It seems like it was just a few years ago that I was having my mind blown by the incredible feats of Max Payne. Remedy Software's PC title broke many walls with its gritty tale of horror and industry-changing Bullet Time mechanic that hundreds of games have since reused, with often less than spectacular results. Then, after damn near a decade of silence, Rockstar gives new life to the series with the announcement of Max Payne 3, proving the series to be unkillable much like Max himself. Is the game as old and worn down as its hero as well?
Max Payne 3 begins in Brazil, and thus has mucho ground to cover spanning from Max's unsettling final hours in a crime-ridden Hoboken New Jersey, to a job gone sour at the Panama Canal, to the final ballet of bullets in São Paulo. The narrative plays out much like a Tarantino film with added Brian de Palma visuals more than a typical accompaniment to an action game. There's quite a bit of jumping from point A to point F, then back to point C and so on. Rockstar Games has found a way to make this formula work with impeccable results, mostly due to the stellar writing that keeps everything tightly intertwined. Regardless, don't be surprised if you are completely lost should you let a few days elapse between play sessions, because there is a hefty helping of bouncing around in time. Lens flare and shaky-cam riddled cut scenes tie the action together quite well, in a game where there is little else to do but shoot people you better be damn sure there's a compelling tale acting as glue, and fortunately that is the case. Gone are the comic inspired still images of past Max titles, rightly so as a new generation needs a new medium, especially one fitting of the budget. As expected no corners were cut in this respect, so the newly adopted 'filtered home movie' aesthetic looks pretty damn good, especially when transitioning. The switches from gameplay to cinematic and vice-versa are seamless, with a quick lens-flare and HUD disappearance to point the end of the action, and a HUD reappearance to signify its resumption. The term HUD is used loosely, as it is little more than a health silhouette and adrenaline meter to gauge Bullet Time, which minimalist visual purists will love. You can even clear the screen and pan the camera while paused, which will allow you to take some sharp screenshots should you have the proper capture tools at your disposal.
Max the third doesn't diverge much from its classic roots when it comes to action, as there is lots of it and it is handled in similar fashion. Your silhouette fills as you take damage, and you pop the seldom found painkiller to heal up. Bullet Time is accumulated by staying in the bullet-slinging fray, and used when shoot-dodging or triggering a la carte. Of course it it easier to aim when activated, giving you no excuse to sport a measly shot-to-headshot ratio, and you also become harder to hit but not nearly invincible. A nice addition is the forced Bullet Time of Last Man Standing when you're gunned down while holding a painkiller. You'll begin to fall and have a limited amount of ammo to take revenge on he who felled you. Should you nail him, you'll be back on your feet with one less painkiller in tow. Miss your mark and it's lights out. Purists might say this makes things too easy, but I feel it keeps the action breezy. Max Peezy in the heezy.
Aside from slipping bullets at point blank range like they're punches, Max now has the added ability to both melee and disarm his enemies. When doing so, you're treated with a lovely take down that ends up with your gun pointed at your adversary's face, awaiting the physical trigger pull before mirroring that in game to make a mess of things. It's quite empowering to use that delayed squeeze to preemptively bask in the moment of victory. I'm not sure what happens if you choose not to pull the trigger, as I always felt so compelled to in these circumstances. If close quarters ain't your thing, go right ahead and keep blasting from range. Upon dropping your final accoster, you'll be treated to a very graphic close up of your target's fatal wounds, which you can continue to add to by mashing the trigger. This is preceded by a cinematic shot of your decisive bullet zooming through the air, which you can slow down to savor the flavor.. Of death.
There is a trace of tactics to be had when managing your inventory, which consists of little more than weapons. You can carry up to three weapons at any time, two pistol types and one heavy type, like an assault rifle, shotgun, or sniper rifle. While Max has the holsters to keep his pistols close, the heavier weapons never come with a strap, nor does Max have magnetic plates in his back. Due to this, Max can keep a heavy weapon at the ready in hand when using a single pistol, but should you choose to dump shells in the glorious akimbo style of John Woo, you toss the heavy weapon. A logical and well played twist to add a little thought to the otherwise mindless action of switching between weapons. The weapon selection wheel is a quick way to shift to the exact weapon of your choice at the exact time you need it without having to fumble around like a drunk trying to unlock his favela door.
One addition I'm conflicted on is the addition of more painkillers to your stash should you continually die without a bottle to chug. While it feels a bit like hand-holding, this is by no means an easy game, even when playing on Normal, so I'm not sure how frustrated I would be without this feature. Then of course there's the added cover and roll mechanics, which an action game in 2012 would dare not live without, right? It works, though it feels slightly clumsy. Part of what Rockstar Games touted so highly during development were the infinite points of motion capture, the realism of every piece of animation, and the weight the characters move with. Try shoot-dodging into a cornered pillar and you'll see what I mean. As you can imagine, a middle aged, overweight, whiskey guzzling, painkiller addict doesn't move as swiftly as, say, a steroid-riddled, cocaine driven space marine, so Max feels a little slow. It's fine though. Should Max be able to transition between cover broken by a 3 foot gap without exposing his ever-changing coif for more than 5 seconds? You'd think an ex-cop and current killing machine could, but that ain't the case. You learn to work around it and compensate other ways, but it would have been nice to have, and made some unnecessary deaths less frustrating.
The overall design of the game is pleasing on just about all fronts. Visually, Max Payne 3 delivers a perfect combination of grit and popping colors, a sight that lends to the realism of the primary setting of Brazil. Level design is mostly par for the course, with a few exceptions of brilliance such as the favelas, which are just monstrously recreated in all their gloriously grimy detail. Most stages are fairly large but leave little room for exploration. However there are reasons to explore the extra real estate; additional painkillers, non-integral crime scene clues, advancing episodes of Captain Baseball Bat Boy, and golden gun parts to add some bling to your boom. If the player becomes too sidetracked with exploration or flat out lost, always count on Max's sharp, whiskey-soaked drawl to put you back on track. The aforementioned clues are scattered throughout, and do little more than offer further insight into Max's current objectives, punctuated by James McCaffrey's sexy ass rasp. Embrace the sweet sweet English where you can, because Max's understanding of the Portuguese language is nil, leaving the player as dumbfounded as the protagonist when it comes to native conversation. Good thing the language of gunplay is universal. Between the voice acting of all characters, the effects of the world being punctured around you, and the head-noddigly haunting soundtrack, the sound team really deserves a few thousand decibels of props for their work, which will no doubt fly under the radar.
When you're done with the surprisingly lengthy campaign, return for some secondary modes. The arcade modes offer brief respite in the forms of New York Minute, a speed-run oriented mode where you start campaign levels with 1 minute on a countdown, adding time as you blaze through enemies. There's also Score Attack, where you run through the campaign with an increased emphasis on scoring as efficiently as possible, which includes bonuses and multipliers for meeting certain kill conditions. The real meat after the campaign, for me anyway, is the multiplayer modes that I figured Rockstar should have perfected now after GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. Thankfully it does not disappoint, offering plenty of ways to keep an online gamer occupied, even if they are typical. What is atypical, is the inclusion and slick execution of Bullet Time in multiplayer. Adrenaline must be built in order to activate Bullet Time, by successfully attacking and killing enemy players. Once activated, Bullet Time directly affects enemies in your line of sight, causing them to move and shoot slower. The affect can be held off by breaking line of sight by way of taking cover or any other means. It feels very balanced in action and very rarely did I find myself cursing its inclusion due to its inability to be abused.
Multiplayer lobbies are broken into two categories: soft lock and free aim. Much like the campaign selections, soft lock gives you a noticeable boost in aim assistance while free aim requires far more discipline. Aside from this split, there are no handouts, everything is earned. You begin with little more than a meager set of guns, a few skins with their limited customization options, and a Burst (special ability) or two. Even modes must be unlocked, with only Rookie and normal Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch available. Objective based and Hardcore game types are there, but require some work. For instance, it takes a whopping 5000 multiplayer kills to unlock my preference of Hardcore mode. Fortunately your unlock progress is always tracked and displayed at your behest. Even more fortunate is that the multiplayer action is plenty exciting, so odds are you won't grow tired en route to 5k kills. Among the objective modes, most notable to me is Payne Killer mode, where two players take the roles of Max and his pal Passos, while all other players gun for these two in a King of the Hill gametype that works nicely. With plenty of weapons and customization options along the way, Rockstar has assured players will continue to play online for quite some time, something that I could not easily say for their prior attempts at multiplayer.
Max Payne 3 is not without its lumps, but all in all it is a fantastic effort by Rockstar Games to bring one of gaming's most iconic figures into the current generation with the heavy-hitting bang of a Desert Eagle. Though I could sit here and complain about how the events toward the end of the game became a little too convenient a la deus ex machina, or how the lack of moving between cover spots is unbecoming of a modern shooter, I'd rather spend the time enjoying Max's triumphant return. A great story is hard to find, let alone one paired with incredible action sequences and solid multiplayer modes. Max Payne 3 should be played by all, no questions asked. Saúde!
The Score: 9 outta 10 Blasters!