Max Payne 3 – The PS3 Attitude Review
This slick third-person shooter from Rockstar is the latest instalment in a series which began in 2001. The first two games were developed by Remedy Entertainment, but the Max Payne series is now in the hands of Bully developer Rockstar Vancouver.
The series has always been heavily influenced by the smooth, choreographed action of John Woo’s films, but its most defining influence is The Matrix. Slow motion was always going to be a core gameplay feature in Max Payne, but that film blew apart the action genre in 1999 with its bullet time effects, and this heavily influenced Remedy’s finished product.
Rockstar Vancouver has stayed faithful to the series’ roots. Bullet time is still at the centre of the gameplay, only now they have the technology to do it right. A quick press on the right stick triggers the slow motion sequence, giving Payne time to line up his shots as bullets glide slowly across the camera. These days bullet time is often overused in both games and films – usually shoe-horned in to mask deficiencies elsewhere – but the remarkable thing is that it feels fresh here.
The action in Max Payne 3 is graceful and elegant; hit R1 and Payne will do one of his trademark slow-mo dives – he’ll head over desks, through windows and even off balconies. If he receives a fatal shot while still equipped with pain killers (yes, Payne is the type of guy who cures himself with pain killers), he will heal himself, but only if you can take out his killer in a dramatic last man standing moment. You are even rewarded with a gruesome, live bullet cam every time you take out the last enemy in a section.
A large chunk of Max Payne 3 is played out in slow motion, so it should be ponderous. But it is effortlessly cool. You may have doubts at first, but the game should convert even the most hardened cynics. It converted me the first time I sent Payne on a daredevil dive off a balcony, head first, taking out two enemies in front before twisting in mid-air to take out another three behind, all with head shots and with me in full control. It’s at these moments you stop saying, “bullet time is the most generic and laziest technique of the last 20 years” – at least not without adding, “that’s because no one’s doing it right”.
The game is beautifully designed with a high level of detail in every area. The motion capture is excellent and environments are richly detailed. A typical fight in an office block sees bullets sending paperwork fluttering into the air, computer screens smashing and windows shattering. The game runs on a combination of Rockstar’s RAGE engine and NaturalMotion’s Euphoria.
The fight scenes are always intense, matching the overall mood of the story. Payne – a retired, grieving and alcoholic cop – begins the game thinking he’s on a straightforward bodyguard job, but the world around him is about to descend into chaos and he’s going to embark on a Denzel Washington, Man on Fire-style, journey into the Heart of Darkness.
He’s meant to be looking after a rich businessman’s daughter, but he loses her. To get her back Payne will travel between Brazil and New York, visiting stadiums, São Paulo’s favelas, corporate offices, pubs and police stations. Somewhat predictably, it’s clear that everything isn’t as it seems. it’s also clear Payne is up to his knees in…
The story is cliché-ridden, but the writing is sharp. It has a constant menacing and dark mood, laced with sardonic humour. “I had a hole in my second-favourite drinking arm”, says Payne (voiced by the gravel-toned James McCaffrey) after one hot situation. The black humour chimes with Sin City and other modern noir films.
One frustration however is that there are too many cut scenes. They are intelligently crafted but many are simply unnecessary.
It should also be noted that Max Payne 3 is one of the most violent games in recent times. It’s excessively violent in some cases, but for the most part it is appropriate for the atmosphere of the game. Some may still find this off-putting.
The atmosphere is masterfully set by its brilliant soundtrack, composed by LA band Health. It’s wall-to-wall with feedback-heavy guitars, pounding drums and hypnotic rhythms. It’s easily one of the most fitting and unique soundtracks of recent memory.
Max Payne 3 is a one-note game, but this isn’t necessarily a criticism, because the reason for the atmosphere being so charged and the gameplay so stylish is because it stays completely focused to the task at hand. Rockstar Vancouver has played to the the game’s strengths. There are some collectables hidden in the levels, but your focus is entirely on taking out whatever is in your path, preferably in the coolest way you can.
There are however some lulls along the way, which is inevitable for a linear game of over 10 hours in legnth. That’s obviously good value, especially when there’s also a substantial multiplayer mode (more on that in a later review) , but the singleplayer campaign could do with a little more variation.
Max Payne 3 is at its best when you can manipulate the environment, letting it do all the work – for example, you can drop a bus on an enemy. These moments are rewarding and sometimes even surprising; they are definite high points, but there aren’t enough of these opportunities. Rockstar Vancouver could have done a little more here.
Another frustration is that the melee combat isn’t as finely tuned as it could be. When it works it is excellent – you can see Payne snatch a weapon out of his enemy’s hand before turning it on him, waiting for you to pull the trigger – but too often it doesn’t quite work out though because you’re slightly facing the wrong angle.
These are however small complaints in what is a very rewarding game. It’s almost certainly going to be the most stylish game of the year, but thankfully it can back up that style with more than enough substance. There will be some sections where you will find it a slog, especially if you you try to rush it, but you’ll soon come across another section which will draw you straight back in.
I had one of these moments after getting caught up in a particularly challenging section in a police station. It took me several frustrating attempts to get through. The time I did it, I was near death and low on ammo. I dived out of the way of fire and took out three guards with three perfectly executed shots – I was treated to the last one with a spectacular killcam. It felt like Rockstar Vancouver was saying “good job”. They deserve a reward themselves. They’ve done a fantastic job modernising Max Payne after a lengthy disappearance.
The future bodes well for Max Payne, the series – not so much the character.