Rockstar has done it again: Co-opted a beloved IP with a strong cult following, and mainstreamed it into a current-generation masterpiece. Purists may complain that the Max Payne franchise has been "Rockstarred", but the company has always been involved in developing and publishing ports (at least since the first Max Payne). Remedy and Sam Lake have stepped aside for Rockstar and the Housers, and it’s certainly no disaster. What we have here is a highly playable third-person action shooter with heavy narrative elements and spectacular cinematic qualities, with only a few entirely forgivable flaws.
In Max Payne 3, our tortured hero has gone from rock bottom to even deeper. He has crawled into the bottle (again), this time in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he has been persuaded into private security work by an old acquaintance. He is also escaping his painful past, but quickly finds himself playing the gringo hero, and desperately trying to save defenceless characters (usually women) from being kidnapped and killed. He is mostly unsuccessful, which does little for his fragile sense of self.
In terms of narrative, the Max Payne series is firmly in the neo-noir tradition, meaning that it brings a hardboiled detective-like figure into a seedy world of crime, corruption and betrayal. Payne is a dubious hero for the twenty-first century: More Daniel Craig than Humphrey Bogart. The most recent installation in the series takes it further, shifting away from New York into the South American urban jungle. The plot is engaging and convoluted as it wends its way through fourteen chapters, and Payne gets shot, beaten, captured, mugged and self-flagellated like any good tough guy, but as in L.A. Noire, Rockstar pursues a much more linear mission structure than we are used to from them.
The iconic Max Payne gameplay is hardly fixed since it was never broken: we still have Bullet Time (familiar from the Matrix films but actually invented by John Woo and Hong Kong action cinema) and a Shootdodge ability that enables Max to launch himself through the air, delivering lead as he goes. When it works this can be wildly exhilarating, but at other times Max is just not dynamic enough: Snap to cover can be slow, shoulder-rolls are terribly unreliable, and melee lacks the intuitive smoothness of Uncharted. A cover mechanic suggests the influence of modern shooters, but there are no quick transitions between cover. A lack of grenades is annoying, especially since your enemies suffer no such lack. On-rails vehicle defence sections are fun but not overdone. Shooter fans may be challenged by non-regenerating health, as it is necessary to quaff painkillers to heal.
All this core gameplay is supplemented by Last Man Standing: If your health is depleted but you still have a painkiller, you enter a last-chance Bullet Time mode where you must kill your attacker to recover, otherwise death sends you back to the last checkpoint (usually not far). If it works you'll be treated to a redemption Bullet Cam, where the camera follows the bullet to the grisly demise of your would-be aggressor. When it breaks, though, Last Man Standing is intensely frustrating: No matter how many painkillers you have, if your enemy is at a distance, behind cover, or your clip is empty, there is no chance of recovery. The automatic default back to a single pistol after any cutscene is also annoying, and a slight misalignment of voice acting with the script rounds off the minor technical and design flaws in this otherwise near-perfect shooter.
After gameplay, the standout elements of Max Payne 3 are the environments and the storyline (not to mention a diverse soundtrack). The favela (ghetto) setting is particularly gritty, and all the environments have a sunny, tropical decay which rejuvenates the neo-noir aesthetic considerably. Many environments are destructible, offering further challenge. Expect regular and lengthy cutscenes, although they are well-sutured into the gameplay, and they are worth watching unless you find cutscenes frustrating in general. The plotting and dialogue would make Mickey Spillane or Lawrence Block proud, and Max’s pathos-infused (and sometimes just pathetic) self-recriminations form a strong basis for the action-filled gaming. The nexus for Max’s character development is giving up alcohol and shaving his head, which symbolises his new self.
In addition to a 10-15 hour campaign mode with a climax that becomes increasingly frenetic, the arcade mode allows you to play for points or against the clock, which strips away all the narrative and cutscenes for a pure action experience. A sophisticated multiplayer component brings in a variety of modes for individual or team play, with deep levelling system and innovative social systems. Impressively, Rockstar has even built Bullet Time into multiplayer (which works only if you are line-of-sight), providing new strategic opportunities and challenges. This gives further longevity to a game which is already an amazing experience. As strong as it is, though, there is some doubt as to how well it will muscle in on a very crowded multiplayer market.
Ultimately, unless you are terminally wedded to earlier instalments in the franchise, or hate Rockstar games altogether, you’re likely to at least enjoy Max Payne 3. It is among the best action shooters we are likely to see in this generation, and embodies the definitive aesthetic sensibility and cinematic qualities that mark the franchise and this developer. Despite some minor design and technical flaws it delivers the whole package: Dynamic action and deep narrative in equal measure.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.