Set for release this week, Max Payne 3 defines the growth of videogames through its own unique vision of the Hollywood studio system of the 1950’s. This is a franchise championed by one small studio, bringing fame and fortune to a name that was subsequently purchased by a bigger studio, and brought back to an eager audience on a quest for even more of the public’s attentions. That Max Payne 3 will succeed is not a given, but is most certainly the safest bet. And given the strong arm presented by the videogame itself, you’d be wise to think of Rockstar Games as a studio that will define this period in the history, as opposed to becoming merely another footnote in the annals of the industry.
Of course, the same could be said of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption: these are videogame experiences that define exactly what mature content can be on current-generation hardware in exactly the same way that Halo defines science-fiction, just as Left 4 Dead is to zombie survival and DiRT is to rally driving. The thing that sets Max Payne 3 apart is that it’s a forced experience. There’s no freedom to explore here, no option to take things at your own pace and no decisions to be made that might alter the outcome of the story. Max Payne 3 is a structured experience from start to finish in the same manner as so many other third-person action titles, but this time it’s one that doesn’t simply fade into memory as soon as the end credits roll.
Our protagonist is the kind of guy you want to like, but is just such a complete ass you eventually resign to the fact that he’s never going to get it right. He’s the downtrodden excuse for a hero that Ubisoft originally sought out to make Sam Fisher appear to be in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, were it not for a backlash from the audience at such a suggestion. With Max Payne however, Payne himself has always been a rather brash personality, and so that he’s now turned to the grittier side of life comes as little surprise. He’s a man who’s had everything he loved ripped away from him, twice, and now it’s no longer a case of vengeance, it’s merely a fight for survival.
We begin the story with Payne having realised where he’s gone wrong, now living in São Paulo, Brazil, and working as a bodyguard for the wealthy Rodrigo Branco. Payne knows that he’s ended-up in a bad place, but his lack of determination to change has meant that, despite to change of scenery, he’s fallen right back into the drugs and drink with just the blink of an eye. Of course, Payne is still a consummate professional, and so even half-cut he’s able to chase down a gang of armed thugs as they attempt to kidnap Branco’s wife from a high society party. However, the shallow celebrations of his victory by those he protected days later end with a less favourable result, and so Payne is now locked into a mission to prove that he can be the reliable, worthwhile human being that he so desperately wants to be.
The Max Payne franchise has often been considered an example of videogame Film Noir, and while that’s not entirely accurate it’s easy to see that Payne himself has taken inspiration from the Humphrey Bogarts and Robert Mitchums of the 1950s. He’s a flawed hero, always looking to do the right thing but not afraid to break the rules to do it, and in this modern age that means shooting a lot of people. Aside from our protagonist and his dramatic narration Max Payne 3 is an action videogame through-and-through, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less intelligent in its delivery.
Every single set-piece, every gun battle and every opportunity to use the infamous Bullet Time mechanic is given meaning, which is no easy task for a videogame that stretches beyond the ten-hour mark. This isn’t a simple walk down a path laid out for you with junctions at which you kill people, it’s a methodically thought-out journey to a destination which is always perceived as important. Whether you’re snipering enemies or taking the fight to them up-close, it’s never a slapdash arrangement of locations and faces: every moment of Max Payne 3 has a reason for it’s existence, and for that the videogame stands as one of the finest examples of the third-person action genre the industry has yet produced.
The action itself follows a more well-worn template. Left focus to zoom, right trigger to fire, left analog stick to move, right to change the camera angle. There’s a well implemented cover system and dodge mechanic, and the weapon wheel is just about as instinctive as it ever was. Throughout all this Max Payne 3 can’t help but feel a little dry: every aspect of it’s gunplay has been seen before, from the aforementioned Bullet Time to the automatically zooming camera upon a final kill, there’s not a lot of strings to Max Payne 3’s bow. Exactly what else Rockstar Games could have offered the aging anti-hero isn’t clear, but next to the likes of L.A. Noire and Mafia II, Max Payne 3 does occasionally seem to fall foul of being a one-trick-pony.
In addition to the campaign Max Payne 3 provides the Arcade modes. Score Attack lets you replay completed levels in an attempt to reach a high score, while New York Minute (and the harder variation of it that’s also offered) is essentially a survival mode wherein players accumulate time for each kill. These modes are certainly a welcome bonus to the single-player campaign, increasing the lifespan by a considerable degree, especially when you factor in the additional multiplayer XP bonuses that can be achieved with high scores.
The multiplayer in Max Payne 3 is addressed as a big part of the videogame, and for many players it most certainly will become an enjoyable timesink. Building on the basis that other third-person action titles have offered before, Max Payne 3 throws in all the customisation, XP and unlocks that a modern multiplayer component needs, as well as a heap of different gameplay modes. The typical deathmatch and team deathmatch modes are accompanied by a number of interesting modes. First up is Payne Killer, wherein all players attack one another, with the first and last to die then becoming a two-man team to fight off all others.
Gang Wars is a fresh take on the multiplayer gameplay that will surely be imitated by many titles. Built upon moments taken from the single-player campaign, players mus engage in activities to boost their gang’s reputation. A huge variety of scenarios is available, ranging from simple deathmatches to capture the flag and kill of the hill modes, and much more besides. The Gang Wars component will surely be discarded by many in favour of the standard fayre, but those who sink their teeth into it will find an innovative, rewarding take on multiplayer gameplay.
From a technical standpoint Max Payne 3 is a little uneven. Though at times the animation may seem a little poor, the incidental detail is astonishing. From simple gestures such as flicking ash of a cigarette to placing one gun under you arm to free up your hand for reloading the other, Max Payne 3 takes some significant steps forward in the continuing strive for realism, so much so that videogames which lazily allow you to place a second weapon on your back without providing any logical resting point will simply look outdated; right now, that’s about half of the genre. The characters are phenomenal in their delivery; Max Payne 3 is truly the point at which live actors could only equal that which is delivered by virtual persons. Though frequently playing to stereotypes, there are a number of characters who simply could not have existed in videogames a decade ago, let alone have been delivered with such passion.
Max Payne 3 is a groundbreaking work in nearly every respect. It’s a story that twists and turns, creating characters that you care about (whether you actually like them is a different matter) and scenarios that seem more believable here than they would in any Stallone or Schwarzenegger film. The extensive multiplayer component is a perfect compliment to the shoot-from-the-hip gameplay, and the Arcade Mode presentations are the icing on the cake. The one area in which Max Payne 3 lets itself down is in that of the campaign’s basic gunplay. There’s simply such a lack of variety in the player’s options that the action will grow tired long before the plot ends, and just how severe a flaw that is will entirely depend on your view of videogames as a storytelling medium. While it’s undeniably flawed, Max Payne 3 is a fantastic piece of interactive entertainment, and for that it proves that lessons learned from the film industry can only take videogames in one direction.