Published on June 18th, 2012 | by Mike Thomas0
Max Payne 3 Review (PS3)
If the previous two games were modern takes on film noir then this third instalment takes its cinematic cues from Michael Mann, the director of Heat and Miami Vice. Which is to say that it’s a modern, achingly cool thriller, set in a dark world drenched in sunlight, and filled with sharp characterisation and dialogue, The script pulls no punches in terms of social commentary on Brazil’s poverty, police corruption, the tensions between the rich and poor…it all gets an airing, lending the game’s writing an uncommon weight
If this reads more like a film review by this point, it’s supposed to. In terms of narrative, this is Rockstar’s most polished and cinematic effort to date. What starts as a simple enough story about the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s wife slowly builds into a twisted political conspiracy with an increasingly damaged Max caught in the crossfire. If anyone questioned the decision to move Payne out of NYC, the opening minutes alone should put those fears aside (plus, there’s the odd flashback level to satisfy any craving for nostalgia). The change of location has done nothing to soften the ex-cop’s embittered view of the world and the game is full of the dejected, sardonic internal monologs that are the character’s trademark. At times listening to Max be heavy going, in fact it can be downright depressing though that’s also what makes him engaging. Most game characters try to save the girl to be a hero. In this case, it’s hard to tell if he’s trying to save her because he failed to save his wife or if he’s actually hoping he’s on the path to self-destruction.
In short, videogame storytelling doesn’t get much darker or compelling…
But then it needs to be.
You see for all its cinematic flair, Max Payne 3 isn’t exactly what you’d call sophisticated. Remember how “Bullet Time” felt like the coolest thing ever in 2001? Well, it’s still the central mechanic at the centre of the game, just click the right stick or tap a shoulder button when the adrenaline meter is full and the world will s-l-o-w down giving Max just a little more time to gun down hideous numbers of bad guys which is useful seeing as he’s so tough he doesn’t need a regenerating health system, he just pops a few painkillers the same as he did about ten years ago. If you’ve played either of the previous games in the series you can expect more of the same with only minor refinements. The only real additions to the formula are the ‘Last Man Standing/Painkiller’ mechanic and a slow motion bullet cam. “Last Man Standing” is simple: if Max is downed and has painkillers in reserve, bullet time is triggered automatically giving him time to shoot his killer…if he puts the bad guy down before bullet time runs out a painkiller is automatically used up and he can continue turning people into Swiss cheese. “Bullet Cam” on the other hand is less a mechanic and more a useful visual trick, Basically it kicks in every time you kill the last enemy in a wave, letting you know it’s safe to move on a bit further through a level or to make a “Last Man Standing” look cool.
Still, while it’s fun to watch your bullets find their mark in glorious slow-mo and the resulting close up shot is satisfyingly bloody, there’s no escaping the fact that the core gameplay is a bit, well, antiquated. Yes, it can be argued that the gunplay is nicely balanced and after years of regenerative health, the use of the old painkiller mechanic combined with above average A.I. means that pretty much every gunfight is tense and challenging (even on ‘normal’), but it’s also fair to say that the game is also one-dimensional as a result.
Clocking in at around 11-13 hours, the 14 chapters of the single player campaign present players with one simple objective: shoot everything that moves until it’s dead…that’s it. There are no skill upgrades to unlock, no alternate routes, levels are completely linear; you’re free to scour the odd corner for hidden collectibles but you’re basically being pushed along a set path towards the next set ultra violent set piece and after the freedom offered titles like Red Dead Redemption this might disappoint the Rockstar faithful.
You can argue that the game’s plot and setting don’t allow for OTT action scenes, that thdevelopers are more concerned with character and creating something that feels more gritty and realistic than the average video game, which is great until you factor in that the average player will probably unlock an in-game achievement marking a 1000 kills during their playthrough.
Fortunately, Rockstar have furnished the game with its strongest multiplayer offering yet. The staid design of the single player campaign is replaced with chaotic multi-level playgrounds where players throw themselves off rooftops and bullets can fly at you from all angles in a chaotic orgy of virtual death. Essentially the game uses same tricks as the single player yet somehow everything feels fresher in multiplayer, Bullet Time still isn’t revelatory but it’s hard not to grin when you score a headshot on another human being while diving sideways in slow motion. Other than that it’s a standard Call of Duty style multiplayer suite offering players a variety of perks (or ‘bursts’), weapons etc. as players rank up and earn cash from kills. In terms of modes, the highlights are ‘Gang Wars”;(a five round match with randomised objectives) and “Payne Killer” (a co-op/competitive multiplayer hybrid: two players take the roles of Max and his partner Raul Passos and have to fend off the other players who represent gangs. If a gang player kills either Max or Passos they then take that role themselves). Regardless of match type multiplayer can initially come across as a frantic mess but if you can put a bit of time and effort in, get used to the pace, Max Payne 3 more than holds it’s own with the very best online**
So, what’s the final verdict? After spending so much time reading about how archaic the gameplay is etc. you might be thinking Max Payne 3 is something of a let down after epics like Red Dead Redemption. Well, the bottom line is, it’s not; it’s a great game, it’s just hard not to ignore it’s shortcomings in spite of all the brilliantly polished presentation. The voice acting is (as always with Rockstar) top drawer with James McCaffery’s performance as Max the standout, the soundtrack is eclectic and moving, and the Euphoria engine has never created such, detailed, realistic character models or environments. However, the cold hard truth, is that while the single player campaign is a lot of fun, most players probably won’t be going back to it after the credits roll. Rockstar have done their best to add replay value by adding a score attack mode as well as “New York Minute,” (a time trial which gives players one minute and one life to get through a level, with extra seconds awarded for every kill) but it’s hard to see them having much appeal outside of the trophy/achievement hunter community.
Yet when coupled with it’s comprehensive multiplayer it works. As one note and repetitive as the single player modes are, the core gameplay remains satisfying. Even if there isn’t much incentive to replay the campaign it, provides the basis for a multiplayer game that could prove a serious rival to COD if given enough player support long term and it’s hard not to keep going back to the fact that a game, or at least a shooter, has rarely told such an engaging story quite so well or as cinematically.
In the end, Max Payne 3 might be something of a triumph of style over substance, but between its single player and multiplayer halves it has more than enough to warrant any shooter aficionado’s consideration.
Rating 8.8 out of 10.
** A word of warning: despite a recent patch, playing multiplayer can occasionally cause freezing and it can also be difficult to find or remain in games from time to time or at least this is the case with the PS3 version.