Max Payne is a man who can't catch a break. Haunted by the murders of his wife and baby girl, and the loss of the woman who managed to crack through his rock-solid shell, Max has become a washed-up, broken man with an addiction to alcohol and pain killers, waiting on the day for the planet to stop so he can step off. Left with no other choice, Max takes up an offer from a man named Passos, an ex-cop he can't remember meeting in the police academy, to do private security for a wealthy industrialist family in São Paulo, Brazil.
A spot of sunshine in his grimdark life might've done poor Max well, but his luck ran out long ago. Starting with the kidnapping of his new boss' wife, Max finds himself caught up in the middle of an increasingly sinister plot. Despite the sunny new environment, Max Payne 3 is an incredibly dark and violent tale of corruption, death and despair that blends the worst of humanity with the best of intentions. We wouldn't exactly call the story "Oscar-worthy," but the writing and performances are engrossing, walking the tightrope between cynicism and hope that helps elevate the tale to among the most memorable the medium has yet seen.
Rockstar's vision of original developer Remedy's tale of woe makes a lot of sense given the context: a developer with a predilection for stories of redemption and the cinematic aspirations and skills to bring them to life, Max Payne 3 is a highly authored and focused experience seldom pulled off on this high a level in video games — what Naughty Dog's Uncharted series does for the adventure genre, Max Payne 3 does for Hong Kong-style action flicks. Rockstar has crafted an incredibly impressive world filled with visual splendour and top-notch animation — the linear scope of the game has allowed for greater emphasis to be placed on creating a small number of really great-looking environments as opposed to the pretty, open vistas and busy cities for which Rockstar has become most known. Character animation is detailed and quite fantastic, although it does bump up against fluidity of movement from time to time.
Much of the success in presentation comes down to the dissociative editing style, which feels almost as broken as the man himself, bleeding colour and struggling to keep chaos in focus. Artistically speaking, Rockstar knocks it out of the park, creating a bold visual style that successfully adds texture to the world and captures the degree to which Max's substance abuse corrupts his life. It can be dizzying at times (intentionally so, we'd imagine) and there is the feeling that Rockstar occasionally lays it on a bit too thick, obscuring the scenery with what a cynical person could argue is visual gimmickry. But since we're not that cynical, merely a bit overwhelmed at times by its novelty, we appreciated its ability to project a more complete version of Max as unbalanced, broken and dangerous.
Rockstar's very conscious decision to focus on telling a gripping story does come with sacrifices for player agency, putting Max on a straight-and-narrow path through the game and not afraid to nudge or outright take the reigns away in favor of actions that best advance the story and get to the next shoot-out. While transitions between play and cut scene are impressively seamless, it's becomes very apparent just how limited the player's role in play actually is, which can be off-putting to those who prefer a bit more freedom in their games outside of gun fights.
But boy, does Max Payne 3 shoot pretty. Bordering on a fetishistic portrayal of weaponry, Rockstar's combat is both visually beautiful and disturbing with a solid feel to it that keeps things interesting for the duration of the campaign's 8-10 hours. The series' signature slow-down mechanic returns in style to fuel the combat, giving Max the advantage of aiming faster than his foes can move and able to see every individual bullet whiz through the air, and a new cover mechanic allows Max to breathe a bit during shoot-outs. In previous games slow-down was awesomely achieved through a "shoot-dodge," also known as flinging across the room all John Woo-like, and while that certainly remains a viable tactic here its importance has been toned down a bit, in part because of cover. An Adrenaline meter that fills as Max kills or is shot at can be triggered at any time with a click of R3, and combined with taking cover lets Max slow down the environment, pop out of cover and shoot some poor bastard in the face, which is a far more reliable approach to battles than running around guns ablaze. Killing the last poor bastard in the room triggers a bullet cam, following the trajectory from the gun to the enemy's body — Max can continue to fire as this happens to fill the new corpse full of lead, and holding X slows the animation speed to let you admire the death animation in greater gory detail.
In a nod to the series' history Max's health doesn't regenerate; painkillers replenish him. If you happen to have at least one bottle of painkillers on you as you're gunned down, what would otherwise result in death triggers what Rockstar refers to as Last Man Standing: if he can put a bullet in the assailant who gunned him down before he hits the ground in slow motion, Max survives the attack but loses all of his built-up adrenaline. It's a very helpful addition to combat as the enemies are no push-overs and grow in power and defence as the story progresses, doling out frequent saves.
In all honesty, though, the combat remains fun but not truly outstanding. Somewhat of a victim of its own innovation, Bullet Time has been churned and pulled in so many directions by a slew of titles since the original PC game hit ten years ago that it feels like less of a killer app now, making Max Payne's relatively straight-forward central gameplay hook feel like a humble throwback in comparison. And now that he's able to take cover behind nearby objects, it's easy for fights to devolve into stop-and-pop gameplay with slowdown against overwhelmingly lethal opposition. Max's combat legacy is that of leading the pack, but it feels as if he is settling for parity here. The series isn't known for overly lengthy campaigns and the 8-10 hours it takes for the story to wrap feels like just the right length, neither overstaying its welcome nor ending abruptly. Campaign-wide challenges and collectibles hidden around the stages encourage repeat play, and the arcade-spirited Score Attack and New York Minute modes kick the campaign up a notch.
Those are all well and good, but what is worth sticking around for is the vast new multiplayer component, a first for the series. Rockstar has dabbled with multiplayer in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, allowing players to posse up and screw around in the world. Max Payne 3, on the other hand, has little interest in screwing around and guns instead for more competitive gameplay. The general framework will be familiar to online players, with loads of levelling, unlocks and load-out customising — there's enough here from a strictly content basis to keep you playing for hours and hours, but where the suite shines is in how it takes advantage of the game's mechanics with interesting, sometimes thrilling implementations.
Signature mechanic Bullet Time is used sparingly but effectively as a Burst — a chosen special ability — that when triggered captures the chain of people within line of sight; those outside remain unaffected. The effect doesn't last very long and is balanced so that players won't be triggering Bullet Time left and right to bring the match to a crawl. Standard free-for-all and team deathmatch modes make good use of it, but time is best spent playing Gang Wars, a series of matches and modes that build on campaign events and varying objectives, and Payne Killer, a team-based King of the Hill-style game where players try to kill Max and Passos only to then take on their role and special abilities. And through the Rockstar Social Club you can create and join Crews, which are essentially clans that will carry forward into Grand Theft Auto V's multiplayer; there are XP incentives associated with Crews, but they aren't anything terribly revolutionary.
With an intriguing editing style and story, rock-solid performances and eye candy galore, Max Payne 3's campaign hits hard where most games whiff. While the gunplay is gorgeous and Superman-ing around the room doesn't really get old, sadly the core combat doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of the wrapper — faithful to the series, but a bit arrested.
However, combat is put to good use in multiplayer where those same mechanics haven't been done to death, and those looking for a new flavour of online multiplayer would do well to give Max Payne 3 a look; its smart incorporation of series mechanics makes it fresh enough to distinguish itself from the myriad of first-person shooters dying to be Call of Duty, and an easy migratory destination for Uncharted players.
Max Payne's life may be one of the worst on the planet, but Rockstar certainly spins one hell of a yarn with it.