Max Payne, the eponymous gravel voiced "anti-hero" has returned after a hiatus of nearly a decade. Developed by Rockstar Studios, the latest game features a change of location, a new story and a number of fresh elements.
When Max first burst onto the 3D shooter scene he delivered new features and a fresh, adult story. The original Max Payne easily stood out as the most innovative 3D shooter of its age and spawned a superb sequel as well as a gaggle of imitators. In particular "Bullet Time" - the ability to slow down enemies and make precise shots - was a huge innovation and has been copied often.
Fast forward to the present day and much has changed. There are now many top notch shooters, most of which have features that help them to stand out in the current hyper competitive climate. In this tough new world does Max still have the skills to pay the bills?
When you fire the game up for the first time the lavish production values and strong narrative will bowl you over.
That said Max Payne 3 delivers a tale of woe that isn’t quite as compelling as the original game. Max has fled New York to pursue a new life as a hired bodyguard in Brazil. As soon as he has landed the fecal matter hits the spinning air conveyance facilitator and one of the people he is hired to protect is kidnapped. From here Max quickly discovers his employers are not popular people and he is constantly chasing hordes of bad guys as he tries to get to the bottom of the vendetta.
The story has many twists and turns and it moves along nicely, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact of the first game which saw Max trying to avenge the murder of his wife and baby. You still find yourself caring about the sad old veteran though, even as he binge drinks his way through most of the artfully animated segues.
Bullet Time has returned and we still like it, but there are other features that clamor for your attention. The game delivers a new obstacle based cover system, as well as a "last man standing" shoot-out mode that sees you survive a near fatal hit if you can fire back successfully. This mode is really cool as the game employs clever blur effects to make it feel like you really are about to expire if you don’t blast the guy who just shot you.
Max Payne 3 also features a number of fun multiplayer modes and these do add something, even if for this particular shooter the single player game is still king.
Slumming itThe game keeps you guessing with helicopter sniper stages, swamp boat chases and flaming buildings to escape as well as some really cool set piece battles with enemies and boss characters. The action is also punctuated by superb visuals. Never has the nebulous maze of refuse and ramshackle housing of Brazil’s favela neighborhood looked so good.
The animation is not perfect though. During the swamp stage we managed to break the scripting and enemies simply stood on their stationary boats and didn’t die when shot. A quick reload fixed this thankfully.
Max has a good, but not great selection of weapons to play with this time around. Compared with the earlier releases the current offering lacks variety boomstick wise. You do get to use an excellent sniper rifle from time to time, but you can never keep it. Instead it is sometimes snatched from your inventory in a way that doesn’t make sense. Indeed this applies to all of the weapons in that, after some passages of play, you lose your guns with no real explanation. This hurts the narrative’s sense of credibility, as Max wouldn’t have just tossed such valuable firearms away. He loooves his guns!
Also while the gameplay is very good, for us the essence of any Max Payne game should be Bullet Time. In the current offering the cover system ends up being the most regularly called upon gameplay dynamic and this feels odd.
During some stages Bullet Time is for the most part unnecessary. It isn't driving the gameplay forward as it did in the earlier incarnations of the series. It has gone from being the turbo, giving the game its extra impetus, to being a mere hood ornament. You will kill enemies more efficiently and with less risk to yourself by simply propping behind cover and popping up to take shots when foes show themselves.
Shoot Dodge issuesBullet Time, and in particular "shoot dodging" works, but it can be quite risky too. At its best shoot dodging is all about leaping into the air, spinning around and blasting a bunch of hapless enemies as they flounder about in slow motion. Bodies fall and you survive because of your incredible acrobatic skill. In Max Payne 3 your agility is annoyingly hamstrung. You can't draw a bead on foes fast enough. Worse than this, you often land with a thud that sees you recovering too slowly, leaving you horribly vulnerable. So while it looks really cool, you will use shoot dodging sparingly, as popping away at bad guys from cover is more effective ... it just doesn’t look as exciting. Even with the aiming speed cranked up to maximum the game still lacks the dizzying speed and precision we'd expect.
Too much of a good thingAlso, and I know we are nitpicking here, many of the segues feature colorful motion blur visual effects that are totally unnecessary. The game looks stunning enough without this additional graphical garnishing. For us the developers were at times self indulgently showing off their luminescent toys merely for the sake of it. Sometimes more is less. On the other hand, the rag doll system and facial animation sets a new standard by which Xbox games should be judged. It is really incredible.
Fans of the ketchup will be far from disappointed as the game splashes it around with enjoyable abandon. You also get treated to an animated slow motion kill sequence when you have polished off the last foe from a group of bad guys and some of the finishing moves in melee combat are slicker than baby poo. If this wasn’t enough the lighting effects and sun flares are also delightful to behold.
So, while there has been much discussion in this review of the things we didn’t quite love about this game, Max Payne 3 is still well worth your time and spare shekels. Indeed, it is only because we love the game so much that we feel the need to be picky with our critique. Max Payne 3 is that close to being perfect that we’d love it to have those few remaining foibles sorted.
The verdictFans of the previous two outings will enjoy this and those of you who have never played a Max Payne game will love the acerbic wit, style, and narrative depth of the game. The game delivers old school ballistic bliss with aplomb. Gun toting gangsters and militia are everywhere and the action just keeps propelling you forward.
Thankfully videogame veteran Max hasn’t succumbed to old age and "lost it" like a certain Mr Nukem we’d rather not mention.
Image source: Rockstar Games