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Satisfaction Through Payne – Max Payne 3 Review (Xbox 360)

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In the nine or so years that have passed since Max Payne last lit up our screens with his Matrix inspired, bullet-ballet gameplay, a great deal has changed. The Matrix is in the past, bullet-time has been shamelessly milked by so many countless film and game properties that it’s no longer the fresh, mind-blowingly cool gimmick that it used to be and third person shooters in general have been forced behind cover due to a certain franchise obsessed with biceps and chainsaws.

Much like it’s titular character, Max Payne 3 is an unapologetic relic of an earlier era; a game that when compared to it’s contemporaries may seem outdated and relatively bereft of innovation or surprise in light of just how closely it sticks to the genre tropes that the first two titles did so much to create.

Despite appearing to be just another eye-rolling exercise in over-familiarity, developers Rockstar have somehow managed to make the familiar seem weightier and more substantial; meaningfully reclaiming the ‘grittiness’ from other po-faced shooter efforts who would merely use the word as an excuse to swear liberally and spray gore and body parts across the screen.

It’s in this grittiness that the narrative of Max Payne 3 is framed so succinctly. Set some time after 2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, this third entry in the series finds our tragic hero serving as a personal security officer for some of Brazil’s political elite by day, while at night, Max finds himself without distraction; locked in a downward spiral and broken down on every emotional level by a harrowing trifecta of personal tragedy, alcohol and painkillers. As you might imagine, things don’t stay calm very long and before you know it, folks are being kidnapped, shot and executed; prompting Max to start ejecting lead into people’s faces as an approximate and frequent reply all the while attempting to maintain his tenuous grip on reality.

Grizzled, pissed off and with a gun in his hand – this is the sort of poise common to our heroic chap throughout the game.

It’s an action-packed yarn, filled with the sort of striking violence, depravity, social commentary and sharp direction that typifies it as a Rockstar developed title. Taking Max from the crib of the richest financial and political magnates in Brazil, all the way to the crime-infested, desperate slums that make up the sprawling favelas of Sao Paulo, the plot of Max Payne is a much a meditation on character introspection and redemption as it is a gritty, gun-play laden action blockbuster.

If it’s not clear to you at this point, allow me to make it clear; Max Payne 3 is a very violent game indeed. Bullets cause all sorts of deformed nastiness to the human anatomy in this game with all manner of entry and exit wounds causing foes to slump against nearby furniture, or crash down a flight of stairs. The kill cam, just one of Max Payne 3’s many visual flourishes, serves to further heighten the violence; bringing time to almost a standstill as you watch round after round crash through the body of the unfortunate goon who just happened to be in your way. With that said, the damage modelling isn’t perfect – enemies caught by an explosion will merely have their bodies thrown (fully intact) across the room without any visual injury; a surprise given how meticulously the game models physical damage from firearms elsewhere.

Despite a stylish focus on the grisly, from a cinematic perspective the game distances itself from it’s genre stalemates in typical grand Rockstar fashion with a flair for the dramatic. Here, Rockstar have combined the sort of edgy and progressive cinematography seen in films such as Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn and Elite Squad by Brazilian director Jose Padilha, to sharp and impressive effect. This shouldn’t suggest however, that Max Payne 3 has left the original Noir stylings which characterised the it’s predecessors behind.

Despite it’s more contemporary cinematic influences, Max Payne 3 is still as much a love-letter to classic Hollywood Noir as it ever was. The internal monologues return, as do the dramatic analogous speeches, yet the game supplements this with a visual veneer that evokes a heady combination of David Fincher and the adrenaline-fused, visual style seen in the Crank movies.

During cut-scenes, conversational-text, momentarily darts into view while the camera-lens periodically loses focus and bleeds colour and hue – providing the sort of drug-infused distorted vision that you would imagine Max himself having after a night-long binge of his favourite brand of ‘Kong’ Whiskey (look for it) and painkillers. Indeed, in this incarnation Max himself has a very definite Hollywood look; boasting the rough facial lines and craggy looks which evoke a deep similarity to a 1980’s era James Caan.

No action shootery game is complete without the obligatory AVOID THE SNIPERS section. There are a few of these. Just a few.

When it comes down to the gameplay, it’s in the act of plugging folks with a variety of firearms that Max Payne 3 reminds us just how similar it is to the previous games that have spawned it. If the cinematic aspect of the game references the work of European and American directors, then the gameplay almost certain remains as much a homage to John Woo cinema as the previous games have. Bullet-time, the feature by which Max Payne his quite literally lived and died by since his debut over eleven years ago; remains a steadfast part of the gameplay in Max Payne 3. Max can dive forwards, backwards or to the side in slow-motion whilst firing his weapon of choice; either a primary firearm such as a rifle or heavy machine gun, a side-arm such as a handgun or a combination of two sidearms for maximum ‘guns akimbo’ effect.

It’s here that another little way in which Max Payne 3 separates itself from other, similar games becomes apparent.

If say, the impossibly muscled and gruff Marcus Fenix from Gears Of War attempted to dive side-ways whilst opening fire and there was a physical impediment in the way, such as a wall or other obstacle, he would just roll against it and get up right away. Max on the other hand, quite literally crashes into the wall, realistically sliding down it as he struggles to gain his bearings and correct himself. Age, drink and substance abuse haven’t been kind to Max Payne’s body, and so such physicality comes across exactly as it should – wholly appropriate.

In terms of the gameplay, these sort of weighted acrobatics have additional implications outside of the cosmetic. Although he may have crashed painfully against a wall or crashed backwards through a pool table after a frenzied dive, Max Payne can still remain on the offensive; even though if he may be struggling to pull himself up off the ground, or steady himself with a hand on the wall, he always has his gun pointed forward, meaning that you are always a danger to the enemy regardless of the state of animation you are in.

Very few third-person shooters can boast of such a level of offensive versatility and at first it catches you be surprise – you think “Ok, I’ve just dived through a table and I’m lying flat on my back…what now? Oh wait, I can still.. shoot?”. This is just one example of how Rockstar has embellished the fundamentals in the pursuit of attempting to perfect them.

Max Payne 3 hasn’t been totally immune to the genre status quo however; cover is now a critical part of the gameplay experience where it didn’t exist before. Hiding behind desks, lockers, walls and much more is mandatory in Max Payne 3, simply on the virtue of the lethality of the enemy attacks. Three or maybe four direct hits are all that’s required to put Mr. Payne in a wooden box and as such cover must be used intelligently; a fact which is further reinforced by the fact that the enemy aren’t stupid – they’ll regularly look for opportunities to flank you and will dart from cover to cover whilst doing so.

This sort of thing happens a lot in Max Payne 3. The trick is to be the guy holding the two guns and not the guy holding the two bullets in his cranium.

Speaking of mortality, like in previous games, Max is able to stave off the Grim Reaper by chewing down on bottles of painkillers which are dotted throughout the various locations in the game. In Max Payne 3 however, an additional feature has been added which effectively allows you a second wind if you have endured a fatal shot. Functioning similarly to Call of Duty’s ‘Last Stand’ perk, If Max has one bottle of painkillers left and has taken a hit that would otherwise kill him, he instantly consumes the painkillers (at half the effective rate) and time slows right down to a crawl for a few seconds. If during this time you can shoot and kill the guy who fatally wounded you, Max gets up to fight another day sans one bottle of painkillers. If you don’t, well, you die and that’s pretty much it. While it may seem whimsically gimmicky, the system actually forces you to balance your painkiller use more carefully and ensure that wherever possible, you have one left in the bank just in case you find yourself on the wrong end of an ambush or lucky shot.

There is no getting around it; Max Payne 3 never ever attempts to convince you that it is anything but an exceptionally gritty and tonally nasty third-person cover shooter. When you aren’t diving from behind furniture to avoid enemy fire you’re usually sliding down a rooftop unleashing a shower of precision lead on a group of unsuspecting goons, or some such similar scenario. The fact that it continues to segue into familiar territory with on rails vehicle shootouts and sniping missions, does little dissuade you from the fact that you’ve played this game in a hundred different places a hundred different times before.

In addition to the main campaign, you can opt to do the entirety of the campaign in Arcade Mode, where you are given score to accrue per chapter and with each chapter you complete, your score for that chapter is uploaded to the Max Payne 3 leaderboards. Another way that Rockstar have attempted to pad out the single-player side of things is through the ‘New York Minute’ game mode which again, takes you through the campaign but this time you’re set against a timer.  If the timer hits zero it’s game over and the only way to prevent this from happening, to delay the timer is to blast enemies; netting you a bit of extra time for each kill. Depending on how much of a completist you are, your mileage may vary, but with the main campaign topping it out at just over ten hours on the longevity scale, I found these additional modes to be rather hackneyed additions to the game that weren’t compelling enough to make me re-run the game.

Multiplayer-wise, there are the expected deathmatch and team deathmatch games, but the unique Payne Killer and Gang Wars present a much more interesting pair of propositions. In Payne Killer, the objective is simple; you are able to become Max Payne or his partner Passos by killing them, and then you can start earning points for staying alive and killing as many of the attacking players as possible. Naturally, your bullet-time bursts and life-saving painkillers will give you an advantage for a short time, but as always it’s a numbers game and it’s only a matter of time until those numbers catch you up and fuck you over.

Our hero Max Payne, post heavy whiskey binging session. Sort of looks like me after a night on the town. Only he has hair.

Gang Wars on the other hand, is a five-round team game in which objectives dynamically change round to round – always keeping the action fresh. For instance, one objective might require your team to plant explosives at selected sites that the opposing team are trying to keep standing. In another example, there might be a VIP whom you need to flat line on opposite team; the kicker being that the identity and location of this VIP will only be revealed after you’ve sent a select number of the other team to meet their makers. It’s an entertaining game type and one that certainly provides a different set of thrills from what you would often get in the usual run-of-the-mill deathmatch multiplayer game modes by virtue of it’s ever changing objectives.

Solid multi-player offerings aside, for me, the strongest part of Max Payne 3 remains it’s hugely satisfying and stylishly cinematic single-player story campaign. Nine years may passed, but Max Payne can still shoot it out with the best of them and he does so in the sort of relentlessly entertaining, teeth-grindingly intense way that only he can offer.

Like the harrowing journey Max himself takes during the game’s narrative, the strides made in the areas of gameplay in pursuit of that picture-perfect John Woo esque thriller are equally as considerable. Max Payne 3 is one of the finest cinematic shooters to be released in sometime and it demands your attention like a .38 pushed against your sweating brow.

Highly recommended.

Max Payne 3 is available to buy now on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC from all major gaming software outlets.  

Written by bitsnark

July 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm

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