Review: Max Payne 3
By Nick Henderson on June 20th, 2012 (8 comments)
It seems like the new hotness in the gaming industry is reviving classic franchises under the flag of different developers. The trend has given birth to new visions for classics like Deus Ex, Syndicate, Devil May Cry, and now Max Payne. First released in 2001 by Remedy, the minds behind the more recent Alan Wake, Max Payne quickly made a name for itself among fans of third-person action games thanks to its stylish slow-motion gunplay (aka "Bullet Time"), morbid film noir plotline, and comic book delivery. Almost 10 years following the release of Max Payne 2, Max Payne has returned with Rockstar Vancouver introducing Max to a modern audience. As with any Rockstar game, quality in both presentation and visual polish are unrivaled. Of course, "Die Hard" fans of the original games should be pleased to see that the pill-popping, alcoholic, action-hero is back in action but was something lost in the transition or is Max Payne back "With a Vengeance?"
Max Payne 3 (Xbox 360)
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 15th, 2012
Passing of the Torch
Years ago, Remedy created a character-action game in which the character and the action were equally as important and engaging, a feat that is rarely achieved successfully. Handing over the reins to another developer not only risked damaging the tragic hero of old but also the brilliantly crafted systems that made the original game so much fun to control. With Rockstar's pedigree for producing excellent characters and worlds, I was fairly confident that Max was in good hands. On the other hand, Rockstar has stumbled in the past in crafting intuitive and satisfying action mechanics. With that said, it was not too surprising to find that Rockstar's signature attention to detail was in full effect, making for an extremely polished and worthy follow-up to Remedy's original creation.
Some Things Never Change
It wouldn't be a Rockstar game without a bold approach to characters and setting. Despite Max Payne's established New York backdrop and dark, noir atmosphere, Rockstar has chosen to pull the franchise up by its roots and relocate to sunny Sao Paulo, Brazil. The seedy back alleys and warehouses that made up much of the original games have been replaced by the bright, corrupt underbelly of Brazil. It is a jarring transition at first and will seem to many like the series has lost touch with it heritage. After a few hours spent diving through windows and over railings with guns ablazing, the reality of the situation set in. The game explores themes of corruption, poverty, and redemption against a backdrop that fits the bill far better than it first appears.
When Max Payne 3 begins, we find Max drinking himself nearly to death and stumbling his way through days working as a security detail for a powerful family, a job that serves as a constant reminder of his past failures and the family that he once had. Rockstar paints his miserable life with such effectiveness, that the character sometimes overshadows the insanity that surrounds him. Thanks to some effective writing and a brilliant voice over performance (James McAffrey returns to voice Max), Max's inner conflict is constantly at the forefront. Max will comment on the events surrounding him as players progress and give insights into his past and his motivations for whatever deadly scenario that he finds himself in. In the end, the experience itself far surpasses the somewhat dull direction that the story takes in its final act. Not that Rockstar fails to deliver a well-told story but I was expecting a story bigger than Max himself and not mere commentary on Max's bleak existence. I was left longing for something a bit more grand and impactful but was impressed enough by the production value and attention to detail to let that bother me much.
Jumping Into Action
In a market flooded by shooters and action epics, a game must earn notability with tightly tuned mechanics and flashy presentation. Luckily, Rockstar has not only brought their knack for near-flawless presentation to the table but they have also stepped up their approach to shooting mechanics for Max Payne 3. Shooting things in Max Payne 3 is precise in its execution and shockingly brutal in its delivery, unlike prior Rockstar efforts in which shooting often felt clunky and tacked on. Bullets carry weight and feel impactful thanks to Rockstar's signature physics engine which allows limbs and surroundings to react to hectic gun battles with impressive realism. Foes flail in agony as bullets tear them to shreds while the world around Max is obliterated in a rain of debris. Few games capture the intensity and raw destruction of a gun battle like Max Payne 3.
In the end, it is the simplicity of the "bullet time" ability that gives this game its edge. A simple tap of a button triggers a stylish, slow-motion assault that often feels ripped straight out of a John Woo film. Max will dive through windows and off of balconies in unparalleled style without ever ripping control away from the player. The effect is seamless and serves as the strong backbone which holds this game together.
Cracks in the Foundation
Rockstar has certainly demonstrated that they can produce the highest level of quality in their games whether it be a vast open-world action game (Red Dead, Grand Theft Auto) or linear, scripted adventure (Max Payne 3). I consider them to be among the most talented developers this industry has ever seen. With that said, I will likely remember Max Payne 3 as one of Rockstar's most flawed titles. While the mechanics and the feeling of the shooting in general are beautifully depicted, little details keep frustration levels running high. The default settings for the aiming reticle render the visual aid almost completely useless. Even after adjusting the reticle settings, the shift to a brighter color palette in this sequel rendered it unreliable the majority of the time.
Max Payne has never been a game about cover. Encounters have always been designed to encourage players to take the offensive and assault enemies head-on. Rockstar has introduced a pretty basic cover system that works a lot like so many other cover-based shooters. The press of a button will prompt Max to stick to a nearby surface to take cover. This works well in theory but Max rarely sticks to the surface you hope that he will. By the time you have corrected the mistake and abandoned the strategy in a fit of rage, the enemy has already landed a few good shots. An instinctive over-reliance on cover mechanics resulted in a lot of cheap deaths and contributed heavily to the game's sporatic spikes in difficulty. Throw in the occassional terrible checkpoints and you have yourself a recipe for frustration.
Perhaps most importantly, hit detection can become a real problem during key action scenes. The number of times that I was stuck in a door frame while in slow motion or locked in an awkward position with no clear vantage point was absurd. One of my most frustrating deaths occurred because I was stuck in bullet time in a position that left me vulnerable to gun fire even though I could not see or aim at the target that was shooting at me. These unfortunate situations often derailed my progression through a stage and left me drained.
Multiplayer with a Twist
As is expected, Max Payne 3 borrows the massively successful multiplayer format that was pioneered by Call of Duty and regurgitates it to good effect. There isn't much incorporated that fans won't find elsewhere but the polish of the main game remains true throughout. However, it is the smooth incorporation of the "bullet-time" mechanic into the multiplayer that makes it shine. A clever set of rules ensures that anyone within a player's line of sight will be effected by the slow-motion effect. Yet another small detail that keeps Max Payne 3 feeling fresh even when the foundation itself is far from original.
Few games can match the pacing and fluidity of a Rockstar game. Max Payne 3 straddles the line between video game and action movie to ridiculous effect. They have remained true to what made Max Payne a hit from its inception and managed to avoid twisting the game into something unrecognizable while maintaining their signature style. Make no mistake, Rockstar has left their signature all over Max Payne and ensured that the franchise has a future even though Remedy has moved on.
(80-84%: Great; very few major issues)
I have been around since the very early days of 4Player but you may know me as “the short one” or the guy who is really into Dexter and that sweet new DmC reboot. I am a gaming enthusiast at my core and I love sharing my opinions on the subject with anyone who will listen. I am a cautious optimist and will try any game at least once. When it comes to gaming, I prefer to leave no stone unturned.
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