Reviving an old franchise is always tricky. There is a fine line to walk between staying true to an existing property and bringing something fresh to the table. Usually this tightrope act fumbles at least a little. Max Payne 3 is not the perfect gymnast I’d wanted it to be. But Max’s greatest strength has always been fumbling with style. And in this, the ol dog hasn’t changed one bit.
Max Payne 3, like its predecessors is a third person shooter. It is a series that is credited for bringing “bullet time” to the gaming world resulting in more John Woo moments than Chow Yun-fat on a bender. The series has always been about action with constant gunfights interspersed with neo-noir presentation. Stylistically speaking, the MP franchise has given gamers a rather unique and satisfying experience. Comic book panels were nothing new to the medium, but no other game had managed to pull it off with such aplomb. So it was quite surprising that this was one of the first things developers Rockstar decided to axe. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Max Payne 3 follows the story of an ex NYC cop/DEA agent/Undercover badass now turned alcoholic bodyguard. The first two games were all about revenge and trying to get some sort of closure over the matter of Mr Payne’s murdered family. The stories were solid, the presentation was unique and Max’s signature slo-mo shooting feature made it an instant hit with the action crowd. That being said, what makes Max special is his uncanny ability to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and use a hail of lead to solve any predicament. In other words, he’s the closest thing to John McLane that the gaming world has. You gotta love that.
Fast forward 9 years. Max is far from the dark streets of New York and now in sunny Sao Paulo. His drinking habit has gotten way worse and he’s got the pessimism and excess body fat to prove it. To make things worse, he gets a bad haircut and a ridiculous shirt to complete the picture. It seems even bullet time couldn’t let him dodge the biggest threat coming his way: Midlife crisis. The very first thing old fans will notice is the shift towards cinematic presentation. The old comic book panel style is gone. The narration is spot on however, typical of the series and for the most part, excellent. I say for the most part because there were places where I was face palming pretty hard. Still, it’s very Max Payne and that is good news.
I won’t spoil the story but suffice to say it’s good enough to hold ones attention. It is also a good excuse to take the player across a variety of environments. True to the franchise, the game is essentially a series of shooting corridors. It is pretty narrow in its focus and does not pretend to give you any illusion of “choice”. Where it does stumble and stumble badly, is in its use of cut scenes.
The developers must have been confused as to whether they were making a game or a movie. Now let me just state for the record that I do not mind cut scenes at all. Heck, I actually enjoy them when they are done right. But here, they are infuriating. There are frequent moments where the game will force the player to walk for 10 seconds before triggering one. It happens with nauseating frequency and is without a doubt the most irritating thing in the game. I’ll go far enough to say that as a player, I was probably watching stuff almost as much as shooting stuff. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was say, a five minute scene after a fifteen minute battle. It is a major pain in the ass when it is literally seconds of walking followed by minutes of video. It broke all feelings of continuity and just plain pissed me off.
To Rockstar’s credit, these videos are done with style. The camera plays around with color saturation, distortion and such to the give off a different vibe compared to anything else I’ve seen in games so far. They are not “bad” themselves but the frequency and timing are just all wrong. That being said, the action was good enough for me to barrel through. And as much as I hated them, many of these videos set the scene for some awesome set pieces. Where MP 1 and 2 took inspiration from comic books and film noir, MP3 has added Hollywood to the mix.
Annoying as the cut scenes are, the gunplay is spectacular. The bullet time feature is always a blast to use and I will admit to a disturbing amount of giggling while shoot dodging to lay waste to virtual baddies. There are some new moves in Max’s arsenal. Apart from being able to fire from the ground, there is a last stand feature which allows Max to cheat death if he can manage to kill the guy that brought his health to zero. If the last stand shot results in a successful kill AND Max had a bottle of pills to spare, he comes back to full health. Also new to the series is the implementation of a cover system. If nothing else, it allows the player to blind fire in an attempt to get a lucky hit (causing damage to opponents fills up the bullet time bar). As the levels progress, the difficulty ramps up, cover becomes destructible and the fights get more and more tense. This is where the games second failing becomes apparent. The checkpoints save system. Regular readers will already know how much I hate this in any game so I won’t bother going into further detail apart from stating the obvious: It sucks. Some battles were extremely frustrating because of this. To be fair, there are different levels of aim assist available if it gets real bad. Newbies will appreciate the help because the game becomes increasingly challenging as it progresses.
For a title that revolves around one basic principle, ie, slo-mo shooting, the variety in level design did impress me. By the time I got to the explosive climax, I had shot my way through a condemned building, football stadium, nightclub, graveyard, favela and bunch of interesting locales. I have to hand it to the devs, for all the watching that they forced me through, they did manage to cram a lot into the single player campaign. It’s a pity that not everyone will have the patience to sit through all the cinematics.
There are some incentives to go through the campaign again. Arcade mode for example, or a timed run that’s sure to pose a challenge. The real surprise however, is the multiplayer. This is something I pretty much dismissed as a tacked on feature till I actually played it. I must admit it’s rather fun. There are a number of game modes available and unlocking all of them would take weeks. As is becoming the norm, players can create an online avatar with persistent stats. Progress in multiplayer matches grants both money and XP which are used to buy upgrades, cosmetic options and unlock game modes. There is a fair amount of depth here and the ability to shoot dodge other players in slow motion is a real treat. Two caveats though: Rockstar’s matchmaking service is sub-par and there are no dedicated servers. The latter in particular, is something I cannot overlook. Any multiplayer shooter that forgoes dedicated servers is ummm… shooting itself in the foot. Nonetheless, it makes for a pleasant distraction now and then.
All said an done Max Payne 3 is an excellent way to revamp an existing franchise. It brings in new features, takes the character in different directions and delivers an exciting story while still staying true to its roots. It is also a stylish bullet fest that allows one to channel the spirit of John Woo.
And that folks, is what I like to call an epic win.