For years, the shooter genre has remained largely where it was half a decade ago. Most of the innovations within the genre came largely from incorporating elements from RPG games, most notably by including more customization options as well as various leveling up features. The impact of RPG games doesn’t end here, as video games, in general, are becoming more and more plot-driven. Furthermore, the design focus has shifted from single player to multiplayer, as evidenced by the tremendous success of the Call of Duty series. Max Payne 3 attempts to find a balance among all things: story and gameplay, single player and multiplayer, etc. So the question to ask is, does it succeed?
Before we dive into the details, it’s best if you learn a little something about the franchise. Max Payne 1 was developed by Remedy Entertainment (now largely known for Alan Wake) and was released in 2001. Its subsequent sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, would be released two years later in 2003. The series is largely known for its insane, over-the-top, Hong Kong style action by incorporating bullet time and shootdodge mechanics. It is also embraced by fans for its grimy tone and graphic-novel-like cut scenes. Despite of adoration by critics and hardcore fans, Max Payne 2 performed disappointingly in sales and was left to rot. It wasn’t until 2009 when Rockstar Games, the publisher of the games, announced that Max Payne 3 was in development. After two more quiet years, Rockstar Games finally gave its fans a firm release window of 2012. Now here we are, playing the game.
As mentioned, the story of Max Payne has always been dark and noirish. Max Payne 3 is no exception. This time round, the titular character is even more depressed than ever. Not only is he a suicidal maniac who pops pills like candies and substitutes alcohol for water, he also carries guns. Here’s a question. What is the sum of a man with nothing to lose and lots of guns?
*starts humming music from Jeopardy*
DING! DING! DING!
If your answer was lots of trouble, or something along those lines, then I’m glad to tell you that you were right. Basically, Max steps on the toes of some bad people. As a result, he takes up a job offer in Sao Paulo, thousands of miles away from his home in New Jersey. There, he is assigned to protect the wife of Fabiana Branco, wife to the rich and powerful Rodrigo Branco. Fueled by the loss of his loved ones, Max feels absolutely obliged to protect Fabiana. So, when Fabiana is kidnapped, Max goes ahead and unleashes wrath’s of fury upon those who took her away, and more importantly tries to bring Mrs Branco back safely.
For the most part, the plot is fairly straightforward, even predictable at times. It is very much in tone with the first two games, in which smaller events unveil larger conspiracies. Compared to the last two games, the storyline in Max Payne 3 is a lot more grounded and believable. Many had concerns over the atmospheric change in the game, citing that Sao Paulo is not nearly as dark as New York, and hence, the end product would end up going against its roots. Personally, the change in setting didn’t affect me one bit. The story is as dark as ever and the setting doesn’t change that fact. Plus, there are flashback missions set in New Jersey, which should please the doubters. Generally speaking, the story is fine. There are, however, a couple of moments which are clearly products of lazy writing, and they can’t simply be disregarded.
With that being said, why should you care about the story? The answer is simple. Max, as a character, is extremely well-written. The character development is very organic. Events throughout the game bring subtle changes to Max’s personality and approach. The dialogues, filled with Max’s sense of dark humor, are amazing. I especially enjoyed the line which Max says, “I had a hole in my second favorite drinking arm,” after taking a bullet in his left arm. The presentation compliments the character study very well. The largely varied soundtrack sets up the atmosphere. Cut scenes highlight snippets of important quotes by characters. For those who miss the comic-panel cut scenes, Rockstar has incorporated various freeze frame cinematic techniques. The cut scenes are rendered in real time using the game’s engine and they look absolutely gorgeous. As a result, the transition from cut scene to gameplay is very smooth (with no loading screens), and is a very nice touch for a plot-driven game.
As cinematic as it is, Max Payne 3 is still a video game at the end of the day. So, how does the gameplay fare? I am glad to report that the single player mode is still very “Max Payne” at heart. Run and gun is undoubtedly the way the game is intended to play. If you intend to duck behind a wall and blind fire until your bullets hit someone, then this is simply not the game for you.
To discourage players from hiding behind covers, Rockstar has brought back the health pack system. Well, it’s a Max Payne game after all, so instead of calling health packs first aid kits, we call them painkillers. More importantly, the health regen we’re so used to is almost non-existent. Your health will only regen by a bit if you’re on the verge of dying.
In addition to the old school health system, the maps are large and are designed for flanks, which your foes are more than happy to do. Some of your enemies will lay down cover fire while the rest will charge at you. As you can see here, the AI is fairly smart. They aim with surgical precision, making the game that much harder. This is also the very reason why bullet time is so important in this game, as it gives you more time to aim. The bullet time bar depletes at a significantly higher rate on higher levels of difficulty, further amping up the challenge. Slow-mo shootdodging is still somehow possible when the bullet time bar is empty. You wouldn’t want to use shootdodging unless in desperate circumstances since it takes a while for Max to get back up on his feet after performing the move, deeming you a sitting duck at this point. Even though you may still fire your weapons at any direction in prone position, it is still a significant disadvantage. Should the player run out of health with at least one painkiller in possession, the screen will go into slow motion, giving the player a chance to take down the enemy who fired the fatal shot. If the player succeeds, Max will be revived.
For people who are not used to a run-and-gun styled gameplay, the game provides three aiming options. The hard lock would aid the player by snapping on targets automatically; the soft lock would only snap on the target closest to the reticule once the player aims down the sight; the free aim, as its title suggests, will give you no aid whatsoever. I went through the game with free aim and have come to conclude that it is the most satisfying of the three options.
Like any typical Rockstar game, there are various collectibles hidden throughout each level for players to find. These collectibles come in the form of clues and golden gun parts. Clues give players a better understanding of the story and Max’s past. Golden gun parts grant players larger clip size. Each firearm contains 3 golden parts. Once the player has managed to find all 3, he/she can enjoy the benefit of a larger clip for that particular weapon. The weapon will become gold-tinted as well.
Other than the story mode, the game also features a couple of arcade modes. In Score Attack, your primary goal is to gain points by finding ways to kill your enemies as stylishly as you can. The fan favorite New York Minute is also back, in which you start out with one minute on the timer, and time is added as you kill more and more. Personally, I have no interest in the arcade modes whatsoever, since they play out the exact same scenarios in the game and offer up little differences.
Presentation wise, the game is phenomenal. The graphics look fantastic, and the RAGE engine combined with Euphoria, as usual, feels realistic. It is particularly noteworthy that each bullet is individually rendered. Bullets whizzing all over the place in bullet time is absolutely a thing of beauty. When you manage to finish off the final bad guy in the area, a bullet cam is triggered, which follows the bullet on its path to take the life away from its victim in slow mo. At this point, the player is welcomed to pump an excessive amount of rounds on the poor fella as he drops to the ground. Wounds are created on bodies, and enemies react according to the spot of bullet entry. If you hit an enemy standing on top of a building in the knee, he might lose balance and fall off the building to his impending demise. Headshots have never been more satisfying, as you watch their lifeless bodies thud to the ground.
Last but not least, there is the multiplayer. Multiplayer is insanely fun *ahem* unlike the *ahem* forced co-op in *ahem * Mass Effect 3 … *ahem*. Players are allowed to customize their avatars, by designing their looks and picking their equipments, as well as forming crews (which would carry on to other Rockstar titles). Each player is also allowed to select a nice variety of bursts, which are essentially perks. Before you ask, yes, the ability to activate bullet time is one of the many bursts. There are also some nice little touches to spice things up, such as declaring vendetta on a certain player. Players are also given options of playing with free aim or soft lock, and would only go up against those with the same settings.
In addition to the standard deathmatch options, the game also includes two unique ones. They are Payne Killer and Gang Wars respectively. Instead of explaining it myself, I’ll let the video do the talking.
There are times when you respawn into the middle of a firefight, which can get really annoying. However, they can be overlooked given the overall level of fun provided by the game modes.
Max Payne 3 is an incredibly ambitious project. Rockstar Games stepped out of their comfort zone into an area they have never explored, and genuinely attempted to revitalize a subgenre of shooting games. Their innovations, while not particularly groundbreaking or trend-setting, are exceptional in today’s predictable video gaming industry. Bottom line, Rockstar Games did set another high bar in terms of technological achievement for video gaming, and Max Payne 3 does provide a fresh, different experience compared to other shooting games. For those reasons, Rockstar Games deserves a whole lot of credit, and our money.