Max Payne 3 review: Slick, bloody, beautiful... but not without its flaws
14th May 2012 | 16:00
By the time we'd finished Max Payne 3, we'd killed over 1400 people. From start to finish, the game is a violent tornado of death and destruction, and one of the bloodiest, most relentless shooters ever. It has all the cinematic flair, polish, and production values you might expect from a Rockstar game - but it's missing some of the surreal magic that made the original games so memorable.
Set eight years after Max Payne 2, our haunted ex-cop is now working as a private security contractor for a wealthy family in São Paulo. He's an emotional wreck, spending his downtime popping painkillers and soaking in whisky. But when his employer's daughter is kidnapped, he's forced back into action, shooting, leaping, and metaphor-ing his way through the darkest corners of Brazil's criminal underworld.
It's a bleak game, reflecting Max's battered psyche. There are glimmers of humour, but it's mostly incredibly black. Even though the setting has changed from the gloomy back-alleys of New York City to the sun-bleached streets of São Paulo, it's still noir; a genre that goes beyond fedora-wearing private dicks and blinking neon signs.
There's a palpable sense of movement. You're always racing from one environment to the next, and the scenery changes frequently. You'll blast your way through a nightclub, a football stadium, city rooftops, the Panama Canal, and, of course, Brazil's famous favelas. The pace is breakneck, and the jerky, faux-documentary camerawork in the cut-scenes - as well as an impressive lack of any loading breaks whatsoever - gives the game a great feeling of acceleration and urgency.
It's just a shame the game wrestles the controls away from you so often. There are a lot of cut-scenes, and they can be immensely distracting. Even something as simple as moving from one room to another, or commenting on something in the environment, is shown as a cinematic, when it could have easily been presented in-game. The constant snapping between short bursts of gameplay and long cut-scenes really hampers your sense of interaction, and sometimes you feel like you're only actually playing half the game.
But let's talk about the combat. After Max himself, it's the thing that defines the series. When the first Max Payne introduced bullet time to video games in 2001, it wasn't quite so ubiquitous, but even now it's still massively entertaining watching a goon smash through a glass window, or tumble down a set of stairs.
Clicking the right stick slows down time during combat, allowing you to make precise headshots while moving. Hitting the shoulder buttons sends you into Max's trademark shoot-dodge, during which you can snap between enemies and take entire groups out in one fell swoop. It's true to the originals, and simple to execute, with only a generous meter - filled by killing enemies - to stop you overusing it.
The Euphoria physics engine has come a long way since Grand Theft Auto IV, and bodies react to every bullet with brutal realism. They don't just fall into piles of jellied limbs; they stumble, recoil, and crease over like real people, staggering into scenery and slumping to the floor. Whenever you kill the last guy in a room, you're treated to a macabre slow-motion close-up of their death, which you can slow down even more by holding X/A. You can even keep firing long after he's dead, peppering his lifeless corpse with lead before he hits the deck.
But as enjoyable as the gunplay can be, the game is way too long. The action is incredibly one-note, and isn't rich or nuanced enough to justify the 10-12 hour running time. We don't mind a long game, but only if there's enough variety to keep us engaged. A few hours before the end, fatigue sets in, and you feel as if you're going through the motions. It's also punishingly difficult, and you'll often die suddenly and without warning. In the final levels, we had to set the game to easy. It was no longer challenging; just utterly merciless, and - as a result - not much fun.
TIME TO DIE
Environment interaction would have made the action more dynamic. There are a few examples of this - dropping buses on enemies' heads in a garage, shooting out the ceiling above an enemy to drop an air conditioner on his head - but mostly, it's just straight-up shooting. Visually, the level of detail in every locale is insane, and the world looks authentic and lived-in, but this only barely masks the fact that, from a gameplay standpoint, it's little more than a series of static movie sets.
Oddly, despite the game's bold change of setting and atmosphere, it's the New York flashback levels that offer some of the most entertaining set-pieces. A shootout in a graveyard swarming with angry mafia goons is tight and fast-paced; a chase across the rooftops of Hoboken is a thrill, with blind corners and close-quarters gunfights. There are some superb scenes in Brazil too, of course. A battle through a police station towards the end recalls The Terminator, and a skirmish in a plush, glass-filled office is an explosion of scenery-shredding destruction.
Why so serious, though? Remedy's Max Payne games were moody and hard-boiled, sure, but there was a surreal edge, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. Max's tortured film noir metaphors were intentionally overwrought, and there were moments of brilliant insanity, like the trip through the Address Unknown amusement park. Rockstar's Max has none of this. They've stripped away all the subversive humour, and it has very little charm as a result. The first two games had hints of the supernatural and the mythic, and a dreamlike apocalyptic tone; all gone in favour of a straight tale of revenge and conspiracy.
Multiplayer is excellent. In Max Payne 3's world, rival factions are battling it out in Brazil, including ramshackle gangs and heavily armoured military police units. This war rages around Max in the single-player story, but in multiplayer, you get to experience it first-hand. There are the usual standard modes like team deathmatch, but it's Payne Killer and Gang Wars that really stand out.
In Payne Killer, one player becomes Max, and another becomes his buddy from the story, Passos. Both these players have better weapons, longer bullet time, and the ability to use painkillers - but are displayed on the HUD for everyone to see. It's the other players' job to take them down and become Payne, or Passos, themselves. It's loads of fun, and incredibly frenetic. Becoming Max or Passos and seeing every player on the map rush towards you is a panic-inducing moment.
Gang Wars is a series of rapid-fire objective-based team games. In each round, the game chooses randomly from a selection of 12 possible modes and puts you through them in quick succession. Survivor gives each team limited lives; Last Man gives you only a single life; Takedown designates a target that one team has to protect, and the other has to kill; Grab sees you stealing an enemy's bag and delivering it to your base. The way it mixes these modes up keeps things entertaining, and it's a more tactical alternative to Payne Killer. For most, Gang Wars will be the main reason to play online.
How does bullet time work online, though? Well, when you use it while aiming at another player, their game slows down too, but other players on the map see you both moving at normal speed. Some incomprehensible technical wizardry makes this possible, and the most important thing is it works really well - just like multiplayer as a whole. You can create custom loadouts, change your appearance, and select from a range of Bursts (perks essentially) that grant you special abilities in combat, like conjuring up a grenade launcher, or making enemy players appear on your map when your team mates encounter them.
In the end, it's the polish and production values that will keep you playing. It only does one thing, but it at least does it extremely well, and the action is backed by a spectacular, ethereal score from noise-rock band HEALTH. Fans will miss the oddball, fourth wall-shattering humour, but there are enough references to keep us sweet - the classic theme tune, James McCaffrey's gravelly narration, the ugly tie - and Max Payne 3 remains, in most respects, a quality shooter. Just prepare for the long haul - and don't expect any great depth or variety along the way.