After nearly a decade between releases, it’s not unfair to wonder how Max Payne 3 could be relevant to today’s market. An awful lot has changed since Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne in 2003, from a saturation of co-op modes to chest high walls. Ironically enough, though, the franchise’s prolonged absence makes it no less fresh today than when it debuted in 2001.
In Max Payne 3, Max has found it difficult to cope with what’s transpired in the previous two games, where everyone he’s ever cared for has been murdered in some brutal fashion. When MP3 begins, Max is working security detail in São Paulo for a rich socialite and his family in an attempt to run from his demons. As we see him wallowing in his dumpy apartment, popping pills and downing whiskey, it’s clear that he hasn’t exactly succeeded. Max eventually fails to run from the violence, too, as kidnappers crash one of his employer’s lavish penthouse parties — and it only gets worse from there.
What follows is one of the most highly-stylized and polished stories that you’ll find in any shooter. The graphic novel presentation from the previous Max Payne games is gone, replaced by more conventional cutscenes. They’re not your typical fare, though, as some of the dialogue is flashed on-screen to emphasize bits of the script in an attempt to give them a motion comic feel. There’s also a lot of stylized blurring and picture-in-picture freeze frames that add to the hectic feel of the story, although it’s easy to imagine those techniques wearing out their welcome for some.
Rockstar also does a fantastic job of filling players in on what happens between the end of Max Payne 2 and the beginning of Max Payne 3. As the story progresses there are several flashbacks to New Jersey as his old police academy pal courts him for the security gig in Brazil, and I couldn’t help but smile while playing as Max dressed in his trademark leather jacket and ugly tie.
Max Payne 3’s story stands apart even from previous Max Payne games. There’s a familiar sense of desperation from Max, but it doesn’t quite deliver the same noir experience. This isn’t a story of revenge or love like the first two games, but rather a story of a man whose attempts to climb out of a pit only dig him deeper. Ultimately, Max is hiding a death wish under the guise of redemption.
For as good as the story is, the highly-refined gameplay is the real star. All of the old Max Payne staples return, and they all fly in the face of modern shooter trappings. Health doesn’t regenerate, forcing you to find painkillers instead. While a cover system has been added, you’re discouraged from staying there for long as enemies are quick to flush you out. Max Payne 3 is as run-and-gun as it gets, encouraging you to use the franchise’s signature Bullet Time to slow everything down and dispatch your assailants while dancing through a hail of gunfire. The game also slows down as you dive around with another returning technique known as shootdodging, although this isn’t always ideal — it leaves you lying prone on the ground, and you can’t shoot back as you’re getting up off the floor. There’s also something called Last Man Standing; if you’re fatally shot and have at least one painkiller handy, Bullet Time will activate and the reticle will drift towards the guy who did you in. If you kill him first, a painkiller will be used to get you back to 50% health, and your Bullet Time will be drained. Like shootdodge, this isn’t always the best course of action, but it’ll save your ass more than once.
Rockstar updated Max Payne 3 where it counts, though, and the result is a technical masterpiece. When blended with modern graphics and physics engines, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the ensuing chaos that only Max Payne can bring. Bodies fly and crumple as they should and, thanks to the new slow-motion Kill Cam that lets you know when you’ve cleared a room, headshots in a game have never been this brutal. Shootdodging down a flight of stairs while capping five enemies never, ever gets old. Levels load during cutscenes, so the only loading screen you see is when you first boot up Max Payne 3. While facial animations aren’t quite up to par with last year’s L.A. Noire, Max Payne 3 is still the best-looking game that Rockstar have ever put out. Without having to divvy up resources across an enormous open-world, the textures, lighting, and character models are able to shine. The environments themselves are also more varied than previous Max Payne games; where those games offered little more than warehouses and office buildings, Max Payne 3’s São Paolo romp sends you through favelas, swamps, stadiums, and night clubs.
While Max Payne 3’s story isn’t terribly long — about ten hours — there’s plenty of life in it thanks to the arcade modes. One of them is New York Minute, making its return from Max Payne 2. Here you’re given just one minute to blast through each level, with time bonuses given for every kill and headshot. The other arcade mode is Score Attack, where you rack up points for every shot you land and each kill, multipliers for using Bullet Time and shootdodge, and penalties for being shot and using painkillers. Each mode has leaderboards that let you know how you stack up against your friends and the world at large, and keeping your name near the top is highly addictive. They’re simple modes, but highly rewarding and significantly extend the single-player’s longevity.