Max Payne 3 review

It's been nine years since Max Payne embarked on his last shoot-'em-up. Beloved by many gamers (including me) for his nothing-to-lose attitude borne from tragedies experienced in his first two outings, he's a self-deprecating and sarcastically-melancholic character whose core determination to do the right thing in the face of seemingly-impossible odds drives him forward, often at his own peril. Max Payne 3 marks the titular anti-hero's triumphant return. Not only is the third chapter in the series the most satisfying installment--both in presentation and in mechanics--it also delivers one of the most focused and memorable narrative experiences in a third-person shooter. focalbox Fans of the series' past games have witnessed Max's steep personal decline firsthand. In Max Payne, his family was murdered by junkies, and after being framed for the crime, Max found himself on the run from both the mob and the cops. Taking on the mob in Max Payne 2 resulted in the death of Max's new-found love interest, Mona Sax. Given this particularly hard run of bad luck—and the fact that he's no longer a cop—fans shouldn't be too shocked to find Max consumed by alcoholism and a painkiller addiction in his latest adventure; but on that note, it sure is refreshing to inhabit a character that's both incredibly flawed and very sympathetic. He's like a darker, more "end-of-his-rope" version of Die Hard's John McClane, and fans (and astute newcomers to the series) are likely to find that his flaws make him much more three-dimensional than the average shooter's protagonist. Max Payne 3's story is fairly straightforward, but is told in a pleasantly complex and engaging manner. Much of my enjoyment of the narrative came from the fact that I was never quite sure where it would take me next. The game's timeline jumps back and forth from the past to the present quite a bit, and the changes in Max's physical appearance help anchor the player in a given timeframe, while also providing context for his current mental state and objectives. The story begins with Max and an old buddy from his police academy days--Raul Passos--working as hired protection for Brazilian industrialist Rodrigo Branco and his two younger brothers, but things quickly go sideways and get a lot more complicated when Rodrigo's wife is kidnapped by a gang known as the Commando Sombra on Max's watch. To put things succinctly, the story grabbed me within the first five minutes, and kept me hooked throughout all 14 of the game's chapters. The game is filled with exotic locales and set-pieces, and a lot of the fun comes from discovering and surmounting Max's latest predicament. Gone are the comic-book style cutscenes bridging the game's numerous chapters; however, in a design decision that works incredibly well, Max's internal monologue is still shared with the players via voice-over. There are also a number of 'clues' in each level that Max can find and interact with, providing additional, well-written insight. They're so entertaining that I found myself backtracking to find things to interact with before I moved on to the next area. I was a big fan of the intentionally overwrought comic panels in the past, but didn't find myself missing them one bit in Max Payne 3. The in-game cinematics transition seamlessly into gameplay and vice versa, which makes the game very easy to just keep playing.

Bullet time is back, but must be used judiciously

Of course, none of this excellent presentation, writing, and well-drawn characters would mean much if Max Payne 3's action wasn't strong. I'm happy--and a bit surprised--that the game's shooting-based action is some of the most rewarding I've experienced in recent memory. The controls are tight and responsive, the weapons are satisfying to fire, and bullet time--Max's trademark ability to slow time to a crawl while dispatching enemies with enhanced reflexes--is still addictive and ridiculously fun, even after all these years. The enemies Max encounters along his journey are numerous, and encounters are mostly designed to require judicious use of the 'bullet time' mechanic the series pioneered. Though I disabled aim-assist options for my playthrough (which made the gun battles more rewarding and more challenging), both soft- and hard-lock options are also available. The enemies Max faces throughout his latest tour are no pushovers, either, making the use of 'bullet time' even more important. Enemy placement was consistent throughout subsequent playthroughs, but their behavior tended to vary a bit once the battles began. In other words, I could still memorize where I'd first see an enemy when replaying, but once the bullets started flying, foes would act much more dynamically. Despite requiring a bit of trial-and-error during the more difficult parts, this setup balances the game quite well for Arcade Mode, which allows completed levels to be replayed for high-score chasing. Painkillers also return as Max's healing solution, though there are a couple of related improvements worth mentioning. The first is a 'Last Stand' feature, which allows Max to save himself by shooting an enemy who fired the killing shot, provided he still has at least one painkiller in reserve. The second improvement, (which I don't recall being present in previous Max Payne titles) is that the game will add additional painkillers and ammo to your reserves if you are forced to replay a checkpoint multiple times. It mitigates the difficulty a bit, but ensures that perseverance (and a little skill) will eventually save the day. Multiplayer is another new addition in Max Payne 3--one that had me a bit skeptical prior to release--but as it turns out, it's a lot of fun. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes play out exactly as expected, but a couple of other modes help shake things up a bit. Payne Killer, for example, is a fun, King-of-the-Hill mode, in which two players play as Max Payne and his partner Passos, while the rest of the players gang up to take them out, thereby assuming their roles. It's a nice break from the Deathmatch modes, and fits really well with the game's over-arching theme of Max vs. the world.

Multiplayer with bullet time offers a new layer of strategy

The most fun I had in multiplayer, however, was in a mode called Gang Wars. It's a team game play mode based on objectives set across a series of maps bridged together by a light storyline. One minute, I was trying to collect bags of cash and return them to home base (or stop the other team from doing so), and then I'd find myself trying to protect or kill a player-controlled VIP. Bullet Time also makes its way into the multiplayer arena, and works surprisingly well. It is line-of-sight based, slowing only the player triggering it and those in his view. The player triggering bullet time can also aim faster, which means that it's a pretty deadly tool when used effectively. The inclusion of a progression system and associated unlockables (which can also be earned by playing Arcade Mode) help give multiplayer a lot of legs, and lead to a ton of character customization options. Ancillary systems, such as Vendettas--which let you flag a player for revenge and extra XP--are nice touches that up the stakes. Friends can also form "crews," which basically serve as persistent multiplayer squads. This turns out to be a great feature for core players, but might cause those not in a crew to feel alienated because a group of friends who are all communicating typically end up with a sizable advantage. As a long-time fan of the series, I expected to like Max Payne 3. What I didn't expect was how much Rockstar was able to improve upon the foundation that made the original games special, without completely reinventing the wheel in the process. They've created one of the most impressive non-military shooters that I've ever played, all wrapped in presentational aplomb that made me feel like I was fighting my way through a modern-day action blockbuster movie. It's a must-play for shooter fans, and is the latest and best proof that AAA video games can, in fact, be incredibly successful as a participatory storytelling medium.
This Max Payne 3 review is based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by the publisher.