Max Payne 3 is a gritty, wonderfully written third-person shooter starring the world's most jaded police officer.
Years of heavy drinking and painkiller abuse, combined with a very guilty conscience, have taken their toll and Max isn't the same super-cop he was in the previous games. He is a broken shell of a man who escapes his life in dreary New Jersey to follow a new career as a bodyguard in South America. At first, this change of locals seems a bit weird and unnatural, since Max is more at home in the snowy streets of a derelict neighborhood, but the game is so well written and well-paced that this jarring change feels as a necessary step in the evolution of the franchise. The bright and sunny streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil are a constant contrast to Max's gloomy narration, further stressing the fact that Max is a stranger in this strange land, and doesn't really belong there.
So what is he even doing there, in sunny Sao Paulo, you might wonder. Well, Max's life took an even darker turn back in Jersey, after another run-in with the local mob, so he packs up his things and goes to work for some rich people in South America. At first, everything is smooth sailing, but pretty soon trouble catch up to Max, and he must rescue a woman who was kidnapped under his watch. The story gets a little more complicated as the game goes on, and while some of the plot twists are a little predictable, Max Payne 3 still manages to combine story and gameplay in such a manner they seem to fuel one another and keep the player pushing forward.
The game's unique presentation also does a great job at drawing in the player and keeping him fully engaged in Max's journey. Cutscenes are all made in the same graphic-novel style from previous games, only much less static, and the transitions between one level to the next are edited in clever and subtle ways, and are sometimes only apparent thanks to Max's ever changing appearance. Voice actor James McCaffrey is back as Max Payne, and really manages to breathe new life into his character, making him feel like a real, believable person. The voice acting in general is very good, and each new character you meet has so much personality you may forget you're playing a video game. Combine that with beautiful and rich environments and great graphics, and you get a game that not only looks good, but feels real.
Like the settings, Max Payne himself has changed as well. He is slower, grumpier and has even gained a few pounds, and jumping through the air spraying bullets just doesn't come naturally to him anymore. To compensate, Max Payne 3 introduces a new cover system which allows Max to, well, take cover behind all sorts of objects and try and recuperate. Of course, this doesn't mean Max Payne 3 is just another cover-based shooter – no, not at all. The run-and-gun vibe from the previous games is still present, and max can still shoot-dodge or use Bullet Time to clear out rooms with style and finesse.
For those new to the franchise, Bullet Time is Max's ability to slow down time around him, dodging bullets and nailing head shoots. While it isn't as effective this time around, it is still very useful when facing a large group of armed baddies. Triggering Bullet Time and springing out of cover, placing well-aimed headshots one after the other is one of the most empowering feelings in a video game, and it looks pretty cool to boot. There are even some moments when Bullet Time is triggered automatically, like when sliding down a roof or jumping through the air in a speedboat; those moments are there to enhance the cinematic feeling of the game, and they do a great job at it. Of course, there is also the ability to shoot-dodge – that's when Max dives through the air in slow motion, much like using Bullet Time. The difference is that Shoot-Dodge can be activated at any time, and will leave Max laying flat on the ground; don't worry though, because Max can still shoot in 360 degrees while prone.
So you'll spend most of your time with Max Payne 3 shooting and dodging, but that doesn't mean the single-player campaign is repetitive or boring; quite the opposite. The diversity in both locations and guns, not to mention Max's witty narration, will definitely keep you going on and on till the very end. Rockstar has done a great job in creating an engaging single-player experience, and the campaign can easily be considered the high-point on the game. Apart from gunplay, there are also a few collectable in every level, such as clues which will trigger Max's narrator side, and golden gun pieces. They might not contribute all that much to the gaming experience, but it is fun to track down every single clue and learn more about Sao Paulo's political climate and some story-relevant background. There are other single-player modes for the solo player to enjoy, like a highscore mode or a speed-run mode called "New York Minute". They are both quite enjoyable, but quite forgettable as well.
Alongside the single-player campaign there is also a pretty extensive multiplayer mode. Multiplayer is fast, hectic and most importantly – fun. It has all the features most other games have, like levels, weapon customization and unlockable equipment, but it does try out something new – Bursts. Bursts work pretty much like Bullet Time works in the campaign, but a little different. While in the campaign Max recharges his Bullet Time ability rather quickly (simply getting shot at increases the Bullet Time meter), in multiplayer only skillful kills or helping out your team grants you more adrenaline. Once you have enough you can trigger a level 1, 2 or 3 burst, depending on how much adrenaline you have. Each level grants a more powerful variation of your selected ability.
There are many types of bursts; each grants a different ability while playing an online match. The Big Dog burst, for example, boosts your health and that of nearby team members. A higher level Big Dog burst grants the same boost to the entire team. Other bursts include Paranoia which impairs the rival team's ability to distinguish between friend and foe, Trigger Happy that boosts damage, and the familiar Bullet Time. There is an element of strategy involved in triggering a burst – do you hold out for a high level boost, or use a low level burst to gain an immediate, albeit small, advantage. Another twist to the multiplayer formula comes in the form of Vendettas. When another player kills you twice in a row, you can issue a vendetta which grants you more points if you manage to kill that player before he kills you.
Apart from the standard team and single Deathmatch, Max Payne 3 offers two interesting multiplayer modes. One is Gang Wars: an objective-based mode in which two teams battle each other along several rounds, each with its own objective. It can be very fun to play, especially if both teams are equally matched; each round can go either way, and the ever changing goals assure the match never get boring. There are a few objectives that can get very frustrating for a certain side, but good teamwork usually wins the match.
The other special multiplayer mode is Payne Killer. It's basically a combination between Team Deathmatch and regular Deathmatch, but with an added twist: first kill in every match nets you the role of Max Payne himself. Each kill you make while wearing Max's fine leather jacket is worth a lot more points than a simple kill, and on top of that, you are much harder to take down. Once killed, your killer steals Max's persona, and the process repeats. This mode sounds pretty nice on paper, but its implementation is a bit lacking. The added challenge of killing Max Payne doesn't really separates this mode from the basic ones, and it isn't as well thought-out as Gang Wars.
While being an overall well-designed game, Max Payne 3 still has its weaknesses. There are slight control and aiming issues that mainly affect multiplayer. When standing too close to a wall or window, your avatar will hold its gun with the barrel pointing upwards. This can get a little annoying when trying to fire through a window or while moving, since getting a bit too close to a wall will cause you to lose your aim. There is also the obvious elephant in the room: this is a Max Payne game that was not made by Remedy, and sometimes it really shows. While the dialog is still considerably well-written, and the delivery is top-notch, Max's narration just isn't as dark and witty as it was in previous games. This, of course, won't really matter to those new to the series, but long time Max fans will certainly feel the difference.
Max Payne 3 is a superb action game with a great single-player campaign and fast-paced, if a bit shallow, multiplayer. The story is engaging, the gameplay is fun and intense, and both the visual and audio presentations are top-notch and really draw the player into the world of run-down favelas, corruption and other dark themes. Both long-time Max Payne fans and newcomers to the series will appreciate Rockstar's take on the gritty and bitter detective. You might encounter some very minor annoyances while playing the games, but they are mere small bumps in Max Payne's journey through the night, which will hopefully continue after a well deserved vacation.