There isn’t a single developer out there that can hold a candle to Rockstar Games when it comes to character development. The studio’s knack for sharp writing and poignant social commentary has led to the realization of some of the most authentic and memorable characters we’ve ever seeing in video games. As such, it goes without saying that when Remedy Entertainment turned the Max Payne franchise over to the capable hands of the Houser brothers, anticipation for the third installment flew through the roof, as gamers couldn’t wait to see how the famed Grand Theft Auto developer would flesh out the series’ complex and disturbed protagonist.
So now that they game has finally arrived, one question remains: Has Rockstar managed to do the pill-popping, alcoholic action hero justice?
Max Payne fans can rest easy, as the answer to that query is a resounding yes. Much like Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 serves as a shining example of how Rockstar can take a pre-existing franchise from a completely different studio and breathe new life into it by capitalizing on their storytelling strengths. However, that isn’t to say that Max’s latest outing isn’t without its fair share of flaws, as a strict adherence to a number of series’ mainstays holds it back from being a truly remarkable experience.
Open world, sandbox gameplay has been a hallmark of the bulk of Rockstar’s titles, so Max Payne 3’s overly linear structure stood out to me like a sore thumb. While yes, the franchise is centered around a much more story-driven, scene-by-scene kind of experience, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being funneled from one firefight to another. The game has this fantastic dark atmosphere, I just wish they did more to really flesh it out and make it feel like a place to explore, rather than just a backdrop for an endless torrent of white knuckle action.
The combat itself is fun, but isn’t quite as responsive as I had hoped. For those that aren’t too familiar with the series, the game’s bullet time mechanic will take a bit of getting used to, but once everything clicks, it serves as a competent third-person shooter. If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption, then the game’s core control scheme should feel right at home. I was actually pretty disappointed about this, mostly because I’ve always found the controls of most Rockstar titles to be their Achilles’ heel. But unlike the aforementioned titles, Max Payne 3 doesn’t have an open world to hide behind. This game is first and foremost a third-person shooter, and as such, it should bear the responsiveness and fluidity of others in its class. In the end, the gameplay of Max Payne 3 felt more like GTA IV with tacked on bullet time than anything else. That’s not a bad thing by any means, it just not a major selling point either.
And finally, just one more gripe, the health system. Now I know that hunting around for bottles of painkillers has been a staple to the franchise in the past, but come on, Max Payne 2 came out nearly ten years ago. When I’m playing a shooter, I don’t want to have to worry about healing myself—that’s why regenerating health, while hardly realistic, has become so popular. Fortunately, the game is void of virtually any load times—which are expertly masked behind cutscenes—so when you die, and I assure you, this will happen quite often, you’ll be able to jump right back into the action within seconds. Sure, drugs play a significant role in conveying the troubled character that Max is, but I don’t need to see him popping pills in the middle of a firefight to get the gist. Rockstar does a fantastic job of fleshing out who Max is outside of archaic gameplay conventions like life bars and health packs.
The presentation of Max Payne 3 is without a doubt the game’s crowning achievement. From the game’s cleverly written and well acted cast to the dark and disturbing cutscenes that glue the action together, Rockstar has outdone themselves yet again. The inner turmoil and demons that haunt the game’s protagonist feel believable and real. As the game progresses, you witness the slow but steady downward spiral that pulls Max further into a state of complete hopelessness. The cleverly narrated moments during both cutscenes and gameplay give the play a deeper look into the conflicted and completely lost mind of Max. The intimate connection that the game managed to foster between myself and Max was unlike anything I have ever experienced in this medium before.
The overall plot, while compelling enough to keep you on your toes, doesn’t compare to the underlying character journey of Max. Sure, the superficial events that transpire in Brazil as Max serves as a body guard for a wealthy family in São Paulo is intriguing, but it’s the underlying motivations that stem from our hero’s troubled past that will have you truly invested in Max Payne 3. I’m going to refrain from sharing any specifics with you so as not to spoil the experience when you get around to playing it yourself. Just know that this is a dark tale, so the faint of heart need not apply. After all, it is a game from Rockstar, so you should be well aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
While not groundbreaking on a technical level, the game’s visuals are the best we’ve seen from this studio. Every locale feels authentic and lived in, making the experience, although incredibly linear, still feel organic. The attention to detail is astounding, and the same can be said for the character animations. When Max has a shotgun in his offhand, he literally is holding it in his left hand. Seeing him swing his second weapon at his side while picking off foes with a handgun is intensely rewarding. Additionally, Max interacts with the environment in such a way that feels natural. If when leaping sideways in bullet time, Max collides with a wall or some other object, the player can feel and see the weight of that collision; which not only adds an additional layer of realism, but also forces the player to adjust his/her strategy as such a mistake will slow Max down. It’s clear that Rockstar poured a lot of time and effort into the look and feel of this game, which is only enhanced by the game’s haunting soundtrack.
The single player experience spans a total of 14 chapters and should take the average player anywhere from 12-15 hours to complete. To give the solo player an added incentive to keep coming back for more, an Arcade Mode, complete with both “Score Attack” and “New York Minute” serve up a few interesting twists, having you either rack up points or race against the clock through the game’s various levels. Additionally, Rockstar has packed in a fully fledged online multiplayer mode which makes use of its Social Club, allowing you to create “Crews” with your friends as you work together to rank up online. Game types include the standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, as well as a King-of-the-Hill inspired mode dubbed “Payne Killer.” Those looking for a more cinematic experience will appreciate “Gang Wars,” a mode that infuses story elements and mission objectives into the battle, resulting in a unique and dynamic experience. While the single-player is enough to justify the price of admission, the robust online offering certainly will keep this disc spinning in gamers’ consoles for quite some time.
Max Payne 3 tells a dark and gripping tale that benefits from stellar writing, compelling characters and a careful attention to detail. Rockstar Games has a solid reputation among the gaming community and their latest title lives up to the studio’s pedigree. If you’re a fan of classic Max Payne and want to be taken on a journey that tips its hat to a number of series’ mainstays—if at times to its detriment—then Max Payne 3 is just the fix you’re looking for.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ Amazing portrayal of one of gaming’s most tragic characters
– Gameplay mechanics borrow too heavily from prior Rockstar titles