies you will take out over the course of the game is itself alarming. Rockstar Games presents you with such a realistic and believable world that it makes you question how one man could possibly be murdering so many people. Max makes reference to the situation himself, pointing out that he isn’t facing a gang, but an army. I’m not sure how many people I took out over the course of the game, but I know I had over 1,000 headshots. I’m not sure how you make such an action heavy game more realistic, but I wouldn’t mind shaving a few hours off of the 12 or so that I played in exchange for a less ridiculous bodycount.
Rockstar Games has pulled quite the trick with Max Payne 3. They made a game that seems like it should be well out of their comfort zone. It isn’t an open world game; in fact, it is completely linear. It remains very true in feeling to the games developed by Remedy so many years ago, and yet, it somehow manages to be a Rockstar game through and through. São Paulo – where most of the game takes place – feels alive and full of character. The dichotomy between the posh nightclubs and the desperate favelas only adds to the feeling.
Rockstar’s thumbprint is visible throughout the stylish presentation. Everything from the gritty film grain to the comic book story frames to important phrases of dialog skittering onto the screen. Max’s spiral down into his own anguish is made completely believable. He despises the people he works for, he despises himself and he doesn’t even begin to understand his surroundings where he can’t understand the language. Rockstar crafts an experience that makes it impossible not to pity Max, but at the same time root for his redemption.
For people who need more than a single player experience in their $60 games, there is also an arcade mode that will let you pit your times against your friends. In addition to this, there is a very fleshed out multiplayer mode with a ton of interesting ideas. There is persistent money and experience to unlock extra modes and equipment. There is also the option to join a “crew” which will provide you with extra bonuses. Whether or not a non-military shooter will stick is another question altogether. Regardless, Max Payne 3 deserves your attention strictly on the merits of its single player alone.
This review is based on a retail copy of Max Payne 3 for the Xbox 360 provided by Rockstar Games. It is also available on PS3 and PC.