Whatever your views on the Max Payne series no longer being developed by Remedy, few could argue with the fact that Rockstar Games taking up the reigns for Max Payne 3 makes perfect sense. Few protagonists are as well suited to Rockstar’s brand of sky high production values and well written, movie-inspired tales of violence as the self deprecating, cynical, but always strangely likeable Max Payne. Despite initial concerns over the removal of many of the noire tropes of the original two games, Max Payne 3 manages to deliver darker, more introspective material than ever before and, if nothing else, despite its move away from the heavy shadows and noire inspired visuals of its predecessors, is without question, the most cinematic, and arguably, the most interesting take on the character to date.
Sadly, while the impressive cast of characters and (mostly) brilliant writing do a great job of bringing the world of May Payne 3 to life while reminding us all of just how brilliant Rockstar Games are at delivering first rate characterisation and storytelling within the confines of a truly believable and consistent game world (possibly better than anyone else in the industry), the persistent third-person shooter gameplay does highlight some of the historically weaker elements of Rockstar-based development.
Remember those strange difficulty spikes and balancing issues that were relatively easy to overlook in the open-worlds of the Grand Theft Auto universe? Well, in the linear, all action world of Max Payne 3, those spikes aren’t nearly as easy to overlook. The move to a singular style of gameplay not only brings those balancing issues to the fore, but also serves to emphasize Rockstar’s inexperience at developing videogames that live and die by that one core concept that the entire game is built around. Nothing here is bad by any stretch, but in comparison to the characters and world created, the gameplay does feel a little one note and, dare I say, unpolished.
Max Payne 3’s biggest problem though, is its insistence on staying true to its past. Bullet time is still fun, and the core gameplay, which has seen so little change since the 2001 original, has largely stood the test of time, but after that initial rush that comes from clearing a room of enemies as you dive through the air in John Woo-inspired slow-mo, the reality that you’ve pretty much seen everything that Max Payne 3 has to offer from a purely gameplay perspective starts to set in far too quickly. It’s hardly heartbreaking news, given that the core mechanics that the series has been built upon are quite so enjoyable, but as you play on, it does become apparent that those fundamental mechanics that drive the game forward, aren’t quite as refined as the game world that surrounds them.
Beyond the aforementioned difficulty spikes that, even on the normal difficulty setting will have you gnawing at the control pad, the fact that the large number of enemies that you will find yourself facing off against at any one time have a tendency of absorbing bullets like ballistics gel, has a horrible habit of robbing Max Payne 3 of its finest feature. Jumping out of cover in slow-mo has always been Max Payne’s trump card, but with so many crack shot, borderline supernaturally strong enemies to deal with, jumping out of cover can, and often will, lead directly to death. Poke your head out in a busy room of enemies, and just watch in horror as your health takes an absolute hiding. It’s sometimes worth it for the cool last chance mechanic that sees you able to pop a life saving pill mid battle if you’re able to drop the enemy before you hit the deck, but for the most part, you’ll find yourself hunkered behind cover or using the useful, but not nearly as awesome, manual bullet time mechanic to take out those pesky bad guys.
Manual bullet time is a meter charged throughout battle that delivers limited slow-mo action without the need for all that diving around. Yeah, it works fine, but c’mon, who wants to spend the whole game calmly picking off enemies from behind cover? That’s not what Max Payne is about. The cover system, which is a new introduction to the series, works fine when needed; it’s just a shame that it’s needed quite so much. Max Payne was great at making you feel like a very flawed human with near superhuman skills. Max Payne 3 on the other hand, while delivering hints of that balance, tends to lean a little too heavily towards the flawed human end of the spectrum. I’m sure some gamers will berate me for my apparent hatred of challenging gameplay, but honestly, when you’ve got something as cool as the slow-mo bullet dive at your disposal, it seems criminal to punish the gamer quite so severely for using it. Difficulty is helped by the introduction of different auto-lock settings, but even the most noob friendly Hard Lock setting will not save you from an array of rather depressing deaths as you lay on the floor taking bullets after a less than perfect slow-mo dive.
It’s far from all doom and gloom though. Despite the balancing issues and somewhat repetitive gameplay, when everything comes together (and it often does), Max Payne 3 proves a highly exhilarating experience. The commitment to the purity of gameplay found in the original Max Payne releases does have its drawbacks, but when you do find your rhythm and your room clearing skills begin to fall in line with Max’s pitch perfect inner monologue, you start to remember why you loved Max Payne so much in the first place. In these moments, when combined with the highly detailed surroundings and extremely believable characters, Max Payne 3 really starts to sing. When at its best, Max Payne 3 is everything you wanted it to be, it’s just a shame that a few technical issues and poor design choices contrive to keep Rockstar’s take on the series from achieving the greatness that it so often hints at.
With a decent, if slightly underwhelming selection of online options to get through, an Arcade Mode that serves as a score-attack option and an unlockable New York Minute mode that gives you just 60 seconds at the start of a level, with additional time added for each enemy dropped, Max Payne 3 certainly doesn’t fall short in the content department. It’s never going to dethrone Call of Duty from the top of the online charts, but you can expect a decent sized community to get behind Max Payne 3’s online offering. The gameplay isn’t a perfect fit for online gaming for obvious reasons, but in fairness to Rockstar, they have made a decent stab at a workaround and subsequently created a perfectly justifiable selection of online game modes for those eager to try something a little different.
So, the story is great; from its brilliantly depressing opening right through to its, well, surprisingly upbeat denouement, Max Payne 3 offers up a great new chapter in the tale of Max Payne and a fantastic new setting in the ultra violent underworld of São Paulo. Yes, the gameplay does get a tad repetitive at times and yes, there are a few underlying issues with the core gameplay, but these are often forgotten as you skilfully shoot down the last enemy in the area while the brilliantly dynamic slow-mo kill cam delivers that final kill in fantastically gory detail. The visuals are fantastic throughout, the production values, some of the highest you will find in any game this year, and the script and delivery make the most of this one dimensional, but nevertheless compelling, protagonist. The visual filter used rather excessively throughout might not be to everyone’s tastes, but in terms of immersion, does a great job of putting you in Max’s hazy mindset and distorted world view.
Like Max himself then, Max Payne 3 is flawed, a little old fashioned, but rarely anything less than interesting and highly entertaining. It’s far from perfect, but hey, Max Payne never claimed to be.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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