Review by MattRyanPerez

"Precisely crafted and tightly focused, Max Payne 3 is Rockstar's finest narrative yet"

"Way I see it, there's two types of people: Those who spend their lives trying to build a future and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past. For too long I've been stuck in between."

Fans fearing Max Payne's return to gaming without original developer Remedy Entertainment needn't worry. Despite the new setting of Brazil and altered atmosphere, the essence of Max Payne is alive and well under developer Rockstar Vancouver, who very much builds on the original creator's intentions, delivering one of the most polished and enthralling gaming experiences in recent years with Max Payne 3.

The sunny country is an obvious juxtaposition to the absolutely brutal tale told through the eyes of its troubled protagonist. The bright night clubs, congested favelas, and seething heat of Sao Paulo, Brazil may be in stark contrast to the gritty streets and dark, abandoned high-rises of New (Noir) York City featured in the previous two entries, but the story still embodies the spirit of its predecessors.

Payne is still a protagonist who picks at his mental wounds, all the while cracking jokes about the blood and pain it produces. The self-deprecating ex-cop still pops pain pills like Mona Sax pops caps as he internally monologues his despair through the graveled bass of his voice. And of course, before any job, he routinely thins his blood with enough alcohol to power an 18-wheeler.

The latest title catches up with Payne eight years after the events of the second game, working private security for the family of wealthy real estate industrialist Rodrigo Branco alongside his partner, Raul Passos, who is responsible for Max's presence in South America.

The signature graphic novel aesthetic is supplemented with Tony Scott-style effects that parallel Payne's struggles to adapt to his new environment, as well as visually convey the character's heavy substance abuse. Even though the changes signal an abandonment of the film noir atmosphere, the story, penned by Rockstar creative vice president Dan Houser, still has the trappings. Like any of Max Payne's misadventures, it starts with a girl. Life gets complicated when Rodrigo Branco's wife, Fabiana, is abducted under Payne's watch. Of course, Max finds himself drawn into a deeply twisted plot boiling underneath the surface that tests his already fragile mental fortitude.

Once Payne begins narrating his dizzying, drug-addled nightmare, it's damn near impossible to wake up from the horror before the last bullet flies. The tale Houser weaves is in no way groundbreaking, again relying on the genre standards, but the way it's presented succeeds where so many others have failed. This is in no way a slight to the script, the first of the series not penned by Remedy Entertainment's Sam Lake. The rich details imbued into the seedy underbelly of Sao Paulo are akin to the depth of a novel. Players can stumble on to clues throughout the levels to further breathe life into the somewhat familiar environments and flesh out an already excellently written character in Payne.

James McCaffrey reprises his role as the voice of Max, as well as portraying the character in a full acting part for the first time through motion capturing. Suffices to say, the tone of the Payne series would be lost without McCaffrey's talents. Rockstar puts their RAGE engine through the paces, and it's incredible to see the type of performance they get out of it when an open-world aspect isn't an issue. Accompanied with the haunting and brilliant score by American rock band HEALTH, the overall presentation is stunning. But the level of immersion that had me sit in front of my television for hours on end stems from the wire act of making interactive Hong Kong action films a reality.

Rockstar builds on the strides originally taken by Remedy years ago to meld story and gameplay. Max Payne 3 may not be the best in one particular area, but the overall package is crafted in a way that allows the cut scenes and player-controlled action to flow together and build a level of captivation unseen in most linear games.

Though the slow-motion Bullet Time and Shootdodging features helped define the series early-on, they were always meant to serve the overall cinematic flair of the narrative-joining together two worlds that were too often on different sides of the gaming spectrum. In Max Payne 3, gameplay is an extension of the storytelling. It's not often the interactive bits play out as visually appealing and enthralling as the cut scenes. That is easily Rockstar's biggest accomplishment with Payne's latest tragedy.

Max Payne 3 surely follows the archetypal story/gameplay pattern of a typical linear action game, but unlike other titles of its ilk, this heavily-criticized style is perfected and injected with purpose by its developer. Whereas other games break immersion through obvious cuts between story and gameplay, Max Payne 3 transitions seamlessly between the two, often alarmingly so. An unfamiliar viewer may not even be able to tell the difference.

Though Rockstar leaves little to the imagination, Max Payne 3 ultimately succeeds through its subtlety. The little details of the game work in conjunction with each other to deliver a legitimately compelling and mature gaming experience. Like its precursors, obtrusive pop-up tutorials are made obsolete through Payne's voice over, explaining everything the player needs to know without breaking immersion. This bleeds over into the environmental design that never confuses and always presents a clear path without feeling too much like a hallway. A final slow-mo kill cam signals the end of a firefight, another aesthetically-pleasing technique used to avoid obtuse tutorials and on-screen signals.

With an extra pain killer in their possession, players can avoid death by entering Bullet Time and landing a single shot into their would-be killer. As any gamer knows, death is the nemesis of immersion, so playing it to the narrative's advantage makes a huge impact. Payne's inventory is limited to two one-handed weapons and one two-handed weapon (which include Max's signature dual wielded pistols). Something so understated like the fact that Payne holds a rifle in his off-hand while utilizing a pistol works so effectively for the developer to draw the player further in. These are all seemingly simplistic additions but they all work in harmony to deliver consistently engrossing gameplay.

Like the RAGE engine, Rockstar also does wonders with the Euphoria engine. Unlike the athletic Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series, Max Payne is an aging alcoholic with a pot belly Bruce Willis' girlfriend in Pulp Fiction would kill for. Payne no longer slides across a cement wall after launching himself into one with the Shootdodge, instead crashing into it and painfully landing on the ground coinciding with a resounding thump. The characters are attuned to their environment and that sense of weight brings an uncanny realism to the world.

The first entry in the franchise in nearly nine years embraces the strides third-person shooters have made through this current generation, but like Max Payne himself, it does so without abandoning the past. Gameplay bounces between modern cover-and-shoot firefights and the hyperactive run-and-gun style that popularized the series. Pain killers still replenish health, and Bullet Time and Shootdodges are as vital as ever. Though cover is often necessary, the build of the world promotes a more kinetic pace. The A.I. may stick their heads out far too often, but they surely won't let the player lie in the same cover during an entire gun battle, working their way into flanking positions and hotly contesting territory. Taking the best of both worlds makes for some solid tension and satisfying set piece battles.

The pacing is superb, always challenging the player as they become more familiar with the gunplay but rarely frustrating them. Again this attention to detail seems simple, but is sorely missed in most single-player experiences today.

Aside from the killer campaign, Max Payne 3 also offers a score attack and a time trial mode. These extra features are fine ways to revisit the hell that is Max Payne's life, but sitting through the cut scenes for a second or third time can become fairly tedious. What matters is the initial experience where the story elements are weaved together in a fluid, cohesive package.

Multiplayer is a revelation and a definite stand-out part of the package. Instead of feeling tacked-on like most single-player centric titles, Max Payne 3 embraces its unique third-person shooting mechanics and sacrifices none of it. The simplistic design choices befit competitive multiplayer and adding in the Bullet Time features make for a few highlight reel kills per match. Players can level up and have deep character customization options available to them. In typical Rockstar fashion, the multiplayer also serves to provide extra context to the Brazilian setting and Max Payne's story within it.

Max Payne 3 is easily Rockstar's most focused and polished effort to date. It pulls the right strings and introduces the most exact elements to craft perhaps the company's finest narrative yet.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/25/12

Game Release: Max Payne 3 (US, 05/15/12)

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