A missed opportunity to build on the foundations of an outstanding series
biggest_loser wrote this review on .
However, despite the efficiency of the combat model, this is the weakest entry in the series. The game is lacking the moral complexity of its predecessor's narrative and bizarrely omits any pop or literary references, integral to strengthening the themes of the narrative. Instead, someone at Rockstar decided that Max Payne needed a sunny, overtly military-themed setting in Brazil, some speedboat chases, car chases, rail sequences and a lot more gore. The idiosyncratic feeling of the original games is missing, along with the series' unique stylistic identity. The old bloke is inches away from calling in a UAV but a long way from New York City.
From the start, the game's narrative attains a visceral charge and some interesting formal choices, but it gradually deteriorates under its own convoluted labyrinth. Maturely, the previous titles are fixated on the failure of the American Dream. Max is a symbol of American accomplishment, a person so dogged and determined in the face of overwhelming odds. Yet for all the bloodshed and any scarce resolutions he finds, Max remains a tragic figure, tortured and isolated by his past. His bravery to fight the underworld, like an unstoppable winter blizzard over a city, is more of a symptom of madness and revenge, than righteous justice. He is like a classic Noir detective, modernised as man who is pushed one step too far. However, this compelling internal conflict is largely resolved at the end of the second game, The Fall of Max Payne. The follow-up offers little means of adjoining or reference the second game and its resolutions in any detail. Did Max not say that his dreams no longer haunted him?
Neglecting Max's development means that his sudden reliance on booze and pills again offers the game a convenient dark edge, rather than a plausible sense of continuity between the games and the protagonist. Additionally, this is the first game in the series not to use a graphic novel to tell its story. There are now frequent cutscenes to tell the story, seamlessly interwoven between the game play, but it also means that Max is detached from his roots in pulp fiction. It's strange how a developer like Rockstar, so attuned to pop culture and satire, would fail to address either Max's Film Noir or comic book symmetry, refusing to include in-jokes, film references, or just the graphic novel itself, favouring a supposed gritty realism, with speedboat chases.
The game's visceral nature is at times overcharged but often quite affecting too. The story opens gratuitously in Brazil, with a dismembered torso on the ground, not a sight I ever want to relive, but more intense is the raid on the party. Having left America and the police force, Max is now a bodyguard for a private company, protecting a spoilt family. The reasons for this are revealed in scarce flashbacks to New York. While Max is boozing at a party he is meant to be overseeing, the place is raided scarily by armed thugs who kidnap one of the girls in the family. What is problematic about this opening is that little time is taken to establish the side characters beyond caricatures of spoilt brats, before the bullets start to fly. There is also little identification with the villains, even when they are revealed late in the game, which means that their inevitable demise at the hands of Max is far less powerful and meaningful than it was in the other games.
A part of this anonymity in Brazil is deliberate. One of the most successful ideas of the game is Max's sense of disorientation and isolation. The game uses a number of clever techniques, smartly including native Brazilian dialect with no subtitles (a beautiful touch), copious amounts of screen blurring and superimposing key words, so that Max's senses are diluted. There is a fantastic scene early in the game where Max enters a club to protect the family. The amplification of the music and the blurring is tremendously effective in sharing Max's dislocation with the player. Yet true to the lack of development in Max's story, these techniques eventually feel overused. Right up to the final moments in the game, the blurring is still in effect, which weakens its stylistic meaning. Rockstar has not reigned in Max's narration either. The amount of voice-over, self-loathing, swearing and poetic language ("I'd killed more cops than cholesterol") seem to be working in overdrive but not with any purpose. Sometimes Max's quips are achingly blunt and funny but by the end it's forced so heavily and frequently onto the player, trying to convince you of Max's damaged soul, that it feels like he's become a parody of his own cynicism, rather than someone who is selectively witty.
What is also integral to a crime story, painfully missing here, is a plausible motive. If Max is so dispirited, what drives him to keep pursuing these baddies when things become really messy? If it is guilt, I think some dream sequences could have neatly asserted that emotion but they have also been removed too, which means that Max's actions of mowing down cops (or are they?) seems baseless. The overall trajectory of the plot is also a shambles. With two mysterious gangs to fight, an unnecessary subplot about selling organs, characters randomly showing up to explain plot points and scarcely defined personalities, I could not make any sense of the story. This is coupled with awkward jumps in the narrative's timeframe. Max and the family decide to put together money for a ransom payout and in the next scene they've already got the bag in the middle of a stadium. Similarly, a flashback to New York is abruptly dumped right in the middle of an important transition period in Brazil and feels unresolved.
For many of the weaknesses in the narrative though, Max Payne 3 is most successful and fun as a pure shooter. It retains the original bullet time game play but now Max is more fragile than ever: he can die in just a few shots and you must rely strictly on a checkpoint system. As with many modern games now, you also have a cover system to protect yourself from bullets. To play the game at exciting levels though it is best to forget the cover and dive into the action, using shootdodging and bullet time collectively. You can spectacularly dodge bullets and move in slow motion, watch individual rounds wiz straight past you as you return fire. I found this was the game at its most thrilling, with many intense and incredibly exciting gun battles. The downside is your fragility because it removes a lot of the elegance and the transcendent beauty from the original games. The previous games allowed you choreograph your own Matrix-like gunfights, as you waded across environments in slow motion, with superhuman grace. Now you can only sporadically use bullet time, which does force you to be more strategic, but some of the fun is lost.
There are a few handy touches, including being able to stay prone on the ground and keep firing and also a final kill move, which gives you a brief period of time to make a last ditch effort to kill an attacker before you die, restoring some of your health too. This removes a lot of the frustration from your limited pain threshold. There's also a wide variety of locations, such as warehouses, factories, rooftops, apartment blocks, city streets and glimpses of New York. All of these levels rely on a checkpoint system: you can't save your game individually anymore, which is challenging but not overly so. Only in the final stages of an airport, including a ridiculous boss battle, does it become very frustrating. Many of these environments are well detailed, with appropriate levels of graffiti, debris and ample panes of glass to shoot through, but the atmosphere and the feel of the game seems remote for this series.
Setting the game anywhere but America, especially sunburnt Brazil, away from the ice and snow of New York, was always going to be problematic. Brazil is colourful, vibrant, noisy and alive. As a series, Max Payne is not. Where is the sense of cold dread, the slums of an icy city, alit through short bursts of gunfire? This sequel offers a different sense of isolation, successful in its own right, but not as haunting as the brooding Noir universe we once knew. Returning briefly to New York, I rejoiced in seeing the dark shadows, the thick layers of snow and the deliciously morbid gothic architecture, all hallmarks of the series. Also deterring from the Noir atmosphere is the reliance on gimmicks like rail sequences. There are moments Max will attach himself to a cable line, or flying fox, and drift across the top of a room in slow-motion, firing bullets on baddies below. These aren't very challenging but provide a harmless diversion.
That is also where I draw the line. But Max is required to man turrets on the back of a speedboat, gunning down baddies along a river, or lean out of a train window to blast gangsters parallel to him. Even more ridiculous is a late sequence where he leans out of a bus to take aim, followed most stupidly by an end chase where he fires a grenade launcher off at various speeding jeeps. It detracts sharply from the classic Noir feel of the original games, if only so that Max Payne can now resemble recent military shooters.
Max Payne 3 features solid and sometimes exhilarating bullet time game play but it is not a true sequel to The Fall of Max Payne. The convoluted story lacks the same ambition and creativity as its predecessors, failing to assert Max as a character who is more than just a killing machine. Also, in spite of the quality of the gunplay, there are too many moments and design choices that feel misplaced. Brazil is a miscalculated setting, too far removed from 'Noir York City', and the games reliance on big set pieces, is detached from the contained mood and isolation of the rest of the series. This game had plenty of fun action moments for me but it feels like Rockstar was preparing for Grand Theft Auto V, instead of making a true Max Payne game. I felt this was a missed opportunity to build on the foundations of an outstanding series and I worry that Max's time might have finally run out.