From Remedy to Rockstar; get ready to rain down the Payne…
Rockstar Games are synonymous with high calibre interactive experiences, with deep, mature storytelling and fascinating, eccentric characters. Max Payne 3 upholds this stellar reputation, delivering on all fronts, even though its linear, focused nature is almost the antithesis of Rockstar’s typical open-world philosophy. Prepare yourself to be blown away…
Max Payne 3′s dark, gritty narrative centres around eponymous protagonist and ex-New York City cop, Max Payne. Several years ago his wife and daughter were tragically murdered, sending him into a self-destructive spiral. He’s been at the bottom of a bottle ever since, which along with his addiction to painkillers has him in an almost perpetually intoxicated state.
After making the acquaintance of new friend and comrade, Raul Passos, Max is forced to make his exodus from New York, but no matter how far he runs he can never escape his own inner-demons. After travelling to São Paulo, Brazil, the two of them gain employment working private security for the rich and powerful Branco family. Unfortunately the Bronco’s aren’t without enemies, and it’s not long before a seemingly easy retirement gig descends into gunfire, blood and revenge.
Gameplay in Max Payne 3 is nothing short of superb. Like previous titles in the series the game boils down to a third-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on Bullet Time. This is the preeminent gameplay mechanic that allows Max to enter slow motion, giving him an edge in combat. Bullets glide through the air, their glimmering slip streams trailing behind them and plunge into their recipients with satisfying force, sending them reeling with the impact.
Thanks to the RAGE engine and NaturalMotion Euphoria animation technology enemies respond realistically to being shot. If they’re hit in the shoulder they wheel around and lose the use of their arm and if a slug rips through their leg they topple as their limb gives way beneath them.
Animations are stunningly smooth. Simply manoeuvring Max around the environment is a joy to watch as he realistically runs, grinds to a halt and changes direction. Throughout the experience you can really feel the weight of movement, whether you’re slamming into cover or diving through the air. Speaking of which, another staple mechanic of the game is the Shoot Dodge. This move allows Max to enter Bullet Time as he hurls himself headlong, firing off round after round in silky slow motion, bullet casings spiralling through the air. It really is like something out of a crazy action movie!
Max crashes back down to earth with a resounding crunch and you can practically feel the pain of the impact. Once he hits the floor Max lies prone and can turn 360 degrees whilst blasting everyone in sight. Again, the animations of him changing position whilst lying on the floor are astoundingly realistic and he will only lurch back to his feet upon the players command. While stumbling upright however you’re left vulnerable, so this action has to be used with care to make sure you’re not left stranded out in the open.
One way to avoid this is to use the new cover system, which is similar to those utilised in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, if a bit more refined. From here you can swing out of cover to fire at your foes, desperately blindfire or turn and dive over or around the obstacle headfirst into the onslaught. The act of shooting in the game is endlessly satisfying. As with movement, the weapons have some real heft to them. You can feel the recoil as you pull the trigger and shots impact with serious force into their targets. Guns can be dual wielded, adding to the already epic nature of gun battles and rifles, shotguns and all manner of machine guns can be wielded to pump your opposition full of lead.
There are three different targeting modes to choose from. Soft lock, hard lock and free aim, the first two of which work similarly to the aiming systems in GTA IV & Red Dead Redemption. Free aim however is where the real fun begins. It relies solely on the player for guiding Max’s aim and is therefore that much more rewarding when you connect with a coveted headshot.
When you land a killing blow on an enemy there is a brief flash signifying their demise. This visual cue is tremendously helpful allowing you to move onto your next target efficiently, not wasting a second of your precious Bullet Time. Upon eliminating the last assailant in an area you are treated to a Bulletcam, where you watch as your last shot tears through your target with horrifying, grizzly realism. This game is certainly not for the squeamish. However if Max is struck with one shot too many he tumbles into the Last Man Standing mechanic. If you manage to eradicate the shooter as Max plummets to the ground in slow motion, a Bulletcam occurs as Max automatically pops a pain killer, restoring his health, allowing him to carry on with the fight.
At certain points throughout the story the gameplay is broken up with the use of vehicles, such as helicopters, speedboats and buses. Although they are driven by non-playable characters and you’re still essentially just shooting, these sections are still exhilarating and exceptionally enjoyable. There are also times where the game will automatically thrust Bullet Time upon you, forcing you to react at significant moments, adding to the cinematic, action movie feel that pervades throughout.
Unlike the sprawling open-world environments of Rockstar’s other primary series’, Max Payne 3′s levels are rigidly linear. The upside to this is that they are packed full of exquisite detail and look absolutely gorgeous. Even when walking through the squalid favelas of São Paulo or the snow covered, trash littered alleys of New York, you can’t help but be awed by their beauty.
The scenery is varied, locations ranging from dark, dank swamps to plush neon nightclubs and even a huge sports arena. Character models are just as nuanced with excellent facial animation and use of motion capture. Notably Max and Raul’s appearance alters significantly over time, with different haircuts, beards, clothes and physical injuries adding to the game’s realism, immersing you further in the experience.
The pacing of the game is solid and relentless, helped along by the unique use of stylised visual transitions and great storytelling. Cutscenes look amazing, making use of comic-book-like panels showcasing different angles of scenes, with certain words or phrases of dialogue being emphasised onscreen in bold lettering. Max’s state of inebriation is represented by scan lines and colourful glitches that flare up every now and again and are exacerbated by taking more painkillers. Initially it was a sensory overload but as I got used to the visual aberrations I relished them. Scenes elegantly transition from one to the next and occasionally flashbacks occur, giving you the chance to gain more insight into Max’s backstory and character. The best thing however, is how these cutscenes seamlessly blend into gameplay, requiring you to constantly be on the alert with the controller in your hand, ready for action.
Because all the loading takes place in these cutscenes, your first playthrough will be a smooth, flowing experience without the need for long, painful loading screens. However repeat playthroughs to find hidden collectables or to play on harder difficulties – of which there is an abundance of both – can be mildly infuriating as certain scenes can’t be skipped for long periods of time.
Both the writing and acting in Max Payne 3 are spectacular. The character of Max is so real, complex and damaged. It’s totally heartbreaking to see him decimating himself with whisky and painkillers in his hotel room, as he stares forlornly at a picture of his wife and daughter before breaking down and passing out in a heap on the dining room table.
Tonally the game is a modernised form of Film Noir, mixed with a violent dose of Martin Scorsese. One of the best things about the game is surely Max’s rambling inner monologue. Being able to hear the thoughts and world-weary witticisms that go through his head is unfailing entertaining and often darkly funny, providing subtle exposition and detail on the world, its characters and their motivations. “This town has more smoke and mirrors than a strip club locker room”.
Without spoiling anything, the tale that’s told here is dark, harrowing and utterly compelling, and although it gets somewhat convoluted in the last third of the game it’s still so engaging that you can power through the mild confusion. All is explained in the end.
The soundtrack of Max Payne 3 was largely composed by noise rock band, Health, and is a blend of driving percussive beats and ambient electro. Max’s melancholy theme and the song Tears are particular standout tracks. In continued tradition Rockstar make excellent use of introducing brilliant songs at opportune moments, such as 9 Circulos by Emicida that kicks in at the entrance to the Nova Esperança favela.
A great example of Rockstar’s fastidiousness and their ability to go above and beyond what’s expected of them time and again, is Max Payne 3′s Arcade mode. This feature allows you to play through the game’s fourteen levels in both a standard Score Attack mode and in the New York Minute (time attack) mode. Each with their own competitive leaderboards and grading systems. These features add extra challenge as well as replayability and longevity and are truly a most welcome addition.
As if all that content wasn’t enough Max Payne 3 also features a competitive multiplayer mode, which is as fun as it is frantic. Contained within is a robust progression system with a wide array of weapons, attachments, gear and abilities, known as bursts, to unlock. Bullet Time is one of the available bursts, which cleverly only affects players in your line of sight. Others include Paranoia, which makes members of the opposing team perceive each other as enemies and Big Dog, which gives you and your team as health boost when things look bleak. The standard Free-For-All and Team Deathmatch modes are present but Payne Killer and Gang Wars is where multiplayer really shines. In Payne Killer you become Max Payne or his partner Passos upon killing them, and earn points for staying alive and taking out enemy players for as long as possible. On the other hand, Gang Wars is a five round team game, where objectives are randomised from one round to the next, keeping players on their toes.
Rockstar has done it again; Max Payne 3 is a fantastic game! It’s gameplay is simple yet elegant and extraordinarily entertaining. The tale told is dark, mature and compelling with rich, nuanced characters and real emotional weight. The graphics are stunning with spectacularly embellished environments and detailed character models with excellent animation. And with the addition of Arcade Mode and competitive multiplayer, this game will give you hours upon hours of entertainment. It truly is one of the best titles I’ve played in a long time!
Rob Gisbey is a games journalist and music production graduate from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. To listen to his acoustic demo, read his articles and listen to the VxM Videogames Podcast head to his blog.