Review by MTLH

"A fine new instalment that unfortunately loses some of what made the Max Payne games great."

The first Max Payne was released in 2001 for the PC. It became a huge success and laid the foundation for a sequel, 2003's The Fall of Max Payne, several ports and ultimately a film. Even so, it would take almost nine years before a third outing saw the light of day. With actual development having shifted from Remedy Entertainment to publisher Rockstar itself, it wasn't surprising that some things would change. Still, while changing the location from dark and moody New York to sun drenched Brazil may have seemed like a weird decision, Payne's downhill appearance reached new levels of astonishment. Together with the frequent delays, things weren't boding well for Max Payne 3. Luckily the game turns out to be a worthy successor that nevertheless doesn't reach the heights set by it's predecessors. Why this is so can be discovered in the following review.

GRAPHICS
Max Payne 3 looks good, very good. The level of detailing and animation is exceptional as is the amount of polish lavished on the visuals in general. Cutscenes and gameplay flow into each other without a hitch. In a sense, Max Payne 3 continues the visual approach taken by it's predecessors of always aiming for the best and perfects it due to more modern technology. Seeing an interior being blown apart in slow motion is a visual treat.

One aspect I particularly liked was how, despite the change from a snowy midnight New York to a brightly lit Sao Paulo, the game manages to maintain the series' grittiness. It's surprising how such a mood isn't necessarily depended on dark surroundings as long as a sense of dilapidation and ruin remains.

There are a few minor issues though. Dead bodies can end up in the strangest positions sometimes, and Max's body also occasionally twists itself rather unnaturally. Instead of comic book panels, Max Payne 3 goes for more traditional cutscenes and there is certainly a cinematic flair. Even so, this is sometimes taken too far with tricks that are undoubtedly meant to be artistic but end up being annoyingly pretentious. I understand that, for example, visually highlighting keywords is meant to underline the game's edginess but that isn't really necessary.

SOUND
The soundtrack is familiarly moody. The theme tune has never sounded better and the game uses it's score sparsely. Unfortunately it does derail right at the end, framing the action with a track that is completely at odds with both the game in general and the scene in question. Sound effects are suitably meaty while voice acting is generally great. It's praiseworthy that Rockstar managed to recast Payne's previous actor.

GAMEPLAY
It has been a few years since the events of the second game. Max has fallen on hard times, having quit from the police force as well as having developed an addiction to alcohol and, ironically, painkillers. With his life in shambles, he decides to take an offer of a job in private security in Brazil. This being Max Payne, things naturally don't go according to plan.

As with the previous games, Max Payne 3's plot revolves around revenge. Max is wronged and he goes after those responsible with a vengeance. Another element that returns is the he gets caught up in a conspiracy and basically becomes a pawn in other people's plans. In that regard, despite the change in scenery, this game's plot isn't all that different, especially when you consider that it's just as thematically dark and gritty as before. It also helps that Max Payne as a characters hasn't changed all that much, simply having become more intense. He remains sullen and gruff and monologues his way through the story but he seems to have lost some of his dry wit, instead acting angrier and more determined. His painkiller addiction is handled surprisingly well, complete with distorting visuals after taking some, and it's inclusion is a nice nod to the game's rather unhealthy health system.

The plot does have some issues that spoil the experience somewhat. The previous two games knew that they where the stuff of B-action movies and acted accordingly. Max fought alongside prostitutes and hobos, protected a Mafiosi dressed up as a mascot and engaged a drugged up Satanist obsessed with Norse mythology. Such silliness is mostly absent in this third outing which results in a game that takes itself far too serious. This also becomes evident in the way the plot uses certain techniques, like multiple simultaneous viewpoints or keywords appearing onscreen, that come over as somewhat pretentious. The plot itself lacks the coherency of it's predecessors or better yet, their compactness. It's obvious from the beginning who the villain is going to be and why but the plot eventually throws so many extra elements into the mix that the game loses the series' trademark tenseness. Ironic, seeing that Max himself has never been more intense.

One final aspect about the plot is actually the most telling. There are a few flashbacks in the game in which Max dons his familiar leather jacket and battles his way across the streets of a dark city. Despite that this third outing's setting manages to retain many of the series' trademarks, it are these scenes that feel actually right. It becomes apparent that Max, with all his noirish sensibilities, just belongs more in such an environment. At least, that is how I experienced it. Still, I must stress that Sao Paulo is a great stand-in and the choice for a new setting was probably the right one if the series wishes to avoid becoming too predictable.

The game itself is a third person shooter with a twist. Payne has the ability to slow down time, either directly or combined with a dive. this so-called bullet time and it's variations have always formed the core of the series. A typical Max Payne confrontation begins when Max enters a room or suchlike and dives away in slow motion while shooting down the encroaching enemies. That's what the series revolves around and also where it's main appeal lies.

Max Payne 3 retains this core but does change a few things. The most noticeable one is the introduction of a real cover system. In the previous games Max could also try to hide himself by crouching behind something or standing besides a doorway for example. It wasn't very refined but it got the job done, especially as every engagement eventually could be won with a well executed shootdodge.

Max Payne 3 does incorporate a more involved cover mechanism. With the press of a button, Max will stick to a wall or hunker down behind a tombstone. He can then pop up to aim or just blindly fire a few rounds. This whole addition isn't bad in itself, it works well enough, but it does feel at odds with the typical Max Payne type of gameplay described above. The reason for this is that the game seems to have a preference for the cover system, with levels and encounters specifically designed for it where Max is either being shot at from afar or where his surroundings are too cramped to perform a dive. This preference especially becomes apparent due to those few instances where the shootdodge is actually given free reign such as the scene at the bus depot for example or the graveyard.

Another aspect contributing to this slight cover bias are the enemies. Most are extraordinarily resilient, just soaking up bullets before keeling over. It's very annoying to decidedly gun one down, seemingly dead, only to see him getting up a few moments later. This can be excused in those instances where foes are heavily padded, wearing dense armour and helmets. When they are only wearing a shirt or even less, it is just plain weird. On the other hand, they can kill Payne in mere moments if you aren't careful, necessitating, or justifying even, the use of cover.

Another change is that Max doesn't carry an entire armoury around anymore. Instead, he can hold around three firearms. This is handled quite realistically, with Payne being able to holster smaller guns while having to hold rifles and shotguns in his hand. Dual wielding smaller guns means that Max must drop the larger weapon completely. It's a good system in itself but again there is an issue here but more on that later.

Max Payne 3 features a checkpoint system which automatically saves the game. These points aren't always situated at the best places, occasionally resurrecting Payne a split second before an attack. There are also times where he can't take a step without crossing a checkpoint and at other times Max must wrestle his way through multiple engagements before reaching the next one.

What is unfortunate about the loss of manual saving is that it eliminates a good deal of experimentation. What was good about the previous games was that you could quicksave just before entering a room, dispatch the enemies inside and afterwards make an evaluation of how you did. Perhaps Payne had taken too much damage or wasted ammunition, perhaps the slaughter could have been more spectacular and brutal. Either way, a retry was just a button press away. You could call it cheating of course but that wasn't really the point, at least not for me. Part of this experimentation also came from Payne's bulging arsenal. A larger array of weapons offers more options with which to take down Max's foes and thus several ways to clear a space.

A neat new feature is that when Payne is fatally wounded but still has some pain killers left he enters a 'last man standing' mode. The action then slows down and he must shoot the one who shot him. When successful, Max will then spring back into action. Fail and it's back to the last checkpoint. It's a nice addition but there are situations where Payne isn't correctly positioned to begin with, placing the enemy out of his sight. This forces the player to endure his lengthy slow motion death throes without any hope of resurrection.

The game can be controlled with a gamepad, a logical choice seeing that it is also released on the consoles, or the traditional keyboard and mouse combo. The first option works well enough and I can understand it being the preferred option for many gamers. I however swear by the combo, feeling that it is just a better fit for the game. Either option offers a responsive and intuitive experience however.

Max Payne 3 contains a decent challenge. On normal mode, the game will last around ten hours with higher difficulty levels upping the challenge considerably. As mentioned previously, the opposition is able to kill Payne quickly and ruthlessly. The game also isn't too generous with handing out painkillers so players must take care and be diligent. Perhaps as an indication of the uneven use of checkpoints, repeated failure of a particular section will lend Payne ever more painkillers with each attempt. It helps getting through some of the more annoying parts but could have been handled more elegantly.

Besides the main campaign, the game also offers a multiplayer and an arcade mode. The latter consists of gametypes which essentially revolve around scoring points for the leaderboards. These form entertaining distractions and do lengthen the game's longevity. I wouldn't buy the game for these modes but their inclusion is a nice extra.

FINAL REMARKS
It was inevitable that a new Max Payne game wasn't going to blatantly copy the gameplay of it's forebears. It has been almost nine years since the second instalment and during that time a lot has changed. For example, during that period a whole new console generation has sprung up which is currently readying itself for retirement. There is also the matter of a new developer to consider which inevitably results in them trying to leave their own specific mark on the game.

What is surprising is that the biggest change doesn't really come from the obvious suspects: the different scenery and Max' new look. Max Payne 3 does a remarkable job of both maintaining the series' sense of style and mood, even if the original's setting did it more justice. The only real departure is that this game has lost some of the series' absurdity while taking itself just a tad too seriously.

No, the real change comes from what Rockstar has added to the core gameplay. At it's heart Max Payne 3 still revolves around stylishly diving in slow motion towards groups of enemies while putting bullets in them. The issue is to what degree the additions either enhance this core or dilute it. I personally feel that strengthening the position of cover, limiting Payne's arsenal and enforcing a checkpoint system all conspire to lessen what makes this series so much fun. As I mentioned in the review, my favourite aspect of the predecessors was trying to eliminate the opposition in the best possible way. That could mean taking as little damage as possible but also trying to fight them in ever more spectacular ways. Max Payne 3 simply doesn't offer that kind of enjoyment and no, seeing Max perform some amazingly explosive feat of action film madness in one of the semi-scripted events just isn't the same. My apologies for coming over as a some rose tinted glasses wearing retro gaming idealist, I try to avoid that, but I was genuinely surprised and even slightly disappointed because of the above.

That is not to say that Max Payne 3 is bad in itself or that it isn't even a real Max Payne game to begin with. It is actually both a rather good game and a more then decent addition to the series. My problem is that it has lost some of it's pureness, some of what made this series special. I enjoyed myself while playing it but could never shake the feeling that something was off, especially in the beginning when I attempted to play the game in the same manner as I had played the previous two. So I will award Max Payne 3 the respectable score it deserves but do hope that Rockstar stays more true to the series' core with the next instalment.

OVERALL: an 8,4.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/26/12

Game Release: Max Payne 3 (EU, 06/01/12)


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