Max Payne 3 Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted May 14, 2012

Max Payne 3 is an action lover’s wet dream that also happens to employ some of the slickest direction and transitional trickery this side of a David Fincher box set. Lock and load. It’s bullet time...time.

The Pros
  • Unrivaled combat fluidity
  • Slick, cinematic presentation
  • Brutal and expertly directed story
The Cons
  • Odd use of quick-time events
  • Golden guns feature kills pacing

After almost nine years, Max Payne, the pill-popping, bullet dodging, cop with nothing to lose and a penchant for horizontal gunplay has returned in Rockstar Studios’ Max Payne 3. When it was first revealed that MP3 was going to be the next title from Rockstar Games, there was a nearly audible reaction of, "Why?" from a good portion of gamers. After all, it had been nearly a decade since anyone had seen Max in action, and it seemed that it would stay that way, since he wasn’t exactly a character gamers were clamoring to see resurrected.

Thankfully, Rockstar ignored our collective abandonment of Max Payne, and decided to once again put Max at the forefront of the third-person action genre by delivering a bullet-adoring, genre-defining, shooter experience to rival this generation’s best, and the result is Max Payne 3.

When the original Max Payne burst onto the PC scene back in 2001, with its melodramatic, film noir-inspired presentation and Matrix-style bullet time-centric combat, it was definitely a breath of fresh air, and a large number of gamers no doubt still remember sinking countless hours into the game just because the bullet time turned standard shootouts into something completely unique. It also told a twisted and unforgiving tale of corruption, redemption, and desperation, presented in a comic book-panel style in between scenes of explosive violence.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne carried its predecessor’s torch admirably, maintaining the core mechanics, tone, and style fans loved while adding a still impressive layer of physics that took the slowed down action to a whole new level. Watching thugs get spun violently into the air in slow-mo never got old, and it helped make the sequel a worthy successor to one of the most groundbreaking shooters ever, even if it did feature plenty of similar scenarios (the least appealing of which involved navigating window ledges). In short, it felt like a natural, less game-changing next step.

With Max Payne 3, Rockstar once again hits all of the expected series beats, most of which players have come to expect from the genre in general, but it does so with such flair, polish, and focus of vision that what you end up with is a game that has an old-school heart in a next-gen body. You’ll still need to track down painkillers to heal yourself, but you’ll be doing it as a fully motion-captured James McCaffrey who moves at a noticeably slower pace than the much younger Max Payne from the previous games. Max narrates the story in his familiar pseudo-noir wordiness, but now it’s accented with a system that projects choice words and phrases into the scene and turns video into still images that are then used to pull off the comic book panel effect.

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This artful balance of old and new is mirrored in the game’s story as well. The narrative jumps between flashback and present day, telling the painful tale of how Max was pulled out of his whiskey-soaked stupor by former policeman-turned-hired gun Raul Passos and thrown (bald) head first into the gang and corruption-fueled madness of the Brazilian criminal underworld via his political powerhouse of a client, the wealthy and supremely connected Branco family.

The story itself has more twists than a Twilight Zone-themed roller coaster (damn you crazy metaphor-laden narration!), some of which are rather obvious, but others that completely caught me off guard. I can already anticipate some players referencing the Mexico portion of Red Dead Redemption when discussing the closing chapters of MP3, but as was the case in RDR, I found myself being pleasantly surprised by the meatiness of the final act, pudge included.

The scope of the story is equally impressive, taking you from the snowy streets of New York City to the sun-baked back alleys of Sao Paulo to the over-the-top decadence of a multimillion dollar yacht under siege in the Panama Canal. Each setting brings with it a unique color pallet, and is crammed with a staggering amount of detail. Imagine all of the effort Rockstar puts into bringing its open worlds to life. Now imagine all of that effort concentrated down to individual set pieces (that are still quite substantial in their own right), and you’ll start to get a sense of how remarkable these place spaces truly are.

But for as slickly told as the story is, it’s the presentation--the stuttery video feed camera effects, the sans-loading screen transitions between gameplay and cutscenes, etc.--that bring MP3’s "cinematic" vision to life. You should know though that while there technically aren’t any load screens, the first half of every cutscene is an unskippable load time. Obviously, being forced to watch a brilliantly directed and well-acted cutscene instead of staring at a load screen is hardly a bad thing, but I figured you should know.

You should also know that those gameplay/cutscene transitions I mentioned before will have you screaming with girlish joy, because they flow so naturally that you honestly won’t even realize they are happening. One second you’re watching Max run at a dude to push him out of a nearby window overlooking a dance floor and the next you’re crashing through said window only now you are aiming at other enemies scattered around the club below, picking them off as you fall towards the ground surrounded by glass and the bracing against the body of the dude you just tackled out the window. There are numerous action-packed transitions like this, but even the standard move from cinematic to gameplay is slick as all hell.

Honestly though, the crowning jewel in Max Payne 3’s multi-jeweled crown is the combat. The animations systems driving Max’s movements are easily the best of any third-person action game I have ever played. The way he shifts his weight when changing directions to the way he is able to roll around while prone, enabling him to blast fools in a full 360 degrees to how he looks popping painkillers with one hand and popping caps with the other are nothing short of extraordinary. And that’s not even taking into account what happens to the poor bastards on the receiving end of Max’s remarkable actions.

Building on the Euphoria-powered AI behaviors established in Grand Theft Auto IV, and then expanded in Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 brings death to life in more moan-inducing ways than you can imagine. The way bullets impact bodies in the game is cringe worthy enough, but thanks to the new and improved final kill cam--another series staple--you get you watch in slow-mo and, if you hold down A/X, super slow-mo each individually rendered bullet rip through the flesh and bone of your enemies, before their bodies slump to the ground, filled with gaping, blood-spurting wounds. Action doesn’t get more joyously and bloodily balletic than this, and it all plays out without a single hiccup or slowdown even during the most chaotic of shootouts.

For as glorious as MP3’s action and presentation are, the game is not without its missteps, as small and few as they are. Similar to the oddly placed platforming sections in the previous two games, MP3 includes a couple of equally odd quick-time sequences at specific points during the story. Considering that you have to pull them off successfully to progress, these moments could have easily just been part of the cutscenes they appear in and nothing would have been lost.

The golden guns feature introduced in RDR makes its return in MP3, but it feels a bit out of place given the game’s linear design and more narrow narrative, because it means you’ll be spending time scouring every corner of every level to find the various gun pieces needed to unlock the golden weapons. While I do like that it pushes you to take in every inch of the gorgeously designed environments, it defuses the game’s otherwise fantastically frenetic pacing.

The same could be said for the television programs (despite the pertinent info provided by the newscasts detailing your actions) and the returning ability to play a little ditty on various pianos scattered throughout the game. You can also find clues (a picture, news clipping, a character hiding in a bathroom stall, etc.) that can give additional context to the story events, but this at least fits in with Max’s detective past, and therefore feels much more organic than tickling the ivories while someone you’re supposed to be rescuing is somewhere with a gun pressed against their head waiting for you to show up.

Once you’ve finished Max’s lengthy single-player campaign, you can then replay every chapter in the game in either Score Attack (new to the series) or New York Minute (a franchise staple), both of which will have leaderboard fanatics coming back on a daily basis to ensure their name remains at the top. You’ll want to play through the story mode again and again anyway because the combat is just that good, but having the option of doing so while racking up points and/or racing against the clock are welcomed additions.

As was the case with GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 includes a robust, challenging, and super fun multiplayer component in addition to its substantial single-player offering. The standard deathmatch and team deathmatch are the perfect places to witness/cause massive amounts of fluid death, but Gang Wars mode is where I found myself having the most fun. Not only does this mode tie directly into Max’s story (you play as members of the gangs Max fights against in New York and Brazil), but it plays out over five chapters, each of which gets a specific voiceover narration setting up the story behind the showdown, and 10 game modes. So one round you might have to grab cash and bring it designated drop off points, and the next you’re trying to stop the other team from blowing up key points around the map. This sort of multiple game type setup is nothing new to multiplayer, but it works beautifully here.

One of the big questions for MP3 mulitplayer was how bullet time was going to work. The answer is remarkably well, because it’s based on line of sight. So when you dive and there’s no one around, you just dive. But if you have an enemy if your crosshairs, time slows for you and the targeted player. If the other player breaks your line of sight, time speeds up again. It’s an elegant solution, and one that rewards quick thinking and map awareness while also letting players enjoy the franchise’s signature gameplay features outside the main campaign.

The multiplayer also features a mega crap ton of challenges to complete and perks/weapons/gear/attachments/characters/outfits to unlock. The perks (Bursts/Sutures) system adds a great deal of strategy to multiplayer, as they offer all sorts of ways to counter opposing perk-based efforts. Having weight impact health regen and movement speed is another nice touch, since it discourages tanking in favor of lean, mean fighters.

Perhaps the most talked about multiplayer feature in MP3 is Crews. These are just clans--complete with fully customizable logos that can be crafted over at Rockstar’s Social Club site--but MP3 crews will eventually be transferable to GTA 5. Initiating vendettas against another player in multiplayer matches is one thing, but being able to start feuds with other crews is just good fun, and it adds an extra layer of camaraderie to the entire multiplayer experience.

Max Payne 3 is a technological tour de force that will have you screaming "Dear lord!" more times than midnight mass. The performances are top notch, the action plays out with unrivaled fluidity, and the multiplayer is deep and rewarding. Silly distractions aside, Max Payne 3 is an action lover’s wet dream that also happens to employ some of the slickest direction and transitional trickery this side of a David Fincher box set. Lock and load. It’s bullet time...time.