For many gamers, Remedy’s Max Payne and Max Payne 2 evoke strong, pleasant memories of an iconic action anti-hero who was in conflict with his own personal demons at least as much as with the eternal enemies he fought. Mixing a great deal of self-deprecating wit and trenchant observation, alongside such gameplay innovations as bullet time (evidenced by the dozens of variations and rebrandings used in subsequent action games), Max Payne and its sequel definitely represented a step in the maturation process of shooters.
Stripping away nearly all the elements of humor and surrealistic psychological fantasy, Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 unsurprisingly fits right in with the studio’s ethos of brutal violence, satisfying action, and high-momentum storytelling. While their game might not represent a leap in the evolution of shooters in the way the original games did, the character of Max Payne has certainly moved on into a darker, deeper, and more existentially bleak circle of hell.
Less of an open-world experience than we're used to seeing from Rockstar, and populated by a plethora of scripted sequences, Max Payne 3’s brutal, third-person action is the heart of the experience and is happily enticing, if occasionally made frustrating by the inconsistencies of the cover system, quick-time events, and level design that includes a bit too much backtracking over previously covered territory. Still, the availability of painkillers (especially when restarting a level or sequence) mitigates the frustration by allowing you just enough of a last-ditch effort to keep you from going crazy.
Max Payne 3’s plot is an action-packed story that mirrors Max’s moral and psychological disintegration. He finds himself working in the shady world of private security in Sao Paulo, Brazil for a real estate tycoon, Rodrigo Branco. To build the drama, the story spirals out to include corporate espionage, high-level government corruption, international drug cartels, and a mountain of corpses brutally dispatched by both Max and his foes.
While the story is unrelentingly noire, the script and voice acting—especially James McCaffrey as Max—is top-shelf, though understatement is rarely the goal. The musical score by Health is one of the year’s best and entirely avoids most of the action genre musical cliches.
Although this generation of consoles is starting to show signs of technical limitations, Max Payne 3 is a looker. With detailed and interesting environments, fluid animations, and effective lighting, those trademark Rockstar cinematic camera angles and framing directions do a lot to make the player feel like they are watching an interactive film unfold.
Given the complexity and depth of its 12-hour single-player campaign, it's surprising how much attention has been paid to Max Payne 3’s multiplayer component, and just how much fun it can be. In addition to standard deathmatch and team deathmatch options, “Gang Wars” offers a more exciting alternative. This mode pits two teams against each other and incorporates story threads from the campaign to shape five rounds. How a round ends dictates what the next objective will be; it's a design that keeps the battles fresh. With a now-standard ranking system, bullet time, and access to the single-player game’s arsenal of weapons, Max Payne's multiplayer has the unexpected potential for real longevity.
Some might find Max Payne 3’s uncompromisingly dark tone and existentially hollow main character represent both a negative turn for the franchise and depressing journey to follow. There is truth to that, but what's equally true is Rockstar has crafted another polished title with outstanding presentation and, most importantly, satisfying action and gameplay.
Played through Max's latest journey? Feel like the direction was a change for the better, or do you wish Remedy was still in control? Give us your thoughts over Twitter @gamers_hell