LSMedia Rating: ****
I have been a fan of the Max Payne series ever since I rented the first game back in 2001, a game that was awarded a Bafta award it was so good. Why, I hear you ask, should a simple 3rd person shooter be held in such high regards? There are two reasons; firstly, the gameplay was, on first impressions, hardly groundbreaking, save for the introduction of bullet time. Many games have tried to copy Rockstar’s method of using this mechanic, but no one really captured the beauty of simply slowing down time like Max Payne did. The whole game was built around it, every bullet was modelled individually so you could see what you were diving away from, the final kill cams were brilliantly brutal for the time and the game became art when bullet time was activated.
Secondly, the story would draw any gamer in. It was a classic noire-revenge tale of a cop who had lost his family and now had nothing left to lose. However, as straightforward as that seemed, you would end up uncovering a conspiracy where Max and his family were simply collateral damage. Add into the mix a script that was full of dark and melancholy one liners and nightmare sequences that to this day creep me out and you had a masterpiece of videogame story telling. The sequel, whilst not as compelling as the first, tied every loose end and still managed to provide enough suspense to keep the franchise popular. The newest entry has been in development for a long time now and what was shown by way of concept pictures was not well received. Max was now in South America and had gone bald, but the debut trailer that hit the net late last year was far more promising.
The result is a triumphant return for a franchise that has been away far too long. It reminds me what shooters used to be; no nonsense, chaotic fun. Oh sure, there is now a cover system and you can’t just run out into every engagement, but these changes never detract from the brilliant gameplay and intriguing story. The game picks up a few years after the second. Max has left New York to work as private security for the rich and beautiful people in South America. He’s actually gotten even more depressed and addicted to booze and pills. He, along with his slightly reckless partner Raul Passos, are under the employ of a wealthy Brazilian family, the Brancos, but of course everything goes bad in a big way. What follows keeps in line with the traditional Max Payne way of forming a plot; something simple snowballing into a massive conspiracy that goes places that most games would most certainly avoid.
What impresses me most about the plot is that the other two games were dark in nature, but this one is on another level. There are, at most, 4 occasions in a 10 or 11 hour long story where Max actually has something to be happy about. Apart from those moments, the story is completely bleak which works as a great contrast to his sunny surroundings. Max, voiced once again by James McCaffrey, has become a wreck of his former self. Admittedly, he was already a depressing character, which makes his character all the more interesting in my opinion. It gives a stark look at a man who has completely broken down, but somehow always manages to survive wave after wave of gun-toting nutters. Furthermore, when I say this story goes to some dark places, I mean that. Just to give an example that won’t ruin anything to do with the plot, you regularly see people being executed, some in ways I can’t believe the developers put in the game.
As for the gameplay, not much has changed from the originals; bullet time is still the key mechanic used to get through tricky fire fights, weapons are brutal no matter the range and levels are still linear but absorbing. The additions to gameplay bring the franchise in line with modern shooters. The cover system, whilst seemingly out of place in a Max Payne game, is handled reasonably well. It’s hardly perfect, but changes depending on your environment which shows attention to detail. Bullet time returns and is even better executed than it was in the original. Bullets fly from every direction and seeing all this chaos in slow motion never, I repeat never, gets old. Finally, there are a range of scripted events where you take control of aiming while Max pulls off a ridiculously over the top stunt which make the game even more cinematic.
Graphically, all those years in development have done it a world of good. Everything from the environments to the weapon animations; the graphics are stunning, especially during bullet time. What’s more impressive is the fact there are no loading screens. What you get is seamless transitions from cinemas to gameplay. The big thing that most reviewers are mentioning is the odd effect that distorts the screen during both cutscenes and gameplay. Some have dismissed it as annoyance, others have credited as representing Max’s state of mind. I tend to agree with the latter argument, but that’s probably because it didn’t annoy me. This leads me on to some problems I found because this isn’t a perfect game. That visual effect won’t appeal to everyone plus there isn’t an option to turn it off. The physics engine, a version of the Euphoria engine from Red Dead Redemption, allows for some memorable moments, but some glitches really stand out.
Multiplayer is the surprise success story here, though. There are the usual standard modes like team deathmatch, but there is so much more to this mode than that. Firstly, the two modes that are exclusive to this game, ‘Gang Wars’ and ‘Payne Killer’, are superb to play. Gang Wars brings narrative to multiplayer giving two teams 5 linked matches with success in the first four giving one team a possible advantage in the final match whilst ‘Payne Killer’ places two players as either Max or Raul and lets them rein hell on the others. If you can kill either, you become their character. Secondly, the way Rockstar imports bullet time into multiplayer is brilliant. Basically, you can use it, but it won’t affect every player in the match, only those in your line of sight. Whilst I haven’t spent a lot of time online, not once have I found bullet time a problem.
There are some things I think could have been added, a co-op mode for example. Despite the minor problems I’ve mentioned though, Max Payne 3 does something that very few games, even ones I love, do; it gives me a memorable experience. As much as I applaud say, Assassin’s Creed, I can’t remember a lot of the missions. With Max Payne 3, I can recall every plot twist, every level, even every major shoot-out. This is a masterpiece of videogame storytelling and gameplay.