Max Payne is a stupid man. He’s lovable, in his self-destructive, grim, flailingly metaphorical way, but he’s fundamentally not very bright. He’s tricked, ambushed, misled, betrayed and never once does he decide that maybe he’s not getting paid enough for this, and he should get the hell out of dodge. It makes for a great action game, but for a very stupid protagonist. It’s ok, though, because Max Payne 3 is a stupid game.
Rockstar have made a gloriously stupid game. It was always going to be, when you’ve got a man with a pair of pistols cutting a swathe through the Sao Paolo criminal fraternity, but here, it revels in that stupidity. It tries to take itself seriously, and then it pokes fun at its own stupid design. Maybe not enough of them, but some at least. You press buttons, pick up painkillers, and examine clues, all while Max waxes on about how it’s all like the malaise you feel when looking up at overcast skies, or spends his time personifying negative human traits.
Simultaneously po-faced and self effacing, somehow Rockstar have managed to make a game that treads the line between the absurd and the sublime, where it’s constantly at cross purposes to itself. It wants to let you bask in the brilliance of flying through the air in slow motion getting a dozen headshots. It wants you to sit there and watch a few minutes of cutscene.
And there are an awful lot of cutscenes. It’s a good five minutes after starting the game before you even fire a gun, which wouldn’t grate nearly so much if you weren’t just passively sitting there watching the Houser brothers try to ape Man on Fire quite so much. It’s been nearly a decade since we last saw Max do his thing, and the urge to dive becomes almost unbearable in that initial salvo of needless exposition. You’re protecting some guys, and then some other guys try to kidnap them. That doesn’t need quite so much time dedicated to explaining.
That frustration abates as the game proceeds, though. The story takes off, and provides welcome lulls between the ridiculous hyperbole of the gunfights, pulling you back for a moment so that you can just catch your breath. It’s a story that’s far too needlessly complex for its own good, but having ‘Save the girl’ as the major incentive for a good two thirds of the game is enough. It’s only when things turn in the final act that things become less easy to follow, and increasingly less plausible.
It’s a story that you have to pay attention to, because while everyone remembers Max Payne for the bullet time and the John Woo-inspired gunfights, just as much of that is the tone and mood that the story set. Swapping Hell’s Kitchen for the Favelas of Sao Paulo works, by and large, and provides a huge range of environments to turn into shattered glass and splintered wood. The abject poverty is drawn into stark contrast with the opulent wealth on display, with high end clubs and offices cast against slums and broken down bus depots. There’s even a little New York thrown in there, more than enough to show why tenements and graveyards are overly familiar, and not nearly as colourful and interesting as South American sprawl.
And once you have that pistol in your hand and a pocket full of painkillers, it’s an instant rush of nostalgia mixed with pure, unbridled joy at finally getting to do everything that you loved to do all that time ago. It’s a travesty that we’ve only had a single game try to ape such a brilliant mechanic, and while Stranglehold had its charms, it’s nothing on the sheer brilliance of that lazy, lethargic wander of the reticule over cranium, before blam, headshot. Repeat ad infinitum.
It doesn’t get old. It should, but it doesn’t. The additions Rockstar have thrown in with their Rage engine, most notably the player physics that make Max visibly curl his body to cushion the blow as he flings himself into walls and over tables. Or how if you land a shot in someone’s leg they’ll stumble, falling to the ground. Bullet Time only highlights these moments, letting you savour the sheer power of the engine, as everything explodes, shatters, sparks and ricochets.
There are a few set pieces, occurring when Max grabs something or someone, flinging himself from a height while killing everyone before he hits the ground, but they only go to highlight that everything in Max Payne 3 feels like a set piece. Cinematic is a word that gets bandied around a lot, but it’s only cinematic because that style of cinema always had its foot half in the world of videogames.
With a story that works, and gunfights that leave you almost as out of breath as pudgy Mr Payne, it should be all roses for Rockstar. The problem is there are those stupid design choices, popping up at the moments you least want them, doing all sorts to ruin your good will.
The first is that the checkpointing is atrocious. It wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the game wasn’t as hard as it is, but that part of things is absolutely fine. Max Payne was always a hard game, and when you’re all but a sharpshooter with a Tardis in his pocket, itshouldbe hard. But when dying might set me back two or three separate gunfights, that’s beyond unacceptable. The only positive out of it all is that the checkpoints were never before cutscenes. If you take away our quicksave, you better bloody well get the checkpoints right.
The other problem is that, while hard, it occasionally throws stupidity into the mix. No one ever enjoys bullet sponges, and the occasional heavily armoured enemies that come along with grenade launchers and machine guns, impervious to all but headshots, and requiring a few hundred of those before they go down just isn’t even remotely enjoyable. The fact that the game will recognise you dying against them after a few failures before adjusting things so that they will die to a few headshots just demonstrates that this was a known problem, and makes their inclusion all the more absurd.
These two problems, together, mean that the only way to really go is to play the game on Easy, which feels like an admission of guilt but makes things immeasurably more enjoyable, while still maintaining a challenge. Once you’ve completed the game you can revisit any chapter on any difficulty, including both New York Minute and Arcade modes, which give you gamey challenges to complete in each level, bringing you back to the best fights and most memorable locales.
Those challenges are actually worth your time, surprisingly. New York Minute, especially, gives you one life to live and a minute to live it in, with each kill adding a few seconds onto the clock as it ticks down. Die at any point and you have to restart the level, but the tension this builds adds a thrill that’s lacking from the story mode. Arcade, on the other hand, has you racking up points with successive hits, and losing them for taking damage. It’s much more difficult, but there’ll be a niche that enjoys it.
All of this gives you experience points which level you up, unlocking items and abilities for the multiplayer. Multiplayer which seeps into the single player campaign in the most egregious way possible, with ostentatious gold weapon parts littering the levels. They’re bright and obvious, and entirely take you out of the moment in a way that the clues only add to it. It seems like a weird misstep that doesn’t benefit anything but a small group that cares about collectibles.
The multiplayer itself is, as always, laden with an unnecessary persistent unlock system that has you starting out with crap guns and crap body armour, only to be shot and beaten constantly by people who are higher level than you, who have better guns, better body armour, and more experience playing the game. Strip all that away and it’s actually pretty fun, but getting killed by someone with dual magnums and head to toe kevlar isn’t my idea of entertainment.
Which all leaves me somewhat divided about the game. The single player, which is always going to be what draws people to Max Payne, does more good than harm, and with a little less of a strict hand on exactly when and where both checkpoints and cutscenes happened, and a little more of a willingness to lose themselves in the absurdity of Max Payne’s world, Rockstar could have made something truly incredible. But as it is it’s just very very good, a game that is a joy to play when it works, and only temporarily infuriating when it doesn’t. It’s been a decade, but it still feels like the best thing ever to fly through the air, savouring headshots and drinking in all those delicious physics.
The PC Bit
Coming in at almost thirty gigabytes, Rockstar made a lot of fuss over them getting the PC release of Max Payne 3 right. It comes nearly a month after the console release, with blindingly high resolution textures, DX11 tessellation and actual proper advanced graphics options. It’s lovely to see, and the fact that it can run on a mid range single gigabyte of VRAM and only four gig of RAM on nearly all high settings, looking /that/ good, is a testament to quite how much effort they’ve put into the game. It looks gorgeous, plays smoothly, and even doesn’t mind alt tabbing all that much.
And while there is DRM in the form of the Rockstar Social Club, it seems to work without a hitch, signing in discreetly whenever you start the game up, saving your details and not interrupting you at all. Of course it means you have to add friends manually to play with them, which is a minor hassle, but for the most part there are no complaints.
The only thing is that, during the course of the ten hour campaign, I had to restart the game at least four times due to game-breaking bugs. The first was as the game came out of a cutscene, and I paused, leaving Max standing there idly waiting for a pair of lift doors to open, forever. The next two times were even worse, with entire levels not being conjured into the game, with cleaning products hovering in space, enemies that were behind walls clearly visible, and everyone walking on air. The last, and most frustrating, was when the game forgot that windows are supposed to be transparent and not black voids, because the NPCs sure remembered. That meant I got shot an awful lot by people I couldn’t see, and had to just guess at. A restart didn’t even fix that one, I just had to grin and bear it.
Admittedly, I haven’t heard of anyone else having anything close to these issues, but they are out there, which means that they could happen to you. It’s especially annoying when it means you have to rewatch the cutscenes, which double for loading bars, and don’t let you skip them all that much. Strained metaphors have diminishing returns.