Though video games as a medium seem to grow exponentially in terms of artistic and narrative complexity from year to year, one simple facet of interactive storytelling still hasn't been entirely figured out: the role of the player character. While a lot of novels and films seem to live and die by their protagonists, video game heroes are usually afterthoughts, and sometimes even wholly unsympathetic and unavoidably contradictory (the Uncharted series' happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake who can flirt with a love interest one second and then proceed to murder two dozen people the next is a shining example). Allowing players to interact with an environment and giving them a set of tasks tailor-made to provide a sense of mechanical fun and fulfillment is almost never conducive to creating a memorable, three-dimensional character. Yet, one only needs to leave it to Rockstar to figure out how to capture the best of both worlds. Max Payne 3 confronts the issue of inconsistent characterization for the sake of gameplay head-on, and is tremendously successful in overcoming the problem. The game's world-weary titular protagonist is well aware of the inner demons and cycle of violence that he (and by extension, the player) perpetuates. He guns down hordes of nameless foes, and pops painkiller after painkiller everywhere he goes, but he owns up to his violent nature. Ultimately, the fact that Max is always aware of what he's doing (though not always of why he's doing it) makes him a much more sympathetic and human character than the vast majority of protagonists to be found in video gaming. And that is the game's single greatest achievement. Of course the action is glorious, the multiplayer is robust, and the production values are nearly flawless - that's to be expected of any Rockstar game that comes out nowadays; but it's the unflinching and hard-hitting struggle against all odds experienced by both Payne and the player along the course of its stupendous campaign that makes Max Payne 3 a striking, masterful game.
The game begins with Max peering down at the gritty streets of Sao Paulo from the balcony of a glitzy hotel, quickly capturing one of the narrative's essential themes: the disparity between the rich and poor. The conflicts here aren't started by some rogue badass with a cause, they're the result of a deep-seated animosity between Sao Paolo's wealthy, who get to party it up on rooftops, and the poor, who have to slum it out in the favelas. Max Payne is hired onto the security detail for the Branco family, one of Brazil's richest and most powerful, who very quickly find themselves a gang target. From there, it's up to Max to navigate through all the grisly conflicts between rich and poor, law and criminal that define Rockstar's vision of Sao Paulo. The end result is a winding, brutal, and unforgettable story that packs a real punch. Certain scenes cut to the bone, and Max Payne is forced to grow as a character to survive when things start slipping out of his control.
As mentioned earlier, Max Payne guns down dozens of enemies in each level, and though that fact could easily be justified as a way of crafting fun firefights for players to blast their way through (which it is), Max is quite self-aware. Not in the sense that the game breaks the fourth wall, or ever confronts the player directly, but merely that the protagonist knows that killing massive numbers of people and getting in way over his head seems to be his lot in life. This one simple plot detail helps elevate the character and overall story experience even further. Every bit of Payne's characterization feels believable despite the fact that a man who can dive around in slow-motion and pop pills in the middle of a gunfight should, by all logic, be entirely unbelievable. Fans of the original games need not worry, writer (and Rockstar co-owner) Dan Houser's vision of the character and his universe is even more memorable than Remedy's.
While the story is a triumph in and of itself, it's the way in which it's integrated into singleplayer gameplay that is most striking. The game moves from cut-scene to gameplay seamlessly, without a trace of loading times to be found - you may even be caught off guard by some of the places in which the game chooses hand the reins back over to you. The result is a breakneck sense of pace, the likes of which has only been achieved in a few other games, and once Max Payne 3 grabs your attention, you might find it exceedingly difficult to put the controller back down.
This cinematic presentation is greatly augmented by the game's production values. Though Rockstar's Rage engine is starting to show its age in some respects, the game's graphics are mostly great. The game has a superb art style that manages to believably capture everything from a muddy, decrepit boat graveyard to snowed-out Hoboken back alleys, and character designs are equally inspired. The game's blurry faux-lens technique (ripped straight from Tony Scott's film "Man on Fire") is also an integral part of its visual design. Audio-wise the game retains its consistent quality. Rockstar has always had some of the best soundtracks in the business, and Max Payne 3 is no different. There's a few of brooding, orchestral compositions, a lot haunting noise rock courtesy of the band Health, and some selections of Brazilian music in select sequences. The impactful battle sound effects and impeccable voice work seal the deal. While Max Payne 3 does struggle with some of its engine's limitations, the overall presentation is still almost flawless.
Of course, none of that narrative and cinematic goodness would be worthwhile if the gameplay driving it wasn't fun. Luckily, Max Payne 3's slick shooting mechanics, and deft mix of tactical and run-and-gun action makes it one of the best third-person shooters on the market. For the uninitiated, Max Payne's signature move is the Shoot Dodge, an impressive, Jon Woo-esque maneuver that allows Max to dive through the air and wreak glorious havoc in slow-motion until he hits the ground. This maneuver has always been the series' show-stopping mechanic, and even though plenty of games have lifted the idea since, it's still as entertaining as ever. Dipping into slow-motion Bullet Time without performing the Shoot Dodge even more crucial; Max moves slightly faster than his foes when time slows down, so the tables can be turned on seemingly impossible firefights rather quickly.
Max Payne 3 also introduces the franchise to a cover system much like any other that has dominated third-person shooters for the past several years now. The catch here is that the use of cover isn't as heavily emphasized as it is in most games. Hunkering down to pull off a few quick kills or pop some painkillers (there's still no regenerating health) before reentering the fray is about all you'll use it for throughout most of the game. However, as the difficulty ramps up about two-thirds of the way through the campaign, players are forced to use cover much more often. Though this is sometimes due to frustrating and artificial spikes in difficulty (which pretty much make up the only issue I can find with this game), it's largely a nice change of pace; actively figuring out when to take a slower approach, and when to charge into battle with reckless abandon is intense, and, when you make the right choice, immensely rewarding.
Even when separated from all its flourishes, the game's core shooting mechanics are slick and satisfying. On a presentational level, the firefights are often just as superb and cinematic as the cutscenes that precede them; environments get torn to shreds, enemies move intelligently and react realistically to their injuries, a number of interesting set-pieces change things up a bit, and brutal, slow-motion kill cams punctuate each battle. Furthermore, the animations are uncompromisingly real despite the fact that the action is way over-the-top. If you've ever wondered how, exactly, two guns are reloaded when dual-wielded, or how someone can carry a two handed weapon without a shoulder-strap while clutching a pistol in the other hand, Max Payne 3 has all the answers.
Max Payne 3's gameplay is an incredible mix of new and old-school sensibilities. The steady integration of narrative and gameplay in its singleplayer campaign creates a great sense of pace, and the gunplay balances run-and-gun arcade gameplay with tactical stop-and-pop in a way that's never been seen before. It's been a long time since Rockstar has made a flagship game that's this focused. The game is no sprawling epic, but the concentration of resources is made abundantly clear; Max Payne 3 upgrades the series' rock-solid foundation in innumerable ways, and the result is one of the most singular shooters on the market.
There's also a robust multiplayer mode to dive into, and it's easily Rockstar's best online offering to date. The game features all the customizable loadouts, challenges, and leveling up that most players have no doubt grown accustom to over the last few years. The game really starts to deviate from the norm with its unique spin on the now-standard killstreak system. You can only have one killstreak (dubbed Burst) per loadout, so as you rack up adrenaline (from dodging gunfire, getting kills, and looting corpses), you have to choose to either cash in on your Burst immediately, or wait to accumulate more adrenaline, resulting in more powerful effects. Knowing when to dispense your Burst immediately, and when to go for the glory and try to save it up is a fun challenge in and of itself; a minimum-adrenaline Burst may help you take down an enemy player or two, but if you choose to wait, a fully-charged Burst can absolutely devastate the other team.
The game modes feature a few different spins on standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch game types, but the real stars of the show are Gang Wars and Payne Killer. The latter is a mode that sees two players taking control of either Max Payne, or his partner-in-crime, Raul Passos while six other players try to kill them. If you kill Payne or Passos, you become them, and thus acquire a number of overpowered abilities that even the odds. But, the standard grunts can still overwhelm you, and so the cycle continues.
Gang Wars is an awesome mode that features a dynamic list of objectives that cycles regularly. Each match consists of five rounds with unique objectives, and rounds cycle every four or five minutes. Each new objective you encounter is directly affected by the outcome of the preceding round. The constant variety Gang Wars provides it impressive in its own right, and the sense of dynamic progression that influences it all adds some serious replayability.
Not only is Max Payne 3's multiplayer suite easily the best that Rockstar has ever put together, it also fits in perfectly with the themes that drive it singleplayer campaign. Gang Wars and Payne Killer are especially fitting summations of the cyclical, inevitable violence that the singleplayer game portrays. By providing small bits of narrative context and putting you in the shoes of a common thug, Gang Wars matches further flesh out the hellish, futile power struggle that takes place endlessly in Rockstar's Sao Paolo from a new perspective. After completing the game's singleplayer campaign, the narrative that backs up some matches can be especially impactful; by getting to see what the city was like before and after Max arrived, you get an even better sense of the effects his actions in the campaign had. Payne Killer achieves a similar goal; not only do you face the seemingly impossible challenge of trying to take down Payne and Passos from the eyes of a nameless gunman, but you'll quickly start taking more risks in hopes of replacing them. These thematic tie-ins may not dominate your thoughts as you play each match, but they're ultimately hugely successful in hitting home the brutal conflicts that take place within the game's gritty environments.
"The way I see it, there's two types of people: those who spend their lives trying to build a future, and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past," Payne astutely observes partway through the campaign before describing himself as being "stuck in between." A pretty fitting description of Max Payne 3 as a whole, I'd say. On one hand, Rockstar sticks to what made the first Max Payne games so tremendous; the slow-mo gunplay, heavy story, and brooding atmosphere that defined the first two titles are still a huge part of Max Payne 3. On the other, Rockstar updates the series in great ways; the storytelling is snappier and more powerful, modern shooting mechanics underscore the game's old-school action, and a AAA multiplayer experience will keep you hooked. Even more significant than its combination of new and old-school trappings is Max Payne 3's strong authorial voice. Though definitive characterization usually conflicts with gameplay in most other titles, Max Payne 3 successfully subverts this problem, and the resulting narrative is utterly captivating.
Though it comes from a studio known for making massive interactive worlds, Max Payne 3's relative lack of scope shouldn't be construed as laziness. The game instead has an unshakeable focus on delivering white-knuckled action and an affecting story that defines its singleplayer campaign and multiplayer matches alike. Backed up by awesome production values, mechanics and high replayability, Max Payne 3 is yet another modern classic courtesy of Rockstar Games.