It’s been a while since we’ve seen old Max Payne, and it seems the years haven’t been kind to the hard-boiled New York cop. Much of that probably has to do with the game now having been developed by Rockstar Games instead of previous developer Remedy Entertainment (an odd shift, seeing as how Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption stole more than few sales from Remedy’s last project, Alan Wake). Admittedly, I skipped over the middle chapter in the Max Payne saga, jumping directly from 1 to 3 so I don’t know how much has really changed since the last game, but given how Max Payne 3 establishes before you even get to the menu that Max is something of a washed-up, tired drunk, I think it’s safe to say that things are even more grim for our modern day gunslinger than they had been before. Even after losing his wife and child in the first game, and apparently watching his secondary love interest die in the second, Max hasn’t until now truly hit rock bottom.
And that’s where we begin our journey into Max Payne 3. Set eight years after the events of the previous game, Max has given up his job as a hard-boiled New York police officer and has instead transitioned into the role of hard-boiled private security contractor. Working as a bodyguard for a wealthy family in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Max spends most of his days drinking his way towards serious liver damage while firing off witty metaphors in interior monologue. The cold, gray streets of New York might have been replaced with sunshine and soccer, but the film noir overtones are just as prevalent as ever.
|Less “Maltese Falcon” and more “Magnum P.I. on drugs”.|
Also making a comeback are the comic-book influenced cutscenes. Whereas previous games used stillframe panels with abundant thought boxes and dialogue bubbles to tell the story between gameplay sections, Max Payne 3 instead uses fully-rendered moving cutscenes that divide into splitscreen panels in a manner reminiscent of 24. Dialogue and monologue maintains a similar comic-book style appearance by occasionally flashing text representations of spoken lines onto the scene in a kinetic-typography kind of style. This keeps the spirit of the art style alive while keeping the action moving in a fluid manner.
And boy is it fluid. Cutscenes flow so smoothly into gameplay that sometimes it’s hard to tell when the pre-scripted sequence is done and you can take control again. Coupled with behind-the-scenes loading that ensures you’ll never be interrupted by a loading screen, Max Payne 3 is one of the most smooth-flowing games you’re likely to get your hands on these days. Max’s internal monologue provides a perfect validation for time-skips and flashback segments, and the more linear nature of the game (compared to Rockstar’s other undertakings) mean that the game never stops moving forward; you’ll have a lot of trouble putting the game down because there’s not really a point where you might want to.
|Cutscene or gameplay?|
And just as the cutscene implementation keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace, the incredibly smooth controls and well-crafted gun battles keep the story moving forward at a pace that isn’t “brisk” so much as “breakneck”. While the tone of the story is very much rooted in film noir detective stories, the gameplay borrows extensively from Hong Kong action movies. As a matter of fact, Max Payne 3 ultimately ends up making a better John Woo videogame than Stranglehold: an actual John Woo videogame.
“Shootdodge”, the less-than-iconic name for Max Payne’s bullet time effect ever since Warner Brothers bought the copyright to that particular phrase, is once again the star of the show. At any time (provided Max’s shootdodge meter has some juice in it) you can tap in the right thumbstick and slow the passage of time down to a crawl. Enemies running for cover suddenly become a veritable shooting gallery as you drift your crosshairs over each of them in turn, dispensing vigilante justice in a full metal jacketed package. Of course, one should always keep in mind that the cycling of your weapon’s action is similarly slowed, meaning you can only get off a few shots before bullet time runs out, so don’t miss.
|Desert Eagle + Mac-11 + Airtime = Shootdodge|
And while slowing down time is cool enough already, there’s another vital part to the shootdodge maneuver: the actual dodge. While on the move, you can tap the right bumper to send Max flying through the air in whatever direction you were moving at the time. While airborne (and again, provided you have sufficient power in your meter) bullet time will activate, letting you dive your way through firefight after firefight like Inspector Tequila. As an added bonus, you maintain full 360-degree maneuverability once you hit the ground, letting you continue to aim from a prone position until you move the left thumbstick and haul yourself back to your feet.
Words cannot express how awesome this makes you feel.
As I’ve said here many times before, I judge my games based on how much of a “holy crap that was cool” reaction they can evoke from me. Not 20 minutes into the game I began (and ended) a gunfight by launching myself off the top of a staircase, blowing away three mooks with dual-wielded Mini-Uzis, then hitting the ground on my stomach and taking down four more bad guys on all sides of me while in a prone position. The whole engagement couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but everything about it was executed with such stylish simplicity that made it stick out in my mind. This is how you translate the action movie into playable form.
|Hope you like blood, because this game has a lot of it|
But wait, there’s more! As if slow-motion, midair, guns akimbo firefights weren’t enough for you, the game also includes bullet cam. Every shot fired, both by you and by enemies, is modeled within the game world in real time. What this means is that whenever you score a kill shot on the last enemy in a fight, the scene slows down and the camera follows the last round fired along its trajectory into your target. This is exceptionally graphic. Exit wounds literally explode with gore, entry wounds will continue to geyser blood for a few seconds afterward, individual pellets of buckshot from a shotgun will tear your target apart, and for no reason other than to be a sadistic jerk you can continue hammering the right trigger to empty the rest of your magazine into your already-dead opponent, propelling them over a railing or through a window or into a pile of TNT stacked beside an orphanage. And all of this can be slowed down to super-slow motion by holding the A button. It is raw, unadulterated gorn, and God help me but it’s fun.
On a less graphic level, Max Payne might also be the first game to realistically depict the carrying of multiple firearms. You’ll start out most levels with a single sidearm, and from there you can pick up one more sidearm and an additional longarm. When switching from longarm to pistol, Max will wield his pistol in one hand and carry the longarm around by the receiver. If you choose to dual-wield, then you’ll have to drop the longarm since you don’t have any more hands to grip it with. For those of us that are tired of every videogame character ever carrying their guns strapped across their back “cool guy” style, this is a more believable alternative. It might not look as “badass” or whatever as walking around with an assault rifle slung over one shoulder, but this kind of hastily improvised method of carry seems to fit Max’s character better: he’s not some elite assassin or super-soldier, he’s just some guy. A tired, cynical former cop who keeps finding himself in crappy situations. He makes mistakes, he wields his guns haphazardly when under stress, and he gets tricked and double-crossed more times than I can count. He’s the John McClane of video game action heroes, and in a game about blowing quite literally hundreds of people away with exuberant fanfare, that kind of character helps balance out the absurdity of the situation with a wisecrack or two.
|Plus, how awesome is that tie? Am I right?|
The story on the whole isn’t really anything to write home about. Most of the game revolves around Max taking his bodyguard duties to the extreme and going on a kind of personal blood-soaked vendetta against the people that kidnapped his client’s wife. There’s a few twists and turns thrown in here and there and in classic noir fashion everything is bigger than it first appears. While it isn’t as personal or as hard-hitting as their work on Red Dead Redemption was, I think that’s okay: when you think about Hard Boileddo you remember the plot or do you remember the gunfight in the tea house? These action movies and games aren’t about watching something “mindless” like Transformers, but a good action scene can be an art form in its own right.
Of course, all this simple, fast-paced action comes at a price: the game is pretty short, clocking in at right around ten hours or so. Whereas you can spend weeks exploring the desert expanses of New Austin from the back of a horse or the concrete jungle of Liberty City from within a luxury car and amuse yourself with the numerous mini-games and side challenges in each, you’ll more than likely shootdodge your way through Sao Paulo in a couple of days at the most. And really, that’s fine. As fun as the shooting is, that’s really the only thing you can do, and a 30-hour game filled with nothing but shooting would turn into a grind long before you reached the end. Sometimes there’s something to be said for brevity.
|Also, you’ve probably killed everyone in Sao Paulo
by the end of the game, anyway.
If you feel you really must prolong your experience with Max Payne, then there is an additional multiplayer offering. As with previous Rockstar multiplayer endeavors, it’s nothing too robust: a few maps taken from the vanilla game and retooled as arena-based affairs mostly focusing on a few variations of deathmatch. You can customize your own combat loadout with different guns and a few special abilities like health boosts and a limited bullet-time capacity. I’ve played a few rounds and while it’s enjoyable enough, it lacks the depth and tight controls of a truly multiplayer-focused game so I didn’t really afford it much attention.
All in all Max Payne has survived his transition between developers fairly well. The story has definitely abandoned some of the more fantastic twists that Remedy was fond of in favor of a more Rockstar-ish grim, depressing, “showcase the scum of humanity” kind of presentation, steeped in the same kind of weird, anti-capitalist undertones that seem to have been pervading their franchises as of late. But in exchange we’ve gotten an updated bullet time mechanic combined with some very slick third-person shooting. Max may have found a new home, a new haircut, and a new demeanor, but he’s survived the transition well enough and the end result is a blast to play.